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year in hashtags

Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement take part in a protest march through the financial district of New York Oct. 12, 2011.LUCAS JACKSON

Social media played a significant role in many of the major news events in 2011. This week, The Globe's #yearinhashtags project examines the impact social media had on five of the year's biggest stories: Arab Spring, Charlie Sheen, B.C. riot, Occupy Wall Street and the "It gets better" campaign.

The genesis of Occupy Wall Street can be traced back to a group of Canadian activists and a picture of a ballerina poised atop a charging bull.

Fuelled by millions of mostly young protesters around the world, the Occupy Wall Street movement has not only redefined the terms of the debate around income inequality, but also revolutionized the very act of protest. Despite almost no hierarchy, the largely unco-ordinated protesters around the world have managed to speak in a much more unified voice, thanks in large part to social-media outlets – especially Twitter.

This summer, the staff of the Canadian activist organization Adbusters gathered to brainstorm an idea. For more than 20 years, the group has railed against rampant consumerism and corporate influence. Inspired by the Arab Spring, the group sought to take the idea of regime change to America, focusing on the financial industry's impact and influence on democracy.

In designing a poster to support the notion, Adbusters's art department conceived an image of a ballerina, balanced on one pointed foot in mid-turn, standing atop Wall Street's iconic "Charging Bull" sculpture. The juxtaposition was stark – an image both serene and aggressive. For the campaign, Adbusters chose a simple Twitter hashtag: #OccupyWallStreet.

"As soon as we put out that hashtag, man, it just went crazy," says Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters.

Soon, thousands of protesters caught on to the message, which coalesced around a planned occupation in New York on Sept. 17th. As the date grew near, the number of references to the movement began to skyrocket. Finally, just a day before the planned protest, a few influential New York-based Twitter accounts mentioned the movement, giving it a last-minute jolt.

As the Occupy movement began to focus on New York's Zuccotti Park in September and October, protesters in hundreds of other cities began to follow suit. As a result, the number of Occupy-related hashtags also exploded. There was tags related to specific cities (Oakland, Toronto, Sydney), dates (N17, which references a day of action held on Nov. 17), and even parody tags (#Occupy Sesame Street, which bemoaned the fact that 99 per cent of the cookies are eaten by 1 per cent of the monsters). According to estimates from Twitter, more than 100,000 different tags were used in tweets about the Occupy movement.

That massive variety, however, and the steady growth of the movement, served as a sort of hindrance in the social-media sphere. Both factors meant that the movement rarely showed up in Twitter's influential list of "Trending Topics," which measures popular social-media conversations. (Twitter tends to focus on spikes, such as that generated by news of Osama bin Laden's death, rather than longer-term topics.)

Eventually, the #OccupyWallStreet hashtag proved too unwieldy. Not only did it eat up valuable characters from Twitter's 140-character limit, but it also took too long to type, especially in the heat of a protest.

"It's inevitable that #OccupyWallStreet would be too long," says Andrew Katz, a Masters student at Columbia University who has followed the Occupy movement closely for months. "Shorter tweets work better because they're easier to retweet."

Even as thousands of users continued to use various hashtags, the wider movement settled on one: #ows. It was short, unique and to the point.

According to social-media analytics firm Klout, a timeline of the flow of Occupy-related tweets resembled a mountain range, with sharp peaks at very clearly defined points. For example, when an Iraq war veteran was severely injured after being hit in the head by a projectile allegedly thrown by police in Oakland, the number of Occupy-related retweets shot above 200,000 per day. When the New York City police moved in to clear Zuccotti Park, the symbolic heart of the global movement, that number climbed to 400,000.

Even as the amount of Twitter traffic skyrocketed, protest participants came up with novel ways to use social media to their benefit, beyond simply broadcasting their messages to the public. In New York, Mr. Katz notes, new activists could digitally introduce themselves to everyone else by using the hashtag #Newoccupier. Others looking for supplies could use #Needoftheoccupiers.

Indeed, in some ways, the Occupy movement's social-media-based transparency, which extended to the broadcast of protest strategies and routes online, may have backfired, Mr. Katz notes.

"They're telling everyone what they're doing, and everyone includes the police."

That's in large part why Mr. Lasn predicts the movement will evolve into a cascade of "surprise attacks" in 2012. Instead of large, long-term occupations, Mr. Lasn sees daily occupations of everywhere from banks to university economics departments.

"We've been one of the hubs for global activism for more than 20 years, and this is by far the biggest thing that's happened in our history," he says. "When the moment is right, all it takes is a spark."

Other popular Occupy protests hashtags













Timeline of the Occupy movement

Sept. 17

Generally regarded as the start of the movement, as protesters descend on Zuccotti Park.

Oct. 1

More than 700 people are arrested during a protest march over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Oct. 15

Massive protests in hundreds of cities around the world, organized in solidarity with the occupy movement.

Oct. 25

A 24-year-old Iraq war veteran is severely injured during an Occupy Oakland protest when he is hit in the head by a projectile, allegedly thrown by police.

Nov. 15

New York police attempt to begin clearing out Zuccotti Park.

Nov. 18

Protesters at the University of California, Davis, are pepper-sprayed and video of the incident goes viral.