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Why 'Occupy Wall Street' Is a Radical New Business Model

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With a new structure-as-message, this protest may represent the future of popular movements.

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"The medium is the message," Marshall McLuhan's slogan from 1964, is a notion that's come up often this year as protests have rocked the world, from the Arab Spring to those in Southern Europe and the UK. Many have focused on social media changing the nature of protests and their coverage, and while I won't deny that impact, that's not the point I'm trying to make.

Rather, with the Occupy Wall Street movement, it's the structure of the protests -- their medium -- that has changed. Naysayers don't appreciate this. The "business model" of protests during the 1960s focused on getting as many people as possible to a location for a few hours where there could be any combination of speeches, marches, and sign-waving. The goal was to make a big enough splash to attract TV, radio, and newspaper coverage. They were rare, novel events.

This model, having found success 40-50 years ago, has remained relatively unchanged even as its impact has diminished. Pop culture found the model so appealing that many profited from adapting its techniques, as Charlie Sheen can surely attest. Short-term shock theater has become so commonplace that we ignore or ridicule it.

So when a bunch of people showed up on the first day of Occupy Wall Street, we couldn't help but mock. "What do the hippies want this time?" "Go back to your parents' basement and take a shower!" We didn't understand that they're trying out a brand-new protest business model.

A bunch of people showing up for a few hours to vent their rage? Boring. The tea party is yesterday's news. A bunch of people setting up base, planning on staying there for an indefinite period of time, creating an organic, evolving, visible community that others (including social media) can leverage? If nothing else, it's intriguing -- it looks like the protest equivalent of the "slow food" movement. And with the protests entering their third week, it's no surprise that those who grew up in a culture of made-for-TV demonstrations filled with sound bytes and cheap tricks aren't sure what to make of this.

The difficult part of following and writing about markets is there's an implicit against mixing politics with financial analysis. But as we're seeing every day in Europe, trying to isolate the two is no longer possible. I have no idea if Occupy Wall Street -- or Occupy Bay Street, or any of the newer Occupies -- will matter in the long run. But as a believer that the level of income inequality in this country is unsustainable; that any change in that status quo will have a profound impact on the financial and economic landscape; and that the status quo will eventually end one way or another, I'm watching the events unfolding in Zuccotti Park with increased interest.

Twitter: @conorsen

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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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