It’s been 35 years now (yikes!), but I still remember being blown away after seeing a new movie called Network, where Howard Beale (an inspired Peter Finch) exhorted us all to go to the window, stick our heads out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Here’s what he said: “I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street…all I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad!” In the movie, his unscripted live TV rant inspired millions of viewers across the country to throw open their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell!” out into the street. It was a commentary on the power of the mass media to mobilize people to action. Who knew that, a few decades later, social media would help produce the same kind of results?
Fast forward the DVR of your life to 2011. You see similar dramas playing out, no? Only this time, it’s not fiction. First it was the historic events of the Arab Spring. Then London got in on the act. Now it’s our turn in the US: Occupy Wall Street. Occupy LA. Occupy Boston. In case you missed it, last Wednesday it was Occupy Colleges Day. I got a heads-up that morning from Elaine Young, a faculty colleague who is our resident social media expert, that a walk-out and rally had been scheduled for noon that day on the Champlain College campus here in Burlington, Vermont (as well as at 71 other colleges across the nation). As it happened, I was in class about an hour before that was to take place with a group of Event Management students, so I casually asked if any of them was planning on walking out. Turns out only one of them had any clue what I was even talking about. So I used it as an opportunity to talk about Occupy Wall Street and the wide variety of event offspring it was spawning. There were a lot of unanswered questions. We wondered about who the event planners were, what their objectives were, how they had managed to attract so many participants, whether anyone was really in charge of the “program”. We speculated about how they might define whether their event was successful—the ROI, to put it in current professional lingo. What were they hoping to accomplish, exactly?
This reminds me of an editorial I read in the New York Times a couple of days ago about Occupy Wall Street. Here’s part of what it said:
“If you stopped by Zuccotti Park in New York and asked 10 protesters what their goals were for Occupy Wall Street, you might get 10 different answers…One protester said he and others were calling for “more economic justice, social justice — Jesus stuff — as far as feeding the poor, health care for the sick.” Another protester, a former Marine who was elected by Occupy Wall Street participants to speak for them, told NPR that he wanted to overthrow the government and reconstruct it.” Now we have labor unions and other established interests joining forces with Occupy Wall Street, adding their own demands. And that’s just New York—look at all of the variations in other cities around the country. As the editorial points out, “This has led some reports to call the group unfocused, but that may be normal for an emerging movement.” I’ve heard it suggested that the “We are the 99%” call is simply a way of establishing solidarity, a feeling of sharing a common purpose. But at this point, the reality is that no one can say. What we do know is that people are mad as hell.
Back to the classroom: after kicking it around for a bit, I got back to the business of talking about building an event budget, our topic for the day. Then–shortly before noon—all but three of my students stood up and walked out. At first I felt a little insulted; after all, I’m busting my butt trying to offer them something of value here! Don’t they know this stuff is important to their futures? But then I realized that they were motivated by honest curiosity, by the desire to find out what this event was all about. And that’s really at the heart of education, in my opinion. They were taking advantage of a unique opportunity to be part of something as it unfolded. I still don’t know who organized that little event on our campus, although I did stop by the gathering in the courtyard about 20 minutes later (and yes, most of my students were still there–listening, absorbing, processing). What I do know is that whoever initiated the event was successful at engaging a number of students, some of whom were inspired enough to take a turn speaking their minds to the small but intent crowd. Oh, and the local TV station even showed up (perhaps because of a well-placed tip from our PR guy, Stephen Mease? Or does credit belong to the anonymous event organizers? Or someone monitoring social media channels?) to film the goings-on and help spread the word.
At this point it’s hard to tell what the outcomes of all of these Occupy events will be. From an event planner’s perspective, they have been highly successful in attracting an audience–both the participants and the media reps who are telling the story as it plays out. But so far “the stories” (as is the custom in modern-day infotainment) have focused mostly on the camera-friendly human dramas being played out, not about any particular issues or solutions to the problems people are saying they’re mad about.
It remains to be seen whether these events will lead to any lasting changes. Events can be powerful tools for engaging people, harnessing their energy and ideas, and moving them to constructive action. And as event planners, we know that it’s a colossal waste of time to go to all of the trouble of pulling an event together if there are no measurable results when it’s all over. If you were in charge of the “Occupy” movement, what would you do to move these events beyond simply venting frustration?