For many New Yorkers, the first snow of this year brought a special dread, not only because it came in October, but also because it seemed like a dark sign for the courageous and desperate people sleeping in Zuccotti Park in the cold. I hadn’t been to the park since the morning of the victory over Bloomberg’s “clean up” attempt, so a couple of nights after the big storm I decided to drop off some coats and see how the protesters were holding up. It was a nice night — the briskness was pure fall, not winter — and people were in good spirits. Kindness abounded. When I sneezed, everyone in hearing distance blessed me. An elderly woman passed by a punky youth; “party on,” she encouraged. The park had become a well-organized tent-city. All different types of people perused the library, waited in line to get a hot meal from the food station, and milled amicably about. Then the General Assembly began.
The first order of business was a time-sensitive proposal sponsored by the Internet Working Group: Its members urgently wanted to purchase the website occupywallstreet.net. The domain name was currently owned by Mark R. Ellis, a gentleman in Florida who had bought the domain name months ago, at the beginning of the movement, and was now “desperate” to sell it due to his “financial circumstances.” He was so desperate to sell the name, the speaker warned, that if it wasn’t snapped up by the occupation or its affiliates, Mr. Ellis might be willing to sell it to anyone, even the Koch brothers. People in the crowd made “sad hands,” the signal where hands are pointed downwards, fingers wiggling, used to indicate dislike. For $8000 (negotiated down from $10,000), Mr. Ellis was giving the General Assembly the chance to buy the domain name before anyone else. It was important to buy the domain name to prevent others from buying it and using it for nefarious purposes: “Our web identity means everything,” the speaker pleaded. But it was also important to have a web presence that came from the General Assembly specifically, rather than merely one of its allies. The speaker explained that occupywallstreet.org is currently owned by Adbusters, the non-profit anti-consumerist group, and while their leaders are in solidarity with the movement, the site only includes several links to relevant websites. The speaker also explained that another group owns occupywallst.org, but that they have their own set of goals, and their own vision for what content should appear on the website. For example, while they do post a lot of official content from OWS’s press team (but not all of it), they refused to put a set of “solidarity principles” agreed upon by the General Assembly up on the website. The General Assembly had come to the decision that it was better to let Adbusters and the affinity group “do their thing,” and meanwhile try to secure a website that could belong the OWS General Assembly alone. They already own and operate nycga.net, but a website with an “occupywallstreet” URL would generate much more web traffic. The domain would be legally owned by the unincorporated group Occupy Wall Street; not a single individual but “all of us collectively.”
A middle-aged woman next to me elbowed me: “Wait, wait — who would own it?” “Umm,” I answered, “you, me, us — all of us. “But what is a domain name?” she whispered. “It’s like, I think, a website,” I answered.“ And how do you buy a website?” My expertise was exhausted and happily a young girl standing next to me took over. People began to ask questions and voice concerns about the proposal. Is $8,000 a lot or a little for a website, someone wanted to know. To put it in perspective, the speaker said, one hour ago, a trademark broker had called him offering to sell the domain name occupy.com for $150,000.
Who was this Mark R. Ellis of Florida? Why should we give money to someone extorting the movement? Weren’t there other domain names that were available that would serve the movement’s purposes? Is “.net” really a thing? One man in the crowd offered an answer to the last question: apparently he had started a freegan website with a .net domain name a few years ago, and it had gone great.
The speakers answered every question patiently. The crowd, forming the “human microphone,” repeated every phrase that was spoken. The repetition left me feeling dizzy, and the issue at hand began to seem hazy and very complex. The woman who had asked me about domain names wandered away, shaking her head and murmuring that she didn’t understand the internet. At this point, I turned to my friend and asked if we should just go. It had become clear that that nothing was going to happen. And as we debated whether or not we should leave, we barely noticed the facilitator announcing that she was conducting “a temperature check” — a gauge of general feeling about the proposal — to see if we were close to reaching consensus. The murmuring of the crowd quieted, and I stopped talking to my friend as people begin silently waving their fingers in the air. Maybe not everyone was as flustered as I was by all the back and forth, but I still felt doubtful. The speakers asked if there were any “blocks” (moral, ethical or safety concerns that prevent the passing of proposal). There was a tense silence. A man said he had a block: Shouldn’t we rename ourselves “the Real Party” since we are not the Democratic Party and we are not the Republican Party? The speaker firmly but politely explained that that was not a “block,” but likely a separate proposal that could be brought up at another time. Everyone held their breath. There were no other bocks. Another temperature check and suddenly, we had reached consensus. The domain name occupywallstreet.net would be purchased. A small thing in itself, perhaps, but the process that brought it about felt crucial. As I walked toward the subway, I felt chills, never mind the temperate night air.