WePay: The First Bank of OWS, And Why It Changes Everything

by on Oct.21, 2011, under general

(the first few paragraphs are background. old internet hands can skip to the good stuff)

The Occupy Wall Street move has, like the Arab Spring before it, leveraged social media to spread its message. Through tools like Twitter and Facebook – and reddit and imgur and hackernews and countless other sympathetic communities – the members of OWS can spread communicate quickly and laterally, independent of the filtering systems of the dominant, mass-media infrastructure.

We all know this dynamic has collapsed the costs of communications and the need for a communications organization. OWS does not need to rely on media liaisons to penetrate broadsheet journalism and broadcast news. You don’t need videographers when every citizen has a camera and can flood YouTube with police brutality videos. All you need is enough people with enough cameras and the news will find you. You don’t need PR professionals to get you ads in newspapers. You just need enough people posting enough links to Facebook and Twitter sufficient to spread the word through your social networks.

This is, I think, the fundamental insight of Clay Shirky’s fundamentally insightful book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The idea, to paraphrase Shirky, is that in a networked society, you don’t need organizations to organize anymore, because all of the hard, heirarchical work that organizations used to do can be distributed across the network to the individuals themselves. And we’ve seen this insight enacted, time and again, as movements have self-organized, and used the Internet to communicate not only to audiences external to the movement, but indeed within the movement itself.

It is not surprising or new that OWS has made use of this particular dynamic in their communications. In fact, it is now an inevitable characterstic of any given movement that its communications are lateral, and agglomerative, consuming the nodes of the social networks that constitute the digitally mediated publics in which we spend so much of our time.

What is fascinating is how the OWS movement is being financed.

While it’s been true for some time that movements don’t need organizations in order to communicate, funding a movement is a different, and much more expensive, animal. In fact, funding a movement has required an organization with an administrative hierarchy. Want to open a bank account as a new movement? First you’ve got to find a treasurer you can trust and open the account in his or her name, and then you’re dependent on that individual to control the purse strings. Paypal is also tied to an individual. You can’t open either a bank or Paypal account for an organization, let alone a movement.

How do you find that individual? How do you control them? To whom do they report, and who reports to them? How is the money spent? These are all organizational questions, by which I mean they presume – and require – the existence of an organization to answer them. Movements may be able to communicate laterally, without organizational hierarchy, but when it comes to actually doing things – which is to say paying for them – they’ve hit the wall of organizational necessity.

That’s where WePay comes in.

WePay is a service which mediates between banks and groups. As an group – a book club, intramural team, fraternity, whatever – you can create a WePay account that’s registered to the organization, not to an individual member of that organization. Anybody – from a member of your group to a complete stranger donating to the cause – can deposit money in your group’s WePay account, and authorized members of the group can spend it. This facilitates flexibility: if your treasurer leaves / graduates / dies / loses interest, or for some other reason can no longer serve in their professional capacity, your group isn’t stuck. You just move the access along to the new individual. Put another way, it’s a bank account for your corporate person.

WePay has effectively become the bank for the OWS movement. Supporters of the OWS movement have donated tens of thousands of dollars to more than 200 OWS campaigns. The NYCGA campaign alone has raised over $100,000 through WePay at the time of this writing.

Notice I say “bank for the movement.” There is not, and may never be, an OWS organization. But there is the OWS movement, constituted of countless individuals loosely arranged around a common set of causes, beliefs, and calls to action. For a dispersed movement, the costs (practical and philosophical) of setting up a rigid organization with financial authority would be tremendous. Potentially life-threatening. But with WePay, that isn’t necessary. Instead, anyone interested in joining the movement can create their own campaign, setup a WePay account, and begin collecting and disbursing funds. Anyone interested in contributing can.

WePay has not only democratized the means of fundraising for political movements. It’s disembodied it. It’s completely crushed the conceptual space inhabited by organizational fundraising, doing to it what folksonomies did to taxonomies. Want to raise money for an OWS campaign in Seattle, San Francisco, or Staten Island? Go ahead. Disagree with the way the folks in Zuccotti park are spending their money? Create a new campaign for Battery park. Skeptical that the money is going to the right place or right things? There’s an app for that. OWS on WePay is all part of the same movement. It’s just moved outside the form of a traditional organization.

Do you see why this is a such a radical, fundamental shift for movements? You don’t need to find a treasurer anymore. You don’t need to elect a governing board. You don’t need to impose an administrative hierarchy just in order to get things done. Sure, these things might help achieve certain goals in a mature movement, where the positions and proposals are crystallizing into political action and the legitimacy conferred by a central authority is worth its weight in transactional costs. But for a complex, diffuse startup movement like OWS, the costs of funding it, just like the costs of communicating about it, have collapsed below the organizational level.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the rest are all services which help movements spread their message and actions. That is their key intervention in the political process. That is the work they do in the world.

Well, WePay has become a service intervention which helps protestors fund their message and actions. It does to administrative costs what social network sites did to communications costs. That’s its “killer app.” We have not seen this before. It is new. It is real. It is powerful. And it is only beginning.

edit: I’ve received some initial feedback to the effect that I’m crediting WePay for what protestors did in the streets. That’s not my intention. WePay didn’t create the protests, and WePay’s existence was not a necessary condition for their continuation.

To condense my argument: A common problem when you’re kickstarting a movement is that the costs of establishing a financial hierarchy exceed the benefits of the money you’re likely to get at the beginning.

WePay’s essential function is to drastically lower the transaction costs of collecting and disbursing money on behalf of groups. It is arbitraging what was previously a systemic inefficiency in raising and spending money. That’s the key difference here and that’s what it’s brought to the OWS protests, in the same way that Facebook made it really, really easy to share links with all of your friends.

That is not a determinative change. The protests would have happened without WePay, and they would have been big without WePay. But it is a big change in the way movements can fund themselves.

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2 comments for this entry:
  1. chris

    I will note, in the interests of full disclosure, that a developer at WePay is a friend of mine, and that I’ve used the service myself. But none of this is nepotism: just a reaction of the almost shocking reality that WePay has elegantly, almost unnoticeably, killed a huge cost that once foundered movements at their very inception.

  2. participation2011

    [...] observations about WePay as a fund-raising platform: http://www.cpeterson.org/2011/10/21/wepay-the-bank-of-ows-and-why-it-changes-everything/ Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Categories [...]

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