Webcaster Tim Pool of "The Other 99."
In recent weeks, one source of live news coverage for the Occupy Wall Street movement stood out above all others. Not a cable news network, not a newspaper, but a 25-year-old guy named Tim Pool. He packs a smartphone with unlimited data, a copy of Ustream's mobile video streaming app, and a battery pack to keep it all going — which he has for 21 hours straight, on big news days. Soon, Tim and team plan to have have their own hacker-made flying camera-drones, to provide aerial footage TV news chopppers can't. The guerrilla web stream "The Other 99" has reached more than 2 million unique viewers over the last two months, and become a source of eyes on the ground unmatched by big media. The project runs solely on donations. Is The Other 99's webcast the start of a new news normal, and could Pool be one of many DIY backpack broadcasters to come? I tracked him down in New York between streams to find out what he thinks, and how and why he does what he does. — XJ
Xeni Jardin: Break down your current gear setup for us, would you?
Tim Pool: The backpack I use is just a regular backpack. My gear is a Samsung GALAXY S II (on Sprint, because they offer unlimited data) and an Energizer XPAL 18000, and I literally slide the external battery into my back pocket and I plug my phone into it. That’s pretty much it.
Xeni Jardin: And that equipment was purchased for you with donations?
Tim Pool: The Energizer battery, yes. The cellphone is just my cellphone.
Tim Pool's gear kit for the "The Other 99" web stream. Yup. That's all.
Xeni Jardin: Where are you from?
Tim Pool: Chicago. I came up to New York on the fourth day of the Occupation, up from Newport News, VA. I had been staying there with my brother, working with friends to create a community skate park and producing videos to show how to do some of my favorite skateboard tricks.
Xeni Jardin: And what inspired you to come up to OWS?
Tim Pool: I knew about Occupy Wall Street a little bit before it happened. The financial sector problems happening in this country, government corruption and collusion with big corporations, all of that concerned me. So this spoke to me. When I first heard about it, I was skeptical that people wouldn’t actually stand their ground. I'd become jaded over the years as an activist and nonprofit volunteer, and didn't have much hope.
But then, I saw this video of police brutality at Occupy Wall Street. The officers were arresting a man, and they grabbed him by his ankles and started dragging him by his hands. When they let go, you could see that his hands were bleeding. That really riled me up.
So I thought, these people have been sleeping in the park, they are serious, and I have to be down there and support them.
Xeni Jardin: So you took the Chinatown bus from Virginia up to New York, and then what?
Tim Pool: When I first arrived I thought: I know can add something to this, but it was extremely difficult to adapt. It's a problem a lot of people have with Occupy Wall Street, if you don’t understand it, it appears to not be focused. But really, the Occupy Movement is just trying to create a new system because the old one is broken.
It was difficult to integrate myself into all of this, and I didn’t fully understand what they were fighting for, because there were so many different things to fight for.
After a while I realized, maybe the best thing to do is document this as truthfully as possible so we could have just transparency. I felt like an independent media outlet that was external -- not exactly a part of the movement, but not part of a corporate machine bound by the typical rules of the TV business, either. That way I wouldn’t have an internal or external bias, I could sort of float in between and tell the story from my point of view.
Xeni Jardin: You mentioned you had done nonprofit work before. Tell me a little bit more about that? Were you a political activist? What was it that you were doing before, and were you doing video?
Tim Pool: Not video. The extent of my video just involves skateboarding tricks and pointing a camera at my friends. But I did fundraising, street canvassing for Greenpeace, and Environment America. And then I have also been on a few actions with the World Can't Wait, and just anti-war protests and things like that.
Xeni Jardin: What was it like when you arrived in New York?
Tim Pool: I got there really late at night, on September 21st. I got off the bus in Chinatown. I had never been to New York before, had no idea where I was, and I just walked up to the first person I saw and said, "I am looking for Liberty and Broadway." They pointed me in the right direction, and I started walking.
It was really incredible when I first arrived, because there was really nothing there. The food section, the kitchen? Just a few bowls covered with plastic wrap. There was some torn carpet that people were sleeping on. And when I arrived I just laid down on a torn piece of carpet, covered myself with some plastic to protect against the rain, and it was just incredible. I was like, hey, this place is occupied, and I am in it.
Xeni Jardin: And then what was the morning like? Did you bring your gear with you, were you thinking already about video?
Tim Pool: No, I just had a backpack full of clothes, and I was floating around trying to figure out where I would fit in. I met Henry James Ferry later that day, and he was uploading a video. Henry had started a media fund to raise money, and he was actually buying a lot of supplies for the people on the park. And then a day or two later he said, I think I want to fund some independent journalists, people are donating this money to me, and we need to be able to tell the story, because the news isn’t going to do it.
The action really started on day eight. I had a cellphone and I was using Twitter, and that was when we saw the pepper-spraying of the protestors by Officer Bologna. Henry was the one who actually uploaded that footage and got that out there.
When that video took off, within three days it had over a million hits. Henry got me a computer and said, let's do this, let’s use this computer, and let’s do a blog, we will set up a WordPress or something. How can we do this? He was also doing a bit of political theater—"The Conversation with the 1%," where he set up a little coffee table and two chairs and he would invite people from the 1% of society to come down and just have an open debate.
I told him, I am pretty good with computers, I could probably set up a live channel for you, what do you think? And he was like, yeah, yeah, let’s do it.
So I looked at the two main programs that people seemed to be using; Livestream and Ustream. I chose Ustream, because they had the mobile app, so I could shoot and broadcast just with my cellphone.
We had originally planned to webcast scheduled events, where people would tune in and watch the political theater, but all of a sudden, this police action started to explode.
I just instinctively turned my phone on and went live, and we had seven or ten viewers who tuned in, just by hearing about it on Twitter.
We did the Times Square March, and we had about 200 viewers simultaneously. Then, 700. And I had a big old smile on my face like, "Wow, this is working, we are doing something good." We actually had over 5,000 people look at our channel to see what was going on and 700 stuck with us for the most part.
There were some other live broadcasts after that. I ended up doing the Oakland Solidarity March, that day. I was with Henry, but we got separated. Until that point Henry had been the one communicating as a correspondent, and I was just the cameraman. But when the action really heated up that night, about 2,000 people were marching down the street, they took over Broadway, they had taken the orange "kettling" net away from the police, and I was on my own. So I took over the narration. And we hit over 2,000 simultaneous viewers that night, and had about 25,000 unique hits.
Then, the real action happened that Tuesday during the NYPD eviction of OWS at Zuccotti Park. I couldn't get into the park. I had been at the Spokes Council Meeting, which was off-site. I just turned the phone on and said, I have got to do this. It was just instinct. I really didn’t have a plan, but I had my phone plugged into my external battery.
And I guess because the police had taken everyone by surprise, the other live stream teams didn't have a chance to charge their batteries. I was the only one streaming. If you wanted to know what was happening that night, you pretty much had to go through my stream. Global Revolution put my broadcast on their channel, because I was the only source, and I quickly went from 50 people to 5,000, then 6,000, and then we actually hit 12,000 simultaneous viewers that day.
We never knew what was going to happen next that day. There was something new happening every minute. I kept broadcasting throughout the entire day with the support of a friend who let me use his MacBook to get a charge into my cellphone, because I was down to about 3% at one point. Then, a few people pitched in and bought me the XPAL 18K batteries to keep me going.
I finished that day after 21 hours of handling a live broadcast with narration, but I didn't really realize what I had done. I was just sort of, hey, whatever, I am doing a live broadcast. But by end of the day I was on the front page of time.com, and I'd been put out by Al Jazeera.
Honestly, there were so many different outlets that had taken my stream as a primary source. It was just -- yeah, I didn’t realize the impact of what had happened.
The really big event was that Thursday for the #N17 action. We peaked out with 31,000 simultaneous viewers and a total of 737,000 unique viewers for the broadcast, within the span of about 12 hours.
Xeni Jardin: Why are you doing this?
Tim Pool: I felt compelled to do it. It just sort of happened. When I first started doing it, it was kind of just, hey, these cops are out of line, it’s safer to turn on the live broadcast, because the footage will go straight to the Internet and they can’t destroy it.
But as time went on I started to feel an obligation to people who had become loyal to our channel. Those viewers were loyal to me and I am in turn loyal to them.
I am an activist for transparency. I am a huge fan of the ideals behind WikiLeaks. I think information wants to be free, it deserves to be free, and the only way we are going to have a functioning government for the people is if people can see and understand why decisions are made. I hope I am contributing to that.
Xeni Jardin: Have you been offered a job by a TV network or anything like that?
Tim Pool: Not a network, but very prominent talent agents have -- yeah, they want to, and there is no way I am going to do that. I can’t trust the television networks and the editing, and I really don’t think there’s a way to --
Xeni Jardin: Tim, listen to me, those are good instincts. What you're doing is great. Please don’t fuck it up.
Tim Pool: No seriously, I would rather ask 1 million people for $1 than one person for $1 million. And I won’t turn our stream on just for the sake of having a stream on. A lot of people ask, "Why aren’t you broadcasting today?," and I try to remind everyone the mainstream news outlets have to produce a show. So you see news every day, but it’s a television show, and when it gets slow they are like, "Hey you guys, look at this cat." I am not going to do that.
Xeni Jardin: There you go! You have got your head on straight. What are you, 25?
Tim Pool: Yeah.
Xeni Jardin: That’s good! Don’t ever lose that spirit. So what’s next for you guys? You have a little office, there are people volunteering to help you out to keep things going. Where is the funding coming from?
Tim Pool: Small donors. We are all volunteers. The only pay we get is minor expenses. It’s like, hey, your cellphone is getting paid, maybe your rent will get covered. That's it. We are pretty broke, but we have enough to keep the story going, keep the narrative going.
Xeni Jardin: How can people support?
Tim Pool: Well, if you go to our Ustream channel, The Other99.TV, that’s simple, underneath the Video window there is a link to our donation page. And the new project that I am taking donations for, a side project is, Occumentary.org. There is a We Pay page listed on there and that’s for a live broadcast of an occupation road trip. The plan is to drive to as many occupations as possible and make sure that every second of it is live, like ‘The Truman Show’.
The idea seemed obvious. A lot of documentaries are biased, they leave out of information. Well, we are not going to leave out any of the information, because you are going to see every second of it. You will get to see everything real and raw and get a real experience of traveling to these places and meeting these people.
Xeni Jardin: What was the most intense moment for you behind the camera over these past few weeks?
Tim Pool: During the Oakland Solidarity March where about 2,000 of the occupiers took to the streets, there was a point where the police had made an attempt to kettle them with the orange netting again. But this time, the protestors weren’t having it, and they grabbed the orange net and pulled it away from the police. They lifted it over their heads and started marching and chanting, "Whose net? Our net!"
I was completely overwhelmed, and I just blurted out over the screen, "Tonight belongs to Occupy Wall Street!" And it was just -- it was amazing! The occupiers took the orange net and they started ripping out small sections to make armbands and headbands and they wore them as like a badge of honor for being a part of it.
Xeni Jardin: What was the most grueling stretch you've done?
Tim Pool: The most physically intense was the Occupy Oakland March, because I think we actually ended up marching about five miles. I was so dehydrated, I couldn’t run, I could barely walk by the time we were returning. I was struggling to move my legs, I thought I was actually going to pass out.
Xeni Jardin: What’s the longest you have stayed awake and stayed online streaming?
Tim Pool: 21 hours. Last Tuesday when NYPD did the Zuccotti eviction. I was up that Monday and it was the end of the day. I had been up since about 9 in the morning and the eviction started at around 1pm. I started streaming, and I didn’t actually go to sleep until around 1 in the morning Wednesday. So yeah, I was up for over two days and I had a 21-hour broadcast.
Xeni Jardin: Have you ever had problems with the police?
Tim Pool: Yes. I have been shoved, I have been thrown, I have been pushed into the middle of traffic. The thing is that the NYPD really don’t care who you are. They see me, a guy carrying a cellphone that says "Ustream" on the front and has a sticker, and they just assume I am one of the protestors. They're like, "Oh, another one of these guys."
We actually have press passes for TheOther99, and the police are like, "Oh, I am sorry, if you don’t have an NYPD credential, you can’t come back here." And then to the press who actually do have the NYPD passes they say, "Oh, if you come back here, we will take your credential away." For those reporters it's a decision of, "If I lose my credential, I get fired," so they are really scared and they act accordingly.
Last Thursday the police said at one point, anyone with an NYPD press badge that goes from the sidewalk on to the street loses their credentials. The supervising officer said to what appeared to be his unit, any member of the press that steps in the street loses their credentials, take it from them. And when the press heard him say that, you could see them all just run back to the sidewalk. I stood right next to him, I was like, "I don’t have a press pass you can take."
Xeni Jardin: Have you tried to get a NYPD press pass?
Tim Pool: We all thought about getting them, but with the way the police treat the people with NYPD press credentials -- it’s a waste of time. There are stipulations, like, you need to have produced six pieces of breaking news over the past few months to qualify. And Occupy Wall Street doesn’t count as breaking news, they say; it’s just an ongoing event. It’s really funny, because there are people from TIME Magazine, who have never needed to cross police lines, who now want to document Occupy Wall Street and can’t. They have been with TIME or some other big publication for ten years, and they can’t get a press pass.
The police know who I am. On our stream just the other day a police officer identified me by name. I met him and I said, what’s your name, and I shook his hand. I said, nice to meet you. "We keep up," he said.
I have been told that the police watch my stream, because it’s a good source of information. I don’t doubt it. I mean, I think they would be fools not to.
Xeni Jardin: So you have had some interactions with them that have been pretty cordial. Have you had negative interactions with police?
Tim Pool: I was pushed by an officer into traffic. But that sounds worse than it was. It wasn’t like cars were speeding past me, but he essentially pushed me off the sidewalk into the street, and that kind of pissed me off.
I was told the other day that I couldn't stand in the sidewalk and I showed him my press pass, and he said, I don’t care, you can either get behind the barricade or you can go to the pen. And I said I would start walking.
I am fortunate enough to have not encountered that situation. I think they try to avoid the live broadcast cameras, because they know these are -- you don’t want to hit the guy with the live broadcast, because people are going to flood the department with the phone calls, because they are all watching it live.
During the #N17 action an officer actually lifted up a barrier and used it as a sort of a shield to shove us. I was lifted up the ground, I got smashed in between people; it was pretty intense.
I have never been scared. It’s exciting, and I can feel the adrenaline, but I am really not worried about getting hurt. But after I was pushed out of that barricade situation, I saw the officer slam a photographer to the ground and, man, it’s really intense. They don’t care if you are press. If you are hanging on the side, they just start shoving and throwing people.
Xeni Jardin: Have you ever been arrested?
Tim Pool: I have been arrested for skateboarding.
Xeni Jardin: How about for what you are doing now with OWS?
Tim Pool: No.
Xeni Jardin: What are your thoughts about the possibility that you could be?
Tim Pool: It would be very interesting to have the live broadcast and with me getting arrested to see how that would play out for the NYPD. At the same time, I don’t want to be arrested, because it’s important that I document what’s happening, but the possibility is there. I am not really worried about sitting in a cell for a day or two and then getting out; getting a disorderly conduct charge that will eventually just disappear, and essentially meaningless.
Xeni Jardin: Where do you want to go from here? The documentary, the Occumentary as you call it— that would take you away from the action in New York City. Are you worried about missing something?
Tim Pool: Well, generally what I had been doing before these two marathon events, I just generally do updates. I will stick with the march, maybe get an hour or two of footage if there is an action, I will film the March, and then go offline. Everyone sort of assumes that I am this marathon broadcaster who goes on 24 hours a day, everyday. And it has really never been what I did, I just saw -- I saw the necessity for these two days to do it and I did.
But there is action happening in other places that is equally important, and my plan right now is to either go to Los Angeles or Oakland. It’s probably going to be Los Angeles, because on December 12 they have a plan for a West Coast Port Shutdown. I want to break out of the shell and see the other occupations.
Xeni Jardin: What's this I hear about you guys building a drone to compete with the TV news choppers?
Tim Pool: Well, everyone's seen that Polish video, the "Robokopter," right? We got lot of emails from people saying, "Why don’t you guys use an aerial drone to get overhead shots?," and it was really interesting to see all these coming at the same time. Someone actually donated, just a few days ago, $500 towards the purchase of the AR.Drone toy from Walmart. But it can’t stream and it can’t broadcast the video to a computer in which I could do a desktop capture.
So I spoke with Geoff Shively, and he said, we have got plans for a hack that’s going to make this essentially the most badass drone— "The SkyWitness," is what he calls it. But it’s going to be able to travel between wave points, so that I can send it to Henry based on whatever signals he is using, get an aerial overhead to fly over Zuccotti park. I think Geoff may build it with Noisebridge and with help from other hackerspaces. It looks like we are going to have a drone soon with an aerial camera to add to the mix.
Xeni Jardin: Some people will complain that you are acting as a journalist covering a movement that you feel a part of, or you feel aligned with. There is this long-held idea that journalists must be objective.
Tim Pool: I am an activist. I do feel support for the movement. However, there is something more important, and that’s the truth. I think Occupy Wall Street is great, because it's the people trying to work out their problems and make a space where they can communicate with each other.
It's sort of an end to the division, where we have the left and the right, the bottom and the top. They are trying to do away with that and understand one another. That’s awesome, that’s great! But if I see something happening in the movement and it’s wrong, I am going to film that too, and that’s just the way it is. I'm not going to spare people bad news about Occupy.
The truth is, it's just people. Good people, bad people, regular people, strange people; it's just a big group of people.
Xeni Jardin: What does your family think about what you are doing?
Tim Pool: My mom is super proud, and my dad is too. My brother is excited, and wants to join me. I guess I didn’t know what I was doing when I started doing it.
It's really strange for me, because I still don’t think about it, it’s just kind of normal. I turn my camera on and I just talk and everyone tells me it’s an amazing narration, and I kind of don’t think so. I am kind of just confused by it.
Boing Boing editor/partner and tech culture journalist Xeni Jardin hosts and produces Boing Boing's in-flight TV channel on Virgin America airlines (#10 on the dial), and writes about living with breast cancer. Diagnosed in 2011. @xeni on Twitter. email: firstname.lastname@example.org.