The Abacus sign

By Felix Salmon
October 18, 2011
Ben Furnas only has 325 followers on Twitter, but that's all it took to make this photo of his go seriously viral over the past few days.

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Ben Furnas only has 325 followers on Twitter, but that’s all it took to make this photo of his go seriously viral over the past few days. He posted it on Twitter at 5:42pm on Saturday, with no commentary other than the hashtags #ows and #win. It didn’t take long (I’m a little bit unclear about the timezone of BoingBoing timestamps) before Xeni Jardin posted it on her hugely popular blog. And from there it went, well, everywhere.

By this morning, Conor Friedersdorf, the author of the words in question, was already writing a meta-post about the photo, and how it demonstrates that OWS is “the product of the decentralized networked-era culture”. Xeni, too, had a meta-post of her own. And the makers of the sign were revealed to be Brooklynites Will Spitz and Caitlin Curran. (Sorry, they’re a couple.)

Still, the meme was far from out of juice: when I posted the photo on my Tumblr at 4pm this afternoon, grabbing it from Barry Ritholtz, it very quickly became by far the most liked and shared thing I’ve ever put up on that platform.

A lot of that is because Curran is one of those protestors that photographers dream of. And then there’s the setting — Times Square, with Starbucks in the background and the big Nasdaq sign.

But the heart of the photo is the language on the sign — language much more powerful and striking than the blog post (or even the sentence) from which it was lifted. It’s funny, on the sign — something true, and accurate, and touching, and grammatical, and far too long to be a slogan, and gloriously bereft of punctuation, and ending even more gloriously in a mildly archaic preposition. Friedersdorf has managed to encapsulate the essence and the impropriety of the Abacus deal in just 45 words, and it’s fantastic that Spitz and Curran — and Furnas and Jardin and everybody who shared this image — managed to give those words the global recognition they deserved.

And most wonderfully of all, this sign seems to resonate just as much with the general public, most of whom have never heard of Abacus, as it does with Abacus nerds like myself.

In any case, I’m very glad that Abacus is coming back. During the first Abacus-go-round, I toyed with the idea of making a self-indulgent derivative artwork of the famous quote by “Fab” Fabrice Tourre:

What if we created a “thing”, which has no purpose, which is absolutely conceptual and highly theoretical and which nobody knows how to price?

I’d print these words in a sans-serif face on aluminum, or maybe in neon, and use them to comment not only on the futility of Wall Street, but also on the parallels between Wall Street and the art world. (William Powhida is much better at this sort of thing than I am; his show, called Derivatives, which includes my birthday present, opens Saturday at Postmasters, and you should go check it out. )

This picture is a vastly better way of bringing Abacus to the public’s attention. And it’s also a fantastic example of why it’s great that OWS isn’t a carefully-organized movement with an easily-identifiable and discrete set of demands. The fact that OWS is open-ended means that it’s much more open to the kind of creativity which went into this sign, and also means that snapshots like this one are much more likely to go viral.

The sentiment behind OWS has resonated worldwide — and I’m sure that this photo has already been forwarded all over Goldman Sachs. It’s a very healthy reminder, for squids both junior and senior, that the world will not soon forget what they got up to at the end of the subprime boom.

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