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Indymedia in the Blogosphere
Some thoughts about Indymedia in the bold new world of blogs.
The Role of Indymedia in the Blogosphere
Recently, I had an interesting discussion with a several friends, a few who are involved in the IMC network and a few who aren’t. Indymedia had lost its uniqueness, one of the participants in the conversation argued. With the growth of interesting, intelligent, well written weblogs (or blogs) that allow for instantaneous reader feedback and endless hypertext “linking,” IMC websites can often appear out-of-date and shrill, merely a small wave in the ocean of froth that is the worldwide web. I partially disagreed with my friend’s assessment, though I had trouble saying exactly why at the time.
A few days later, I was party to a development that further sharpened my thinking about the weblog phenomenon and Indymedia’s relationship to it. In brief: a well-known Brazilian artist, Latuff, posted a cartoon about a recent bus bombing in Israel to the NYC-IMC Open Newswire, a cartoon that was later “hidden” by one of the IMC website moderators. Depending on your point of view, the comic was either a noble and provocative statement in support of Palestinian freedom, juvenile and disgusting, or downright anti-Semitic. Either way, the fact that the post was hidden was soon picked up on by several well-known New York City bloggers, a few of whom are openly critical of the NYC-IMC and its moderation policy. Al Giordano (a well-known, left-leaning independent journalist) then discussed the matter further on his blog, which lead to a sharp debate within the New York network about the validity of the original editorial decision to hide the comic. Some of the original right-wing bloggers reacted with evident satisfaction to the tempest they provoked within Indymedia, with one, the webmaster of http://www.asmallvictory.net, going so far as to say that “I like to think that I had something to do with the subtle earthquake taking place on some of the IMC sites right now. I called them out, and others followed. A stream of posters went from this site to various IMCs and took them to task for the censorship policies when they are, in fact, supposed to be against censorship.”
The final impetus for starting this article turned out to be the excellent September / October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. Heralding a “new age” of alternative media, the CJR discussed low power radio, Indymedia, and blogging, all in separate sections. Reading about an organization you’ve spent a lot of time with, written by an outside person can be both a frustrating and invigorating experience, and can also really get the mind working.
So there it is: an interesting philosophical discussion about the blogosphere that soon found itself supplemented by a particularly frustrating and embarrassing example of the phenomenon itself, combined with a bit more writing and analysis from the pages of CJR. I want to return to the original question: in a world of Internet blogging, what is the role of the Indymedia network? Is it still relevant? After all, the IMC arose in 1999, when the original idea of an “interactive internet” was still new. What’s more, the original IMCs appeared late in the Bill Clinton era, a time when popular culture seemed endlessly apolitical, concerned with blue-dresses, shark attacks, and commodity consumption. The appearance of an overtly political website (much less a left-wing one) was certainly a phenomenon worthy of notice in the closing days of the 20th century.
In the post 9/11 era, of course, political opinions are everywhere, at least on the Internet. Many, though by no means all, of these opinions are of the right-wing variety, and many of those are motivated by a political passion that would have seemed unthinkable way back in the olden days of 1999. What’s more, most of these blogs are endlessly liked to others in the blogosphere, and most allow for some form of reader commentary and feedback. Politics, web networking, reader participation: if these are everywhere on the Internet, does Indymedia still have a purpose?
I argue that it does, and in the paragraphs that follow, I’ll try to explain why. Just a warning in advance: although I’m familiar with the form, I’m not a blogger myself, and I’m pretty sure that generalizing about weblogs is an exercise in futility. There are so many, it’s downright impossible to say with absolute certainty that “all weblogs do such and such.” Nevertheless, that’s just what I’m about to do, so apologies in advance to all bloggers for my bold and possibly erroneous statements.
Journalism and Commentary
“Be the Media.”
If one needed to summarize the Indymedia network in a single sentence, that slogan, born out of the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, would still apply. The mainstream media, protesters argued, failed to capture the political opinions behind what was then universally referred to as the “anti-globalization movement”; even worse, the media lied or distorted the facts about actual political events themselves. In an age where political opinions litter the world wide web, where commentary and digital talking heads are everywhere, one must keep in mind that Indymedia activists and participants in the IMC open newswire saw themselves as reporters. Significantly, the original founders of the IMC defined what they were doing as journalism—not commentary.
Of course, any claim the IMC makes for itself as journalism immediately buts up against that hoary and revered bulwark of the mainstream media—the notion of objectivity, or at least the idea of independence from faction, Such an idea is central to 20th century journalistic theory. As Kovach and Rosenstiel note in The Elements of Journalism, “the more a journalist views himself as a participant in the events, and has loyalty to sources, the less able he or she is really able to consider himself or herself a journalist … journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover.”
For those who haven’t noticed, Indymedia is not objective—nor is it “independent” from faction. It is, however, largely independent from corporate control, which in these days of media mergers is perhaps more rare. Indymedia scorns any devotion towards “objectivity.” As one IMC supporter discussed in a speech later posted to the San Diego IMC website: “Independent Media cracks open the ruse of objectivity and denies claims itself to objectivity. ‘Objectivity is when you don't know what you're standing on,’ says Frieda Werden, producer of Women's International News Gathering service. Indymedia replaces objectivity - which is so often used as a smokescreen for bias - with the values of fairness, honesty, accuracy, and opinion, to cite Amy Goodman's media credo.”
My point here isn’t to resolve the debate between objectivity, partisanship, and “authentic” journalism. Rather, I’d simply like to credit Indymedia for raising the debate at all-- in effect, problematizing the practice of journalism, something that the majority of blogs fail to do. Rather, many bloggers are content to see themselves as commentators on actual events, purveyors of opinion, as it were. This assumption of commentary has several practical political implications: most blogs are satisfied to keep themselves within the ghetto of opinion, forsaking any claim to the journalistic authenticity possessed by others. Blogs implicitly leave journalism to the “experts,” to the trained elite who will chronicle their lives and activities for them. Accepting (or not) of the label of commentator also has implications in considerations of political praxis, implications that I will explore more thoroughly below.
A final note: it’s certainly true that a fair percentage of blogs are run by professional journalists, or connected to journalists in some way, and some have even become known as “blog journalism” (see websites like Salon, Slate, Anti-War.com, and especially the Drudge Report). Yet even many of those sites seem to land on the far side of the “commentary” spectrum, and those that don’t differ in some pretty substantial ways from Indymedia, as we’ll see below.
Politics and Praxis
As we’ve seen, Indymedia embraces a radical vision of journalism; this journalism, however, is mixed with an appreciation of the benefits of political action. This shouldn’t be surprising—the first IMC emerged to cover the 1999 anti-globalization protests in Seattle. While Indymedia has attempted to move beyond the notion of “summit hopping” over the past few years, it remains one of the best resources anywhere in the world in terms of protest coverage. And it is attempting (with mixed success) to expand its coverage to include other forms of political action, like community and union organizing.
The endless chatter and chitchat of the blogosphere, after all, can be as depressing as it is exhilarating. For every block of website text there are a thousand and one links (themselves containing more text that links to thousands of additional websites.) Every opinion is analyzed and disputed, proven wrong, then right, then wrong yet again. “All that is solid melts into air,” and sometimes the endless flow of back and forth debate can paralyze as much as it motivates. While the talk rages, real-life political actions are taken and decisions are made: wars are started or averted, workers are fired or form unions, and taxes are raised or lowered.
Regardless of the type of action Indymedia covers, what I’m trying to highlight is the fact that it covers action at all. Indymedia serves as more than a discussion board and a journalistic newswire; it functions as a political organizing tool as well. Organizers announce protests on the IMC “open newswire”, and many of these organizers then take photos, videos, or write stories about these direct actions. This is a second major component of the IMC system that distinguishes it from a blog—a sense that the Internet can be a political tool that goes beyond debate and enters the world of practical political behavior.
In the weblog world, sometimes it seems as if debate spurs argument, which itself spurs a hypertext link somewhere else and yet another argument, ad infinitum. On Indymedia, at least in theory, journalism spurs debate, but also action, which in turn creates yet more journalism. For a generation variously written off as politically disengaged, hopelessly post-modern, or both, Indymedia’s embrace of political praxis can be a refreshing antidote to the endless burbling of the blogosphere.
Community Collaboration and Information Flow
Blogs are justifiably famous for there creation of an online Internet community, often built around genuinely interesting personalities or ideas. These websites have their frequent visitors, their devoted followers, and their “partner” blog sites, with which they trade links. It also appears that the highly individualized blog universe, with websites often run by a single person and featuring little more than their opinions about various topics, are being slowly supplemented by topical blogs run by various collectives. In all these ways, blogs are succeeding in realizing the promise of the Internet community.
That said, an interesting question arises: who is talking to whom in the blogosphere? In which direction, in other words, does information and opinion flow? Most often, the answer appears to be that information flows largely in one direction—from the organizer and publisher of the blog outwards. For all their efforts at creating community, blogs can equally be said to have created an online “cult of personality,” with bloggers achieving superstar status. A blogger has an experience, thought, or idea, posts his or her thoughts on the matter, and invites readers to respond. Readers react (mostly favorably) to what the blogger says and its on to the next topic or thought.
At its best, Indymedia is a different animal all together. Ideally, the information flow travels in the opposite direction: from the community to the volunteers who moderate and maintain the center column of the Indymedia website. Instead of Indymedia being a forum for the maintainers of the website to pass of their own personal opinions, IMC websites have the potential to scan the “open publishing newswire,” find well written, unusual, or interesting pieces of news and analysis, and turn them into center column features, often linking together pieces by many different posters who have seen the same event. In an ideal universe, a website editor would actively seek out, or at least tolerate, center column features that don’t completely jive with his or her own personal opinions. Encouraging an information flow that moves from the community outwards is one of the major contributions Indymedia can make to online journalism and is a major way it differs from blogs.
Beyond the Internet
I’ve saved one of the most important but obvious differences between Indymedia and a blog for last, and hopefully it can be dealt with quickly. Blogs, short for “weblogs” are an almost entirely internet-based phenomenon. Indymedia has the potential to go beyond the Internet world into other, more traditional areas of media like print, radio, and film.
The challenges faced by Indymedia in the more traditional journalistic world are different from those it confronts in the virtual universe. Most of them, for starters, involve money. Nevertheless, some promising developments are beginning to be seen in this direction. The New York IMC has recently begun publishing its newspaper, The Indypendent, twice a month—a quantum step forward for the cash strapped, all-volunteer project. Other IMC’s are starting newspapers, and many others have successful radio and film projects.
In other words, Indymedia must strive to break down the often false and limiting dichotomy between “serious” (mostly print and audio) journalism and “insurgent” (usually internet based) journalism by seizing the “serious” journalistic media for itself.
Hopefully, this article can help focus IMC’s on certain set of strategic and practical goals. In any radical, all-volunteer project, organization resources will always be limited, and by situating Indymedia within the blogosphere, I hoped some promising directions for moving ahead would become apparent. Here are a few of them:
1. Continue reaching out to activist sectors within IMC communities and encourage use of the open newswire. If the direction of information flow on IMC websites is usually from the community towards the center column, the success or failure of any Indymedia website will be its open newswire. Developing a transparent, coherent newswire moderation policy for the newswire is only the first and easiest step. The hard, but more important, step is to get everyone to actually use the wire to post news.
The key here is outreach, outreach, and more outreach. Different activist groups need to become aware of the open newswire and the way the IMC center column works. Those with awareness need to see posting to the newswire as a valuable expenditure of time. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of groups working for social justice in New York City and thousands in communities across the world. These groups need to feel comfortable using the open publishing functions of the IMC website to publicize their activities.
2. Develop more “non-internet” media. Despite the numerous differences between Indymedia websites and blogs, the differences between them are likely to continue to decrease as the Internet matures. As on-line websites converge, Indymedia must make better use of its media resources to develop photographic, audio, video, and print projects. This is one way Indymedia can continue its provocative societal critique away from the increasingly hard-to-differentiate clamor of the Internet.
3. Continue to build on the relationship between journalism and action. Indymedia should avoid calls, common in the global justice community, to completely abandon its coverage of protests and mobilizations. As I tried to show above, its focus on praxis is one of the major ways Indymedia can differentiate itself from opinion-laden blogs. This is not to say Indymedia shouldn’t work on articulating alternatives to war and corporate globalization; but it should not loose its focus on the activist side of the equation either. One thing Indymedia can do is supplement its coverage of large-scale protests at global summit events with reporting on local actions, whether those be protests, political campaigns, boycotts, culture jamming, etc.
Hopefully, this discussion of the place of Indymedia in the blogosphere can be useful for promoting discussion, debate, and conversation among global justice activists. My hope is that this can be a starting point for future discussions on the nature of journalism and online activism.