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Indymedia: It’s time to move on
Launched in 1999 at the dawn of the anti-globalisation movement, the Indymedia publishing model represented a revolutionary step forward in democratic, non-corporate media production. And yet, a decade on, it seems the moment has arrived to ask whether it is still useful and necessary to the social movements that it grew from.
Two weeks ago, on 31st January, the Nottingham Indymedia collective disabled the ability to publish new newswire items. This drastic action was taken in order to demonstrate what will be lost if the collective folds, in the hope that those who use the site will step up to keep it going. A meeting will be held at the Sumac Centre tomorrow, on Monday 18th Feb, to discuss the future of the project and all those with an interest in being involved are invited to attend.
Indymedia is the name given to a particular network with a rather uneven global reach, to which many hundreds of local independent media projects, mostly web-based, have been affiliated at one time or another. It is also the name for a particular approach to news media – one that attempts to avoid hierarchal production and hence promote grassroots reports on events.
It seems to me that the moment has arrived to examine the Indymedia model and ask whether it is still useful and necessary to the social movements that it grew from. After all, a lot has changed since 1999, when the first Indymedia site was launched, both in terms of the online environment and the outside world.
On the web, we have seen the rise of corporate empires like Facebook and Twitter : monoliths with hundreds of millions of users and an apparent stranglehold on dissemination of information online. Pockets of resistance exist: open source enclaves that don’t seek property rights on everything you post and federate with others rather than seeking global dominion. However, these tiny anomalies are few and far between, pushed out to the margins of a web that is increasingly enclosed by multi-million dollar businesses.
The rise of the giants has been propelled by massive investment in developing software. The resulting flexibility and capability of Facebook and friends makes these sites attractive to the user who wants to quickly and easily communicate their ideas and plans to hundreds and even thousands of others.
The undoubtedly dirty money that the corporate monsters get through stealth advertising, selling other people’s content and from ‘no strings attached’ venture capital is what makes this constant development possible. Volunteer coders who scrabble to find time for independent projects in between day jobs and political activism simply cannot compete, however ingenious their ideas. The result is that the anti-corporate web is often buggier, clunkier and more out-of-date than its capitalist rivals. Users who are often unaware or don’t care about the politics simply opt for the slicker sites.
Indymedia collectives in the UK are no strangers to this phenomenon. The UK Indmedia/Mayday collective site runs on a Content Management System (CMS) called Mir that was migrated to 10 years ago. This gives the site the look and feel of a 10-year old site: rather old in web development terms. London Indymedia decided enough was enough and one of their techs developed Hyperactive, a CMS that was meant to incorporate some of the features that had been developed as part of ‘Web 2.0’ and that are now commonplace on social media sites. It was taken up by a number of regional sites, including Nottingham in 2010. Unfortunately the usual time and energy constraints on the people involved conspired to thwart the project. Hyperactive is no longer under development and Indymedia seems to be unable to find a sustainable way of keeping up to date.
It is not just the online environment that has changed. I would question whether a coherent user community still exists in the same way that it did at the height of the anti-globalisation movement. The loose coalition of anti-capitalist, environmental and anti-war movements that protested the big summits of global power has evolved in many directions. Many of those involved took note of the diminishing returns of spectacular protests and looked for other avenues for their dissidence.
Those who chose to embed themselves in local struggles whilst ‘thinking global’ were amongst those who set up and nourished a proliferation of local Indymedia collectives in the early years of the 21st Century. This was certainly true of Nottingham Indymedia, which was launched soon after the Gleneagles anti-G8 protests of 2005 in an attempt to sustain the local activity that had been mobilised.
Fast forward to 2013 and it is clear that these movements have suffered many defeats, police spy infiltration and repression and many activists have burned out or moved on with their lives. Movements that came along in their absence, such as the anti-cuts movements, have seemed ephemeral and have not been able to sustain themselves. The younger generations that might have replaced them look to newer, amorphous brands, such as Anonymous and Occupy, which don’t have an obvious local manifestation. The result is that many activists no longer seem to have affinity with Indymedia, which has become associated with movements of the past that have run their course.
However, I don’t just want to look at the cultural peculiarities of Indymedia as it has manifested itself in this time and place. What of the underlying model of media production and dissemination that underpins these particular individual instances?
To my mind, Indymedia has three major strengths: eradicating hierarchy, protecting privacy and enabling collective media production.
Firstly, Indymedia seeks to undermine the traditional media model of editorial hierarchies which filter out the vast majority of content and viewpoints according to the whims of the gatekeepers. Indymedia encourages a proliferation of voices and stories, often through open publishing on the web.
Whilst open publishing has become commonplace on web forums and mailing lists, the idea of open publishing for news remains controversial, largely because many are still in thrall to the idea that certain viewpoints are more important and more accurate than others.
The idea behind overthrowing this hierarchy was to allow the previously voiceless and marginalised the opportunity to speak. In practice, this is hard to achieve. Few Indymedia sites allow totally open publishing because soon they would be overrun with bullying, abusive behaviour, used as a platform for authoritarian and discriminatory viewpoints and to spread malicious lies.
Indymedia sites tend to have a set of guidelines and moderators to remove posts that infringe them. The problem with this is that it can reinstate hierarchy by the backdoor. The moderators can easily slip into an editorial role, making decisions that, subconsciously or not, influence the character and environment of the site and consequently the user community.
For this reason, Indymedia collectives strive to ensure that moderation is transparent and accountable to the wider community. Again, this is the principle but the reality often fails to live up to it. Few individuals have the time and energy to scrutinise every moderation decision or go to collective meetings unless they are already a member of the collective (and therefore part of the in-group). Indeed, the recent history of Indymedia in the UK has largely been one of schisms between different in-groups hostile to what they perceive as external ideas about how to run their site.
These limitations aside, I firmly believe that the principle of access to the creation of media for all has revolutionary implications and is needed to break the hold of the media empires. A grassroots media from below is needed to challenge the narrative of the powerful and assert the viewpoint of those excluded from mainstream discourses. Whether the open publishing model is the best way to achieve that goal or not is open to debate.
The second major strength of Indymedia has been its promotion of anonymity in a world of state and corporate monitoring and control. Whilst mainstream sites track IP addresses and every mouse click you make, many Indymedia sites have been robust in not logging user data and allowing the powerless the possibility of not being scrutinised by the powerful.
The dangers of complying with the statist aim of controlling the internet are clear. There are numerous examples of sites giving up user data to the authorities to enable prosecutions and repression. Indymedia sites publishing reports of interest to the police and other security agencies have been raided and had servers seized. Thanks to the security measures in place, these police state measures have not led to personally identifiable data being grabbed. Protecting the identities of users who choose not to disclose is essential, in order to give confidence to those who take direct action against the powers that be.
As with all of these principles, however, anonymity has a dark side. When no one knows who is speaking, it is easy to maliciously impersonate other people, to infiltrate discussions and derail them. But perhaps this also encourages the reader to question what s/he is being told and to try to dig deeper in an attempt to find the truth.
The final key ingredient to Indymedia, and probably most often neglected, is the aim of collective creation of media. More than just a resource, Indymedia should be a community greater than the sum of individual contributions. When I first got involved in the network, there was intense collaborative activity on mailing lists in order to craft feature articles, set up media stations at major actions and share knowledge and expertise. Over time, differences of opinion and infighting have set in and the UK network has irreversibly broken down. There is no longer much of a meaningful Indymedia community and very little collaboration outside of a few small groups of Indymedia ‘professionals’.
The result is that a lot of the energy and excitement has gone and more than a few collectives seem to continue out of duty rather than a positive commitment to the project. Providing a platform and the motivation for the collective creation of media were essential in making Indymedia a rewarding network to be in and in taking its output much further than a collection of isolated individual viewpoints ever could.
So, given all of the above, is Indymedia still important? Yes, absolutely, as an idea. Unlike some, I am not particularly fussed about the Indymedia name and brand; what is important is that a media from below continues to flourish and challenge the media imposed from above. I have tried to outline what I see as the major challenges and obstacles that will inevitably crop up – the struggle to keep up technologically, the necessity of avoiding hierarchical organisation and exclusion and the need to support community and collaboration as well as giving voice to dissent.
I think it is high time for those involved in Indymedia and other similar projects to examine the new political and social terrain, to evolve and adapt in order to continue what Indymedia has set in motion. I am not content to keep banging my head against the same limiting brick walls forever; I want to find ways of moving over them, avoiding them or undermining them. Now seems as good a time as any to start looking for fellow travellers.
Our decision to curtail publishing on the Nottingham Indymedia site and call a meeting is an attempt to create a space for new ideas. We are not interested in continuing along the slow but certain path to total irrelevance but want to draw in new people and start off in new directions whilst remaining faithful to the underlying principles of Indymedia.
The mainstream media has recently been exposed once again as utterly corrupt, devoid of ethics and manipulative. However, few independent media outlets can come up with a sustainable alternative which gives a voice to those who have been spoken over for so long. This article has been written in the hope that others will reflect on the successes and failures of the Indymedia movement and that new independent media models can be developed from its legacy.
Behindthemask is a writer and activist who has been involved in Nottingham Indymedia and the UK Indymedia network for the past 8 years.