Chapter One: Introduction

            The growth of the Independent Media Center (IMC or Indymedia) movement is a giant leap forward in the struggle for communicative democracy.  In just over three years, the IMC network has grown from one media production center and a Web site in Seattle, Washington to over 100 Web sites and dozens of physical media centers around the world.  This is no small accomplishment for a loosely structured community of volunteers.  Perhaps more impressive than the network’s growth has been its egalitarian social values and commitment to collective media production.  Indymedia is at once a digital communications network and a social network of diverse personalities knitted together by a desire to practice in the present the kind of democracy that others only dream about for the future.


1.1 The Problem

            This thesis is the product of my two-year journey through the network, not as a regular organizer or volunteer, but as an observer, student, supporter, and occasional user of Indymedia’s open publishing system.  During that time, I set out to understand, first, where Indymedia came from—to search for its roots and follow the directions in which they spread to see what political movements and media theories they might connect to.  Secondly, I wanted to trace the trajectory of Indymedia’s growth, looking externally at its media and its messages and internally at its structures and processes so that I might learn how it functions.  In working back and forth between these two levels while the network was rapidly growing, I realized that it might never be possible to fully understand or explain this sprawling organic movement.  But, perhaps, I could wrap my brain around two key concepts that seemed to keep coming up again and again.  They are, as I just hinted, Indymedia’s digital network and its social network.  Both are deeply attached to two movements, the “global justice movement,”1 and what some have called the media democracy or “communicative democracy” movement.2  Both of these movements play off of each other: global justice organizers rely on independent media channels to communication with each other and to reach diverse constituencies; and the communicative democracy movement seeks to create those media channels by gaining access to communication resources allocated by the state and liberating technologies from the corporate commercial sector.

            In studying Indymedia’s social and digital structure I hoped to come away with an understanding of where the two were in concert and where there was discord.  This applies to structures and processes at the global level, the local level and between local IMCs and the global network.  The reason for doing this goes back to the idea that compelled me to study Indymedia in the first place: I wanted to know if groups working independently of state/corporate power could build—and expand—long-term, sustainable alternatives to the mass media, especially the American corporate system.  If so, how could they go about doing it?  What sorts of models or examples might be borrowed?  How would they avoid reproducing the hierarchies, biases, and inequities of corporate mass media?  What new structures or processes could be developed?  How would such a media project weather a crisis, or several crises?  The questions kept flowing.  Luckily for me, I did not have to set up an elaborate media experiment because the Indymedia organizers were/are conducting one right before our eyes.  What I could do instead was devise a novel way of investigating their project and, subsequently, record the results.

1.2 Methodology

            A few qualifying remarks about the focus of this study are in order before moving on to questions of methodology.  As it would be impossible for me to physically go around the world studying mass media and the IMC network, this thesis will, out of necessity, have a United States focus.  Thus when I describe mass media I am generally referring to the American corporate model, though there will be some references to hybrid public/corporate media such as National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).  In chapter three, a global Indymedia case study will be presented.  This will take into account issues that reach well beyond the U.S.  Conversely, chapter four will focus solely on the IMC in Cleveland, Ohio, which is not necessarily representative of all local IMCs.  The chapter should, however, provide an informative glimpse inside one node in the network, illuminating several challenges faced by many other IMCs and highlighting the communication links between local and global organizers.

1.2.1 Indymedia Research

            I performed some brief, formal research on Indymedia in the spring and summer of 2001 as part of an Independent Study project.  When that was through, I moved on to other projects, though I continued to do casual research with the idea of selecting this topic for my thesis.  By the fall of 2002, I was ready to begin more intensive research.  In addition to reading numerous IMC documents as well as articles about Indymedia in the alternative press, I made another round of visits to IMC Web sites and tallied up the total number.  I also re-visited the IMC documentation Web page, which is an excellent resource.  In fact, one of the advantages of studying Indymedia is the openness with which affairs are conducted.  It can also be a dilemma, however, as one can very easily drown in a sea of documents unless one knows what one is looking for.  I decided that since I was going to focus on structural issues primarily, though not exclusively, I would visit the archives of several network e-mail lists.  I also started subscribing to the IMC-process list, which is used to facilitate global decisions. 

            While I monitored e-mail traffic and continued surfing IMC sites, I started making a list of IMC volunteers at the global level that I wanted to Interview.  I based my choices on how active the person appeared to be in global discussions and where, geographically, they were based.  Ideally, I would have interviewed someone from each continent, but it was hard to locate organizers from Asia and Africa on the IMC-process list, which is dominated by Americans, Canadians, and Europeans.  In addition, I am only proficient in English; therefore, interview subjects would also have to be able to speak and write in my native tongue.  I eventually selected eight people (4 from the U.S., 1 from the UK, 1 from Canada, 1 from Australia, and 1 from Uruguay), all of whom I initially contacted by e-mail.  I was able to interview five of them; 3 by phone and two by e-mail.  After completing interviews in March 2003, I visited all IMC Web sites again.  By this time the network had grown to a total of 110 sites (there had been 98 in November 2002).

            I should point out that I was also making contact with volunteers in Cleveland at roughly the same time.  I actually began gathering research in November 2002, by subscribing to the local e-mail list.  At this time, the Cleveland volunteers were waiting to hear if they had been officially admitted to the Indymedia network.  A core group of volunteers had been organizing for about nine months.  After becoming familiar with the names on the list and the topics of conversation, I contacted one member by e-mail and asked if I could attend their next meeting.  I also told him that I was working on a thesis and would eventually like to conduct interviews with all of the members.  He enthusiastically agreed.  After attending a meeting in January, I began to have regular e-mail conversations with the core members.  I attended another meeting in early March and finished e-mail interviews with seven core members by the middle of the month.

            Finally, I read through the collective’s planning documents and surveyed content from both its Web site and its weekly radio show.  Having gone in and out of the network before being reconstituted nearly from scratch, the Cleveland IMC presented some unique research challenges and opportunities.  I had to examine its brief initial phase, about which there is little documentation.  Luckily, two members of the new collective were familiar with events during that time.  Moving beyond this early period, I looked at the ten-month reorganizing effort in which numerous volunteers came and went.  This was much easier to study, though, as the new collective posted the minutes of its meetings on an auxiliary Web site alongside copies of its policy statements and some e-mail communication with global organizers.  Documentation from this period enabled me to trace, from the applicant’s perspective, the various steps through the new-IMC approval process.

1.2.2 Literature Review

            Well before I began my intensive research, I had gathered numerous resources on both the mass media and alternative media.  I consulted a wide range of works during 2001 and 2002, including; articles by media activists and organizers in the global justice movement; articles in the mainstream media about Indymedia; articles in the alternative media about Indymedia; books on the political economy of mass media; books that critiqued media technology; and some scholarly articles about strategies for media reform.  Most notable from this assortment were articles by Hackett and Martin, which informed my views on mass media.

            As I began my intensive research, I went back through my files and decided I needed to gather recently published scholarly resources that examined participatory media more closely.  Works with case studies of Indymedia would be optimal.   While the network was just a few years old, several critical media scholars, including some who had been active in community media movements for decades, had written papers for conferences or book chapters about Indymedia. Particularly useful were articles by Downing, Halleck, Kidd, Morris, and a Master’s thesis by Uzelman, documenting the history of the Vancouver IMC.  These all offered informative case studies and diverse perspectives on Indymedia.  For example, Kidd reviewed Indymedia’s success in Seattle, discussed its early development, and drew connections between it and an extraordinary feminist radio network based in Central America (“Which Would You Rather…”).  Another valuable resource was Gumucio’s book featuring numerous case studies on participatory media in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.  Aside from these works, two recent books—one by Downing, the other by Atton—were useful both for their case studies and for their theoretical approaches to “radical” and “alternative” media respectively.

            Having completed these and numerous other readings, I made a list of Indymedia’s Principles of Unity and placed it beside a list of characteristics in Downing’s model for radical media and Atton’s typology of alternative media.  I wanted to see if there were any similarities or points of contact between them.  I also made a list of Gumucio’s participatory media characteristics and compared it to the other three.  The point of this exercise was to develop a conceptual framework that would guide my analysis of Indymedia, particularly when addressing several organizational challenges facing the network.


1.3 What’s to Come?

            The next chapter will provide some background material on the problems of mass media and continue with an examination of some strategies for media reform.  In the first part, I will draw heavily on the political economy tradition to argue that mass media, particularly the market-based corporate model is inherently anti-democratic.  This will lead into a brief analysis by Martin that questions the technological structure of mass media as well as the political economy.  Having noted the obstacles to participatory discourse in mass media, I will look at some strategies for reform, as well as some strategies to create alternatives to mass media.  Notable among these is Martin’s suggestion that activists and media reformers concentrate on building decentralized participatory media networks.  This will lead to a brief description of Gumucio’s work on community-based democratic media projects in Latin American. Lastly, I will mention some commonalities between Indymedia and the characteristics and principles noted in this diverse body of literature.

            Chapter three is an extensive case study of the Independent Media Center movement.  The focus will be primarily on the global network while chapter four will address local issues with a case study of the Cleveland, Ohio IMC.  Chapter three will be organized into three parts.  The first will cover the history of the IMC movement from its beginnings in 1999 up to March 2003.  The second part will focus on the political characteristics and administrative structure of the network. Special attention will be paid to the global decision-making process; the internal communication system that ties the nodes in the network together; and sources of financing.  As the name implies, the third and final section, “Media and Messages,” will examine Indymedia’s use of various media platforms, in particular the World Wide Web, to inform and empower audiences.  

          In my case study of the Cleveland IMC I will give special attention to the process through which new IMCs are admitted to the network.  Picking up from there, I will document the IMC’s first three months as a fully operational node in the global network.  Of primary importance will be the communication flow among members and the processes for making both administrative and editorial decisions.  Moving back to the global network, chapter 5 will examine several significant challenges Indymedia faces.  After experiencing another round of explosive growth in 2002 and early 2003, it appears as though the network is at another critical crossroads.  Despite the global expansion of its digital network, critical structural and administrative issues have gone unresolved.  Some organizers wonder if it’s time to slow down again and re-group so that conflicts can be ironed out and principles clarified.  I will try to sort through the conflicts and highlight attempts by volunteers to resolve them.

In chapter six, I will offer some concluding remarks and recommendations for further research. I will argue that Indymedia has been an enormous success for both the communicative democracy movement and the global justice movement.  Though it must resolve pressing structural issues and, perhaps most importantly, improve its internal communications system, Indymedia offers support to those who argue that community-based participatory media networks can become sustainable alternatives to mass media.

1 I borrow this term from Morris (2003) and others who use it to describe what has variously been called the “anti-globalization movement,” the “anti-corporate globalization movement”,” and the “anti-capitalist movement.” The first term was pinned to the movement by mainstream media accounts, the second was an attempt to clarify that the movement wasn’t against globalization, but rather the corporate model of globalization. The third term has been widely used by many direct action groups and while it is more appropriate than the other two, I prefer Morris’ term because it most clearly states what I believe the movement stands for, global justice, which to me entails peace, democracy, and liberation from government and corporate tyranny.


2 See Hackett (2000).