Chapter Three: Building a
Participatory Media Network: The
Though they had no way of knowing it at the time, the volunteers who wrote those words were helping to launch a participatory media network that, a little more than three years later, would cross every continent and connect diverse communities into the burgeoning global justice movement. Stepping back a bit, we can ask how such a project, designed to produce media for one event, could grow into a sprawling network. Looking at the statement, we might also ask who or what influenced the authors to propose that media be used “as a tool for promoting social and economic justice” and to commit themselves to creating “positive models for a sustainable and equitable society.” I will attempt to answer those questions and many others in this chapter. The material presented is drawn from nearly two years of study, including five months (November 2002 to March 2003) of intensive, organized research. During this last period, I conducted e-mail and telephone interviews with several Indymedia volunteers, including two who were involved in setting up elements of the Seattle IMC. In addition, I surveyed hundreds of e-mail discussions among network organizers and carefully read several studies written by media scholars, students, and IMC volunteers.
This chapter will be organized into three major sections. 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 organizational characteristics and structure of the network. Special attention will be paid to the decision-making process used by global organizers; the internal communication system that ties the nodes in the network together; and sources of financing. As its 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. Through the course of this chapter, I will draw attention to the network’s notable achievements and briefly identify some major challenges, which will be given a much more thorough treatment in chapter 5.
3.1 History of the IMC Movement
Before sketching out the history of the IMC movement, I will first discuss some of the movements and communicative philosophies that influenced organizers. A brief mention of some media projects and gatherings that could be seen as precursors to Indymedia will also be included. Based on an examination of numerous IMC documents and interviews with several long-time organizers, including one of the co-founders, I have decided to organize the network’s history into four phases. The first of which involves the organizing period leading up to and continuing through the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, Washington in November 1999. The second period runs from the months right after the “Battle of Seattle” up to roughly the early months of 2001. This phase was marked by explosive and rather chaotic growth. Many new IMCs were launched without much advance planning to cover specific events and several of them faltered. Many organizers felt it was necessary to put down in writing the values and principles that Indymedia represented and to establish a formal process for admitting local collectives to the network. I consider this re-grouping phase to be the third period in the network’s history, which runs through the spring and summer of 2001. The final period begins in late 2001 and continues to the time of this writing (April 2003), a time when the network saw more rapid growth, especially in the global South. This added much greater diversity within the network and expanded its international reach.
3.1.1 Influences and Precursors
During the early and mid 1990s a loosely organized network of political
activists, journalists, and media activists—free software techies, culture jammers, low power radio pirates,
and community video producers—recognized that, as Halleck puts it, “the
information/entertainment oligarchy is at the forefront of global capital” and
thus an obstacle to participatory democracy (“Gathering Storm…”). But what could be done about it? The answer began to emerge through a series
of international gatherings where activists experimented with new ways of
making media and discussed political strategies. Notable among these were the Zapatistas’
First and Second Encuentros (Encounters) Against Neoliberalism and for Humanity
(Ruggiero, “On the Growing…”). At the
first Encuentro, held in 1996 in
Let’s make a network of communication among all our struggles and resistances. An intercontinental network of alternative communications against neoliberalism…(and) for humanity. This intercontinental network of alternative communication will search to weave the channels so that words may travel all the roads that resist…(it) will be the medium by which distinct resistances communicate with one another. This intercontinental network of alternative communication is not an organizing structure, nor has a central head or decision maker, nor does it have a central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who speak and listen (quoted in Ruggiero, Microradio and Democracy 43).
Inspired both by Marcos’ words and the Zapatistas “concrete example of people coordinating their local collectives and actions with a diverse global community,” (Morris, “Globalization and Media Democracy…”) several activists considered the possibility of tying their movements together through some sort of alternative media federation (Ruggiero, “On the Growing…”).
Around the time of the
Zapatistas’ Encuentro, a small group of independent journalists and media
activists, many of whom were involved in the free software, radical ‘zine, and
community media movements, launched a Web site to cover the 1996 Democratic
National Convention in
In the wake of the Chicago convention and the Encuentros, organizers who had participated in both events, along with other activists concerned about corporate media consolidation spurred by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, began forming new alliances and tossing about plans for new media projects designed to provide grassroots coverage of the growing global justice movement. The social network and technical infrastructure for something big was being laid, though nobody could have sensed how dramatically media and politics would converge in late November 1999.
3.1.2 Indymedia and the “
One of the major
targets of the global justice movement has been the World Trade Organization,
an international body that, among other duties, adjudicates trade disputes
between member nations.7 In the summer and fall of 1999, while the WTO
was preparing for a ministerial conference to take place in
Responding to the
needs of the movement, the steadily growing coalition of media activists
discussed the possibility of setting up a digital media center where grassroots
journalists could prepare and publish their reports. Organizers also imagined that the media
center could serve as a laboratory for democratic media production.8
wrote John Tarleton, a former professional journalist-turned Indymedia
supporter and volunteer, “was not to create one more alternative lefty
publication but to lay the infrastructure for a multimedia peoples' newsroom
that would enable activists to come together and disseminate their own stories
to a global audience without having to go through the corporate filter”
(“Protesters Develop…”). As IMC co-founder Sheri Herndon simply put it, organizers hoped to
That fall a “tech
collective” also began setting up the equipment that would power the center,
including a Web site, to be used as a publishing platform for independent
reporters. Text, audio, and video
reports would be uploaded from the convergence center and displayed on the
site. As the WTO meetings neared,
however, the tech collective decided to modify the site so that anyone from any
Arnison reports that the collective, which participates in both the
free software movement and anarchist politics, was happy to share its code with
IMC organizers (Madhava 102). They had, in fact, been previously involved
in developing software for the Webcast of a globalization protest organized by
People’s Global Action (PGA).9 Hooking up with the
Powered by Active software,
the revolutionary new Web site, bearing the name organizers had given to the
The resistance is global…a trans-pacific collaboration has brought this
web site into existence. The web dramatically alters communication between
multinational and activist media. With just a bit of coding and some cheap
equipment, we can set up a live automated web site that rivals the corporates
(sic). Prepare to be swept by the tide of activist media makers on the ground
During the course of the protests, some 500 volunteer reporters, photographers, technicians, and facilitators staffed the IMC, producing hundreds of multimedia reports. Several organizers, including members of the tech collective as well as Arnison, were a bit surprised by how popular the open publishing system would become. To be sure, Arnison and his colleagues knew it was an important feature that would allow volunteers to quickly post breaking news, however, they did not expect hundreds, even thousands, of protesters to publish their own accounts after returning home from demonstrations and teach-ins. According to Jeff Perlstein, another co-founder, the IMC Web site received more than 1.5 million hits during the week of protests (“The IMC Movement”). It became such a popular source for on-the-scene reports that several mainstream media outlets, including CNN produced stories about the IMC and provided links to the Web site.
In an effort to reach those without Internet access, IMC volunteers also produced a daily newspaper; numerous audio segments for broadcast on Seattle-based low power and Internet radio stations; and assisted with the production of live TV broadcasts fed via satellite to community access stations across the country. Video documentaries culled from footage shot by IMC volunteers were also produced in the months after the demonstrations and were widely distributed to activists and community media organizations. More significant than the output was the fact that they accomplished all of this through a non-hierarchical administrative structure using consensus decision-making techniques.
3.1.3 Rapid Growth (2000 to early 2001)
Though the network was
growing and the Indymedia call to “become the media” was clearly resonating
with people, several organizers sensed trouble.
In the haste to establish new IMCs, the network had never really stated
what its principles or values were. In
addition, many of the early centers were being set up primarily to cover
specific events. Questions arose as to
what should become of these centers once the events had ended. Could the volunteers who organized a
particular center re-fashion it into a day-in, day-out community media
resource? If so, how? What kind of financing would be
required? What sort of decision-making
process should they have? Who should
decide what kind of decision-making process they have—global organizers or the
local volunteers? Each question seemed
to bring on a whole new set of questions.
There was tension within the network and some asked whether or not the
project should be slowed down in an attempt to resolve some of these
concerns. At the same time, the global
justice movement was expanding on the heels of
While discussions continued about the future of the network, new IMCs continued to sprout up rapidly through the early months of 2001. Records show that, in fact, 15 new IMCs joined the network in the first three months of the year (“Chronology of New IMCs”). By the spring, it became clear to many organizers that representatives from local IMCs needed to meet face-to-face to adopt a formal statement declaring the network’s values and objectives. Others supported the idea of hammering out a process for deciding how new IMCs should be admitted to the network. Members of the tech collective were also concerned that the network’s resources were being stretched too thin. They were having a tough time keeping up with the demand for more Web sites in more cites. Clearly, it was time to take a break and resolve critical issues.
3.1.4 Regrouping (2001)
In April 2001, approximately 70 IMC volunteers from around the world
convened at the Press Freedom Conference in
In addition to supporting the open exchange of information, the use of open publishing software, consensus decision-making, and human equality, the Principles of Unity stated that all IMCs would be non-profit operations and that active membership would be based on the contribution of one’s individual labor to the group.10 Organizers say the intent of the Principles was not to state one political ideology in the conventional sense (as there is really no ideology per se in the principles), but to promote “solidarity with autonomy” and a “diversity of tactics” across the network. As volunteer Ana Nogueira put it, IMCs reflect “many of the values, organizational methods, and contradictions of the larger [global justice] movement” thus their stated principles should highlight the common themes that bind the network together while also leaving room for cultural differences and experimentation (72).
As the Principles of Unity were being approved, several global organizers worked on developing a process for admitting new IMCs to the network. They established a new-IMC working group that would be the entry point for parties interested in applying to the network. For most of the network’s first year, the Seattle IMC had supervised the accrediting of new collectives. Gradually, a procedure was developed wherein applicants fill in an online form and sent it to the new-IMC working group after they have gone through a period of organization and familiarized themselves with the Principles of Unity and other IMC documents. The working group reviews the application, checking to see if the applicants have satisfied a list of criteria adopted by the network. Requirements include having: a mission statement consistent with IMC principles; an editorial policy; a contact on the teach team; and an active e-mail list.11 When all criteria have been met, the application is passed on to the global IMC-process e-mail list. If there is no dissent within seven days, the collective is admitted to the network. Though the process seems rather clear, it doesn’t always work smoothly due to difficulties inherent in online communication, especially when dealing with several different languages and document translations. I will touch on some of the difficulties with internal network communication later in this chapter and again in chapter 5.
3.1.5 Global Expansion and Diversification (2002 through early 2003)
While organizers were
developing the Principles of Unity and the new IMC process, the network’s
growth slowed considerably. During the
summer of 2001 (June, July, and August), only five IMCs were admitted. The growth rate started to pick up again in
the fall of 2001, with over a dozen new collectives being admitted through the
new process. As Indymedia approached its
second birthday, there were more than 70 sites, many of them formed not so much
to cover a specific event but with the intention of being long-term media
resources in communities that had little in the way of independent
(non-corporate, non-state) media. During
this time of renewed growth many of the new IMCs were being set up in the
By March 2003, a little more than three years after the founding of the original IMC, the total number of local sites had reached 110, with at least one on each continent. IMCs produce and disseminate media in over 20 languages across more than thirty nations. Table 1 shows a regional breakdown of the network.
Table 1. IMCs by Region* (March 2003)
Pacific (Australia/New Zealand/
*Geographical designations are taken directly from the list of IMC cities on the global Indymedia Web site.
One could actually put
the number of IMCs somewhat higher if local sites within certain countries were
As of March 2003,
nearly a dozen other sites, in locations such as
3.2 Social Organization and Administrative Processes
The IMC commitment to creating both radical media content and developing a viable alternative to capitalist or market-based media institutions compels us to carefully examine Indymedia’s own social structure as well it’s technological structure and media output. With this in mind, I will identify Indymedia’s organizational model and decision-making processes in this section before turning to the network’s technological structure and media content in the next section. Areas of concern will be highlighted in this chapter and later, in chapter 5, be given more careful analysis. I should note that when using the word social, I am referring broadly to several spheres of human activity—political, economic, cultural, gender/kinship—where, as Mills argued, biography and history intersect (6).
In tracing the roots of Indymedia’s social structure, Morris observes that network organizers “explicitly drew on the cooperative, decentralist philosophies and practices of radical democratic movements,” ranging from “radical labor in the 19th century” to the Civil Rights movements in the 1950s and 1960s as well as the feminist movement and “radical peace and left green movements in the 1970s and 1980s” (“Globalization and Media Democracy…”). As mentioned earlier, IMC organizers—and, indeed, much of the global justice movement—have also been deeply influenced by the political philosophies and practices of the Zapatistas and other indigenous liberation movements of the past two decades.
Indymedia’s social structure is also heavily inspired by anarchism, although neither the Principles of Unity nor other key operational documents specifically mention anarchism or cite leading anarchist thinkers or associations. Some of the movements Morris identifies as precursors to Indymedia—radical labor unions and the peace and green movements—had roots in the anarchist tradition, which often placed them in bitter conflict with authoritarian leftist movements (Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism) and reformist social democratic parties. Several activist scholars studying the current global justice movement and Indymedia argue that an important aspect of this “movement of movements,” or “network of networks,” is the reemergence of anarchism as a viable political philosophy—or as some would describe it, the emergence of a new, anti-sectarian global anarchism.13
Indeed, many segments of the movement, particularly
the direct action wing—groups such as People’s Global Action—are clearly
organized around anarchist principles.
Often consisting of dozens of smaller autonomous collectives or
“affinity groups,”14 these loosely
structured federations and coalitions have been the driving force behind much
of the recent protest in North America and
Organizers say Indymedia’s non-sectarian non-hierarchical structure promotes political, cultural, and gender diversity and is both liberating and empowering. Scholars Halleck and Kovel suggest that this commitment to radical, anti-capitalist democracy marks a significant step beyond the critique of mainstream institutions toward the establishment of distinct alternatives to them. “The Independent Media Center,” they write, “emerged as a model not just for new ways of media making but as a practical example of collective production, a necessary step in creating a democratic, just and equitable society” (Foreward to “Indymedia: A Network…”).
Moving from this overview of Indymedia’s political structure to more specific features within it, I will draw attention to a set of democratic characteristics based on the work of Fontes (“Beyond the Local at Last”) as well as an examination of network planning documents and interviews with global organizers. These can be listed as follows:
Structural Characteristics of Indymedia
· Multi-level decision-making
o Globally, involving representatives from local IMCs
o Working groups involved in specific projects, which are accountable to the global network
o Sub-groups within working groups, which are accountable to the working group
o Autonomous working groups such as the tech collective
· Local autonomy – community-based IMCs have the freedom and flexibility to develop their own organizational models and resolve local issues as long as their policies are consistent with the Principles of Unity.
· Decentralization – no central office or control center, either administratively or technically
· Organic Development – working groups develop in response to a need, or in anticipation of a need.
· Shared Resources – software, servers, multimedia gear, media content, and ideas are shared freely across the network.
· Transparency – Decisions are made in the open and volunteers have access to all network policies and discussions.
A few of these points deserve special discussion. I’ll start with the four levels of decision-making.
This model allows people to participate in various roles and has kept the network functioning, but some organizers view it as too informal, and there have been attempts to develop a more organized global body such as a “spokescouncil”15 that would address network-wide issues. Despite some long and often contentious debates, no action has been taken, leaving the network with this multi-level approach. Controversy over this issue has not subsided and I will revisit in chapter 5. Suffice it to say, an administrative structure such as Indymedia’s depends on a high degree of transparency, honesty, and trust. It also relies on the social skills and commitments of the people involved in the various working groups.
On this last point, the tech collective is often held up as a model of how a working group should function. Its motto, “rough consensus, running code,” in reference to the member’s use of modified consensus to made quick decisions that keep equipment (hardware and software) running. In addition to getting things done efficiently, often with great improvisational skill, the tech group has made a conscious effort not to take advantage of its unique position. Though they clearly have special authority over technical matters and could convert that into greater authority over other areas, members typically hold back from doing so, preferring to follow the principle that one’s say in a particular decision should be in proportion as they are affected by the decision. As the members responsible for actually installing software and maintaining servers, the tech collective naturally gets more say in technical decisions, though they are still accountable to the larger network. However, they are not entitled in any higher degree of authority over matters they aren’t directly responsible for, such as the new-IMC process or editorial policy. Finally, members of the tech group have put special emphasis on decentralizing both Indymedia’s digital infrastructure and its technical expertise. They encourage IMCs to host their Web sites locally; modify software to fit their collective’s needs, or create brand new open publishing code; and train as many new technicians as they can. In keeping with the spirit of the network, this diffuses knowledge and power, helping prevent an internal hierarchy from developing.
Having sketched out the political framework within which Indymedia operates and described its administrative model, I will now turn to a description of the consensus process and a brief discussion of how it fits into Indymedia’s organizational structure. From there, I’ll move to an examination of the internal communication system through which proposals are made and consensus reached.
In his study of the early growth of Indymedia, Downing considers the effort to create non-hierarchical, participatory internal processes as one of the hallmarks of the network. He also suggests that the effort was made as much for practical reasons as political ones. Given the diverse interests and constituencies from which IMC volunteers are drawn, it would be implausible to expect them to follow orders handed down from a central command post, or to follow procedures they had no say in adopting (“The Seatttle IMC…”). Better then to make use of a process that “encourages every media maker to contribute his or her best work, and to participate as much as s/he desires,” in the words of an instructional pamphlet for using consensus (quoted in Halleck, “Gathering Storm…”).
The very same pamphlet presents a description of two types of meetings than have been held by IMCs covering major events. The first type is a general meeting for all volunteers, the second is a spokescouncil meeting attended by representatives from various groups within the collective.
Each general meeting has been a consensus-based meeting with multiple facilitators for the sake of parity (gender, racial, background, etc.). Each spokescouncil meeting has included team coordinators and/or empowered team representatives. Both meetings have meeting groups, which hold decision-making power. At the general meetings, consensus has been reached among everyone present, while at the spokescouncil meetings only the empowered reps participated in the consensus (though everyone else in the room took part in the discussion)…This decision-making process has worked quite well, but it requires that both spokescouncil and general meetings be open to all (quoted in Halleck, “Gathering Storm…”).
This may sound like an unwieldy process in which confusion reigns, meetings last for hours, and nothing gets accomplished. It often feels that way for the participants, especially when they have little experience with consensus and do not know each other well. But again, its important to remember that this process, or variations of it, according to organizers, has been used rather successfully at major IMCs tasked with coordinating dozens, even hundreds, of volunteers. Indeed, some suggest that consensus, when properly facilitated by experienced, flexible practitioners can genuinely alter the way people approach group interaction. “Once a group really ‘gets’ consensus,” writes one activist in an e-mail discussion, “it represents a change in the way of thinking and approaching an issue, a shift from ‘how do I get my way,’ to ‘what do we all think, what's the range of our perspectives on this, and how do we synthesize them into the most creative option.’”16
It is also worth pointing out that consensus is designed for face-to-face group communication. When applied this way, as in meetings at local IMCs, members appear to get good results. However, organizers participating in global projects rarely, if ever, meet face-to-face to share ideas and iron out differences over proposals. Instead, they rely overwhelmingly on e-mail lists to communicate. Though text-based messages allow one to keep a permanent record of correspondence, there are several hazards with the medium. First and most obviously, one cannot communicate with much nuance through disembodied e-mail messages. Without seeing another’s body language and hearing the tone of voice, it is difficult to tell whether he or she is sad, enthused, or being sarcastic. Secondly, e-mail privileges those with regular Internet access and computer skills. Thirdly, e-mail privileges those who write better and are more aggressive in posting comments. Often a few users will come to dominate a particular list, “shouting down” those who disagree with them. And finally, list membership, like most things in Indymedia is fluid. If participants depart or don’t respond to messages, it’s difficult to tell exactly who is actively involved in the group, making it difficult to reach consensus.
Another factor reducing the efficacy of virtual consensus in Indymedia is the sheer volume of messages one must wade through if one wishes to stay abreast of network issues and discussions. According to Fontes, there are roughly 600 IMC e-mail lists, many devoted to local issues, circulating over 1-million messages a year (“Beyond the Local at Last”). All lists are archived and are accessible through a link on the front page of the global Indymedia site (www.indymedia.org) In addition, there is an interactive Indymedia documentation Web site (http://docs.indymedia.org/view/Main/WebHome) that expands as local IMCs and global working groups post reports and policies. Due in part to this glut of information, many global working groups end up being dominated by a small number of volunteers who have the time and energy to sift through messages, read proposals, and make replies, which tends to undermine the participatory logic of consensus. In hopes of better organizing Indymedia discussions and reducing information overload, several groups began designating a member to write monthly summaries of the issues and proposals generating the most discussion. In addition to being sent to all list subscribers, summary reports were being posted on the documentation site. Another, more ambitious proposal calls for the establishment of a Web site devoted specifically to summaries of meetings and list discussions. Organizers behind this plan would also like to create a “Best Practices” page where local IMCs could post what they believe to be their strongest policies. This would be particularly helpful for new IMCs working on their mission statements or editorial policies.
should point out one more difficulty with decision-making through e-mail. There has been a strong English language bias
on the lists and, alas, throughout the network.
Considering that Indymedia was founded largely by Americans, this is
understandable. However, as a network
that strives for participatory communication on a global scale and is openly
aligned with social movements originating in the global South, Indymedia ought
to put a greater emphasis on lowering language barriers. As one volunteer asked rhetorically in an
online discussion, “Do you want an Indymedia where those who speak the right
language, or come from the right countries—in other words…those of the
One other format for internal communication that appears to be used irregularly is Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which is like a conference call over the Web. This format affords much greater immediacy than e-mail, though it is still disembodied communication. IRC is used most frequently by the tech collective for meetings and informal discussions. A “how to” Web page indicates that network-wide IRCs are held once a week, but during the time of my intensive research (November 2002 to March 2003), the log and minutes to only one session (December 15, 2002) had been posted on the IRC page.
Indymedia’s struggle to develop its internal communication system, and hence its decision-making process, is a matter for continued exploration; therefore, I will revisit these issues in chapter 5, putting special emphasis on efforts to make improvements.
Consistent with the commitment to be editorially and structurally distinct from corporate media organizations, the IMCs do not solicit, accept or display paid advertising on their web sites or in any of their other media offerings. Contrary to capitalist media, the IMCs do not want to be in the business of selling audiences to advertisers; they view their audiences not as a product, but as equal participants in economic, political, and cultural affairs. As mentioned, the IMC project was initially financed with donations of both money and equipment primarily from other alternative media groups, progressive foundations, social justice organizations, and individuals. To facilitate continuing donations and build a more secure financial structure, some IMCs have a non-profit fiscal sponsor with 501(c)(3) status while others—the Urbana-Champaign IMC, for example—have become fully incorporated non-profit organizations.
In the case of IMCs that have had to run at full capacity, covering large-scale demonstrations with many volunteers, a rather large amount of money is required. For example, organizers report that the Washington D.C. IMC raised $12,000 before it went into operation to cover the World Bank/IMF protests on April 16-17, 2000 (“D.C. Blueprint”). After major actions, IMCs and their video affiliates often produce documentaries that are then sold to raise additional funds. The global IMC site and many local sites also offer several IMC documentaries that can be purchased for about $10 to 15. Special screenings of these documentaries have been organized by local IMCs as fundraisers.
Initial funding of other low capacity IMCs has proceeded in much the same way as that of full capacity centers. That is, they rely on donations primarily, though on a much smaller scale. Several Web sites are connected to the PayPal online payment service, giving supporters a convenient method to make donations. It is also important to note that as non-profit collectives using volunteer labor, the Internet, and free software, Indymedia requires a tiny fraction of the financial resources that local, national, or global mass media typically demand. Once up and running, a local IMC is relatively free to raise additional funds as creatively as it wishes—short of selling advertising or taking donations from multinational corporations, which aren’t likely to be offered. The Seattle IMC has experimented with a “sustainer” program whereby supporters could give $1 for every $1000 dollars of income. In return, they get would access to the center’s activist resource library, an IMC newsletter and discounts at IMC documentary screenings and other sponsored events. Other IMCs have considered the idea of providing premium content, in the form of a weekly e-mail article or “news blast”, to sustainers or regular subscribers.
While these efforts
have generally been supported across the network, controversy has arisen over
the question of whether or not Indymedia should apply for or accept grants from
charitable foundations with corporate or government ties. For instance, in the fall of 2002, a proposal to
request money from the Ford Foundation in order to finance a series of regional
IMC meetings in
3.3. Media and Messages
As a global media network, Indymedia produces and disseminates thousands of messages every day. The manner in which they use multimedia technology to both inform and empower diverse communities is the subject of this section. Naturally, most of the examination that follows will focus on Indymedia’s use of the Internet and the World Wide Web, particularly for open publishing, or what I will call “open journalism.” There will, however, also be a section dealing with what Downing calls the “media mesh” (“The Seattle IMC…”). Briefly stated, this refers to the combined use of traditional communications technology (newspapers, pamphlets, radio broadcasts, video, fax machines, etc.) and cutting edge, digital media to reach people “on the wrong side of the digital divide.” Before getting to all of that, I first want to draw a few connections between the architecture of the Internet, Indymedia, and the concept of “information routing groups” (IRGs). Having stitched these ideas together, I’ll sketch out Indymedia’s open journalism process and review the various formats in which one finds its products.
In concert with its decentralized social network, Indymedia’s digital network (its Web sites, servers, and software) is also decentralized, with no central hub. This structure essentially mirrors the architecture of the Internet, which was purposely designed to put the “intelligence” at the “ends” of the network, rather than in a central transmission facility as is the case with mass media systems. This would make the system more resistant to attack, while at the same time, giving users the potential to establish “peer-to-peer” communication (Lessig). This structure is also somewhat like that of IRGs first outlined in 1984 by Andrews and later described by Martin as “a computer network in which everyone is linked to several interest groups, with each group having anywhere from perhaps half a dozen to up to several hundred people.” Martin goes on to write, “In a network of IRGs everyone can be a writer and publisher at the same time.” Such a network, according to Martin, could produce a glut of information that might overwhelm members, but he adds that, unlike mass media, which relies on a small number of powerful editors, IRG networks would involve many people in the editing process, making it far more democratic. His description, written in 1995, rather nicely pre-figures the Indymedia structure and its general editorial process.
What if independent and amateur journalists could dip into the pool of raw information that stories come from and tell other stories? Most importantly, what if any audience member could listen to the interview quoted in a story and hear the full context and other things the interviewee said? What if, instead of being obscured, the process of making news was open for all to see, and open for them to participate in (“Open Journalism”)?
Underlying this sentiment is the fundamental belief that people have a lot to contribute no matter their station in life. Not being a member of the professional journalistic caste should not, in other words, prevent them from participating in the creation and expansion of their information environment. As Indymedia is committed to empowering its users, open journalism is the fitting concept for its Web sites.
I would be remiss if I did not point out that the concept of open journalism also has deep connections to the open source and free software movements that many IMC activists are involved in. The open source ethic is based on the principle that the best software is developed through open collaboration among users who have access to the “source code” of the software rather than through closed, proprietary arrangements, which block users from seeing the code. Open source developers can alter or customize features on existing software, fixing bugs and glitches in the process, as long as they agree to make their innovations available to other developers. Connecting this concept to journalism, many Indymedia activists, as well as other innovative Web publishers,19 contend that not only is open journalism more democratic—and by virtue more just and right—but that its transparency leads to greater accuracy. Like open code, an article posted on an open Web site can be accessed by many readers who can then comment on it, adding newly discovered facts, highlighting biases, and suggesting changes. With more eyes on the content, advocates claim, errors will be caught faster than they might be on a Web site with limited interactivity and a skeleton editorial staff. In this sense, the Web site benefits from the “collective intelligences” of its user community.
To be sure, as Jay points out, open journalism can be a messy process resulting in “a lot of noise,” but again, the possibility of having more eyes, such as those of an IMC editorial collective, watching the “raw feed” makes it possible to separate the “wheat from the chaff,” to continue this string of metaphors. As optimistic as Jay is about open journalism, he is also aware than the give- and-take on Indymedia Newswires can get very contentious. He and several other organizers are working on ways to improve open publishing software so that it has a wider range of collaborative editing options. I will return to this project in chapter 5.
with the openness of Indymedia’s editorial stance—and in large part because of
it—there is a strong current of what some call advocacy reporting or “justice
journalism” (Messman, “Justice Journalism…”) running through its content. This school of journalism has a rich history
Consistent with the ethic of justice journalism, Indymedia urges its volunteers to strive for “accuracy” rather than objectivity in their reporting.20 Organizers argue, “objectivity is, in fact, a myth—that everyone has a bias, everyone has an agenda—and that corporations like major news corporations have a corporate bias” (quoted in Solomon, “When Corporate Media…”). Put another way, they believe that reporters from commercial mass media outlets are likely to have internalized the values of their industry, leading them to be suspicious of and biased against critics of the established order, while generally being supportive of powerful corporate and government interests. This, according to IMC volunteers, results in a very narrow spectrum of public debate within the mass media.
level, numerous scholars and media critics, not attached in any way to
Indymedia, argue that the mass media’s cult of objectivity, which is largely a
by-product of the professionalization of journalism in the early 1900s,
actually makes the news less understandable and obscures meaning. As Baker puts it, “the objective style makes
politics less accessible, the right answer less clear, the competing parties
and candidates less different, and the importance of the choice more difficult
to discern” (“Market Threats…”). In
making similar arguments, other scholars observe that objectivity, as defined
as neutrality, was never really the norm in professional journalism;
partisanship may have been hidden by the rhetoric of objectivity, but it never
disappeared. As the Hutchins Commission21 discovered in its study of the
American press in the 1940s, genuine neutrality was rarely achieved. This being the case, some scholars have
argued that failing to acknowledge ideological beliefs and assumptions—such as
those attached to the “free market”—that guide news coverage is more harmful,
and hence unethical, than overtly espousing an ideology. This is not to suggest that there are no
objective truths to be uncovered by reporters—there certainly are and they can
be supported by rigorously tested evidence.
As the noted historian Eric Hobsbawm points out, “
Due to its
editorial openness, mobility, and flexibility, the network has been uniquely
positioned to capture and report almost anything and everything that happens at
a major event, often within minutes. In
It was my first time working in a newsroom since I'd left
my job as a news reporter at the
New IMCs have not
only been able to empower amateur reporters and generate a huge volume of news,
they’ve also been able to expose discrepancies between mainstream media reports
and facts on the ground. Analyzing IMC
coverage of the protests at the 2000 Republican National Convention in
Having examined the structure of Indymedia’s Web network and identified some of its news reporting values, I will now turn to a more specific discussion about the techniques IMCs use to select and publish stories. This will include descriptions of IMC Newswires, Feature columns, and the design and layout of Web sites.
3.3.1 (a) IMC Features
In keeping with the network’s commitment to local autonomy and participation, each IMC collective manages its own Web site, trying to spotlight content deemed relevant to the local progressive community. Typically this is accomplished through the use of the open Newswire, where members of the broader community can freely post, and the Features column, which consists of original material written by local volunteers and the best items from the Newswire selected by IMC volunteers. All collectives have editorial procedures wherein active members can nominate and approve stories for placement in the Features column. This allows them to give special attention to important local articles, commentaries, or multimedia posts from the Newswire that might be overlooked if left there. In a sense, then, editorial participation takes place on two levels: (1) among visitors using the open Newswire; and (2) between active local members choosing Features. In addition to user posts and original features, many IMCs also display material from other local alternative media sources—campus papers, the ethnic press, community radio stations, etc.—in an effort to diversify content and promote progressive community media as a whole. Some IMCs have even added in depth articles on public policy issues and regular analysis of local mainstream news coverage.
At the global level, there is a Features working group that culls material from local IMC Web sites, as well as items from other independent news sources, and re-publishes them in the center column of the global Web site. As mentioned, this site also includes a syndication column (on the right side) where global volunteers highlight important stories and newswire posts from local IMCs. If a visitor wishes to see the open Newswire on the global site, he or she can do so by clicking a link above the syndicated stories. The Newswire will then appear in place of the syndication column.
3.3.1 (b) IMC Newswires
Newswire posts not
selected as Features run the gamut from short announcements of an upcoming
event or protest, to long essays on politics, economics, and culture, which
sometimes appear to be a “cut and paste” of other people’s writings. Somewhere
in between, there are posts with annotated links to other news reports on the
Web or information about activist groups and events. Many users also post photos or links to
homemade video clips on the Newswires.
Visual media are vital resources for activists unable to attend a
particular event not covered, or poorly covered, by mass media. Seeing people like oneself participating in
political action can be an uplifting experience. From an aesthetic perspective, the images
help to break up the text and add a much-needed vitality to IMC Web sites. Several organizers I interviewed mentioned
the importance of involving the activist art and design community in IMC
projects to a much greater degree. It
appears that many have taken them up on the offer. In
As mentioned above, open publishing software allows users to comment, anonymously if they wish, on any item. At their best, IMC Newswires are a vital platform for open journalism, a site for first-hand accounts, commentary, and creative imagery about important events and issues as well as a forum for participatory dialogue—an online commons where people engage in thoughtful discussion and debate, much like a group weblog. At their worst, which seems to be more the exception than the rule, Newswires can turn into online shouting matches, with a gaggle of aggressive and often obnoxious posters trying to one-up each other. Either way, one thing is certain: IMC sites are fluid, changing with each new post and creating a variety of experiences each time one surfs the network. As Lawson and Gleason argue, this encourages the reader think critically and get involved in the process:
Indymedia sites [are] a mixed bag of thoughtful analyses, activist dispatches, on-the-street news items, rants, and reprinted media from unknown publications or organizations. Without a central editorial authority dispatching reporters (or fact-checking stories), readers are obliged to think critically as they are reading—to allow a story to provoke further research, further reading, and—perhaps—further writing (12).
Editorially, IMCs vary in the way they manage their Newswires. Many collectives reserve the right to remove duplicate posts, spam, libelous material, death threats, or other objectionable content.25 Most often these items are shifted to a “hidden file” away from the front page yet still accessible to visitors who wish to read them. These policies were developed in response to IMC web sites being discovered by opponents of radical or progressive politics and hate groups searching for another place on the Web to spew venom. One long-time IMC organizer indicated that early on, IMC Newswires were generally devoted to activist announcements, news, and discussions about movement strategies and tactics. But as Indymedia grew along with the movement, oppositional forces, as well as users who were probably just curious about the network, discovered the sites and started posting. Not that organizers saw this as a bad thing. In fact, greater participation is what they hoped for, although they became increasingly concerned that an onslaught of hate speech would turn away potential allies.
In contrast to those collectives that remove offending posts, other IMCs prefer to act strictly as facilitators of open reporting and conversation, encouraging visitors to denounce or correct questionable posts on the Newswire. As just suggested, there has been disagreement among Indymedia organizers about the merits of the open publishing system, which has been the target of anti-Semitic and white-supremacist groups as well as various conspiracy theorists, pornographers, and other “cross-posters” who have figured out how to distribute spam through practically the entire network with a click of a mouse. Attempts to address the both the perils and possibilities of open publishing will be featured prominently in chapter 5.
3.3.1 (c) Web Design and Layout
With regards to the layout and design of their Web sites, local IMCs are free to incorporate color schemes and design features consistent with their local culture and customs, or to use whatever design template the collective agrees upon and their software will accommodate. Graphic designers with several IMCs have also created local variations of the IMC network logo that they proudly display on their Web sites, print products, and outreach flyers (Figures 1 through 5 show examples of IMC sites). Though design aesthetics vary greatly across the network, most IMCs are generally consistent with regards to the placement of major content areas. The Features column usually takes up the center of each site while the Newswire occupies the right side. A column on the left side is typically reserved for general navigational features, including links to all other IMCs and special radio or video project sites. As with the global site, this makes each Indymedia site a portal to the entire network.
Figure 1. Global Indymedia Web site
Though there is multimediality—streaming video, audio, text and still photography—on IMC web sites, organizers are trying to develop more multimedia projects to reach those without Internet access. I will briefly summarize some of the major projects in this area.
At least 25 IMCs have
published their own newspapers, which have been freely distributed or sold in
exchange for small solidarity donations.
One of the longest running IMC print publications is the Indypendent,
a monthly newspaper produced by the New York City IMC. In addition to being
distributed on the streets, each issue can be downloaded in Portable Document
Format (pdf) from the NYC-IMC Web site and freely distributed. In the aftermath of terrorist attacks on the
During much of 2001 and 2002, a global print team also published a weekly international news update (also in pdf) on the Web that could easily be printed, copied and distributed to people offline. As members of the global print team eventually moved on to other projects in 2002, publication of the weekly update was suspended. Nearly a year later, in February 2003, it appeared that the project might be resurrected by a new group of volunteers expressed. In addition to newspapers and pdf updates, local IMC organizers routinely print inexpensive pamphlets, media guides, and flyers to promote the network and its mission.
Numerous IMCs have also developed microradio projects or made alliances with community radio stations, which allow them to produce regular public affairs and cultural programming for broadcast. Other local centers that do not produce their own shows have forged solid relations with listener-supported stations in their area and link to those stations through their Web sites. In exchange, stations regularly promote IMC projects, such as video screenings, concerts and other fundraising events. These relationships are vital if IMCs are to become long-term sustainable community media resources. Perhaps it cannot be stressed enough that radio is the dominant medium for local grassroots communication. As both Gumucio (Making Waves) and Kidd (“Which Would You Rather…”) have illustrated, radio has the ability to reproduce the local speech patterns and cultural content of historically underrepresented groups.
At both the 2000 Democratic and Republican conventions, the IMCs and several partners experimented with live television broadcasts that were made available via satellite, through Free Speech TV and the Dish Network, to community access channels. Encouraged by these broadcasts, the video activists have developed a monthly alternative news program, called “Newsreal,” consisting of features produced by local IMCs. Streaming video of the program is available on Indymedia’s satellite TV Web page. The show is also carried by Free Speech TV on the Dish Network’s (satellite TV service) channel 9415. Community access television stations can also record the satellite feed and air the show on cable TV.
In addition to
“Newsreal” features, IMC videographers and their community media partners have
produced 15 feature-length documentaries.
Most of the documentaries are devoted to a particular event, such as the
In addition to
these documentaries, IMC video activists have produced several “shorts,”
including a report on an IMC workshop in
It may be an understatement to say that the growth of Indymedia marks an important leap forward for the nascent communicative democracy movement and the broader global justice movement. For the latter, it has created liberated zones and public commons where people from diverse constituencies can tell their own stories and connect with others engaged in similar struggles. This has been achieved largely through significant innovations in software, written by radical IMC techies, who freely share the products of their labor in order to expand the participatory digital infrastructure. For the former, it provides a tangible example of a decentralized, community-based media network managed by volunteers sharing egalitarian social values. Put simply, Indymedia gives us a glimpse at what grassroots, participatory media spread far and wide looks like: raw, unfiltered, contentious, empowering, and almost always thought provoking.
much has been accomplished, there are numerous struggles ahead involving
financial matters, global decision-making processes, open publishing, and internal
communication. While these have been
briefly identified in this chapter and will be revisited in chapter 5, other
problems have not yet been identified because they relate more specifically to
operations within local IMCs. The intent
of the next chapter, then, is to present a case study of the
7 For a critical review and analysis of the WTO
and neoliberalism, see Noam Chomsky, Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and
the Global Order.
8 Participants came from dozens of projects and
organizations including: Free Speech TV; Paper Tiger TV; Fairness and Accuracy
in Reporting; Adbusters; the Direct Action Network; Corpwatch; the National
Radio Project; Whispered Media; Headwaters Media and many other local and
regional groups based in the
9 PGA is deeply influenced by the anarchist tradition and represents a radical segment of the global justice movement that supports grassroots organizing and direct action against capitalist institutions. The PGA Web site is http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/en/index.html.
10 The complete text of the Principles of Unity can be found in Appendix I.
11 The complete list of IMC membership criteria is included in Appendix I.
12 A Web site devoted to climate change was created in 2000, however, it has been inactive due to technical problems since early 2002.
13 see Grubacic (2003) for an examination of anarchism’s history and its reemergence. Graeber (2003) discusses the influence of anarchism on the global justice movement.
14 Affinity groups, sometimes referred to as “blocs,” are composed of people who work well together and have a high degree of trust with one another. Typically, they organize around a particular tactic during protests, or fill a specific need. Examples would be street puppeteers, street medics, bicycle brigades, or the “Revolutionary Anarchist Clown Bloc,” described by Graeber (2003) pp. 329-330.
15 An organizational chart of a spokescouncil would look something like a wheel with each spoke connected to a separate affinity group or local collective. Under the proposal in question, each IMC would select a “spoke” or representative, who would listen to the concerns of members participate in global discussions and decisions. See Graeber (2003) p. 334 for a discussion on how spokescouncils are used by several groups in the global justice movement.
16 This is taken from an e-mail message, “Myths about Consensus,” posted on the IMC-process list Feb. 23, 2001. The person being quoted is an activist and author named Starhawk.
17 This was taken from a discussion on the personal weblog of Evan Henshaw-Plath, a member of the IMC tech team. The person quoted identifies himself as Jonathan Nil. Available online at http://anarchogeek.com/archives/000077.html.
18 See James Petras, “The Ford Foundation and the CIA: A documented case of philanthropic collaboration with the Secret Police,” http://www.rebelion.org/petras/english/ford010102.htm
19 The pioneering Web site Slashdot (http://slashdot.org), created in 1997, influenced the developers of Indymedia’s original open publishing software. The site is operated by the Open Source Development Network (OSDN). Another site using a variation of open publishing that is much admired by many IMC techies is kuro5hin (pronounced “corrosion”) http://wwwkuro5hin.org. See also Deuze (2001) for an analysis of online journalism and a brief description of open journalism.
20 This is not to suggest that all IMC volunteer reporters consider themselves to be “justice journalists” or even journalists for that matter. Given the fact that so many people participate in the production of Indymedia content, it would be near impossible to try to attach a label to them. Others who have studied Indymedia, (Morris, 2003) suggest that individual volunteers express a wide range of attitudes about the network’s role as an information provider. However, I think it is useful to examine the processes through which Indymedia news is often gathered and reported and the broad values about news reporting that the network espouses. Having done this, I think it is fair to suggest that Indymedia generally follows the spirit of both open journalism and justice journalism.
21 This body
was named for
24 Most IMCs do, however, urge volunteers not to participate in direct action or civil disobedience if they intend to cover an event. This is not an attempt to create the impression of neutrality, but a practical necessity. Indymedia reporters cannot effectively cover events if they get arrested with other demonstrators. They are much more likely to help the network if they capture the story as truthfully as possible and get their material published, printed, or broadcast. That said, there have been several occasions where IMC volunteers wearing media badges and not participating in direct action have been targeted by police. See chapter 5 for more about this.
25 I have
included editorial policies from the