Chapter 6: Conclusions and Recommendations for Further Study
In this thesis I have examined the argument in support of democratizing communication through participatory media networks. I have also identified the Independent Media Centers as an appropriate operational example of this type of network and have attempted to identify its major successes and as well as illuminate some of its major challenges. This has admittedly been an incomplete presentation as there are many other areas concerning the IMCs specifically and participatory media networks in general that could be explored. For example, much more study is needed on the various models of organization within the Indymedia network. Research into the group dynamics within IMC collectives would also be useful as would studies on Indymedia audiences—and audiences of participatory media in general. Another useful subject worth exploring is Indymedia’s impact in areas such as Latin America, Asia, and Africa where access to digital communication is much lower than in North America and Europe. Having said all of this, I think it is still possible to make some conclusions based on the issues I have explored.
What Indymedia has accomplished as a low budget, grassroots media network is quite amazing. By being decentralized, participatory, light on their feet, and well versed in using new technology, IMC volunteers have kept millions of activists informed about the growing global justice movement while also giving them a platform to become media producers themselves. This empowering structure has helped bring new people to the Indymedia movement and the broader struggle for social justice. Who could say the same about traditional alternative media institutions that provide critical reporting but typically lack an empowering internal structure and tend to reproduce the mass media model of point-to-mass dissemination? Indymedia’s experiments with administrative transparency, consensus decision-making, and collective production may also help convince others that mainstream capitalist structures and institutions need not be copied by progressives. Media activist Michael Albert hopes the success of Indymedia and other anti-capitalist projects will nudge others in progressive media to consider taking a more networked approach and encourage them to experiment with self-management systems using non-hierarchical administrative structures (“What Makes…”). If this were to happen, we might see a more Zapatista-like convergence of democratic communication with democratic politics and culture in the progressive community.
But such change is not likely to happen quickly. Power is still heavily tilted toward centralized, hierarchical institutions, and progressive projects are as susceptible as any to being organized according to the established structural patterns of the greater society. Thus it is extremely difficult, as IMC co-founder Jeff Perlstein acknowledges, for Indymedia volunteers to swim against powerful social currents when attempting to resolve their own struggles much less spread their ideas outward to other movements. “We’re faced with the challenge,” he writes, “of creating spaces that don’t mirror the existing systemic oppressions and hierarchies. But we’re of this very system and can manifest these internalized dominations despite the very best intentions.” One of the keys to avoiding such a fate, according to Perlstein, is “to continually examine how we’re reproducing inequitable power relationships and seek leadership from underrepresented people on what can be done to foster a more just framework” (“The IMC Movement”).
Addressing the conjoined problems of “structurelessness” and internal communication are critical if there is to be any hope of moving Indymedia closer to Perlstein’s vision. Though no particular group within Indymedia seems to favor centralization, there is a dispute about how loosely or informally the network should be structured—how much decentralization is too much? If organizers can establish some sort of formal framework that balances the need to fairly and efficiently decide global issues with the need to preserve a large degree of local autonomy, the IMC movement might achieve the sort of balance that has seemed virtually unattainable for other social movements. This naturally requires a communication system that facilitates an efficient as well as respectful dialogue in which volunteers listen as much as, if not more than, they speak. Projects that consider internal communication and decision-making as two halves of a single struggle within Indymedia seem to be well worth developing.
In addition to these social challenges, Indymedia can continue experimenting with communication technologies that facilitate self-representation, participatory dialogue, and, most importantly, are accessible to local constituencies. By building an interactive, grassroots communications infrastructure and a vibrant, diverse social network, Indymedia can make huge strides towards becoming a long-term media resource that connects local communities and movements for progressive social change to the broader global justice movement.
Finally, the strategy to abandon the mass media in favor of participatory media networks is not likely to succeed unless it is one part of a larger movement for communicative democracy. Martin, a strong proponent of the participatory model, concludes that putting it in place is a long-term project. “The mass media will be around for quite some time,” he writes, “Therefore, it is necessary to have a strategy to challenge them, from inside and outside, as well as to promote alternatives” (“Beyond Mass Media”). In this light, the IMC movement can be viewed as one component of the nascent communicative democracy movement, which also includes: other independent community-based media outlets; groups that monitor mainstream media and expose bias and distortion; librarians and media literacy educators; telecommunication policy reformers; union members concerned about the failure of mass media to address issues of the working poor; and journalists within the mass media who are committed to diversity and public service. The role of Indymedia, then, is critical if the broader project is to become better organized and capable of advancing several coordinated strategies. Without sustainable, convention-defying alternatives that challenge mass media hegemony, media activists at other points in the struggle might forever find themselves in a reactive position with very little hope of winning short-term reforms and planting the seeds for further experiments in participatory media.