From the Barricades to the New Normal, or, from Indymedia to the Age of Citizen Journalism | MIT Center for Civic Media

From the Barricades to the New Normal, or, from Indymedia to the Age of Citizen Journalism

I begin this class discussion review post with an admission: I really disliked being the scribe. Often trying to keep up, I found the collaborative electronic note taking to be quite distracting—a strong contrast to my preferred method of pencil and paper. Perhaps it was made slightly more difficult, however, by the fact that this particular class session was packed thickly with background, lecture, and perspective; Sasha's experience as a participant in the Global Justice Movement and IndyMedia provided significant insight and context.

We started class with a review of Dorothy Kidd's description [PDF link] of the various steps associated with IndyMedia’s growth out of and alongside the Global Justice Movement. As Sasha pointed out in class, Kidd works to highlight various developments in social movements to provide a stronger basis upon which to understand history in general. Specifically, Sasha noted the anti-NAFTA Zapatista movement in Mexico as an important milestone for the Global Justice Movement, as well as the various iterations of the global north's response to decolonization inspired fear, in the form of various trade agreements: TRIP, GATT, and the WTO.

It was at the Seattle meeting of the WTO in 1999 that IndyMedia was born as a shared proposal at the intersection of community radio, print radical media makers, and public access television. Seattle represented not the creation of global movement networks, but rather the culmination of developing individual networks, experiences from disparate movements, and the sharing of concrete knowledge. Representatives from networks in the global south came and brought their own traditions and histories of mass mobilization. The sheer numbers of people that came upon Seattle both brought attention to the movement globally, as well as provided an impetus for the spread of the tools and processes (such as the web platform of choice for the movement, developed by The Catalyst Collective in Australia) of the IndyMedia Center.

As IndyMedia became more widespread, however, a number of challenges and problems became apparent, some of which are highlighted by Jennifer Whitney in her piece, "What’s Wrong (And Right) with IndyMedia." Some of the issues she notes are: frustrations over trolls, spam, and “all manner of crap” that reduce the utility of an independent news network; internal debates about having a clear editorial policy versus being a true “visionary space” that is not curated or edited; and debates about money: on the one hand, using volunteers and not taking any money from outside organizations certainly helps keep the movement pure, but it significantly limits who can participate to those with the time and money (and know-how) to do so—white, middle-aged, tech-savy men. This last point is particularly damaging, as it leads to further troubles with diversity and gender inequality. As is usually the case, even though the movement is supported by technology, the digital public sphere ends up replicating the issues of the classical public sphere. The technology, as well, has become a problem, as the codebase continues to age. Sasha put it rather poignantly when he noted that more than 10 years after Seattle, “people produce platforms today the way they produced movement media back then.” Whereas in 1999, building a website to distribute independent news was a real milestone, in 2011, the news distributes itself via social networks and the like.

Also troublesome to the movement is the way it has become targeted for repression by the governments upon which it reports—from server raids by the Italian police during the G8 summit in Genoa, to Brad Will’s assassination in Oaxaca by undercover police funded by mayor Luis Ortiz. However, the way IndyMedia “reporters” are rooted in social activity has become an effective, albeit extremely dangerous way to expose those upon which they are reporting.

Sasha ended his lecture by showing clips from the 1999 film “This is What Democracy Looks Like,” shot by 100 amateur camera operators on the ground in Seattle at the WTO protests. The film does a very good job of conveying the narrative of a movement: from the initial groups of relatively small protests to the hundreds of thousands of activists in a stand-off (and eventual riot) with police, to solidarity action around those were jailed, and finally to the shutting down of the talks. It also highlights the struggle that activists faced internally between vandalism and looting in order to make “a statement,” and preaching non-violent civil disobedience to keep the movement peaceful.

As someone with a background in business and commercial advertising, this was a particularly jarring class. It brought together all of the theory we have been reading that has provided an excellent foundation for understanding social movements with the actual physical actions of those movements and their portrayal via independent media. It’s very easy to get caught up in the world in which one operates. Be it a commercial venture, a social movement, or somewhere in between, there is always a common language with which outsiders are taught. In business we call it advertising, with social movements it’s called propaganda. The divergence comes when the bigger picture is taken into consideration: whereas making a buck is an easy goal around which to rally, making social change is significantly harder. IndyMedia had an initial goal of producing independent news about social justice movements. As it became more and more popular, doing so became more difficult due to the plethora of decisions it had to make as a group.

At the end of class, it was noted that producing a film like “This is What Democracy Looks LIke” would be very different today, if at all. Cell phone cameras combined YouTube’s one-to-many publishing tools allow individuals to shoot and distribute footage immediately, removing some of the “polish” that existed previously. But what was lost in polish has been gained in technological advances: editing tools built in to crowdsourcing platforms, live-streaming tools, and wider distribution of footage to those outside the movement. Of course, a lot of the tools enabling these features are commercial based (for, as the quote from Sasha notes above, new platforms are created quickly these days). What will that mean to movements such as IndyMedia? Recently, we have seen [seemingly groundless] claims of censorship by Twitter and YouTube around the Occupy movement. And yet, that movement depends so deeply on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to grow. It makes one wonder about the advantages and dangers of social movements relying on commercial ventures. Is this something that happened 12 years ago? Or did the relatively virgin World Wide Web of 1999 not require this type of struggle?