April 15, 2005
Indymedia, Past and Future

Rabble and Chuck0 have posted thoughts on the stagnation of Indymedia, noting a failure to take things to the next level, organizationally and technologically.

I suppose that Indymedia can be seen in one of two ways: as an amazing success, given its origins, or as a collossal failure to live up to its potential.


A small group of people came together at the right place at the right time and created a form of organization that ended up turning into over 100 local collectives all over the planet. Many of these collectives continue to do extremely valuable work, and the idea isn't going away.

In the Maritimes, for example, recent months have seen yet another resurgence of folks putting new energy into the web site. Notably, none of the people now working on it now were involved four years ago when the web site launched. The idea has survived an open attempt to shut it down by one "uncompromising" member, and is still going. I can only assume that this is because a critical mass of people still find it to be a worthwhile effort.

In other locales, Indymedia seems to be similarly resiliant. The Québec IMC managed to break off from the NGO that was controlling it and is now providing solid daily coverage of the massive student strike here. The Irish IMC seems to be alive and well, the NYC collective is doing good things, and many others seem to also be kicking. Indymedia has also spread across dozens of languages and different character sets. The idea and precedent of Indymedia have had major, incalculable effects, inspiring and influencing numerous variations and offshoots.

And the network doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Despite its many, many problems, the core ideas have lasting appeal, and there will be many cycles of renewal.


Spamming, disorganization, infighting, burnout, chaos, free speech absolutism, endless debates where the people change but the arguments don't, an inability to make any significant moves at more than a snail's pace.

Did I mention burnout? And the resulting turnover?

The case can be made (and should be made) that the network should be developing new tech, supporting new projects, moving more quickly into new areas instead of chewing up committed activists and spitting out vaguely supportive but mostly embittered Indymedia ex-pats.

Some of these problems (e.g. spamming) have been dealt with creatively and effectively, without compromising Indymedia's Open Publishing mandate. Some (e.g. excessive turnover, burnout, endless entrenched debates) have not.

Dealing with what's there

There are lots of ways to deal with all of the problems that I've listed, but I don't think that that's what is needed. The people on the ground (which, as regards indymedia, is not me right now) will know best how to fix immediate problems--at least potentially.

But if we're talking about Indymedia's unfulfilled potential, we have to dig deeper. So here's my sketch.

(It would probably be gratuitous and pretentious to quote a phrase from Empire that keeps popping into my head as something important, but I'll do it anyway, if only for my own future reference:

...many defenses of the local adopt the terminology of traditional ecology or even identify this "local" political project with the defense of nature and biodiversity. This view can easily devolve into a kind of primordialism that fixes and romanticizes social relations and identities. What needs to be addressed, instead, is precisely the production of locality, that is, the social machines that create and recreate the identities and differences that are understood as the local. The differences of locality are neither preexisting nor natural but rather effects of a regime of production.

I have a vaguely similar intent with what follows.

The Core

I would argue that without the following things, Indymedia would not be recognizable in its current form:

  1. Web sites that allow anonymous posting of text, images and video with immediate availability
  2. Locally-based collectives, organized autonomously on the basis of inclusion
  3. The magical availability of seemingly unlimited bandwidth and server space
  4. The idea that anywhere, a collective can form and enable people to tell their own stories, to represent themselves to a potentially global audience

To make Indymedia more successful without changing it into something that it's not, these core goals/areas of strength need to be refined and improved, and fed back into the positive feedback loop.

I would suggest the following corollary actions:

  1. Figure out what the most useful applications of open publishing are (along with areas that show potential) and redesign the software and interface to do that, really well.
  2. Synthesizing the collective experiences of some of the collectives and creating a "how to start an IMC" manual. Have people continuously on tour, explaining the history of IMC and exhorting people to start their own. Figure out what the best definition of "inclusion" is, and get to work. The popularization of the culture of Indymedia is just as important as actually starting collectives. After all, who cares if they're called Indymedia if they accomplish the goals of local empowerment and global solidarity?
  3. Figure out if the current hosting scenario is financially sustainable. Build whatever is needed for it to be sustainable into the aforementioned manual.
  4. Build better, open source, decentralized versions of TypePad, Flickr, Odeo, Del.icio.us, and whatever else, put a common interface and a one-click install on it, and give the tools to people who will use them. Privilege raw information over rhetoric, and get the tools out to as many people as possible

I think that I've inadvertently highlighted just how big an undertaking the "full potential" version of Indymedia is. But a worthwhile one.

A Network

I may have still missed the key to Indymedia's success, though. I don't think it has that much to do with local collectives or web sites (though these are obviously crucial). Those things exist on their own, without the impact or extremely rapid growth that Indymedia has had.

Without discounting those factors, what makes Indymedia unique is that it connected all of these local forces into a global network. A few of the strengths that come from this, which make Indymedia unique:

  1. A "brand". Hate to put it that way, but I can travel to a lot of places and say I'm involved in Indymedia, and people have an immediate frame of reference. They have an instant, concrete conception of my politics, what kind of work I do, the kinds of people that I work with, and the processes that I use. I have the same conception of other Indymedia activists. This allows us to start working on things together quickly, and it allows me to jump into an Indymedia site anywhere on the planet and not have to spend a few hours figuring out what their agenda is and where they're coming from. I know that some very basic things can be taken for granted (not to say that one shouldn't proceed with caution). It should be noted that the brand was a matter of timing as much as anything: Seattle exploded, and Indymedia was a key source, if not the source, for online information about what was going on. The mainstream media totally botched it, and a global activist brand was launched. I wasn't very involved in activists circles back then, but my weblog posts reveal that I knew about Indymedia. Like many others, no doubt.
  2. Linking. If I want to find out what activists are up to in Ireland, it would take me a good while to figure it out if I couldn't just load a random Indy site and click on "Ireland"
  3. Contacts. When I wrote a story about Argentina's economic collapse, I was able to find contacts who were in Buenos Aires, had some connection to people that I know enough to trust, and were willing to do an email interview. I can visit a lot of cities not knowing anyone, and immediately have contacts with whom I have a basic connection, despite never having met them.
  4. Solidarity. If something's going on in Chiapas, I may read about it on the Houston or SF Indymedia site (linking, of course, to the Chiapas site.) Information travels globally, and a lot of resources can be mobilized quickly. Being a part of the network has incalculable value to the people who can make effective use of it. This is not even close to being realized fully, but the precedents are there. Folks in New Zealand can have the information necessary to organize a march on the South African embassy to protest their grim privatization policies, and the photos can show up on the SA Indymedia site, hopefully for broadcast via local newsletters or radio.

The bottom line, as I see it: we need to be better connected globally, but certain things need to happen before that's possible. Another list:

  1. We need to know who the possible contacts are. No names, no contact.
  2. We need some contextual information to establish reputation, linking the contacts back to some mechanism that we trust
  3. We need media through which to communicate (i.e. not the prohibitively expensive international phone system). Sometimes this needs to be secure.

A better network

While some emphasis has to remain on the creation of content (though ideally, I think that this would be deemphasized among IMC collectives), the core strength of Indymedia is as a network with fast-replicating nodes that enables the strengths listed above.

As such, indymedia sites should be primarily nodes--one way for information to flow in and out of a community. Add some rudimentary reputation management stuff with more prominent links to local activist groups, continue to provide a commons for open publishing, and syndicate content (RSS-style) from other local independent media (vetted by the IMC collective, and possibly hosted by the IMC).

So the local IMC site would maintain a newswire, but also host and syndicate all kinds of other open- or sort-of-open-publishing newswires that the IMC collective would organize with something like reblog, creating a meta-newswire of all the trusted sources in a region, while highlighting specific stories. The IMC would serve as a filter on what's available; all the more important then, for it to have broad support and input and be democratically run. A tall order, but not out of the question. Despite not having an active collective for long stretches of time, the Maritimes IMC site continued to be visited and used by a wide range of folks.

This would broaden the network (and thus its value) in a democratic way, while allowing for small fast moving groups (like Rabble's description of GNN) to plug into this network. IMC collectives would be what they were always supposed to be--a core group that is accountable to (and reliant on) a broad base of community support. They provide tech for open publishing and collaborative editing, host sites (from weblogs to newspapers) of more advanced projects while channeling traffic to them, and be the focal point of political decisionmaking about how much should be included.

Restated, this is what Indymedia already does. I'm just emphasizing certain crucial roles that are not explicitly (but are very much implicitly) a part of the current state of Indymedia: connections, reputations, and the relocalization of media production.

Hmm. Maybe it's time to get involved in Maritimes Indymedia or CMAQ (again).

posted by dru in politicsoftech