20 years ago tomorrow, the website for the first IMC (Independent Media Centre) went live at www.indymedia.org, providing a globally accessible platform for independent media coverage of the protests against a WTO summit in the US city of Seattle. Appearing even before the creation of Wikipedia and its MediaWiki software, Indymedia.org was a pioneering example of the then-novel concept of the web as a read/write medium - where anyone could contribute using basic cut’n'paste skills - rather than just a collection of read-only pages made by geeks. Seven years before the founding of Wikileaks, the open-publishing newswire on indymedia.org was one of the earliest forerunners of “citizen journalism” platforms. It can also be seen as one of the earliest experiments in both the practices and technologies of “social media”, producing among other innovations, the technology that gave birth to Titter.

That drive to empower people to create and share was reflected in a commitment to using software that was open source (a newly coined term at the time for Free Software, or as I tend to call it free code) and this became one of the core Principles of Unity for the emerging IMC network. Indymedia.org started out running on a patchwork of webserver software known as Active, originally strapped together by a collective of hackers in Australia, for a local cluster of activist news and event announcement sites. As more IMCs started up to run open-publishing activist news sites for their city or country, this bleeding edge software was gradually replaced by a variety of CMS (Content Management Systems) written specifically for Indymedia, before these were in turn replaced by more general purpose free code CMS like Drupal.

I could into much more detail on all of this from an insiders perspective, and in some ways this would be the ideal time to finish writing up a detailed retrospective article I’ve been planning about the Indymedia network and my time as a founding volunteer for the Aotearoa IMC (which ironically seems to be down today - maybe because it’s already N30 there?). However, I’m currently busy preparing for a long international trip, home to Aotearoa to see family and friends, and then back to China via the FOSS Asia Summit in Singapore. Besides, I’m already seeing plenty of articles being published to mark the 20 year anniversary, so I think I’ll keep my powder dry, read a bunch of them, and focus my piece on any aspects of the Indymedia story that don’t get as much attention or fanfare as I think they deserve.

It has to be said that at 20, the Indymedia network is a shadow of its former self. Many of the sites that served the news gathering of local IMCs, as well as most of the servers that provided collaboration tools for global networking, are long shuttered and gathering digital dust. I haven’t been actively involved in the Aotearoa IMC I co-founded since about 2007, and although the site continued to operate (at least until very recently), I stopped publishing there altogether when the newswire became a flood of seemingly unmoderated noise, dominated by a handful of chronic spammers. But there are signs that a phoenix could rise from the ashes. Indymedia.org, which had until recently been frozen in time since 2013, now bears as promise that “Indymedia.org is being rebuilt”, along with links to a bunch of 20 year anniversary articles.

As with the CMS, so many of the technologies Indymedia activists wanted and needed during the first few years of the network have now been developed to greater maturity by open source communities.

When activists started publishing their videos on YouTube to get them to a larger audience, and to reduce the strain that streaming large media files placed on Indymedia servers, Indymedia geeks dreamed of having a decentralized, free code tool like PeerTube. One that can be used to run video-publishing sites that are independent, but federated into a larger network. Where videos can be found and viewed across the whole federation, not only on the one where it’s first published. Where sites can mirror each others’ videos to route around attempts at censorship. Where users contribute a little bit of their own bandwidth to help the servers if a video goes viral, avoiding the lose-lose scenario where every time you get a video out to a large audience you lose money, or risk having servers go down and sites go offline. Where video channels can be followed and videos commented on by users on other federated platforms like Mastodon. 

But technology was never at the core of Indymedia. The sites we ran were more than blog farms, they were always understood as  a means to a larger end. When we said “don’t hate the media, become the media”, Indymedia activists were articulating a vision of democratized media that could have a democratizing effect on a rapidly globalizing human world, one whose politics and everyday life was becoming increasingly ruled by corporations.

As the public - and especially activists - become increasingly aware of the downsides of Surveillance Capitalism, we have a unique opportunity to remind them of this vision. It’s also worth reflecting on the Achilles Heel of the Indymedia project; it’s lack of a sustainable economic base, and the resulting dependence on donations and volunteer time to keep its growing infrastructure running. For the grander vision that animated Indymedia to be realized, sharing economic solidarity strategies like forming Platform Cooperatives will be just as important as promoting the potential of decentralized technologies like PeerTube and other fediverse tools like PixelFed and Mastodon, perhaps even more important.

Filed November 29th, 2019 under open social networks, independent media, News, open source

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