Indymedia in Hindsight
The Global Indymedia Network is Dead, Long Live Open Publishing
Reflecting on the achievements and failures of the Global Network of Indymedia Centres
Some may have called it in 2013 when the global site at Indymedia.org stopped adding new feature articles. Others made the call when Nottingham IMC closed it doors to open publishing that same year. But when lists.indymedia.org went offline in 2015, it seemed to me a very appropriate time to consider the book closed on the Indymedia/ IMC project. In the decade before Occupy birthed Loomio and a multitude of other web-based decision-making platforms, lists.indymedia.org had served as the main communication and decision-making nervous system of the Global Network of Independent Media Centres. Although many activist news sites still use the Indymedia name, without email lists or even recoverable archives, its days as a functioning global network are over. The docs.indymedia.org wiki that acted as the network's institutional memory seems to have gone down too, although Archive's last capture was in April this year.
Take the Aotearoa Indymedia I was involved in founding. There is still a site there, but reading between the lines, the features area seems to function as a private blog for a handful of front groups, run by the same handful of activists. The open newswire consists almost entirely of tofu about Palestine and paranoid ravings about the CIA from a persistent spammer. In a move reminiscent of Stalin and Mao doctoring photographs of them to remove comrades who had fallen from grace, most of features articles and user-submitted stories from the years when the site was widely used have been moved to an unsearchable static archive. This was done when the site was moved to a bespoke server software for which no source code appears to be available, in violation of one of the core Indymedia Principles of Unity, using only free code software. It's dead, Jim.
On the other hand, the IndyBay Indymedia that resulted from a split in the San Francisco IMC seems to be going strong as a local activist news site, with plenty of relevant, current articles, as do Ireland IMC, Urbana-Champaign IMC and many others. I have to admit having contributed very little since about 2009 to keeping up the quality of articles on Aotearoa Indymedia, my own contributions having become more like opinion columns suitable for theDailBlog (where I sometimes guest post) rather than proper news stories or interviews.
Today I happened to have a look at the Wikipedia article on Indymedia. This article has changed a lot since I last looked at it. No doubt most of that was well-meaning, attempting to tidy up the article to keep it in line with evolving Wikipedia norms. However, I can't help but think a lot of the significance of the Indymedia project has been lost in the process. Looking back on the years I spent working with Indymedia, there are a number of things that seem notable to me (note: all dates for the launching of websites and organisations are sourced from their Wikipedia pages).
Global Network of Independent Media Centres
The global network was formalized around 2001, after a moratorium was imposed by IMC-tech crew on setting up new Indymedia websites on the Stallman webserver. IMC-Tech were concerned about the number of groups requesting new sites, and the resources they would need to support further growth. But they were also uncertain about the nature of these requests, many of which, unlike the first crop of Indymedia sites, were not associated with the protests against a corporate globalization summit. On what basis could a group claim to be the appropriate local users of the Indymedia name and resources?
A number of discussions via email lists defined Principles of Unity and Membership Criteria for groups wanting to join the network, which included having delegates on a group of global email lists to govern the network, including IMC-Process, IMC-Communication, IMC-Finance, IMC-Tech, and New-IMC. Other global working groups also ran through email lists, including IMC-Features, which served as the editorial collective for the global site at Indymedia.org, IMC-Radio, IMC-Video, and IMC-Alternatives, which I was part of.
Principles of Unity and Membership Criteria
These defined what Indymedia *was*, and copies can be recovered through Archive.org. There are not mentioned in the article at all. These need their own section, or at least a prominent mention in the Aims or History sections.
Indymedia was one of the first global institutions, serving a practical purpose, that committed itself to organising using direct democratic principles. As well as the spokescouncil-by-email-list method of running the network at global, and later regional, scales, the Principles of Unity and Membership Criteria included a requirement that affiliated IMCs organise themselves in an open, democratic fashion. Usually this involved email lists and in-person meetings being open to all-comers, and the use of consensus decision-making. Unless a working group or local IMC preferred to host their own, all IMC email lists were hosted on a dedicated server at lists.indymedia.org. Records such as meeting minutes, and collaborative development of working documents, were stored in docs.indymedia.org, hosted by a dedicated wiki-webserver. At one point this was one of the ten largest wiki-webs on the net. Day-to-day management decisions that couldn't wait for consensus to emerge on email lists were made by working groups "idling" in a set of channels hosted by a dedicated server running software implementing IRC (1988), one of the earliest large IRC servers after FreeNode (founded as LinPeople in 1995). Although TimeandDate.com (1995) had been around for four years to help people coordinate internet activities across borders, all this began before Meetup (2002) or FarceBook (2004) or Google Calendar (2006) or Doodle (2016) were about to help diverse groups of people get together in person to talk about common interests.
Open-publishing, Free Distribution
It's easy to forget that when Indymedia started in November 1999, the word 'blog' had *just* been coined. The Ipod (2001) hadn't yet been invented yet, the phrase "podcast" didn't exist, and neither did the Democracy Player (2005, later renamed Miro in 2007) or VideoBomb). Websites were mostly static HTML pages, maybe with a few Java applets, or horrible moving Flash banners, or the occasional whole "website" made in Flash that took 2 minutes to load each page on a dial-up modem. Photo-sharing sites like Webshots (1995) were in their infancy. Online video was low quality, and the few streaming video websites were mainly using proprietary formats like RealMedia (created by RealNetworks, founded 1994), and proprietary steaming software like ShoutCast (1998). Only a handful of sites accepting user-submitted material had existed for any length of time, such as Project Gutenberg (1971), IMDB (1990), Archive.org (1996), and Radio4All (1996). SlashDot (1997) and MP3.com (1997) were only two years old, and DMOZ (1998), Everything2 (1998), and Care2 (1998) were only a year old. Yahoo (1995) was only 4 years old, and hadn't yet acquired Geocities (1994), Altavista (1995), eGroups (1997), or Del.icio.us (2003). Google (1998) was only a year old too, and only a search page, which people flocked to because it was ad-free (true!), AdSense (2003) didn't exist yet. LiveJournal (April 1999), Live365 (July 1999), and Blogger (August 1999) had *just* come out that year, and Kuro5hin (December 1999) was just about to. There was no OhMyNews (2000), no DeviantArt (2000), no Wikipedia (2001), no Last.fm (2002), no Picasa (2002), no Fotolog (2002), no MySpace (2003), no 4Chan (2003), no PhotoBucket (2003), no Vimeo (2004), no Digg (2004), no FlickR (2004), no FarceBook (2004), no Reddit (2005), no Huffington Post (2005), no YouTube (2005), no Blip.tv (2005) or Twit.tv (2005), no WikiLeaks (2006), no Twitter (2006), no Tumblr (2007), no LiveStream (2007), no SoundCloud (2008), no Vodo (2009), no Pinterest (2010), no Instagram (2010), no Snapchat (2011), no Medium (2012). The point is, open-publishing websites were a radical idea at the time, one that has become the status quo, although perhaps better known as 'web 2.0' or 'user-generated content' (neither of which were things in 1999) and this isn't really mentioned in the article. The idea of open-publishing *news*, actual reporting rather than opinion and speculation, remains radical, and Indymedia's role as one of the first major 'citizen journalism' projects on the web isn't mentioned by Wikipedia either, giving credit to later start-ups like OhMyNews and Huff post.
Distribution: Websites accompanied by growth of filesharing; Napster (1999) released June of the same year the first Indymedia.org site went online; GNUtella (2000) and LimeWire (2000); Kazaa (2001), Grokster (2001) and Morpheus (2001); SoulSeek (2002) and SoulSeek Records; BitTorrent (2001), Pirate Bay (2003), Mininova (2005), KickassTorrents (2008).
Despite promoting itself as a news site, unlike the corporate news sites that mostly came later, Indymedia never sought to enforce copyright, encouraging the free and permission-less re-publishing of content from Indymedia sites. There was no CreativeCommons (2001) when the first Indymedia site was launched, but it was quickly adopted into the CMS software used by Indymedia sites.
Championing Free and Open Source Software
It's also easy to forget that in 1999, although the FSF and GNU Project (1985) were 14 years old, the Linux kernel was 8 years old, and the Debian Project (1993) was 6, the phrase "open source" and the Open Source Initiative were only a year old, as was Mozilla. Ubuntu (2004) wasn't even a twinkle in Shuttleworth's eye yet. SourceForge.net, the first online free code repository went live just days before Indymedia.org, and the IMC network was one of the first global organisations that made it a point of principle, and a practical priority, to get as close as possible to running 100% free/ open source software (both phrases were used interchangeably within the network at first until we all started to learn the subtle distinctions). Not just on servers but on PCs, which was extremely ambitious at the time. I don't know if I'd be using GNU/Linux today if it wasn't for learning about it from Indymedia folks.
Milestones in the Evolution of the CMS
What we would now call a CMS didn't exist in 1999. There was no Drupal (2000), no WordPress (2003), and no Joomla (2005). Wiki packages existed, but there was no MediaWiki (2002), or its proprietary competitor PBWorks (formerly PBWiki, 2005), and editing a wikipage was only slightly less technically challenging than editing HTML. There was no PHPBB (2000) or its proprietary competitor vBulletin (2000), and certainly no Discourse (2013), and most forum sites were bespoke, built out of bits and pieces recovered from the days of the BBS. Zope had only just been released (under that name) in 1998 and the Plone project began in 1999 (why I mention these becomes relevant later). The open-publishing server-side software packages written or forked by Indymedia geeks were among the first feature-complete, free code, roll-your-own-website CMS (as opposed to frameworks or components or libraries that could only be strapped together into a usable CMS by programmers familiar with scripting languages). Indymedia sites supported open standards like the recently released RSS (Really Simple Syndication, March 1999) almost from the beginning.
When I joined the network in the early 2000s, and started working with the seed group that set up Indymedia.org.nz, the main software being used was a spaghetti of bespoke Perl and PHP code known affectionately as 'Active'. At that time, tech skills were fairly thin on the ground, and the codebase was maintained its creators, a Sydney tech collective called Catalyst. Over time, development work diverged into an wide range of CMS projects, yet on the current article, only Active (PHP/Perl/Postgres) is mentioned. None of the second-generation codebases that came in around 2002/03 are mentioned. At least five of these were written from scratch for Indymedia, and are still in use (eg FreeForm, Oscailt), and others were adapted from existing CMS; SFActive was forked from Active to use MySQL instead of Postgres, MIR was forked from the Java CMS written for the German site nadir.org, Spud forked his DadaManifesto CMS written for Nothingness.org to create DadaIMC, SlashDot's Slash was forked to become IMC-Slash.
Each of these was developed for different reasons. These included programming language and other technology preferences; Oscailt was written in PHP with MySQL, ,but also socio-political differences; DadaIMC was not an open source project, the developer, known as Spud, was a situationist loner who distrusted potential forks to his codebase. The article also doesn't mention the ultimately unsuccessful evaluation process, around 2008 that attempted to agree on an external CMS/ framework to build the third generation of Indymedia CMS (shortlist was Drupal, CakePHP, Zope/Plone). Again, the divergence of views had social as well as technical dimensions. PHP proponents thought it was a better choice because it was considered easier to learn, and more widely used, allowing easier recruitment and training of more tech volunteers. Even though Python was considered harder to learn, being a full application language, not just a scripting language, Zope/ Plone proponents argued that it was more secure, and offered better performance, and thus more economical user of server resources.
In the end, Drupal became the de facto choice for most IMCs, particularly those still on SFActive, Mir, and DadaIMC. We decided to move Aotearoa Indymedia from DadaIMC to Drupal in 2009, not long before I left the project to focus on my studies and the founding of CreativeCommons Aotearoa/ NZ, and there were others moving to Drupal in 2010. The Zope/ Plone geeks mostly left Indymedia to work on other projects, such as EngageMedia.org and the Plumi CMS it uses, which allowed them to scratch both their Python and independent media itches.
Free Code on the Desktop
Indymedia activists were one of the first global social movements - outside of geek organisations like the Free Software Foundation, Open Source Initiative, and LUGS (Linux User Groups) - to encourage average users to run free code applications on their existing PCs. Everything from OpenOffice and AbiWord to Mozilla. Indymedia working groups were running free code IRC server and client software, while most non-geek early adopters of text chat were using proprietary web-based chatroom services like YahooChat, or proprietary instant messaging clients like ICQ (1996), AIM (AOL Instant Messenger, 1997), Yahoo! Messenger (1998), and MSN Messenger (1999). Later, chat clients added voice, and while Indy folks experimented with the public domain SpeakFreely (1991), most people continued to use their instant messengers with voice add-ons, or newer proprietary chat clients like Skype (2003) or Google Chat (2005). I taught people how to use free code FTP clients like Filezilla, and web page creation software like NVU, a stand-alone fork of Mozilla Composer. Some brave souls even started experimenting with replacing their Windows 98 and XP installs with GNU/Linux distros like Debian, Red Hat, and Mandrake.
The problem of funding non-commercial media
Like the problem of funding free code development, the problem of how to pay for all the costs of running an entirely ad-free media network came up again and again. There were a number of internal debates about the pros and cons of receiving public grants, either from governent bodies of private charities, and the risk that this might be seen to compromise the editorial independence and organisational autonomy the groups in the network aspired to. Looking at the successful crowdfunding campaigns of independent media organisations like Scoop.co.nz and Positive.news, I think Indymedia was, in many ways, before its time.
The decision not to pay anyone
Getting everyone to work without pay had some upsides. It massively reduces the costs that needed to be fundraised. There was no competition for paid roles, or bad feelings from not getting promoted to one. Everyone involved was there for the love, for the cause, for the vision, in other words, for the project.
But the problem is that same as any open source development project, which is what Indymedia was, although its main "software" output was news, rather than code. If nobody is getting paid, and they need to use a computer and the internet regularly, they either have to live on welfare so they can work on the project fulltime (as I did for a few years), suffering the poverty and prejudice that goes along with it, or they can only work on the project in their spare time. This wasn't so much a problem for getting stories on to the site, so long as we did regular outreach to activist groups to publish on our site. In this case being before out time, and before most of the other places people host their activist news now, was an advantage. But it was a bit of a problem for maintaining functional editorial collectives to fight constant fires of spam, tofu, vandalism, trolls, and so on. It was a huge advantage when it came to unpaid geeks running huge listservers, wikifarms, and blogfarms running bleeding edge experimental CMS software.
The Achievements of Indymediatistas Beyond Indymedia
Me - CreativeCommons Aotearoa/ NZ
Andrew McNaughton - Scoop
Geraldene Peters - documentary film-maker and media scholar
Chloë Heffernan - documentary film-maker and media scholar
EngageMedia (Melbourne Indymedia peeps? Catalyst peeps?)
Sascha Meinrath (Urbana-Champaign IMC) - Indymedia participation not mentioned in his Wikipedia article! See his talk at OS/OS
Benjamin Mako Hill - FSF Board, Debian/ Ubuntu developer, Definition of Free Cultural Works
RiseUp.net - many of the folks behind RiseUp were reputedly tech volunteers for Indymedia
Jay (Philadelphia IMC, Alternatives IMC)
Matt Wasserman (NYC IMC) - writer for Indypendent
Todd Wolfson (Philadelphia IMC) - media scholar
Josef Coate-Davies (Alternatives IMC) - UnitedDiversity, New Economics Foundation, Chaordic Commons
Aaron Kreider (Alternatives IMC) - CampusActivism
Evan "Rabble" Henshaw-Plath - co-creator of Twitter
Why can't I remember any of the women's names? Why don't I know what any of them are doing now?
A Radical, Accurate, and Passionate Telling of the Truth - A Brief History of the Indymedia Network
It's time. I'm calling it. Indymedia is dead. This matters to me, because it was a project I invested about seven years of almost fulltime voluntary work into. It would be fascinating to read a properly researched account of the rise and fall of Indymedia. This is not it. It's just my two cents on what happened, and what we can learn from this bleeding edge experiment in transnational cooperation, and citizen journalism.
Foundation of Indymedia
The Indymedia story began in Australia in the late 90s, with a set of websites called Active.org.nz (http://web.archive.org/web/19990125084504/http://active.org.au/), started by Sydney-based tech collective Catalyst (http://web.archive.org/web/19981205092712/http://www-personal.usyd.edu.au/~sfraser/cat/main.html). The Active sites were set up to help build solidarity among activists working on different issues in the same region, allowing them to promote their events and activities. In order to reduce the admin workload on the people running the sites, and stop them becoming a bottleneck as the sites became more popular, customized "open publishing" software was created - what we would now call a CMS or "Content Management System" (think WordPress or Drupal), to allow users to add content to the sites. Initially just covering Sydney events (http://web.archive.org/web/19990503140706/http://active.org.au/), by October 1999, there was subsites for Sydney, Melbourne, and Newcastle, with more planned for Brisbane, Darwin, and Canberra (http://web.archive.org/web/19991009115129/http://active.org.au/).
Around this time, a range of independent media groups started discussions about working together on coverage of protests against a WTO summit in Seattle scheduled for November, 1999. They agreed to set up an "Independent Media Centre" (IMC) in downtown Seattle, where independent reporters could access the internet and upload their text, photos, and digital video to an open publishing website running Catalyst's Active software, at www.indymedia.org.
The so-called "anti-globalization movement" had come onto my radar in the lead up to J18, the first anti-summit Global Day of Action called against the G8 meeting in Germany on June 18 1999, and news about the plan to set up the IMC and the Indymedia site reached me through anarchist email lists. I followed the progress of the growing Indymedia network as they set up an IMC and an Indymedia.org subsite for each major anti-summit protest, and I wasn't the only one excited to discover that after the summit protests were over, the Indymedia subsites, and in some case the IMC spaces, continued to be used by their local media activists to cover protests and other political activities in their area. At a time when so many were frustrated by the anti-activist bias in many traditional news media outlets, the value of these sites was obvious, and soon IMC collectives were coming together to set up IMCs and Indymedia sites in areas where there were no corporate globalization summits happening.
Around this time, network-wide governance processes were established by setting up a number of spokescouncils communicating over email lists. As part of becoming affiliated with what had been formally named the Global Network of Independent Media Centres, although that name was seldom used, an IMC was obliged to have spokespeople subscribed to the email lists for a number of global working groups including New-IMC, IMC-Tech, IMC-Process, IMC-Communication, and IMC-Finance. There were also working groups for IMC-Radio, IMC-Video, and IMC-Print which AIM volunteers participated in at times, and some working groups for topic-based IMCs, including Climate, Biotech, and Alternatives, which I was active in (more on that later).
Aotearoa Indymedia (Indymedia.org.nz)
The huge protests against the APEC summit in Auckland in September 1999 brought the movement against corporate globalization into mainstream awareness in Aotearoa, but it also highlighted the fact that our news media outlets were singing from the same corporatist songbook as their overseas counterparts. In 2001, groups in all the largest cities in Aotearoa began to form with the shared vision of setting up AIM (Aotearoa Independent Media), a network of groups which would maintain an Indymedia site for Aotearoa, working out of IMCs in their own cities. I was involved in setting up a space in Ōtautahi (InterActive), which sadly was fairly short-lived. The Ōtepoti group worked out of a number of activists and arts collective spaces including Black Star Books and the None Gallery, which still exist, although everyone involved in that Indymedia group seem to have disappeared into the ether. The Wellington group also worked out of a number of existing spaces, including the Peace and Environment Centre in Trades Hall, a building in Cuba St occupied by anti-road activists, the 128 Community House, and the Newtown Community Centre (where regular film screenings and a A-IMC Convergence were held). The group in Auckland were loosely associated with an anarcho-punk flat and social centre called Necropolis (later A Space Inside).
The Aotearoa Indymedia site (www.indymedia.org.nz) was probably the most successful outcome of the AIM project. It was heavily used by a wide range of activists durings its first few years, and was in some cases the only media organisation to accurately report on demonstrations by groups ranging from opponents of the US-led invasion of Iraq, the anti-GE movement, and the pro-democracy movement in Tonga. Comments on articles came from a wide range of political stances, compared to the tendency-specific activist nwesletters, zines, and magazines that had come before, although they were mostly from a radical left stance, with a few neo-liberals dropping in to give their minority reports.
The first test site was created in 2001 by Nick Young, using an existing CMS. By late 2002, we had our first production site up and running using the same Active software as the original Indymedia.org. By 2004, Active was in the process of being quietly retired, and we had transitioned to DadaIMC. By late 2006, we had transitioned again to Drupal.
In late 2002, when I went to Sydney to attend and report on protests against a mini-ministerial meeting of the WTO, a bunch of Indymediatistas brokered agreement to set up Oceania.Indymedia.org, an aggregation site that would feature stories from the Australian sites, plus our Aotearoa Indymedia site, and any others in the Pacific, which at one point included Manila and Japan. The site was hosted by Axxs.org The movement was growing, and we were convinced that within a few years, every Pacific nation would have its own Indymedia site, syndicating content on Oceania Indymedia.
Aotearoa Information Radio
A few years later I spent a couple of years in Kirkiriroa, and helped set up an activist space there (The Commons), which was also host to a micro-radio station (Station FM) broadcasting political talks and music to the local area. During this time, Under the Radar host and Station FM founder Aaron Mooar and I were involved in experiments in recording talk from the Social Forum Aotearoa, and the EcoShow, and uploading them to the Paranode download server organised through the IMC-Radio working group.
We were also networking with other micro-radio groups, including Radio Chomsky in Auckland, Matrix FM and Critical Analysis Broadcasting in Wellington, and community access radio stations, to promote the idea of sharing programs through servers like Paranode and Radio4All.org, under CreativeCommons licenses. At this point we started to strike what felt like resistence to the idea of Aotearoa Indymedia being an umbrella network for existing groups. We experimented with creating a separate umbrella identity for independent radio organising, Aotearoa Information Radio (AIR), for which I set up a simple HTML homepage hosted on Enzyme.org.nz, a server hosting websites, email lists, and other services for activists in Aotearoa set up by an activist known as Bobo, AIR never really took off, but we did promote digitization of programs, and use of CreativeCommons licenses, to programme-makers, technicians, and managers from a range of radio stations, including community access, student, and LPFM (Lower Power FM) stations. This led to kickstarting the cc-nz email list in 2005, which remains the community chat channel for CreativeCommons Aotearoa/ NZ.
Choices of a New Generation
In 2006, I moved to Wellington, started studying at university, and got involved in the Oblong Infoshop, a volunteer-run internet cafe. I was excited by the concept of moving back towards working with musicians and other artists through CreativeCommons, and wanting to spend more time on this project. By this time, a whole new generation of activists were coming through, and Indymedia seemed to be in good hands. By the end of the following year I was one of the few AIM co-founders still actively involved, and I decided it was time to bow out. I continued to post pieces on the site until late 2013, about a year after the Drupal software that had replaced DadaIMC as the site's CMS had been replaced by a bespoke codebase written by one of the tech volunteers. I had become frustrated by the lack of concern on the part of remaining volunteers that the archiving of all the stories posted prior to Nov 5 2012 in a static archive had broken any links that referred to previous versions of the site, and made it effectively impossible to find older content. I was also disillusioned by the fact that the source code to the new CMS software did not appear to have been made available as free code, violating one of the core Principles of Unity of Indymedia.By 2014, I had focused on writing for the Disintermedia blog, and writing occasional guest posts for sites like theDailyBlog, and NZCommons.
At one point there were at least four autonomous Indymedia sites in Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth) Eventually, the Australian crews converged into Indymedia Australia, which was finally archived and abandoned towards the end of 2015, 16 years after the heydey of Active, and the founding of the original Indymedia.
The Oceania aggregation site appears to have gone offline in late 2009/ early 2010, never to return.
The global Indymedia.org site stopped adding new feature articles in 2013, although it continues to syndicate stories from the local Indymedia sites that still function. All of these now have their own domain name. Other than Indymedia.org, the 'something.indymedia.org' subdomains that used to point at each local site had long since stopped functioning. The email listserver went down in late 2015, and the docs wikiserver in early 2016.
What's next for citizen journalism?
The combination of mobile devices with microphone, cameras, and internet connections (via cell towers and wi-fi networks), HTML5 capabilities, and high-speed broadband, gives us citizen journalism tools we could only dream of when Indymedia started.
Positive News. Scoop going not-for-profit.