The global network of Independent Media Centers (IMCs), or “Indymedia,” is a groundbreaking example of the power of an online, multimedia network providing for instantaneous, decentralized global communication, unique in that it involves a network of nonprofit, autonomous media collectives. These new technological capacities are shifting the nature of news consumption and provoking debates about the nature of news, its construction, and what constitutes a newsmaker. In addition, IMCs have been experimenting with hierarchy-leveling organizational processes and interactive software in the interests of furthering democratic goals and providing a more diverse set of discussions than corporate media currently offer. Indymedia discussions also critique the global hegemony of the neo-liberal and unilateral policies of the United States and its allies.
Foundation And Development
The network was pioneered by activists wanting an alternative to corporate news coverage of the protests against the World Trade Organization in November 1999. Activists provided up-to-the-minute accounts with text, photographs, streaming audio and video, and hyperlinks to alternative information sources with few gatekeepers. Their turnaround time often directly challenged mainstream media coverage (Downing 2001; Kidd 2003a), and even Reuters and CNN linked to the Seattle IMC site, which received about 1.5 million hits over four days (Kitaeff 2003).
Since its inception, the network grew quickly, and became the primary organizing mechanism and news source for the global social justice and antiwar movements. Local IMC chapters worldwide operate in most cases as an alternative public sphere loosely affiliated with politically progressive social movements (Downing 2003). The network also became a source of information for the wire services, especially during meetings of the IMF, G8, and other global organizations, and the protests accompanying them.
Indymedia in the mid-2000s consisted of over 160 nonprofit collectives forming IMC chapters, some regional in nature, publishing in more than 20 languages throughout Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia, Oceania, and Africa. The chapters were still concentrated primarily in the United States, Canada, and Europe, but Latin America and Oceania each had a strong showing, and new chapters continued to form worldwide. Each IMC collective was autonomous, controlling its own mission statement, finances, and decision-making processes. Network decisions were made through virtual working groups using a consensus decision-making process. Some IMC chapters were primarily websites maintained by a few people, while others involved many volunteers in a variety of projects and media. And although Indymedia was entirely volunteer-run, with no headquarters, formal governing structure, or regular funding sources, its size and reach outstripped even the largest news organizations, both geographically and in terms of labor.
While each IMC was different and the network provided for a wide variety of political opinions, Indymedia generally challenged the neo-liberal paradigm championed by western governments, and was committed to the nonhierarchical, nonsexist, and nonracist practices emphasized in the network’s Principles of Unity (Indymedia Documentation Project 2000) and Draft of Membership Criteria. Indymedia was also committed to open publishing and consensus-based processes of decision-making intended to be inclusive and to provide for multiple voices (Indymedia Documentation Project 2002). In open publishing, anyone with Internet access can post a story, and the process of creating news is transparent to the readers, making it easier for them to get involved. To increase participation, Indymedia used both electronic mailing lists and wikis (websites that anyone can access and edit), and all were linked through the network’s global site, indymedia.org.
Indymedia.Org And Its Major Features
As Indymedia’s virtual headquarters, www.indymedia.org showcased feature stories culled from local IMC websites worldwide, each linked to the global site. Features usually consisted of a short summary text with a series of links, and ended with the option to “add your own comment,” often provoking lengthy discussions. Local IMC groups drew many of the features they posted from writings posted to the open-publishing newswire, usually to the right of the features on local IMC sites. Local features then fed into the global newswire, from which a global editorial group determined which stories would become global features. According to the global website, the Indymedia network as a whole received an estimated 500,000 to 2 million hits per day, depending on what was occurring worldwide. During the first few days of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, for example, some local IMC sites (such as IMC Italy) were receiving about half a million page hits a day. While a wide variety of local, national, and international events were reported on and debated, some common themes throughout the network included the consequences of neo-liberalism worldwide, local labor, human rights and environmental issues, and the limitations of corporate media and their approach to journalism.
Connecting The Local And Global
Different IMCs connected local and global events to varying degrees, perhaps most obviously when the visceral realities of protest fueled the virtual information mill. Even in the chaotic midst of police raids or protests, activists posted information about ongoing actions of police, paramilitary, and military groups, and made connections between these actions at the local and global levels. Indymedia faced harassment, arrests of its journalists, legal challenges, and confiscation of its materials and tools (Morris 2004). It was a target of hate mail and spammers, but also national and international security agencies; several IMC sites were shut down, and others systematically hacked (Kidd 2003a, c; Free Press 2004). After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there were also attempts to define more radical elements of the global justice movement as terrorists (Morris 2004). For IMC activists, daily events, ranging from their own lifestyle choices to the operations of locally based businesses, connected in important ways with the global maneuvers of governments and multinational corporations, a prime example being the war in Iraq (Brooten 2004a, b, 2006). Indymedia’s emphasis on local-to-global analysis remained virtually invisible in corporate media news.
Challenging Corporate Media And Journalism
IMC online discussions often refer to the military–industrial–media complex and to a lack of open, democratic discussion both in the US and between the US and “the rest,” due directly to the limitations of corporate media coverage (Brooten 2004a, b). Indymedia challenged corporate media hegemony through the use of open publishing, made possible by the efforts of the free software or open source movement, which aims to keep software free and source code open for collective development and use (Stallman 2002; Pickard 2006). Many members of the Indymedia technical staff were associated with this movement (Arnison 2001; Kidd 2003a). As the Internet became dominated by private interests, the open source movement was as much an effort to keep the net open and navigable by as many as possible, as a software development process (Kidd 2003a). This struggle was seen as key to determining who controls the stories the public is able to tell and is told.
Many IMCs openly challenged the concept of “objectivity,” arguing that it is better to be honest about one’s biases. A page on the IMC global site suggested to readers that “You should look at all reports you read on the Indymedia site with a critical eye, just as you should look at all media before you in a discerning manner.” Nevertheless, there are many IMC activists who do subscribe to the ideal of journalistic objectivity, but argue that credible writing must go beyond the airing of the different “sides” of an issue. Textual analysis of IMC websites suggests that writers gained credibility in features and discussions when they presented ample evidence to back up the claims they made, in the form of links and citations, and when they had had direct experience with an issue, often by being an eyewitness (Brooten 2004a, b). Many participants called on reporters to contextualize their stories and provide the historical perspective they felt lacking in corporate media reporting.
Indymedia As A Process Of Collective Critique
Indymedia became a tool for exploring the process of media representation itself, encouraging a collective public process of both textual and visual analysis (Brooten 2004a, b). IMC sites offered readers alternative sources of information and a means to track and critique that information, add to it, or reject it, and to do so collectively and on a global scale. The process as well as the information became the focus of the collective, unfolding story, which attended to how and why the story got told. This called for an unusually sophisticated engagement with media. In this way, Indymedia offered a model for others, and supported the claim that web use can encourage a collective process of critique in which “the sum of connections makes a content greater than the sum of its parts” (Jones 2000, 178).
Challenges Facing Indymedia
Indymedia faced several significant challenges, including uneven participation, north– south tensions, overemphasis on technical work, and English dominance. Despite Indymedia’s focus on inclusion, those capable of volunteering for significant periods of time tended to be young, white, mostly male North Americans and Europeans (Kidd 2003a; Pickard 2006). This, in tandem with unequal global access to the Internet, limited participation in specific gendered, class, and racialized ways, including the male-dominated nature of tech work, problematic meeting dynamics, and an online rhetoric of harassment. Tensions also emerged between freedom of expression and the need to maintain safe and respectful online spaces. And while the consensus process is ideally nonhierarchical, some argued it tends to further silence those already marginalized (Ballowe 2002; Brooten & Hadl in press).
Indymedia had to rethink its policy of open publishing in the face of a slew of hateful, sexist, and racist postings throughout the network (Kidd 2003b; Pickard 2006; Brooten & Hadl in press). Individual IMCs adopted a range of editorial policies to help counter such postings (Langlois 2004). Some argued Indymedia should provide a space for such discussions, however contentious, while others argued that where power is unequally distributed, open publishing tends to extend it to those who already wield it.
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