Facebook killed the internet star: reflections on radical media
In September, the SchNEWS radical media collective issued a statement saying they had decided to call it a day. Although SchNEWS might publish one-off articles in the future, the direct action newsheet will no longer be published regularly.
This article is a personal reflection by a one-time SchNEWS contributor. It’s not a statement from SchNEWS itself, neither is it attempting to be a full post-mortem of it. Rather it is highlighting some key areas which affected it and other radical media collectives…
During the years I worked with SchNEWS, while never assuming it would go on indefinitely, only one scenario ever seemed a possible reason for it to cease (apart from being heroically sued out of existence in a spectacular libel case): that it had been usurped or made redundant by something which did the same job, only better. Or something closer to more contemporary networks of activists had emerged to carry on the good work. In 2000 when Indymedia UK started, I remember the general view in SchNEWS was that Indymedia may ultimately make SchNEWS irrelevant, with its open posting format and the opportunity for activist-writers to publish anonymously and instantly. We certainly didn’t feel ‘threatened’ by this, as our allegiances and priorities weren’t towards our publication in itself, but firmly with the social and environmental movements. We were united with Indymedia in being part of and supporting. but firmly with the social and environmental movements which we were united with Indymedia in being part of and supporting. So Indymedia was welcomed, and instantly became very significant. SchNEWS in the meantime thrived anyway, offering a different model to Indymedia – a publication which revolved around an editorial/writing team who worked together in the same office – doing newsletters, info-stalls, books, later films, etc.
What has happened in the years since is that yes, SchNEWS was usurped, but it wasn’t made obsolete, it was pushed into the margins. Arguably what did it for SchNEWS (and probably Indymedia in some respects) was the rise of Facebook and Twitter.
Arguably what did it for SchNEWS (and undoubtedly Indymedia – see the closing statement from London Indymedia, and the further articles they mention http://london.indymedia.org/articles/13128) was the rise of corporate social media, and the ‘enclosure’ of the web by the small group of new ‘Web 2.0’ behemoths – Google, YouTube, Facebook etc.
How did this play out for SchNEWS? We became aware in 2009 that visits to the SchNEWS website were dropping, quite alarmingly. We’d spent ten years since the late 90s slowly building up a solid online readership with sustained, highly regular and (readers assured us) continued good quality writing. There wasn’t a lot else on the web like it (Indymedia aside), and it had settled into a niche of being a bit like a sort-of anarchist Private Eye, and a key port-of-call for protest news and info in Britain. Although online readers had long-since far outstripped paper copies, we always continued to print paper, as it was still a valid form of distribution in many circumstances. As the traffic dropped, during that time, the quality of the issues was still up and we barely had a week off (later it was more irregular, but that was a few years after) – so I very much believe that the slide in web traffic was not caused by a drop in quality or frequency of output.
Significantly this slide occurred during the period of time when Facebook and Twitter were becoming ubiquitous. Quite possibly Indymedia was suffering in the same way (though their traffic was usually many times greater than that of SchNEWS). Most other sites across the web were getting on the bandwagon around then, ‘like’ buttons were appearing everywhere, but Indymedia were not doing so (for reasons mentioned below), and we eventually reluctantly put social media buttons in and started tweeting, albeit probably about 18 months too late by my reckoning.
Some may have wondered if SchNEWS was still ‘relevant’, but taking it back to that point in 2009 when SchNEWS was still putting out weekly, high quality writing (with not a lot else like it) how on earth can these qualities become passé or out-of-fashion? So what if the two-sides-of-A4 format was becoming a bit of a relic? Most didn’t read it that way anyway. It was usually one 1100-word article, plus 6-7 200-400-word articles for 45-odd weeks a year of at-times ground-breaking stuff – read it how ever you like. There wasn’t a lot more we could do for our readers, but they were drifting off in droves.
It had long ago occurred to us that the direct action movement which originally spawned SchNEWS was no longer what it had been (though many people including ourselves were still active and around) and that for a number of reasons there weren’t the big dramatic protests like Newbury, the sort which SchNEWS thrived on. But it had settled into a stable niche – albeit a fairly marginalised one – in the UK media landscape. Its actually quite common for a publication to out-live the milieu it arose in, to stablise around a production team and readership – e.g. Private Eye or countless others. In fact, SchNEWS had made that transition as far back as 1999 when the UK direct action scene gave way to the post-Seattle era and then the anti-war movements following 9-11′ and so on. Again, the fact that there was a dramatic drop in readers around the same time as Facebook and Twitter entrenched themselves tells me that SchNEWS suddenly became ‘irrelevant’ mostly in terms of what the internet was becoming. The majority were turning away from independent sites towards corporate social media, and the battle became how to funnel your material into those now-dominant streams. Also, internet habits had changed – it was now all about ‘interactive-ness’, comment boxes and anything else that gave the reader the illusion that they weren’t just ‘passive’ – and all this in turn favoured a global network where all it is is comment boxes and opportunities to comment on others comments etc. – it’s called Facebook.
That we didn’t play this game effectively (at least not until it was too late) is partly because we were a bit behind the times – but primarily we were usually too busy writing and producing issues, and we didn’t often have the surplus time to stop and look into the rise of social media; after all, plenty of internet fads come and go. Anyway, even if all this did occur to us, and it did, there was already a lengthy weekly post-writing schedule of preparing our material for the web with RSS feed blurbs, servicing two email lists, two versions of the PDF, three versions of the image, uploading our main article on Indymedia UK, and more, and nobody had enthusiasm to spend further time working social media outlets on a weekly basis on top of this site-update routine.
But at the same time, we quite rightly viewed the rise of social media with the sort of suspicion and critique that we’d have about any other new corporate computer/internet technology. We were already very aware of the paradox and hypocrisy of using corporate-built IT infrastructure, computers and software to deliver an anti-capitalist message, and activist/anarchist techies around us were raising awareness about net security and privacy as well as pointing to a future of anti-corporate information technology like free software, copyleft etc. So while it appeared to be a self-defeating attitude for SchNEWS, we were judging things correctly when it came to our reticence to get involved in social media…
Don’t Be Evil
Years – decades even – before the Snowden exposés in 2013, internet-savvy activists knew full well of the surveillance possibilities of the web, and the necessity of online privacy protection for political groups (and indeed everyone). And despite the almost-utopian air which accompanied the arrival of some of the new internet behemoths – eg Google and Facebook – only the gullible couldn’t see that these might easily turn out to be surveillance apparatus of the kind Orwell couldn’t have dreamt of. Of course suspicions were confirmed by Snowden in case there was any doubt. If you’re only using the internet to post pictures of fluffy kittens you’ve probably got nothing to worry about, but if you’re a potential threat to the powers-that-be, then you can easily be monitored.
For a website which has spanned nearly the whole of the period that the web has been truly ubiquitous, it’s worth looking at the SchNEWS site’s progress alongside that of the internet itself, recalling how the web developed and what happened following the initial ‘frontier’ period…
During the initial years of the web up until the then so-called year 2K (remember the Y2K bug?), corporations attempted to harness the sprawling, rapidly expanding web and keep users within a prescribed sphere: AOL comes to mind, where the web experience was filtered through their own interface and portal. Then obviously along came Google who trumped these – and other then-competing search engines – becoming the portal – ubiquitous but yet seemingly benevolent and egalitarian (‘Don’t be evil’ was the corporate motto). And so during the period 1999-2006-odd, generally Google searches seemed to work ok using keyword algorithms, even if it was political: SchNEWS content appeared if relevant keywords were searched – though admittedly the smaller the web, the easier it was to turn out meaningful search results, and this got much more unwieldy as the web expanded exponentially. Google is too deeply embedded in the system now – regardless of its original intentions, the internet is too huge, there are laws blocking search results etc., and discrete paid-for search prioritisation, so it’s no longer the level playing field it appeared to be.
But the goal of making ‘walled gardens’ didn’t go away, and from around 2005-6 onwards, we saw effectively a privatisation of the web (or perhaps an ‘enclosure’), with a set of new corporations gobbling up and integrating whole aspects of the web into new one-stop-shop fiefdoms. Amazon put online shopping into one place, YouTube had video, Apple did their best to suck and lock-in users into their hardware and media streams, Google expanded their empire in all directions, and so on. As we know it was Facebook who won the battle to become the primary platform for that brilliant concept of social media. (The companies I just named are all leading large-scale tax-avoiders in Britain, but I digress). Arguably only one of the new behemoths functions in a genuinely benevolent way – Wikipedia – but even still, it has the effect of making itself the reference site, threatening to consign others to the hinterland outside itself. There is now a mass of internet users – possibly the majority – who seemingly rarely stray from these half-dozen sites.
For SchNEWS – and countless other independent and autonomous sites (you have to exclude sites here which are on one of the major blog providers like Blogspot) – it found itself outside these glass cities – like vagrants in the wastelands of a Brave New World-style dystopia. Indymedia – which was designed with the specific aim of protecting users’ identities – couldn’t simply ‘like button’ itself into a co-existence with social media, because doing so would expose its users’ IP addresses to the surveillance-net of sites like Facebook. Indymedia can’t allow embedded YouTube videos, or other cross-platform multimedia, for the same reason. I’m sure that Indymedia people debated long-and-hard whether or how it might change to accommodate the new paradigms, but to jump on the social-networked multimedia bandwagon would have probably been at the expense of its principles and raison-d’être.
SchNEWS was never as ‘on-the-case’ as Indymedia in this regard, though it was not interactive like Indymedia, and ‘protecting sources’ came in the form of being completely anonymous, and keeping its sources once-removed from the website. Yes there was a naivety about this – but when it was mostly distributed by paper, this was not such a problem. We now know, of course, that the activity of everybody on the web is relatively transparent to surveillance anyway: individual user IP addresses are traceable at many points including the ISP providing the internet connection, and there are logs of IP addresses on practically every site you visit. Facebook goes one better and puts huge chunks of web activity onto the same monster server, allowing easy key-word-searching and cross-referencing between users. What you’re saying, who your friends are, and what they’re saying, and so on.
Surveillance – and not just on the web – has made a lot of activism in Britain so much harder – and sky-high paranoia levels about surveillance here in Britain around political activity has caused a big stifling effect in itself. The ubiquity of mobile phones is another giant security leak – they are very handy, but we’re using the corporate infrastructure and it’s not in our control who eavesdrops on this. The atmosphere at many demos these days can be characterised by the feeling that it’s a big information gathering exercise for the police: they group protesters together and furnish their files on individuals with new photos and data. CCTV cameras are everywhere, and the spectre of undercover police is yet another devastating problem. Then there’s the rafts of draconian legislation and policing tactics which make events like mass demos much less possible. These are all huge topics and outside the scope of this article, but quite ironically most individuals and many activists have chosen these paranoid times to move their web activity to sites which expose them to surveillance more nakedly than ever.
A ‘tipping point’ (to use the jargon) was reached – leaving SchNEWS ‘usurped’ – when advertising a demo on Facebook was more likely to yield results that posting it on SchNEWS Party & Protest or the Indymedia calendar. As if Facebook is a great tool for this, or a forum for open and frank political discussions. Yes – if it was a totally encrypted network run by a scrupulous and benevolent independent non-profit group – it could be brilliant for these purposes. But it isn’t, is it? On top of that, it’s not like Facebook simply shares posts across users in an even-handed way – it filters with algorithms because of sheer volume, and is rife with hidden agendas promoting some posts, and deliberately filtering out others – commercial and ideological forces are never far away. Yet it’s as though the mass of people have been so mesmerised by the convenience of social media – or that a critical mass was reached where all their friends and associates were there so they must reluctantly join or miss out – or they were seduced by the fact that they were offered a way to ‘be someone’ on the web – that common sense goes out the window. Stripped of the full reality, social media often gets ‘normalised’ as simply the next logical stage for the internet, and like most aspects to technology, of course it necessarily needs to be driven by innovative corporations in league with free-market governments.
(As an aside: different people have reacted in varying ways to the new era of surveillance paranoia. Many ‘politically engaged’ folk are on Facebook and speaking their mind defiantly, but these are probably mostly people who aren’t doing anything that takes their counter-hegemonic activities to the point of illegality – unless they are being reckless. Perhaps many people see the trap they are in, and their ‘activism’ narrows down to signing online petitions or ‘liking’ political posts. It has also occurred to me that it’s possible that in this climate people have become reticent to show political commitment or activity on the web, and perhaps they feel that regularly visiting and posting on Indymedia or looking at SchNEWS and other direct action campaign sites might risk flagging them up).
Do Something About It
SchNEWS was one of many significant projects which arose in the nineties (in Britain), coming out of the then-strong direct action movements, which sought to put in place ‘infrastructure’ which was by us for us – and part of a more-or-less common project to build or consolidate another world or society, which we believed was necessary if we were to get beyond social/environmental/financial collapse. Do-it-yourself – DIY – don’t wait for the government or the never-arriving revolution to make the changes, do it yourself – was the attitude which drove a lot of the nineties activity, and definitely kick-started SchNEWS. Constantly being mis-represented by the media? Let’s make our own. Jello Biafra’s quote ‘don’t hate the media, become the media’ was a catchphrase heavily used by Indymedia, with SchNEWS, Squall and others on the same path. There were many others types of ‘infrastructure’ which either came from these movements or were strengthened by them – from the housing co-op movement to many other social and environmental protest and research groups. Individual campaigns may come and go as issues arise, but for some of us, it was always about a longer haul than ephemeral temporary autonomous zones or short-term efforts.
But while many of the ‘infrastructure’ efforts I’m talking about are happily thriving (some not), the radical media side of things has taken a battering. My point is, I don’t object to newer generations abandoning what we built – referring here to SchNEWS and Indymedia – but it’s a long-term social transformation we’re talking about, and independent, unbiased and counter-hegemonic media is part of the future we need; yet this seems to be lost in an ocean of chatter, where political commitment is reduced to pressing ‘like’ buttons and signing online petitions. Meanwhile the corporate media is in control as ever, pumping out mis-information and celebrity gossip.
Yes, there’s a flood of tweets and more information than ever whizzing around the internet, but in the past few years I can’t say that suddenly I have access to all the information sources that I need. I personally think that it’s the job of a good publication, like SchNEWS, to – within their subject matter or remit – do the research, and write and edit it into something that’s accessible, making it all less of an effort for the reader to keep informed. In time a reputation as a ‘trusted source’ builds up. At the moment there’s a feeling that this notion of a ‘publication’ is looking obsolete, but countless streams of atomised, context-free bulletins from a range of arbitrary, unknown or outright-dubious sources is not a substitute.
This article was written immediately after SchNEWS announced it was ceasing, so it is with a tinge of sadness, and it may be seeking to blame anything other than itself for its demise. Yes, sometimes projects have a lifespan, and that’s it. My complaint isn’t that it ended, it’s more that it – and Indymedia for that matter – weren’t replaced by something equivalent or better, or a brilliant new form of disseminating information for social and environmental movements. It’s that they were more or less steam-rolled by huge corporate behemoths and most people went along with it.
We need a whole other way of using the internet – Snowden put the matter out of doubt. I don’t know exactly what that is – possibly mass-scale VPNs (virtual private networks) – areas of the internet which are completely away from scrutiny, or other ways that a user can be on the internet in a cloaked or untraceable form. This already happens amongst the tech-savvy amongst us, but these tactics need to be widespread enough that whole political movements are using them. At the moment we’ve got the opposite to this – most people sleepwalking their way into a surveillance state. I don’t even know how something like Indymedia could re-emerge and be as strong as it was a decade ago, in this current climate, but sadly and ironically it’s even less likely to happen than ever seeing as people are too seduced by the convenience of Facebook to go to the trouble of engaging in the further efforts required to get privacy. Maybe the Snowden revelations are sinking in, and will eventually cause a sea-change in web behaviour, but I can’t see too many signs of it yet.
In the meantime, good luck finding the news you’re after, and if you’re sufficiently pissed off, do what the many volunteers at SchNEWS, Indymedia and others did – don’t just sit around waiting for someone else to do it – get off your arse and do it yourself.