Are radical, collective, independent media projects still possible?

With the aim of exploring the present pitfalls, and potential future directions, of radical, anti-corporate media projects, Corporate Watch have put three virtual Independent Media Centre (Indymedia) volunteers (IMCers) into a virtual pub, i.e. an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) room named 'pub', to see what our imaginations could produce.


Our three characters are 'T', a techie who, years ago, helped build one of the open-source content management systems (CMS) that many Indymedia sites still run on; 'M', who helped moderate the UK news wire and write middle-column features for years before burning out; and 'F', an independent photographer and film maker who used to contribute frequent action and protest reports before getting a paid job and setting up his own blog.


Here is the log of their half-drunken chat.

T: Hello F. We were just talking about the problems and dead ends that Indymedia and other independent media projects are facing in the age of blogs and the so-called 'information society'.

M: The main points that we mentioned are the lack of resources; slow development compared to corporate technology; political and personal disagreements; and, above all, what seems to be a decline in these projects' relevance to grassroots movements, which seem to prefer using, for one reason or another, other more readily available platforms provided by evil corporates like Youtube and Facebook.

M: And I was saying that both Indymedia and the IT world have changed so much that different people seem to want different things from the project. I have often noticed that people mean different things when they say 'Indymedia'.

T: But we were trying not to limit the discussion to Indymedia, as many similar, though smaller, projects are struggling with the same issues. We are, rather, using Indymedia as an example.

F: So what do you think makes an independent, grassroots media project different from a blog or any other news site?

M: Well, first, the politics behind it: grassroots, anti-authoritarian, , horizontally organised and all the rest of it, which you cannot really reconcile with corporate platforms if you are to keep some integrity. Then there is open publishing, which was quite a revolutionary thing at the time, but nowadays setting up a blog or website without much technical knowledge is available everywhere. However, OP is more than that: it is the ability to post content anonymously and securely, which most of these corporate platforms don't provide.

T: Yes, when we started Indymedia, everyone understood that 'our media' included establishing our own infrastructure (servers etc.) and all the other means of production, material and non-material. Today's 'media activists' seem to be happy to be consumers, however radical the content of their consumption might be.

F: I would add the collective, collaborative way of working. From my experience, blogs have managed to individualise collective media activism and fragment collective political identities.

M: But I also think that Indymedia and similar projects have bred a generation of 'media activists', as opposed to activists doing their own media. And F here is one example ;-). I would argue against professionalisation, however radical.

F: Yeah, I admit that's true. It's quite disheartening to see more cameras, often standing to the side, than actual protesters on demos and actions.

T: Also, I don't know if we can call it a problem, but the reality is that Indymedia has grown so much, with various projects that have quite different approaches and internal logic kept under the same umbrella. I wonder if this line of thinking (one CMS for everything) has been part of the problem.

F: The supermarket logic ;-)

M: I would disagree actually. I think the brand, or identity if you like, is also important to the credibility and continuity of projects.

T: Yes, but there is no reason why we can't separate various sub-projects, technically speaking, and keep the brand name for all of them. The open source movement is a good example of things developing much quicker and better if you don't attempt to control everything.

F: True.

M: The other problem, in my opinion, is the unanticipated challenges that open publishing posed or created: trolling, disinformation, security risks and so on. Also, if open publishing has worked well for sourcing news directly from the street, it doesn't seem to have worked for features and other more laborious tasks – as you know, Indymedia features are often wholly written by one single IMCer, without involvement from others, even to fix typos.

F: Yeah, we haven't really worked hard on promoting the collective collaborative production of media, the way Wikipedia has done, for example. And I'm not only talking about dedicated IMC volunteers, but about the wider audience, given that one of Indymedia's missions was to overcome the division between the reporter and reported.

T: God, this is so depressing.

M: Yeah..

F: Perhaps we should talk about solutions? Even if they may seem unrealistic for now...

T: What I would like to see on Indymedia is more local and community news from a grassroots perspective. Action reports and covering big mobilisations are not enough any more. If we really want to be a serious alternative to the mainstream media, we have to break out of this activist bubble.

F: An alternative, grassroots, open-publishing news agency :-)

T: Exactly!

M: What I would like to see is more collective production of different types of media. Imagine if people could easily upload video, audio and text reports from their mobile phones etc., which would then be pooled and put together into comprehensive pieces.

T: And allowing people to edit audio and video pieces or features online... Provided that we find a solution to potential abuses and security risks.

F: Obviously these things need us all to put our forces together to realise them, rather than us sitting here and dreaming. It's always easier said than done, innit?