by Michael O’Regan
New media are constantly being (re)born. Their endlessly emergent iterations and configurations present something of a double-edged sword to the activist demos. On one hand, this ongoing technological shape-shifting encourages and facilitates a continuously regenerating oppositional praxis. On the other, an ever-deepening techno-centrism risks fetishizing novelty at the expense of continuity. Novelty, of course, withers swiftly on the vine; that which seems exciting and useful in one moment, faces a near-immediate battle to skirt obsolescence or irrelevance.
An illustrative manifestation of this phenomenon is the confused status of the Independent Media Center (Indymedia, for short). Indymedia was the future once, the loadstar of a supposed revolution in journalism that expanded exponentially and inspired a thousand treatises, before academic and activist attention was captured by the social media of Web 2.0.
Lievrouw (2011) nimbly limns Indymedia’s rapid rise. It was founded by a coterie of American activists in early 1999, with the intention of putting digital capturing and distribution tools to the service of articulating an alternative viewpoint on the WTO Ministerial Conference, which was to take place in Seattle, in November of that year.
A ‘virtual’ open-access online publishing framework was complemented by a ‘physical’ meeting and editorial space. When the mainstream media presented broadly unfavourable coverage of the now seminal Battle in Seattle, Indymedia’s office became a locus of activist activity, re-representing events from an anti-globalist perspective, as recalled, in this contemporaneous interview, by co-founder Jeff Perlstein:
With its determination to remove barriers to expression, focus on transparency, and commitment to non-hierarchical horizontality, Indymedia attempted to enact the precepts of the activist wing of participatory journalism, a reform movement that sought to radically undermine professionalised and institutionalised news media, by putting power in the hands of ‘the people formerly known as the audience’: people who would, in turn, create the sort of politicised content that might precipitate social change (Anderson, 2012).
Indymedia became a brand-name in activist circles (Lievrouw), with a network of affiliated centers popping up all over the world, totalling more than 170 by the mid-2000s (Giraud, 2014). Yet as the decade progressed, the organisation seemed, somewhat counterintuitively, to fade from the popular conversation, as Facebook and Twitter became the tools of choice for activist mobilisation.
Why did this happen? After all, it’s not as though Indymedia went away. Indeed, reports of its decline have been unrepresentatively exaggerated, as a significant cohort of centers, particularly in Latin America, continue to flourish (Giraud).
It might be fairer to suggest that Indymedia entered a period of ideological and technological stagnation, failing to adapt to the systemically contingent politico-economic order that resulted from the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).
Indymedia is the product of an era in which a neoliberal parliamentary consensus, combined with the rise of factional identity politics, dampened the probability of effecting change through formal political channels (Cammaerts, 2007), forcing a “minoritarian orientation” (Gerbaudo, 2013, p. 10) on activist communities. This was reflected in the multiple particularisms of the anti-globalisation and global justice movements, which, with their preoccupations with leftist arcana, could never credibly endeavour to speak ‘for’ or ‘to’ a national public as a whole (Anderson).
Indymedia’s theoretical embrace of “passionate tellings of truth” (Lievrouw, p.134) is, in actuality, compromised by its acutely exclusionary emphasis on post-Marxist readings of globalisation. In a similar vein, the internal relations of many centers (of which the debates preceding the 2012 splitting of Indymedia London are a prime example) have tended to take on the self-parodic quality of a —NSFW!—Monty Python sketch:
But in the aftermath of the GFC, the neoliberal compact has seemed vulnerable to assault, and the glittering prize of fundamental change appears to be on offer. The majoritarian activist movements in Egypt, Spain, and Greece, for instance, have all been self-consciously inclusive, eschewing the “logics of networking of the anti-globalisation movement [in favour of] a stress on unity” (Gerbaudo, p. 11), by implication disavowing the “public sphericules [and] subaltern couterrepublics” (Anderson, p. 88) of the Indymedia mythos, advocating instead for a singular, potentially transformative public sphere.
In addition to this, Indymedia’s defiantly low-fi aesthetic holds limited appeal for such projects, so it’s little wonder that they’ve navigated toward the pleasantly designed, user-friendly, and mass-market Facebook and Twitter, to recruit members and coordinate activities.
Whether this curious libertarian-communitarian hybrid is sustainable has yet to come out in the wash. The construction of generalised solidarity necessitates a problematic elision of difference (Gerbaudo), while the recourse to commercial platforms may well set the stage for a demobilising neutralisation of dissent.
Viewed from this perspective, it is not beyond the realm of conception that the ideals and infrastructures of Indymedia, if not its current composition, may return to revitalise activist media ecologies in years to come, should opportunity structures for protest contract once more.
Cammaerts, B. (2007). Activism and media. In B. Cammaerts and N. Carpentier, Nico, (Eds.), Reclaiming the Media: Communication Rights and Democratic Media Roles (pp. 217-224). Bristol: Intellect.
C.W. Anderson. (2011). From Indymedia to Demand Media: Journalism’s Visions of its Audience and the Horizons of Democracy. In Mandiberg M. (Ed.), The Social Media Reader (pp. 77-96). New York: NYU Press.
Lievrouw, L. A. (2011). Alternative and activist new media. Cambridge: Polity.
Gerbaudo, P. (2012). Tweets and the streets: Social media and contemporary activism. London: Pluto Press.
Giraud, E. (2014). Has radical participatory online media really ‘failed’? Indymedia and its legacies. Convergence, 20(4), 419-437. doi:10.1177/1354856514541352
Tags: activism, cammaerts, gerbaudo, indymedia, lievrouw, mobilisation, participatory journalism, the social media reader