A tribute to Indymedia, the scrappy forerunner of social media activism

Here is a draft text from a book I am working on, which tells the Indymedia genesis story from my point of view and reflects on its lasting impact. Those were some times!

For those concerned about the state of the planet, a new hope was born amidst the tear gas and stun grenades of the WTO protests in Seattle, in December of 1999. The many thousands assembled there to fight the injustices and environmental ills of global trade deals were, in a real sense, taking on the world’s complex problems all at once. More than this, they were up against the formidable powers of global finance as well as their own governments, who were only too happy to make things easier for the latter. But this time around, activists had a wildcard, a strategic leg up that would make this protest unlike any other. This was to be the first auspicious collaboration between protesters, socially conscious geeks and high minded startup execs and it would not be the last. Here in Seattle, high tech activism was to receive its first major baptism by fire and would come to prove its worth as an indispensable organizer and amplifier of social change movements.

The ‘Battle of Seattle’, as it came to be called, involved crowds of over a hundred thousand jamming city streets and successfully shutting down the trade summit, mostly through passive nonviolent resistance. The size of the protest and the activists’ tactical coordination caught officials completely off guard. Police forces, decked out in futuristic riot gear, engaged in panicked attempts to remove protesters using brute force and an impressive array of crowd control artillery. These street battles generated shocking images that rapidly swept world media outlets and remain, to this day, what many remember the protests for.
WTO protests in Seattle November 30 1999More discreetly, away from the cameras, another revolution was underway.  In the streets among the protesters and in the small downtown office front that served as headquarters for the Independent Media Center or “Indymedia”, a small army of geeks was enabling the direct upload of citizen reports, images and video to a central website that was accessible both to activists and the general public. Despite the ambient chaos of the street clashes, several digital innovations were being deployed and field-tested on the spot. The Indymedia web hub itself was arguably one of the first major user-submitted content portals, guided by the principles of ‘open publishing’. This meant that any activist with enough digital savvy could submit content to the site and as such, it allowed for the first instances of ‘citizen journalism’, a trend now commonplace on mainstream news sites reporting breaking events. As a platform with multiple users sharing and interacting with each other’s information, Indymedia was also an online space of convergence for an online community, one of the first functional examples of what came to be called “social media”.

Most importantly, from a social impact point of view, the Independent Media Center provided activists with crucial strategic and tactical advantages that dramatically changed the outcome of the protests. As the mainstream media focused on attention-grabbing stories, portraying protesters as vandals and giving air time mainly to the police forces’ version of events, the Indymedia hub provided the world with an important counterpoint, drawn from the thousands of testimonies of citizen journalists in the thick of things. With the site accessible to journalists covering the protests from afar, an entirely different narrative emerged, one that ended up condemning police repression and ultimately led to the resignation of Seattle Police Chief, Norm Stamper. The Indymedia hub was also a vital source of information for activists seeking live information about events on the ground, during the three days of protest and clashes. In an era before smartphones, the site’s raw and rapid dispatches from the streets provided logistical information on areas of the downtown core where activists needed more support and where police actions needed to be documented and reported.

With a platform now ‘battle tested’ in extreme conditions, the Independent Media Center went on to become a fixture at large-scale protests across the world, notably the series of global trade summits of the early 2000s including Washington DC, Genoa and Quebec City. Running on free and open source software, in line with the anarchist ideals of activist geeks, the online hubs could be reproduced and re-purposed easily by anyone who knew a bit of code. They were brought to life by the volunteer citizen journalists submitting reports from protests and adapted to local languages wherever they were needed. At final count, almost 200 local Indymedia sites were established in 35 countries in over 15 languages.  A testament to the potent mix of activist autonomy and tech know how, Indymedia’s founders had made good on the challenge thrown out by punk icon Jell-O Biafra, “Don’t hate the media, become the media!”

The Independent Media Centers are now a chapter of ancient history for digital natives in the fast moving world of today. In the past fifteen years, we have seen the emergence of a truly networked culture worldwide, as rich and poor countries across the globe have experienced high penetration rates for networked technologies. What’s more, this short span of time has brought such great leaps in digital innovation and activist strategy that many social movements now systematically integrate peer to peer strategies, content sharing and social media marketing approaches into their campaigns without even considering themselves digital activists. And yet, though integrated into modern trends and movements, the synergies provided when citizens apply social network strategies to advance their causes have led to the seminal moments of social, political and economic change that have made headlines since the Arab Spring. On these fronts, online mobilization has helped bring about impressive and unexpected real world victories including regime changes and even the emergence of new economic models based on shared resources.

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3 thoughts on “A tribute to Indymedia, the scrappy forerunner of social media activism

  1. Pingback: Von Seattle bis Twitter – Gipfelproteste im ausgehenden Festnetzzeitalter | Kleinerdrei

  2. Pingback: Omaggio a Indymedia - il lavoro culturale

  3. Pingback: Distributed activism: Getting autonomy right | #socialforsurvival

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