The term “Cyber Separatism” to describe digital activism in the alter-globalisation movements is simply wrong. We reject it. It sets up a false distinction between today’s generation of media activists and their predecessors. It implies that back in the mid 1990s, there was a choice to adopt or reject the digital mainstream when in fact none existed. Digital media activism in the ensuing decade relied almost entirely on autonomous server infrastructure and homegrown free software. This was not due to an abstract ideological commitment. There simply was no alternative.
In the era of Web 1.0, no free corporate platforms were available, let alone a commercial social web. There was nothing to separate from. You either built it yourself or you had nothing. If you wanted to use this tech stuff for political means, you had to create it yourself. Online tools had to be conceived, built, coded, hosted and maintained by a network of sympathetic “techies” who were in permanent dialogue with users in the activist community.
Establishing an autonomous digital communication infrastructure was an utter necessity. Having direct control over our own parts of the evolving infrastructure that was the internet gave us cyber-autonomy. When talking about core tenets of the alter-globalisation movement’s tech vision, we find cyber-autonomy a more useful concept than cyber-separatism.
Running an autonomous infrastructure takes time, effort and commitment. It requires looking after, maintaining, and decision-making. This can be tedious, but as politics are put into practice on a daily basis, it is also empowering and innovative.
The autonomous infrastructure in the physical sense was –and still is – separate from commercial platforms such as AOL or Yahoo. “Islands on the Net” consisted of the servers, boxes, clusters, cupboards and cables, and the collectives and techies that ran them. However, the purpose of this digital environment certainly was not to create minoritarian spaces of resistance (these we kept for our own self-organisation and experiments in co-ordination). To the contrary, much of the services provided and most of the websites and platforms themselves were designed to speak to the world, to enable participatory communication, to create possibilities to talk to and as “the 99%.”
At the time, this kind of distributed digital infrastructure was not an isolated endeavour, but cutting edge technology. One of the largest fashionable currents of the time was Tactical Media: Projects like Next Five Minutes, the Yes Men and others favoured short-term tactical interventions in the media sphere over a strategic approach to dominate online communication in the way of Facebook, Youtube and the like. Myriads of autonomous servers rather than a single coherent structure. Fluid networked collaboration rather than command line. Digital experimentation rather than internet domination. Tactical guerrilla warfare on enemy terrain rather than trench warfare to defend one’s own territory. Today’s social media activists continue the tactical approach, when they use commercial platforms to circulate oppositional news and organise protest.
In today’s digital environment, it’s hard to imagine media activism without smartphones, Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, and that digital political communication once took place largely on mailing lists and bulletin-board forums. Interaction meant that you could click on a link or send an email, and only a small number of people had the actual skills to hand code a website.
In the late 1990s the emerging movement against neoliberal globalisation started to stage synchronised mass protests occurring simultaneously in different countries, alongside large scale confrontations around the sites of international government summits. The internet had been used in 1997-98 to mobilise for and coordinate protests against the proposed MAI trade agreement (Multilateral Agreement on Investment). This combined international coalition-building with on-the-ground street protests and blockades. Increasingly, the internet was also used for reporting protests. For “J18”, the Carnival Against Capital (1999), activists produced a detailed record of connected protests in scores of cities worldwide, using Internet Relay Chat, mailing lists and a manually coded website.
The introduction of the participatory functionality of Indymedia in support of the Seattle WTO protests meant that, for the first time, anyone could instantly publish their text, photos or video online. This innovation proved revolutionary. Indymedia gained more visibility than we ever dreamt of – both inside and outside of the “activist ghettos.”
As part of a radical autonomous digital online structure, Indymedia contributed to a main success of the alter-globalisation movement: shining a spotlight on international financial institutions, corporate players, trade agreements and their interplay. To decipher and reveal the monopolies and how they exercised power over us, to identify, denounce and delegitimise them in front of the whole world. Today many would argue the financial crisis and the austerity actions of governments has succeeded in advancing this process. Half of the arguments are at least well known if not fully won.
The ascent of this digital media project was breath-taking as the much vaunted interconnected networks of resistance became a reality. With its open, non-hierarchical, participatory attitude that deliberately defied just about every rule of corporate journalism, Indymedia prefigured what is now known as “citizen journalism.” Eventually, with the Indymedia network evangelising the concept of “open publishing” and demonstrating the power of crowdsourced citizen journalism, a new, more interactive and collaborative approach to news reporting began to enter the mainstream.
Protecting activists’ privacy and providing secure communication channels was viewed as crucial, especially when organising movements for radical change. Indymedia specifically provided anonymous publishing, where the identity of the contributor was protected. This was a necessary defence against law enforcement agencies as governments and police in different countries attacked the alter-globalisation movement, shut down websites, seized servers, and arrested tech activists.
In the face of encroaching commercialisation and increasing regulation of the internet, control and spying by governments, open and anonymous publishing underlined a public political stance that encompassed a dialogue around electronic civil liberties, free speech, intellectual property, online rights, encryption use – a dialogue that is no less relevant today.
Also, do not forget the rush of utopian enthusiasm engendered in the early days of cyber-activism. Many expected that the monopoly-busting, game-changing tsunami that was the internet would lay waste to the old concepts of property, ownership, and the very means of production in a new world of collective empowerment.
The political landscape of the net was in development. Arguments were being formulated, corners being carved out, positions had to be taken. In this context there was no separatism. Tech activists, media activists and net campaigners fought for the heart of the internet, identifying ways of working and interacting that reflected, hardwired and hardcoded their political beliefs. We just needed the rest of society to catch up, log on and participate. As it turns out, perhaps we could have done with some hundreds of millions of dollars to create more stable, user-friendly platforms that would make mass adoption a reality :0
The explosion of Indymedia in the early 2000s echoed a clamour to publish and interact on the internet. The first commercial blogging platform went online around the same time as Indymedia, followed by Myspace (2003), Flickr (2004), Youtube (2005), Twitter and Facebook (2006). In 2007, some London-based activists discussed the state of Indymedia. The result was a small drawing: an island with a small Indymedia logo planted on it, amidst but separate from a wide ocean called web 2.0, filled with happily interconnected boats called Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Youtube and so on. We nodded. Yesterday, Indymedia was a highly innovative political online project with street cred, probably the most “global” network and certainly then the biggest political hub on the digital realm. Today it appeared more like a leftover from a previous era. How did this happen?
Indymedia had turned from guerrilla tactics to a more strategic approach. Protecting core values such as the privacy of the users had become the prime directive. From playing with syndication, RSS and aggregation across a global, multilingual network, Indymedia had changed to a closed shop. A walled garden island on the net. Not from any deliberate separatism, but to safeguard the security and privacy of the users in an increasingly repressive environment.
The debate on security had been ongoing within Indymedia for years. What started out as a necessary position of cyber-autonomy became doctrine. At first we simply didn’t trust “them” with our data. As corporate platforms expanded, activists advanced a critique of the corporations. To use them was to jump into bed with the enemy and endorse a capitalist model of commodification of both self and internet. To potentially give away your rights to privacy all in one go while kicking the free alternative providers in the teeth. Some of this tipped over into a form of cyber-fundamentalism, a desire to inhabit an ideologically pure position. The ability to evaluate and make decisions decreased. Even using a Windows laptop on a tactical level became highly controversial if not unacceptable.
In the light of ongoing internet repression seen in the recent wave of uprisings and the Snowden revelations, the obsession with security and privacy has proved well founded. But for Indymedia, it came at the high price of its ultimate decline in many cities.
Is the claim to cyber-autonomy now redundant? Has it turned into cyber-separatism: an albatross around the neck of media activism? We don’t think so. We still need hardware and software to protect our privacy and this requires autonomous infrastructure.
In the practices of today’s media activists, there is no “either-or.” Behind the scenes, Occupy et al and their tech supporters made much use of autonomous servers for things like internet chat and encrypted communications for coordination, as well as using corporate communication tools and social media.
A tactical approach to media activism means using all available tools without worrying too much about ideological purity, but with careful consideration of political purpose and situated adequacy. This includes tweeting and facebooking, but also the digital ecosystem of resistance. Torrenting, Tor, Wikileaks, secure email and chat; using pastebin, pirate pad and other current versions of anonymous publishing all involve cyber autonomy.
Like the bonds that join people when they experience struggle in the streets, media activism can bring people together and create solidarity. Being part of collective action online comes with its own thrill especially when it takes the form of international collaboration in times of social crisis. The convergence of shared experiences that inspire and motivate is what mobilises the masses. At these times you use everything to hand based on tactical choices, and the more choice the better.
By Sam and Annie, who were part of the collective that ran Indymedia London until its closure in 2012 and part of the group that created Indymedia UK in May 2000.
Sam and Annie