Open Publishing

Open publishing is the same as free software

Matthew Arnison
Composed March 2001
Revision: 1.23 Date: 2006/01/21 06:42:39

A working definition of open publishing

Open publishing means that the process of creating news is transparent to the readers. They can contribute a story and see it instantly appear in the pool of stories publicly available. Those stories are filtered as little as possible to help the readers find the stories they want. Readers can see editorial decisions being made by others. They can see how to get involved and help make editorial decisions. If they can think of a better way for the software to help shape editorial decisions, they can copy the software because it is free and change it and start their own site. If they want to redistribute the news, they can, preferably on an open publishing site.

The full rave

Open publishing is the same as free software.

They’re both (r)evolutionary responses to the privatisation of information by multinational monopolies. For software it’s Microsoft. For publishing it’s CNN. For both software and publishing it’s AOL Time Warner.

Free software is a gift to humanity. If you have a piece of free software, you can give it to someone else for free. You can charge for free software, but once someone else has a copy, they can give away as many copies as they like. So free software often comes at no charge. Let’s call it free beer. But this alone is not free software. Free software is also free as in free speech, not just free beer.

It’s about software freedom. A software liberation movement. The source code, the genetic blueprint, the internal mechanics are open for others to see (hence free software is also called open source). So others can take it and change it and pass on their changes to other people. The product is freely available, and the process of production is free and transparent.

If someone doesn’t like it, they can take it and change it. The one thing they can’t change is its freedom. The only strings attached are there to stop people from tying it down. The strings of freedom are called the GNU copyleft, a beautiful subversion of copyright law that guarantees freedom for a piece of code and all its mutations.

The means is the end. The journey is the destination.

You might think this process wouldn’t produce anything truly creative, awe-inspiring, staggering, huge, complex, simple, small, pedantic, reliable, random or enjoyable.

If you thought that, you’d be drastically underestimating what humans get up to for fun. Because all of those adjectives apply to free software. Geeks like to joke about what free software needs to do next to achieve world domination.

Microsoft doesn’t think this joke is very funny. Microsoft is one of the biggest corporations in the world. Microsoft spends billions of dollars to pay programmers to keep their software closed and internals secret.

Free software is overwhelmingly written by volunteers. Free software runs the internet and Microsoft does not. The number and diversity of people using free software is accelerating.

Microsoft usually responds to such threats by buying them out and assimilating them. But free software cannot be privatised. Free software is not frugal with its genetic code. Free software spreads itself like a benevolent microbe after an evolutionary leap forward.

Microsoft assumes people are stupid and holds focus groups to determine exactly in what way are they stupid. They then pay a small number of people a lot of money to engineer that stupidity into software. Sometimes this works well, because everyone is stupid sometimes. But it doesn’t cater well for everyone being smart.

Free software assumes people are smart and creative and can choose for themselves to swim in the shallow or the deep end of the technology pool. Even the geekiest programmer might want to have their feet planted on the bottom sometimes, and the freshest beginner might make the biggest splash diving into the deep end.

Free software programmers still manage to eat despite giving away their code.

Software is information. So are news stories. So are opinion pieces. They can be easily copied and shared. Maybe information wants to be free?

Under the dominant multinational global news system, news is not free, news is not open. It is very expensive. It is highly secretive.

To see the news you need to pay with money or with your time spent watching ads (usually for cars) or both. To create the news you need to pay expensive public relations consultants. To write the news you need to obey corporate news values, making stories on a production line, for maximum advertising impact at minimum cost. To edit the news you need to be a global stock market newswire service or a multinational media company. To distribute the news you need to have one of 6 TV transmission towers in a city of millions.

Media corporations assume the viewers are stupid. In their eyes the total creative potential of the audience is Funniest Home Videos. Creative people do not buy more stuff, they make their own. This is a problem for media multinationals. They do not trust their audience to be creative. It might be bad for profits, bad for executive salaries.

But it’s OK. The audience doesn’t trust the corporate media either.

This situation has led to rampant confusion and alienation of society. We are disconnected from ourselves and our ecology. Our planet is functioning as a global ecosystem more than ever before due to the global nature of human activity, yet the humans don’t have any way of communicating with each other. Systemic problems go unseen and unsolved by billions. Only the issues that are important to sell ads or grease the stock exchange have reliable global news impact.

What we have is a very complex system within which the humans have recently gained enourmous power but as yet they have no correspondingly powerful network of communication infrastructure to support it. We have no neural network to process information. Not so much a global village as a global megaphone.

Then the internet was added to the global communications pool. If you can read the internet, you can also write to it. If someone else has told a story on the internet, you can choose to hear it. Information flows between the net and other communication systems: the phone, the TV, the radio and newspapers, forming a much more balanced web of information transfer. This is a global village where you can climb out of the traffic jam and bump into people on the electronic street and have a chat.

The internet makes possible open publishing on a citywide and global scale. Citizens finally have access to the same cheap and powerful two-way global communication that colonial governments and multinationals have had access to for centuries.

What is open publishing?

Like free software, with open publishing, the news is often distributed at no charge. There are no ads to eat up your time and corrupt the content. But that is not the most important thing.

Open publishing means that the process of creating news is transparent to the readers. They can contribute a story and see it instantly appear in the pool of stories publicly available. Those stories are filtered as little as possible to help the readers find the stories they want. Readers can see editorial decisions being made by others. They can see how to get involved and help make editorial decisions. If they can think of a better way for the software to help shape editorial decisions, they can copy the software because it is free and change it and start their own site. If they want to redistribute the news, they can, preferably on an open publishing site.

The working parts of journalism are exposed. Open publishing assumes the reader is smart and creative and might want to be a writer and an editor and a distributor and even a software programmer. Open publishing assumes that the reader can tell a crappy story from a good one. That the reader can find what they’re after, and might help other readers looking for the same trail.

We trust the audience and it seems that the audience trusts us in return.

Open publishing is playing at the opposite end of the trust spectrum to the corporate media.

We are not working to convince people that this is a good way to do things. We are providing a space in which people might decide themselves if this is a good way to do things.

The journey is the destination.

Open publishing is not new. It is an electronic reinvention of the ancient art of story telling.

Open publishing is free software. It’s freedom of information, freedom for creativity.

Open publishing is overwhelmingly done by volunteers.

Who will do the investigative journalism? How will people give a perspective from overseas? What will provide a sense of overview, connectedness and common identity? Will anyone get paid for their work? What will become of motion pictures? Of musicians? Where will be the sustained efforts by hundreds of people?

I am hoping the above questions about open publishing have already been answered by free software. And partly by indymedia, and thousands of other open publishing websites. Open publishing is merely taking an existing trend and identifying it, amplifying it, and strategically applying it to weak points in the global monopolies on power and information.

The pyramids are awe inspiring. They were also built by slave labour. We’ve evolved as a species. We can do a lot of amazing things without brutal Egyptian slave handling techniques. We can do without new pyramids.

We are in the middle of a mass extinction of species. We need to figure out how to live in harmony with the ecosystem of this planet before the ecosystem goes into negative feedback and kills lifeforms by the billions. We’re not going to get there by sacrificing our lives for the motor car, trading our human rights for shoes, killing our people for drug companies, hiding our creativity for the multinationals.

We can do better. Forget the pyramids. Bypass world domination.

Free software is wiring the globe. Open publishing just might help us use those wires to save the planet.


Footnotes

Examples of open publishing:

None of the above meet all the criteria above for open publishing. But they’re pretty close. There’d be heaps more out there. Suggestions welcome. Note that while slashdot.org has many open publishing features, and was an important inspiration for open publishing, I don’t think it really is open publishing. Significantly, the stories (as opposed to the comments) are taken from reader contributions, but are processed behind closed doors.

By the way, none of the above four sites would exist without free software. I guess it’s one more reason why open publishing is free software.

…………….

Obviously I think we can learn a lot from the free software movement. One idea we haven’t developed much yet is an open publishing copyleft, similar to the free software copyleft. The copyleft defines how the information can be shared, hijacking the copyright laws to ensure that the free information may only be re-used in a free context. This encourages growth of free spaces, autonomous zones, as the process of sharing information is spread along with the information itself. This may be a key part of what we need to define open publishing to ourselves and potential collaborators. It doesn’t have to be legally watertight to be useful. That can be evolved in later, The most useful thing would be to start playing with the definition. This is partly what we are doing with our work on defining the indymedia network. But I think we will also need to define how we share chunks of information smaller than that involved in total membership of the network. And the basic chunk of information is a story and the copyleft license that applies to it.

The most interesting idea to me so far in this area applied to news stories is the idea that a story can be reused anywhere, but only if all readers/viewers exposed to it, can easily identify and reach the source of the news story. For example by a subtitle on the picture with the web address of the indymedia site the story came from. This means the viewer can not only verify the original version of the story, but also add their own creative juices to the flow. This would help ensure that whereever the story goes, there is a solid link back to the working parts, the raw process that made it possible and allows new people to contribute and mutate and evolve.

This does involve giving up the right to demand payment for every copy made. Free software sacrifices the same thing and it turns out there that it really works. We need to try it for news stories and documentaries, and see if it works equally well.

One key point is that you can still charge for copies of copyleft information. You just can’t stop someone else from giving away the copy they bought, including access to the source materials. And the source materials have to be available for no more than the raw cost of distribution.

And it turns out that people still do buy free software. An awful lot of it in fact.

And that in addition, the reputation of free software spreads very quickly if it is good. Which benefits the software project by providing more feedback, more volunteers to help improve it, and in some cases more money.

The analogy for a video documentary would be placing it under copyleft so that anyone could copy it as long as the copy prominently said it was copyleft and any viewer could find a link back to the source (e.g. the indymedia web address for the city it came from). But the video maker could still charge for copies to be made. They could charge especially high rates for multinational TV networks that want copies urgently for example. The TV network would have to pay if they wanted the footage quickly without chasing down someone else who had it and was willing to copy it fast. And regardless of how badly they edited the piece, because of the copyleft license, they would legally have to give over some of the attention of their viewers to a web address for the source. That viewer attention is an extremely valuable resource for the network, because it is extremely powerful. It can also be powerful for us. If they fail to give the web address, they can be sued for the value of that viewer attention. That’s quite a liability.

There are ways to play the system. I’m not sure if this would work, but it might be fun and I think it’s worth a try!

Update April 2003: I just discovered these great creative commons licenses, which I think could be perfect for the job.

…….

Ideals and reality: many of the things I say above are ideals. They do not match reality exactly. But they are useful as a way of thinking about different approaches.

For example free software and open publishing are not actually free of charge, but the charge is reduced to the bare cost of distribution. This is hundreds of times less than the previous cost of purchase, which tended to include the cost of luxury cars, houses and jets for multinational executives. There is a real difference.

Another important point with free software is that programming is a skill in very high demand, which gives programmers an unusual amount of power as a group of people at this point in history. Historically I think this has lead to great social change. A flaw in this rant might be that programmers may become far less in demand and that story tellers and journalists are already in oversupply in economic thinking.

However, once we turn down various patterns of overconsumption, we can create a virtuous circle that gives us more leisure time, greater quality of life for both us and people living in other countries poorer (financially) than ours (I live in a rich country, this is written for a rich country audience). For example, getting rid of a car creates a huge amount of leisure time because you no longer need to spend all that time earning enough money to sit in traffic jams. Again, this is simplistic, there are urban planning issues to consider, but I believe a lot of it is cultural and information exchange is part of changing our culture to be more responsive to our own needs as well as the planet’s.

In other words, with any luck and lots of hard work and fun, things might just start falling into place in time to grow and evolve as a species and a global ecosystem.

It seems many parts of society are being privatised. Health, water, communications, community media. Being owned by the government or a non-profit is no guarantee. Sometimes there are some benefits from privatisation. But I’m not convinced it’s the only way to get such benefits, and there are heavy costs. Particularly in poorer countries, where prices for basics (such as water in Bolivia) can become suddenly way out of reach.

Free software can’t be privatised.

Especially copyleft free software.

Corporations can use it, improve it, but they can’t get an exclusive hold of it, they can’t deny others from using it and changing it.

Can open publishing be privatised? I think the right definition will be strong protection against privatisation. But the large effects of the subtle difference in licensing between copyleft and BSD shows how important the definition can be. Let’s play with a few and see which ones work best.

All the fuss about sharing music and dotbombs in the mainstream media is hiding an important trend: the most successful internet sites rely on the creativity of their users, not on professional producers as was the tradition with earlier electronic media.

geocities.com is a universe of web pages which anyone can add to, and last i heard it’s a top-ten website (imagine a TV channel where viewers could contribute whatever they liked, and it having shows in the top-ten: it sounds unlikely, and this is an example of why the net is so different to TV)

amazon.com relies heavily on readers for book reviews (and they’ve bought imdb.com, which is a massive compilation of user data on movies)

egroups.com is about people getting together in groups and yakking about whatever they’re passionate about

ebay.com is about people selling stuff to each other: a bazaar, not a mall full of franchises

These are all sites with very big audiences, and they all facilitate creativity, rather than have their staff create it directly. Of course, when anyone can contribute, you have a problem where users need to figure out what things they can trust. Most of these sites are successful because they’ve figured out some neat ways of helping that to happen, often using some sort of user-ratings system (user-editorial). So these sites all have some of the spirit of open publishing.

On the old one-way systems, community media was the exception. On the net, community media is very much a part of the mainstream.

Yes, there have been stories showing that AOL users spend most of their time just using AOL services, implying that people are happy to stay in AOL corporate land. However, those stories did not reveal what those users were doing. I reckon they’d be doing email, instant messaging, and just a little browsing. Since they use AOL tools to do email and messaging that counts as AOL time, so in fact a better indication of the diversity of their surfing would be found by looking just at the time spent browsing. The rest of the time they’re spending communicating with other users. Every time in the past that a closed network has been tried, it’s failed when faced with the internet (the biggest example was compuserve). So AOL may be closer than anyone else to creating a shopping mall version of the net, but they’re still a lot further away than they’d like you to believe.

People want to communicate, they want to be creative. TV is a technology that can’t handle such things very well, yet we’ve managed to convince ourselves after decades of TV that we need professionals to do our story telling.

Imagine if you tried to sell phones but they could only dial Pizza Hut or send messages written by Hallmark? Nobody would buy them (it’s been tried: a very early marketing idea for the telephone had people using it to listen to opera). People are social animals, we want to use our communication tools to talk to other people. The only reason this didn’t happen with TV, is because TV technology is one-way only.

So just because TV didn’t live up to idealistic expectations, doesn’t mean that the net has to follow the same path. The net is a fully two-way technology, and that makes a very big difference. The reason you mightn’t hear about this trend is because a lot of the internet commentary we see is still coming from the old one-way media.

For more on this point, see my rant Is the internet elitist?.

Open Editing

Jan 2002: Indymedia is struggling to cross a threshold in the size of its audience and in the sheer number of indymedia collectives. Many indymedia groups are also grappling with what to do when they are not covering a major event.

As the size of the audience goes up, so does the number of people posting stories, and therefore the number of stories that are more annoying than useful to most readers. A classic example is the rising tide of american postings on Sydney indymedia. The posters don’t seem to realise that we are quite capable of clicking on an american indymedia site if we wish to hear american news.

Open publishing I think has been very important in helping us to find new ways of organising media, often taking advantage of what the internet makes possible. A crucial part of Seattle Indymedia’s success in Nov 99 was the automated online open-publishing newswire. I think what indymedia needs to get to the next level is automated open-editing.

Just as open publishing allows any readers to also write stories, open editing allows any reader to help sub-edit other people’s stories. They might help sort stories by whatever criteria they think are important, or rewrite story summaries, translate to different languages, or compile groups of stories into a feature. Changes would be tracked so that original authors do not get trampled on. Much of this is already happening, but automation would turbo-charge it.

Done well, it will clear a lot of bottlenecks and allow a lot of exta creativity to plug into the network. It will make the sites more approachable for new readers, and more useful for activist media hacks. I think it could have a similar impact to open publishing. All we need is some geeks to implement it.

It’s a bit like web search engines. Altavista was much better than all the rest back in the late 90’s, but then the web got too big, Altavista’s approach became ineffective, and google stepped in with an enhanced method for making sense of the net without imposing entralised order or missing things out. Interestingly, google introduced the idea of weighting search results by the number of pages that link to each other. Which is a bit like the user highlights stuff that some of us have been talking about for indymedia.

Google deals usefully with the explosion of information and diversity on the web in a way that heirachical and even simple raw search methods do not. Expect a similar leap in the impact of indymedia if and when open editing starts to kick in.

For more on open editing see:

  • Open editing: a crucial part of open publishing a clearer piece on open editing by me
  • Three Proposals for Open Publishing – Towards a transparent, collaborative editorial framework by Dru Jay
  • Proposed user design specification: audience highlights by kellan and me

I think my rants could do with some open-editing.

What’s in the open publishing and open editing toolbox?

June 2002

Hopefully at the bottom of a news story in the near future you’ll see tools like these:

Open publishing tools:

  • contribute a story
  • add a comment

Open editing tools:

  • highlight this story (add this story to your highlights page, which in turn allows you to email newsblasts of your highlights, and to collect stories into a feature for consideration for the front page)
  • choose a topic area for this story (is this story about poverty? human rights? forests? then help us make sense of the flow and pick some keywords. also, what lifespan does this story have? short-term, long term? is it a local story or an international one? does it include local perspective?)
  • check the facts (add sources for facts cited in this story)
  • major revision (make it clearer, tighten the writing, add new points; revisions appear in the sidebar; the contributor or their delegate must approve before it becomes the version displayed by default)
  • cosmetic revision (spelling, grammar, formatting; as above author or delegate approval involved)
  • translate (into another language, into another culture e.g. from english to spanish, or from academic jargon to straight journo style)
  • verify this story (I’m not sure what this really means, maybe if a story has collected enough highlights to be considered for the front page, or keywords have been proposed, or a revision or translation has been proposed and an author has delegated the audience to subedit; then random people will be asked to verify if a proposed action is a good idea; a formula based on audience size and creativity determines the threshold for action)
  • list other stories needing verification (if the user has been given random votes I guess)
  • flag this story as wildly inappropriate (strict conditions: a verbatim duplicate, summary does not match story, story contains a software virus, spam, or shocking images with no political context – the flagger must provide a short (and optionally additional longer) comment as to why; low karma users can only flag limited numbers of stories, e.g. one per week)
  • ignore this story, show me another one (if the story is boring, then just move on to the next thing, no need to take explicit action)

Sidebar:

  • Story status: is it a fresh contribution? is it in the bin? number of comments, highlighted N times, is it proposed for the front page? Link to full log of editorial actions for this story.
  • Highlighters: link to people’s highlights pages which have picked this story
  • Keywords: list keywords and list recent stories with the same keywords
  • Revisions: list proposed revisions and older versions
  • Translations
  • Fact checking: list sources for information and statistics in this article
  • Comments: show a selection of comments attached to this story; show total number of comments; give tools for diving into discussion (e.g. top rated comments? recent comments?)

Now the tricky part is how to balance the creativity of the audience with the very small percentage of people who want to disrupt a creative space.

There may be different stages to go through. This is because of the ratios of audience participation (see below) change as the audience size increases. A smaller audience might have a more cosy feel, and therefore a higher percentage of creative contributors. A larger audience will tend to cross a threshold where disruptive people are numerous enough to have a major effect.

There is also the difference between live coverage of a major event, as against ongoing coverage of a place or an issue.

So the default needs to be that people can contribute material that other audience members get to see straight away.

Then take away a small number of posts that are dangerous to the site as a whole. For example spam or viruses or items that attract lawsuits. Individual collectives will have to figure out where to draw the line.

For the rest, it’s a matter of priority. For a busy site, a new article would need to go through various checks to get onto the front page. A key tension pops up during live coverage of an event, between the need to check stories and the desire to see news come through quickly. But presumably if there is a big audience for a live event (indymedia’s audience usually explodes during such times) and therefore more people to help with open editing, and thus ways for important news to get to the front page more quickly. News junkines will drill down to the latest news, and we need exactly those people to help highlight stuff for wider viewing.

The main thing is that the checks on a story’s priority can’t involve too many built-in delays (e.g. waiting seven days for votes to come in from a fixed collective) if you want a flexible system. Ideally any ratios used are tied to some sort of rough average of the current audience and the number of stories and contributors.

Another thing to consider is that some stories have a short lifetime, maybe hours or days, and others – considered opinion pieces, detailed issue coverage – might be relevant for much longer.

But what checks do we need? Can we build some sort of rough framework that can stretch to fit these various scenarios?

Let’s start by trusting most readers to be able to judge when a story is important and interesting enough to recommend other people look at it. That’s when they might choose to highlight it on their personal highlights page. The cool thing about this is there’s no need to verify that action, because that page is owned by that user, and any people they choose to share write access with.

Some readers might only highlight stories that many people think are useless. Well, that’s still useful in a way, and it doesn’t really harm anything at that point.

The next stage is how to use those highlighting choices (or other editorial choices like revisions and translations) to change the priority of a story.

This is where you need to try and weed out abuse of the system. Any such weeding of course needs to be documented in an open way (use free software, show logs of changes to an article’s status, list the editorial actions a user has taken, require comments for such actions, and finally allow anyone to rummage through the bin).

A helpful characteristic of abuse is that (almost by definition) it seems to be remain a very small percentage of the audience. So a major tactic is to try and encourage as large a section of the audience as possible to get involved in open publishing and open editing, and for the collective running a site to set a good example using those tools. A healthy plant is less likely to be attacked by parasites.

Another tactic it to require independent and random confirmation. You should not be able to bump up the pirority of a story if you contributed it. You should not be able to (easily) organise a small group of people to bump up each other’s stories. Tactics for doing this include handing out votes to random users, and limiting the number of votes (based on some formula tied to the audience and contributor numbers for that day or week).

Another tactic is the idea of karma. People who contribute to the site can build up a reputation within the software, so that they are trusted a bit more, or a bit less. You don’t want to go too far with this or it encourages a clique and starts to leach diversity.

Formulas for open publishing audience sizes and participation

1%, say, of your audience at an open publishing site will contribute stories

0.2% will help with open editing, including weeding out spam

0.1% will contribute stories with closed publishing

0.1% will contribute spam with open publishing

0.01% will help with closed editing

the figures are guessed, but they give an idea of the ratios, and are roughly based on my experience, e.g. with large mailing lists, and the statistics for www.indymedia.org in early 2002.

open publishing/editing also implies for me that it’s encouraged and easy to use and well designed.

so if you only have 10 people in your audience, open editing isn’t useful, and on average only 1 person is contributing stories.

if you have 1000 people in your audience (which actually translates to a lot of hits) then you have 100 people contributing stories, which is starting to get interesting.

if, say, it turns out you need 100 people doing open editing for it to be useful (no good if only one person is making ratings) then u need an audience of 10,000.

if anything, these percentages are actually a bit high. they probably decay a bit as the audience gets bigger. closed systems will tend to hit a hard limit, beyond which communication among the team becomes very tough, or increasingly hierachical, especially if the team is working long distance. lots of other factors of course too. and of course “open” and “closed” are pretty vague, in fact there’s a full range between them, so a more open system will tend to push the numbers up, and a more closed one will push them down.

April 2002

The New York Times says communication is making the world less tolerant. But while they mention the internet at the beginning of the story, most of the piece is actually about global television. If anything, this makes the case for open publishing stronger. It’s not just whether communications are global, but how they are global.

One of the slashdot comments on the story points out another problem: that viewers are most attracted to conflict.

Conflict is a basic element of good drama. If everyone in a story just gets along, it’s a boring story. This is an issue that indymedia must deal with. So far the most popular indymedia coverage is of big conflicts with authorities during large protests. If we want to get away from that, we need to find a way to present the interesting conflict in a story that still presents positive possibilities rather than being all negative. Conflict and creativity. Co-operation and competition. We need to find a good balance between these extremes.

September 2002

Content is not king. I’ve been saying this for years, but nowhere near as eloquently as Andrew Odlyzko does.

What does this mean for open publishing? Why bother making the process of creating content open if the end product doesn’t matter that much?

Because what does matter is communication, social interaction. And open publishing means the process of creating content is opened up for people to engage in. Automated software and the web make this accessible and possible for much greater numbers of people than ever before, despite the best, noble and admirable efforts of community media.

And that process of writing news, publishing it, commenting on it, editing it, that engagement of people in the fundamental task of telling a good story, of sifting through which stories are important, and having a good old chinwag when the storyteller finishes. That process, may turn out to be more important than the story itself. That process is what may open up new opinions, new opportunities, new action for social justice. That the process is open, that more people get in and help do it. That is what would strengthen the fabric of our society, to enable us to repair the wrongs and improve all our lives.

One thing I’ve been saying for a while is that the net is a communications crutch. Our cities have cut us apart and made it hard for people to come together and communicate. Shared space is all given over to cars and commerce. People don’t feel safe meeting other people in public.

So the net is like a crutch, we are leaning on it heavily as we communicate and find each other, helping us to meet people with common ground, and figure out who we humans really are. But there’s nothing like meeting in the flesh. So one day with any luck the crutch will fade away to a minor role, when we fix our cities and our lives, and find society in the street and buildings and open spaces of our lives.

indymedia, internet and the global middle class

December 2002

indymedia’s third birthday

most of the people I have met through indymedia are white, middle class, from an english speaking background. people like myself.

most, but not all.

a lot of indymedia depends on the internet, and i think the internet is a middle class tool. that still makes a potential audience of hundreds of millions of people around the planet.

and i think many of those people are ignored in the mainstream media, dominated as it is by just 6 corporations. many of those middle class people are ignored in elections, where the president of the USA is voted in by just 1% of the planet’s population.

i think when you criticise indymedia and the net, it’s important to remember what we had before.

which is better? the corporate media, or indymedia? television or the net?

there are obvious limits to what can be done with a mostly middle class audience. by sheer numbers alone, it cannot be the sole basis for planetwide democracy.

the USA, for all its faults, did a lot of good things by empowering its middle class, rather than leaving all the power with the royal family.

throughout US history, people have been saying that more should have been done to respect all the people’s rights. there is a very tragic history of what happened instead, what is still happening. But, at least they did as much as they did. After all, some people’s battles were won. to say otherwise is to write off all the achievements, diversity, and people of the USA. i think we can acknowledge what’s good, without ignoring the bad.

nowadays, with power gone global, i feel creating more power among a billion people has got to be better than leaving it in a handful of mega corps.

in fact i think one reason the US government has gotten so crazy over the last hundred years is because power went global, but democracy did not. which means even within the USA, and within other “western democracies”, national democracy is meaningless and feels obsolete.

how can we do even better?

i think part of it is teaching people who have resources about the people who have not. and another part is sharing those resources.

many indymedia collectives are consciously working on this. they setup media centres and train people how to use them. they print out stories and distribute free papers. they collaborate with radio stations. there are links to resistance groups in poor countries, collaborations between north and south.

these sorts of things must be done before indymedia can really call itself a people’s media. this truly democratic media would be a crucial part of achieving real democracy and human rights for all 6 billion people on the planet.

meanwhile, you can write off the global middle class if you like.

i am more optimistic.

the more i think about what the US and other middle class democracies have done to the poor people of their countries and of the world, the more i worry about global media democracy.

even middle class democracy these days can be a bit of a sham, but that doesn’t make it any better to leave out the poor of the planet.

i still think indymedia has got to be a step in the right direction, but it still leaves so far to go.

but being conscious of this dilemma and caring about it is an important step to finding solutions and fixing it. let’s at least not pretend that indymedia is for “everyone” just yet. but make sure we acknowledge what we have done, and keep working to expand the circle of diversities of all kinds.

June 2003

Lots happening in blogspace.

Emergent democracy talks about how to bootstrap our global decision making to a level that can cope with global complexity. And has some details and speculations on how a blog-like communication structure may help to do that.

Key author of that piece, Joi Ito, later blogged that journalism has to change as well as it is part of democracy. That’s why I’m linking it in here.

Many ideas in here are shamelessly ripped off from other places. I really should credit those places and people. Or, if you like an idea in here, please assume I ripped it off, and do a web search and find it (actually you might have to wait a few years for search engines that can actually find ideas as opposed to phrases).


The above article describes the first of three crazy ideas for webcasting.

You can copy and distribute this article, as long as you include the web address of the original (http://www.cat.org.au/maffew/cat/openpub.html) in a way that the whole audience can see.