Appendix A. Software (,) Politics and Indymedia

Table of Contents
Introduction and History
Learning to Look at IMC Software
Case Studies

This article was written for Mute magazine. It reflects much of the ground work that has gone into the technical analysis.

Introduction and History

In addition to many other milestones in the activist and anti-globalization communities, the 1999 meeting of the WTO in Seattle marked the birth of the Independent Media Center, also known as Indymedia. Within a year, Indymedia had exploded in size. With slogans like "Be your own media" and a grass-roots publishing structure to back them up, Indymedia's attempt to provide a non-corporate and more democratic alternative to mainstream media struck a chord that resonated with activist communities across the globe.

For the first year, Indymedia's face on the web was Active, a web application written by a group of Australian hackers for the purpose of facilitating independent media. However, Active was unable to keep up with the IMC's tremendous growth in size and political diversity. There were more people interested in reading Indymedia and interacting on the IMC websites than there was bandwidth and computer power to support them. Users and media activists demanded performance, internationalization, flexibility, and features; Active and its developers were unable to cater to all of these needs.

The more technically inclined in Indymedia banded together under the auspices of the Indymedia Tech Collective (IMC-Tech) and tried to relieve the pressure on Active's developers. A year after Seattle, IMC-Tech had installed Active so many times that they had automated the process so it was as simple as: "'I'd like an Indymedia site.' Click Click. 'Here's your password.'" As people put Active in a growing number of places and used it for a growing number of purposes, its shortcomings became more difficult to ignore. Technical "under-the-hood" complaints were paired with calls for new features, increased flexibility and maintainability by less technical volunteers.

Within six months of Active's christening in Seattle, IMC-Tech was excitedly discussing specifications for Active's replacement, dubbed simply Active 2. In these discussions, the political, social and technological collided on the IMC mailing lists. Suggestions for user-moderation, in the manner made famous by websites like Slashdot or Kuro5hin were viewed by some to be analogous to the advocacy of a minor form of fascism--moderation makes some voices more visible than others and, according to some, institutes an indefensible hierarchy. It was clear that Active needed to be replaced but that was more difficult said than done.

The geeks of IMC-Tech were keenly aware that each technological design or set of features creates a particular publishing structure, and, as a result, empowers users to "be their own media" in an equally particular way. In an organization constituted by extremely political individuals who accurately examined the political implications of every technical decision, Active's minimalist feature set acted as form of common ground--a least common denominator. Active 2 was never written.

There's a story, perhaps apocryphal, that describes a point in Indymedia history when there simultaneously existed three different and disconnected attempts to rewrite Active within the IMC Tech community--each attempt kept hidden for fear of political clashes over functionality or design decisions. True or not, it seems possible.

It seems possible that the politicization of each technical decision and long conversations with what appeared to be impossible resolutions made writing a new piece of software as a group seem impossible. It seems possible that Indymedia simply encompasses multifarious political and social ideologies that can only be represented in multiple pieces of software.

Fast Forward a year and a half. While Active 2 is still little more than a discussion topic on mailing lists, there are at least eight pieces of software in use by Independent Media Centers across the globe and countless slightly modified derivatives. At least five have been written from scratch for use by IMC tech-activists. Others have been adapted from existing pieces of software (like the weblog/content management systems Slash or Drupal) to fit an IMC's needs. Indymedia's political and social differences and their ideas of what the most fair publishing structure does or does not contain have spawned technical divisions in the software it uses.