Learning to Look at IMC Software

Other authors have established the existence and importance of the connection between the technological (Lessig calls it code) and the social structures that are created by and reflected in technological choices. In a case like Indymedia, this connection is explicit and central.

However, every effective developer knows that if every line of code and every technical detail must first stand up to political debate, every piece of software will have a history like Active 2's--no history beyond the conceptual. Every effective developer knows that bugs should be fixed, while features or design decisions should be discussed or debated. This division is a muddled one.

Indymedia provides the perfect venue for an analysis of this muddy distinction. Because most IMC-Techs see their work on Indymedia software as a part of their political and social activism, they make the political or social motivations behind technical decisions unusually explicit.

But IMC software is also a useful example in that it lets an analyst easily isolate the technical choices. Every piece of IMC software serves the same fundamental function--empower Internet users to be their own media--and does so by following extremely similar models. It is difficult for even an educated visitor to determine which software an IMC is running at first glance.

But the software is not all the same. Differences can seem subtle but they are intentional, considered, and extremely important. For some, these "subtle" differences represent the difference between media that is democratic and media that is tyrannical or fascist.

For these reasons, an analysis of the points of convergence and differentiation between different Indymedia software can give us invaluable insight into the nature of the fuzzy area at the intersection of the political, societal and technical.

Active's Template and Points of Convergence

As the first piece of Indymedia software and the application behind a majority of Media Center websites, Active provides the template on which all other Indymedia software has been based. Active development has included little more than minor and necessary bug fixes since it was rolled out in 1999. As it stands, it provides the basic functionality common to all of the major pieces of Indymedia software.

Active's interface design and layout may be its longest lasting legacy. Its basic design is similar to the design used effectively by many mainstream media and information outlets.

The Indymedia front-page consists of a tool bar on the left with links to documentation, information about Indymedia and the software, other Indymedia sites, a simple search, and links to other IMCs. It usually includes a box through which viewers can subscribe to an email newsletter.

The middle column on the front-page is the most visible and prominent piece on the website. Consequently, the space is reserved for "features." For IMCs, features usually include headlines, images, thematic text, and links to a selection of representative or exceptional articles of the theme.

In Active, features are produced as HTML fragments. As a result, the ability to create and manipulate features requires technical sophistication, familiarity with HTML, and access to the web server on which Active is running. It is almost always necessary to restrict the ability to manipulate features to a small trusted group--often an editorial collective. As a result of this structure, features tend to be thematic and include an aggregation of other content submitted through the more open parts of the publishing structure.

The left column contains an overview of the newswire, the feature for which Indymedia is famous. Visitors to the site are allowed to follow a form-based submission process that allows them to upload articles, images, audio, or multimedia, into the newswire. On most Indymedia sites, articles are published in the newswire automatically and immediately and are displayed in reverse chronological order. The newswire lists the article subject (headline) and the date and time on which it was first posted.

Active's users have the option of filtering the newswire by media-type (i.e. only images or only text articles). Whey they click on an item in the newswire, the article is presented along with comments posted by readers. At the bottom of each article page is a form where readers can join reply to the article or comments themselves. This form, like the media submission form, allows users to specify a name or nickname but provides no system of authentication or name registration.

Active's Spin-Offs and Points of Divergence

Even the brief description of Active above alludes to several of the major points of contention and areas of divergence among those who have orchestrated Active's spin-offs.

The way featured articles are implemented acts as an example that exemplifies a larger debate over issues of selection and information hierarchy. On Active and most of its derivatives, features are managed by a small group of authenticated users. Issues of control and management are compounded by the fact that the creation of features is often prohibitively complicated technically. Some feel that by limiting the ability to write features to a particular group, IMCs are privileging one set of viewpoints over others and are creating hierarchies, a form of censorship, and power structures that are no better than those in the corporate media.

Authentication is another contested topic. Several of Active's re-writers have seen the lack of user authentication for comments and article publishing as a serious barrier to the development of trust within Indymedia. Others see the anonymity provided by this system as essential to Indymedia's goals.

Other major issues include internationalization and localization--features that Active left largely neglected in its first incarnation. As alluded to in the discussion of features, the manner and degree to which developers should simplify Active's interface for less technically inclined people has provided yet another nexus for diverging opinions as well. Still more differences are evident around attitudes toward the importance of maintenance and updatability as fixing bugs and tracking changes in deployed copies of Active proved extremely problematic.

Each Active rewrite has evaluated and approach each of these problems differently.