|Collaborative Literary Creation and Control: A Socio-Historic, Technological and Legal Analysis|
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While eight pieces of Indymedia software may seem unnecessary, each piece of software exists because it is slightly different, and in the minds of its author, at least slightly better than the available alternatives. Each piece of software reflects the technical, political, and social attitudes and opinions of its authors.
An analysis of these applications as a group is interesting and useful in the context of a larger project to chart the intersection of software and its social and political implications. An in-depth discussion of the individual applications sheds light on the specific political and social points of contention, and the ways in which they have been handled.
SF-Active began out of a technical need to migrate Active from a dependence on one piece of database software (PostgreSQL) to another (MySQL) in the summer of 2000. By changing Active to support MySQL, a team of San Fransisco hackers forked  Active development and SF-Active was born. The SF hackers have taken Active development in new directions by setting new goals and rewriting almost every piece of the code.
The SF-Active hackers want to turn active from a web application used for IMC websites into a set of classes (one can think of classes as little semi-isolated bundles of features or functionality) designed to useful for a more flexible and dynamic type of Indymedia. Their software handles issues of updatability by sharing programming code among a number of sites running on one machine.
One of SF-Active's goals was to balance the need for moderated news queues without prior restraint censorship. Toward this end, SF-Active sites each run multiple news wires. All uploaded news is put directly into an "Other/Breaking News" wire and then is "promoted" to "Local" and "Global" news wires by the sites editors.
Control of features is handled by the strong administration system which makes administration accessible to less-technical inclined users--but only those that have access to the administrative section. As a result of this restriction, SF-Active attempted to approach these articles, like Active, as thematic features that are meant to summarize and reflect on a number of the articles in the newswire.
The SF-Active team has not chosen to implement functionality similar to user authentication. Entering a name is free form and unrestricted as in Active, but they are considering password authentication in a scheme that they conceive of as a form of "nick registration." Rather than a form of authentication or trust building, nick registration's goal is simply to avoid confusion and allow people to develop reputations. If someone registers "Joe", only they can post as "Joe."
Gekked, a long time SF-Active coder, tried to sum up the SF-Active philosophy saying that, "SF-Active coders do not have any psychotic notions about what IMC is and isn't. Our experience working with collectives from Chile to Palestine to Iowa tells us that any attempt by engineers to prescribe process will be counterproductive and mostly just annoying."
SF-Active has documentation in English, Spanish and Italian and "almost-finished" translations from English in Arabic, Turkish, Dutch, and French. It is being used in a quickly growing number of Indymedia sites including http://sf.indymedia.org .
Mir is a java-based system based on a content management system written by German hackers for the blog-like nadir.org and then adapted to the German Indymedia site. Mir hacker Zapata admits that originally, it was "a system fit for the German IMC way of doing things." The "German IMC way" reflects a legal environment which prohibits racist, hateful, and revisionist speech in way that necessitates prior restraint story moderation in a way that many IMCs are uncomfortable with.
Over time, Mir has grown and changed. Zapata describes his own programming philosophy in stating that, "basically I do not, as a developer, want to dictate how a group should run their site." While he realizes that this is ultimately unachievable, this attitude has directed Mir's development toward this type of flexibility by emphasizing internationalization, static content, and a dynamic system of customizable categorization.
Mir supports readers/posters and authenticated administrators who can write features, and hide, edit and reclassify postings. While there is currently no method for rating or user moderation, there are plans to allow for different levels of administrators (i.e.. one might writes features, another might edit postings) but this feature remains unimplemented.
Mir's support for internationalization is good and getting better while projects to add support for easy translations of articles in the newswire are advancing quickly. At the moment, this is handled by a categorization system that is elegant and flexible in its simplicity. Every article posted to an IMC running Mir "belongs" to zero or more categories. Users can sort and group by these categories and Mir administrators can set up alternative start pages or news wires for each thematic categories. Since Mir also categorizes articles by language and "type" (a type or administrative category that might include "newswire" "feature" or "trash") Mir users can easily separate all content in by language, issue, or type.
For example, featured articles in Mir are standard newswire articles with a "feature" type. While from a programmer perspective they are identical to newswire articles, they can only be promoted or classed as features by administrators. In practice, features tend to include a mix of articles promoted from the newswire and the sort of editorial "thematic features" used in Active and it's derivatives.
Mir has been translated from German into English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Euskera, French, Swedish, Turkish, Chinese, and there is work on Arabic. Mir is in action at http://mir.indymedia.de and a growing number of Indymedia sites.
FreeForm is a project started and largely maintained by an Ithaca, New York hacker named Arc. Now just over a year old, the software is nearing a point of widespread usability. It is written in Python and will soon be released as a GNU project. Its developers are more explicitly interested in issues of software freedom and politics than the other Indymedia projects.
FreeForm is particularly different in that featured articles all begin on the newswire and are promoted to feature status. This can be done by editors, the public through a system of rating and moderation, or a combination. FreeForm's authors feel that the more traditional editorial method is unfair and hierarchical, and see an open system of moderation and rating as a way to resolve this problem. Arc feels that "politically, a hierarchal system is never good" and makes this a fundamental axiom upon which his technical decisions are made.
Outside of DadaIMC, a non-free application from Baltimore, FreeForm is the only piece of software to incorporate user authentication. As Arc puts it, "its all great being all informal and such, but hard to build up a real system of trust when everyone is anonymous." Arc, whose other goals include the creation of a global Indymedia cryptographic "web of trust," likes the idea of users being identified as specific individuals without this information necessarily being connected to a real names, addresses, IPs, and other traceable information. FreeForm's goal is to facilitate a greater degree of trust, accountability, and reputation building within an Indymedia community.
Finally, FreeForm is different in that it is the only IMC application that processes all media content--others simply serve the content as is. FreeForm will take an uploaded photo, open it it, look at the resolution, and let the user crop it before saving it again at several different sizes. For sound, FreeForm integrates the free streaming program Icecast2 to process media that can be immediately entered into a 24/7 IMC Internet radio stream. However, because FreeForm refuses to touch media and multimedia formats that are controlled by patents, the software does not support GIF, MP3, AVI, MPEG, QuickTime or Real Media of any type. Because it promotes freedom from patented and proprietary formats, Arc views this as a feature, not a bug. In terms of multimedia, FreeForm supports Ogg Theora, a free multimedia compression standard that will hopefully be fully released by this summer. For media activists dependent and accustomed to other proprietary standards, this can be small consolation.
FreeForm has been translated from English to Spanish and there is ongoing work on a Farsi translation. Example sites can be seen in IMCs in Rochester and Ithaca. Like Mir, several non-media and non-political organizations have expressed interest in some of FreeForm's functionality.
By no means are the four pieces of Indymedia software described in this article the only pieces of software in use by IMCs. Most notably neglected is a version of the software written by tech activists in Philadelphia in 2000 that is built on top of Slash, the software made famous by Slashdot and includes a good deal of advanced user-moderation and administration features not found in other Indymedia software. While certainly interesting, IMC-Slash never caught on and recent talk suggests that Philadelphia will be moving away from their own software to one of the options mentioned above.
Also important to note is DadaIMC. Dada is famous for being easy to install and configure. It is infamous for being the only major non-free IMC software. It was written in Baltimore and along with FreeForm is the only piece of software that supports user authentication or nick registration.
The Indymedia in Quebec, which has a reputation for doing things their own way, has written two versions of Indymedia software. Their current web application if based off the web-log style content management system Drupal. Their site has a look, feel, and set of features that are massively different than other Indymedia solutions. A fair analysis of the political and social implications of their software in the context of these other pieces could easily take place in its own article.
The Jargon File describes a fork as "what occurs when two (or more) versions of a software package's source code are being developed in parallel which once shared a common code base, and these multiple versions of the source code have irreconcilable differences between them."
GNU is a recursive acronym standing for (G)NU's (N)ot (U)nix. It is the effort led by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation to create a totally free operating system.