Pictured: William Hederman captured these iconic moments from the 2004 mobilisations against the European Summit in Dublin. In the first a media activist climbs a pole for a better view while the second features a large open air meeting before the long march to Farmleigh.
Back in October a question kept popping up among wizened activist heads, where’s Indymedia.ie gone? Had the old dame of online publishing finally shuffled off to the great web server in the sky? After two weeks of radio silence it was back again with little pomp or ceremony. Henrietta St. Mouse chatted to editors past and present about the site and the early promise of online alternative media.
For those of you just out of nappies, it’s time for some social movement 101. Picture this – it’s November 1999 – environmentalists, labour activists and masked youth create a rainbow alliance and blockade the World Trade Organisation.
While neo-liberalists cawed about the end of history, a few bricks through a Starbuck’s window in the downtown Seattle signalled a very different global vision.
Amidst the tear gas anti-globalisation activists cobbled together the first Independent Media Centre (IMC) and out manoeuvred the bland corporate NEWS networks with street level reporting and homespun political horizontalism.
A seed was sown and other nodes quickly spawned across the globe.
It’s impossible to convey the unbridled techno-utopianism of this. A news site, where anyone can publish material wedded to a peer reviewed commentary section? Talk about eviscerating the propaganda model from the bottom up.
Days of action flittered through radicalising consciousnesses, the IMC network helped you pick the truth from the tabloid detritus around events like Churchill getting mohawked at a Reclaim The Streets party in London on Mayday 2000.
Another world is possible they implored. We just had to act local. And we did. It was potent stuff.
Eamonn Crudden, now a Dundalk IT lecturer and one of the founders of the Irish collective explained to me how he caught the Indymedia bug during these summit hopping days.
“I got involved in indymedia as a result of meeting the group that founded the UK iteration of it. I met them in Prague in September of Y2K in Prague at a protest against an IMF World Bank meeting there. To be honest I had literally been online for probably only a month beforehand – and because I was planning to travel to Prague to that protest – one of a series of spectacular anti-globalization protests that happened in Europe in the aftermath of the famous protests against the WTO in Seattle in late 1999 – I was looking at the indymedia sites as they appeared. People suddenly everywhere rolled out national/local iterations of Indymedia as it had been done in Seattle by a mix of programmers and alternative media people.”
Six months later, Crudden was filming in the winding streets of Genoa during a G8 protest. The footage he captured formed the basis of a documentary called Berlusconi’s Mousetrap.
Him and his filmmaking comrades narrowly avoided the devastating indiscriminate violence meted out by ski masked police when they lashed into a school housing Indymedia and the Genoa Social Forum.
“It was the group who went to Italy to make the film that started the process of getting the Irish site off the ground. Meetings started in September and October of that year – organised by a number of us – and were very strongly attended.”
The first news report on December 10th 2001 was from an anti-privatisation demonstration at the Burlington. The lobby was stormed and 16 were arrested. Including an Indymedia videographer who was charged with two offences against the Criminal Justice Act. It was part of a pattern – weeks before another Indymedia head had been pulled filming a Reclaim The Streets demonstration.
Early features on the website side stepped the doctrinaire diatribes of a leftwing party press and came at you straight. There was a rough sleeper’s diary, the arms trade in Derry was uncovered while Traveller’s banged up accounts from actions against the new Public Order Act. Trade justice activists debated the ins and outs of the Nice Treaty’s Article 133.
Planespotting peaceniks tracked US Air Force stopovers at Shannon, providing registration numbers, photos of US military personnel in full camo at arrivals and other documentary evidence on the site that tore away the Republic’s bullshit neutrality.
When the Ansbacher report on tax evasion was published, the Director of Corporate Enforcement Paul Appleby wanted to keep it off line for fear of defamation. Indmedia.ie stepped in and put the whole thing up for download.
Crudden, who had young kids at the time describes how it took off:
“This remember was before the newspapers etc were really online. In the first few years – 2001-2005 I had a decent paying part time job teaching media production in the mornings. I worked the rest of the time for 4 years on Indymedia as an editor. At least 40 hrs a week! It was amazing to see citizen journalism take off in Ireland and suddenly there was a news source that was very open – it felt pretty wild a lot of the time to me – as the content was so opposed to mainstream content.”
In 2002, Dublin was still riding out a free party culture that could pull off huge Reclaim The Streets parties. The site gained news shaping notoriety when one of these turned into the Dame St massacre. Eamonn remembers coverage of this as a highlight:
“Publishing video of the cops battering people on Dame street in the aftermath of an RTS Party in 2002 was a big one. That in my opinion was the first time video which was serious national news – was independently published on the internet in Ireland.”
A particularly, shall we say, an energetic young community relations officer called Donal Corcoran, was made famous by the site through a Robocop meme. A generation’s naive perceptions of the role of Gardai in policing protest were shredded.
During the EU summit a year later, Gardai used RTE and a hysterical press to effectively ban one of the main marches with veiled threats about waiting riot squads not allowing it to assemble. This was still the era of stickering and wheat-pasting, with no social media to recourse to. Still, organisers managed to reroute tens of thousands of people into a demonstration for civil liberties.
This was largely down to unfolding media analysis and insider reporting provided on Indymedia, which alongside the Community Media Network had taken over a warehouse on Dublin’s northside to facilitate citizen journalism around the event.
It wasn’t all politics though, there was a subversive cultural streak to it all too, with an early story about 10 TV’s being sacrificed in a NCAD art prank hinting at an underlying anti-consumerism that raged against the Celtic Tiger. Then there was the digital galleries created by the pseudonymous Noise Hacker tracking the ever moveable landscape of graffiti art in Dublin and beyond.
Mash-ups and remix culture lent the site an edge no red top Trot newspaper could match.
This was reflected in the video output of those involved, CD-Rom’s of video content were assembled and copied from hard drive to hard drive or uploaded to college and work networks overcoming the digital divide.
Internally the site ran off a series of mailing lists, with editors proposing feature ideas and vouching for newbies to get involved. In keeping with the radically participatory nature of the model, all editorial decisions were available for scrutiny.
This mission to level access to media making extended to the site unleashing its own open source software called Oscailt.
A statement at the time laid out how as well as “constant efforts to produce and distribute information in an open and democratic manner, we put a similar effort into creating and disseminating free software to allow others to do the same.”
I asked another long standing editor called Terence to reflect on what got him involved.
“Initially my involvement was technical and later it became editorial. Indymedia gave you the opportunity to put out information with facts and context consistently ignored by mainstream media and an ability to report on various protests, campaigns and events which would never have got anything other than negative coverage from the mainstream media.”
Indymedia was steeped in a culture of net security – servers of local nodes were seized in police raids in both Bristol and the USA – so the site never recorded anyone’s IP address, anonymity was the name of the game.
As a result, it’s hard to give an accurate impression of traffic at its height. But the editors I chatted to remember spikes of 300,000 page views a month when direct action events against US military stop overs at Shannon airport led to tabloid terror, denunciations from Sinn Fein and the army being called out.
Terence is uneasy with using pageviews as a metric, opting instead for activity in the comments sections as a measure of the site’s rise and fall.
“We don’t have the stats going back more than 2 or 3 years because they were lost as we have changed hosting servers at least twice. What I do know is the number of stories and comments per month has fallen dramatically and the peak was around 2006/2007 at close to 4,000 comments per month. Today it is down to 50 – 70 per month.”
While other parts of the global network floundered as the momentum of the anti-globalisation movement sapped, the Irish site successfully sidestepped into a clearing house for peripheral politics and outsiders at its height.
In tribal wars of the mid-noughties Irish internet the site’s name was evoked to denigrate anything on the left. A much despised former Justice Minister called Michael McDowell attempted to link it to an attack on the PDs office in the Dail while Noel Dempsey gave out about it hosting calls for action against the Corrib pipeline, another huge story given oxygen by the site, saying “people from outside the area come in and cause problems with the gardaí and local people.”
Editors were harassed too, an Indymedia Ireland Watch blogspot circulated homebrewed conspiracy theories about who controlled the site and offered financial rewards for the names and addresses of activists. There were other downsides.
The model itself was its own worst enemy. Strung out editors sacrificed their own creative urges to wage a constant administrative war against trolls and the transparent mailing lists were often sidelined into disruption. Terence says:
“As a consequence lots of people left and so began the long slow decline of contributors and readers. It would seem the hope was ground down and extinguished. The same thing happened to the other Indymedias most of which have shut down. It is hard to know the exact role of state actors but if the history of the destruction of activists movements is anything to go by, then it had a large part to play in it but cleverly done in a covert way.”
There’s a direct parallel between the rise of Facebook and the decline of the site too. Frustrated perhaps by sectarian sock puppetry in the comments section, a lack of quality control on the wire or just seduced by ease of use – the audience trickled away. Slowly.
Sadly, for a scene that pioneered web 2.0, it failed to beat back the enticing new corporate enclosures of social media. Several forks in the road were mooted on the lists to mutate the model but never with enough traction for consensus – so it stagnated.
“The glorious chaotic nature of its origins weren’t at all suitable for scaling up for a heavyweight fight. It did very well when the competition was less capable.” says James O’Brien, now a Workers Party activist and one time site editor.
Was he surprised with how readily the carving out of independent space online was surrendered?
“I didn’t anticipate stuff like Facebook or Twitter, (ie the detailed manifestation of that dominance) but it was always obvious that capital would, sooner or later, move in on the web and with its considerable resources likely take over. In some ways I’m surprised that it hasn’t dominated more. Things like Facebook seem useful to opposition organising although they can’t replace having independent media.”
Whatever the flaws, Indymedia.ie was a town hall open to all. It was a radically different space to all those rolling threads underneath the brand building profile pages and big fishes of the Irish left. These are digital backrooms where who you rub shoulders or eavesdrop on is determined by algorithm or proximity to other movers and shakers in the game.
Those with little appetite for net nostalgia will say social media left projects like Indymedia in the dust. Eamonn Crudden thinks this is a dangerous sophistry.
“Indymedia ireland did create what I’d term a ‘counter-public sphere’ for half a decade. Facebook and so on feels similar but is different – as rather than being a true public sphere – it is a set of overlapping and interlocking private spheres. It also has no memory – as anyone who tries to find old information on it will quickly find out. The indymedia archive still is there – and it is easier for me to for example reconstruct events from 2003 than it is to reconstruct events in the water charges campaign from a year ago.”
Whatever your take on its ups and downs over the years, had Indymedia.ie recently hit the digital dirt we’d have lost an archive of social movements here since 2001. Indymedia set off a flare that turned journalism inside out with a dose of radical imagination and hackery.
As we do our daily grind on this 2015 version of the internet – a vain, seething spew of filtered selfies, soups of bile and comment sections where one fears to tread – it’s easy to forget being online once entailed optimism and using technology to our advantage.
Sitting here a decade and a half later, it’d take some serious Jedi shit to usher in a similar seismic switching of the script.
“Just looking at the archives here for first time in years” Crudden tells me in our last chat. “Wow – it was serious. Where are the kids coming up from behind I ask myself James Murphy style?”
Consider that a challenge.
You can take a gander through the Indymedia.ie website here.
Nice piece! Margaret Gillan of CMN and I wrote a chapter about indymedia.ie for Rosie Meade and Fiona Dukelow’s book “Defining events”. It’s online free at http://eprints.maynoothuniversity.ie/5651/1/LC_Indymedia.pdf.