Non-corporate social networksTagged as: culture
Published by group: Indymedia London
I read the summary of the software summit in Whitechapel, sounds like a phantastic meeting! Then I came across an article in the New York Times about some students coding a distributed alternative to facebook. So I thought I'd make a list of non-corporate social networks and discuss them in relation to corporate platforms, as a belated remote contribution to the summit.
When facebook first started, many activists wouldn't go anywhere near it. Today, many political-minded individuals use it to disseminate interesting articles amongst their friends, and many political groups have their own facebook presence - for instance the EuroMayDay circle in Hamburg. At the same time, general unease with facebook's hunger for users data is growing.
For a few years now, activist groups have created online platforms with the characteristics of social network sites but tailored to activist needs. The ability to accumulate friends, create groups, give quick status updates, chat is combined with hosting on secure servers controlled by movements rather than corporations, sensible privacy settings and places to collaborate online.
Some of the social network features were satisfied by the indymedia Twiki. Combined with mailing lists and chatrooms as well as the indymedia websites, it allowed online collaboration in a more "private" way - publicly available, but rarely linked from websites. As an indymedia volunteer, I also used it to manually manage my contacts, as people mostly used the same nicknames in chat, mailing lists and the twiki. But I never used it for "public note-taking" like I do for instance on my N-1 blog.
Indymedia volunteers culturally constructed indymedia and its backoffice for clearly political purposes. It would have seemed wrong to ramble on about non-political personal experiences, jokes, games, individual meaning-making, everyday stuff. This is visible in the moderating policies on the indymedia newswires. In order to keep the site concise, many indymedia collectives developed rather strict policies on what is suitable for the front page newswire, what gets moved a few clicks away and what is hidden. Sometimes, it's references to cultural events or practices that don't fit in, sometimes it's announcements of events, sometimes it's articles that don't refer to a specified geographical area.
Facebook (and flickr, youtube, myspace etc) did not only automatise some of the functions that were conducted manually in the indymedia and its backoffice. I think an important reason for facebooks success was its cultural construction which, ironically, in some ways was more open than the indymedia cosmos. Open to individuals and whatever they wanted to communicate about. On the other hand, it would seem weird to use facebook to organise political meetings, work out agendas and protest events. Not because these things are necessarily secret - the indymedia twiki is completely open to anyone who wants to see it; but because they don't fit into the cultural set-up of facebook.
The first activist platform taking a non-corporate social network approach I used was riseup: a massive wiki farm with a "friends" function, chat, groups and document management functions coded by activists in the US. Many activists groups use it for political organising.
N-1, coded by activists in Spain, takes a slightly different approach. It has a blogging function which can be read as an invitation to communicate about things that are not directly part of a defined, collectively organised political project. And I think it hasn't got a wiki (or has it?).
Indymedia London with its code "hyperactive" is trying to insert some social network functions into the indymedia format - if you chose to log in, you can create groups, edit your articles, publicise events on a comfortable calender.
Recently, four students in New York started to code their own alternative to facebook. Diaspora will be a platform that runs on distributed servers (just like in the old days). It doesn't seem to cater mainly for activist/political needs, but maybe it will be a place to mix political and just social communications.
These are just some alternatives to corporate online platforms I know of. There are many more. Will these efforts eventually shift the internet away from corporate data-mining? Looking at Indymedia as a template, I see obstacles to that.
First, technologies of scale. Indymedia, when it started, was cutting edge technology, generated by a convergence of excellent programmers, organisers, alternative media makers and activists. It was to my knowledge the first global alternative media project. But it has been overrun by corporate platforms which are in many ways easier to use, have stronger servers, less down-time, are quicker to add new functionalities. Many efforts to update the indymedia code have not yet led to THE new, upgraded concept that every collective wants to use: a comfortable, multi-media, stable, software that continues the open publishing model and combines it with new functionality. A model that would link the multiplicity of existing radical web-projects (blogs, websites, wikis etc) together without forcing them to give up their autonomy. A model that would also include the not-quite-as-straightforwardly-political communications. A platform that I could use as my gateway to the web rather than an information site for a clearly defined political purpose.
Technologies of scale leads to the second point: money/resources. I don't think indymedia lost its cutting edge due to a lack of knowledge, but to a lack of money. We all need to pay the rent, or food, or healthcare etc. We can't earn money by developing and maintain new radical online platforms. Sometimes there are synergies - skills move forward and backward between wage labour and activist labour. The time we have for political activities is restricted by the need to do wage labour - or fulfill the requirements attached to the benefit system. Some of us spend a few years living very cheaply and reducing the time spent on earning money to a minimum, but this is difficult to uphold as you grow older, start families etc. Ok, maybe its not a lack of money, but a lack of sustainability - we can't meet all our basic needs through activism. Or, as a report on the hyperactive summit states:
"There will be powerful corporate-owned mass media until the capitalist system can be replaced with more participatory institutions throughout the economic system. Indymedia cannot win until everybody wins."
Third, cultural construction. Had social movements wanted to create an online platform for the general public 10 years ago, they could have done it. But the aim was "a network of alternative communcication", not a general platform for personal diary keeping, general comment, neighbourhood organising, exchange on hobbies like cooking or trainspotting, anything that people do in their everyday lives. The result was indymedia - a clearly political platform, with a huge backoffice that taught many of us how to use the net, while we developed it according to our own needs. Indymedia worked as an online gateway to altermondialismo. But - it tended to be closed to the more personal, everyday aspects of life that even activists have. You couldn't use the indymedia wiki to prepare, for instance, a family meeting to celebrate your reactionary grandfathers 80th birthday, or keep in touch with your straighter friends.
The Hamburg Euromayday circle decided to use facebook in order to mix activist activitities with other sociabilities - friends, family, people who may be sympathetic to the politics of Euromayday, but are not directly or permanently involved. Riseup or indymedia cannot be used in this way. You'd need to convince all your non-activist friends and relations to join one of these platforms first - on facebook, they are already there. By now, Euromayday Hamburg is generating a lively communication flow about events, occurences in personal daily lives, and interesting links on facebook - while their website is only used sporadically, although it has an open publishing function.
Fourth, the strive to autonomy and self organising. Part of the attraction of social activism is the chance to run your own projects, to not only participate, but to control what is happening: a degree of autonomy. As was pointed out in the keynote on the hyperactive summit, there is no technical reason why all indymedia sites should not be run on one single platform. It was a political decision to set up many separate indymedia sites, each run autonomously by a collective. Setting up an indymedia site was deliberately not a one-click affair like today's blog-farms, but a political process that also involved raising resources - people, knowledge, technological infrastructure.
Indymedia UK with its MIR codebase was a step in a different direction - it was an effort to pool resources. For a few years, almost all indymedia collectives in the UK shared one platform, which was controlled collectively by consensus decisionmaking. Content from all regions were fed to the Indymedia UK newswire by one tick of a box, technical resources and knowledge were shared.
But consensus decisionmaking in such a large and geographically distributed network of collectives can be slow and painful. Different political attitudes and preferences need to be bridged, local needs taken into consideration. Also, Indymedia UK never lived outside existing historical political power-structures. For instance, it was important for the Scottish collective to have an autonomous platform - being hosted on indymedia UK was an intermediary solution rather than a permanent one.
Maybe motivation to put time into a project is connected to strong sociability amongst collectives, regular exchange and communication both online and face to face. It is hard to try out mad experiments in a large network. For these and certainly many other reasons, several regional groups in Indymedia UK decided to start their own platforms running on a variety of code-bases.
What would we win if we'd control facebook today? A platform where all users own their data? Would we want to spend our time on providing a huge platform for everybody, in addition to day-jobs, activist and other commitments? Is it an either / or decision? Is there another way? What would it mean to break the power of facebook & Co? When I read about the software summit in Whitechapel, I got a sense that we can start small, once again. Many politically aware people are developing alternatives to corporate social networks. Small, carefully coded projects with a painstakingly detailled awareness of specific needs might eventually shift the cultural construction of the internet in a way that makes corporate data-mining sites look stupid and outdated.
If anyone knows of more alternatives to corporate social networks, post a comment...