The streets that night were carless. They were blocked, but there was no room for cars anyway. There were thousands of people outside. Some were running, some were locked arm-in-arm. Others were clad in full body armor — those were the Seattle Police. The cops wore helmets with screens to shield them from the smoke grenades and tear gas they were spraying directly into the crowds, forcing people coughing and crying down to the pavement, which was covered in glass from chain-store windows smashed by roaming protesters. “You suck, you fucking cocksucker,” a man yelled as an officer in front of him began firing rubber bullets that left painful welts on the legs and arms of the people they hit.
That night, November 30, 1999, the opening ceremony of the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference was supposed to be held. But demonstrators had taken over the city, confining the world leaders from over 150 governments who had arrived in Seattle to participate in the round of global trade negotiations to their hotel lobbies. At one point, the action moved to a street downtown where a group of activist-journalists had set up a newsroom in a donated storefront. They called it the Seattle Independent Media Center (IMC). As smoke thickened the autumn air, protesters poured inside to seek refuge from the tear gas that made it nearly impossible to see and even harder to breathe. The cops tried to follow them in, but those inside quickly locked the doors. Their cameras were rolling, filming the police the whole time. This was where Indymedia was born.
The Seattle IMC was stocked with donated computers for uploading and editing video and for writing articles. This content would then be posted to a website, indymedia.org, which went live days before the protests began. The motivation behind opening an activist newsroom, according to Jeff Perlstein, one of the founders of the Seattle IMC, was to provide a different perspective on the protests than corporate media. “We couldn’t just let CNN and CBS be the ones to tell these stories,” said Perlstein in a 2000 interview. “We needed to develop our own alternatives and networks. That’s where the idea for the media center came from — the necessity for communities to control their own message.”
It worked. During the WTO meetings, IMC journalists provided up-to-the-minute coverage and produced daily video segments. The Indymedia website clocked in 1.5 million unique visitors in its first week of operation, surpassing traffic to CNN’s website during the Seattle protests.
The success of the Indymedia website and the Seattle IMC newsroom behind it soon inspired the formation of local IMCs and websites in other cities around the world, where they duplicated the publishing platform developed for Seattle. By 2004, there were over 150 autonomously operated IMCs in some fifty countries across the globe, which all ran websites that branched off the mothership: indymedia.org. What started in Seattle grew into a network.
This was at the turn of the millenium, when the anti-globalization movement was in full swing. Activists in North America and Europe mounted major protests against powerful multinational corporations and the international agreements that empowered them. Indymedia’s founding members understood that defeating this enemy would require taking on some of its traits. A movement to oppose globalized, networked capital needed to be globalized and networked too. And that meant getting online.
An Anti-Capitalist Internet
Indymedia activists wanted to build an alternative media system. They wanted to use the internet to circumvent institutional power. But they weren’t the only ones. Another, more influential group of digital pioneers in the 1990s had a similar idea: the techno-libertarians, who dreamt of building a boundless digital future where inhabitants could craft their own rules, free from the confines of government control. The philosophy of techno-libertarianism was most famously articulated by Grateful Dead lyricist and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow in his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.”
“Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours… Cyberspace does not lie within your borders,” Barlow wrote in his Declaration, which he penned at the World Economic Forum, of all places, in Davos in 1996. While Indymedia organizers shared Barlow’s image of cyberspace as borderless, anti-hierarchical, and anti-institutional, they were guided by a very different political vision.
The same year that Barlow published his manifesto, Subcomandante Marcos offered his. Marcos was the spokesman of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), a rebel group of primarily poor and rural indigenous people in Chiapas that took up arms when Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. From the start, the EZLN used the internet to get the word out about their deadly struggle against the Mexican government. In 1996, at an anti-globalization conference held in Chiapas, Marcos laid out his vision for how social movements could harness the internet:
We will make a network of communication among all our struggles and resistances. An intercontinental network of alternative communication against neoliberalism… This intercontinental network of alternative communication will be the medium by which distinct resistance’s communicate with one another.
The organizers who went on to build Indymedia heard this call. Marcos’s “intercontinental network of alternative communication,” as Todd Wolfson chronicles in his book, Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left, provided the guiding inspiration for the formation of Indymedia.
The Indymedia organizers would be the children of Marcos, not Barlow. While the two philosophies had points of contact, they came from different places of concern. Indymedia activists would agree with the techno-libertarians that politicians and police couldn’t be trusted in their networks. But they didn’t see cyberspace as an open frontier of individuals unhindered by governments. Rather, the activists saw cyberspace as a place for communities.
They drew from a history of community media and radical self-publishing, which emphasized the need for those who are marginalized and silenced by mainstream media to share stories, cultivate solidarity, and build grassroots power. For Indymedia, the internet was a gathering place: a space not merely for individual liberation but collective liberation, where communities and movements could communicate, consolidate, and form a “network of resistance,” as Marcos put it, against government and corporate control.
Yet it was Barlow’s vision that attracted entrepreneurs like Eric Schmidt and Steve Wozniak, who hoped to carve out new markets in a digital world unbound by national borders and government regulations. For the techno-libertarians, a healthy internet was one where people could do and say whatever they pleased. Protecting individual rights of self-expression took precedence over protecting marginalized communities — who, in practice, don’t always get to enjoy the same rights.
Today, techno-libertarianism has terminated in a corporatized internet, where individuals can express almost anything they want, so long as their speech is monetized by a handful of big platforms. Only recently have these platforms been forced to reckon with the problems that have plagued communities of minority users for years. Meanwhile, corporations like Facebook and Google, rife with hate speech and funded by surveillance, lack a clear understanding of how to serve the information needs of the diversity of users worldwide who depend on them.
In contrast to the digital frontiersman of Barlow’s declaration, Indymedia activists built a platform that prioritized communities. Within Indymedia, communities built their own trusted online spaces. Autonomous groups were then connected to others in a common network, with the aim of providing mutual support and mounting resistance to institutional power.
Opening Doors with Open Publishing
When Indymedia was at its height between 1999 and 2006, new IMCs were going online at a rate of one every nine days. Many were started to support anti-globalization protests, like in Seattle in 1999. The Indymedia center in Miami, for example, started in 2003 in the aftermath of the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting, when labor organizers, farm workers, and anti-globalization demonstrators descended on the city to protest the trade negotiations.
Though many IMCs formed in response to local anti-globalization actions, like the one in Miami, starting a new Indymedia site wasn’t bound to that movement. The IMC in Philadelphia, for example, emerged in preparation for the protests surrounding the Republican National Convention in 2000. Others were built as general-purpose outlets for local activism. One of the first projects of the San Francisco Bay Area IMC — later known as “Indybay” — was a list of the forty-five worst slumlords in the city. Indymedia journalists compiled the list after interviewing and meeting with local tenants’ rights advocates in response to rising rents during the dot-com boom.
Whether an IMC was started to cover an anti-globalization protest or to serve as a community media outpost, one thing they all shared was a website with some level of “open publishing.” This meant it had a usable interface that made it relatively easy for anyone to post on the central newswire. Most Indymedia sites had three columns (similar to Facebook today). The left column had a menu for navigating to other local IMCs. The center column was a feed of stories, and the right column was usually reserved for submitting a post or listing calendar events. “It was the first self-publishing platform I had encountered,” Lee Azzarello, who started working with the Indymedia center in New York City in 2001 and helped with global Indymedia tech support, told me, echoing other IMC members I interviewed. “This was before WordPress existed and blogs took some expertise to start and use.”
Open publishing also opened the doors to abuse. “We had constant battles with trolls the whole time,” Mark Burdett, an Indymedia veteran and former colleague from EFF, told me in an interview. One key way that Indymedia sites dealt with trolling was by having an editorial policy: members who monitored the posts submitted to the newswire used the policy to decide what got promoted to the top. But as more people used Indymedia sites, the more the trolls and spammers did too. Indymedia organizers eventually built tools that automatically detected spam or hateful content to flag for review before it was allowed to go live.
Issues with trolling, however, never eclipsed the real appeal of open publishing: it provided an easy-to-use platform which non-tech experts could use to elevate their stories online. Activists had long recognized that skewed narratives and silences from corporate media were part of what they had to fight in order to mount political resistance. Even so, those who were in a position to write and publish stories to counteract the mainstream media were relatively few and far between, relying on community radio and public access television, newsletters, or individual blogs.
With Indymedia, thousands of people were publishing stories and sharing photos and videos across movements and across the world. Indymedia’s open source codebase, of which multiple versions emerged over the years, had been created specifically for this purpose. As Mansur Jacobi and Matthew Arnison, software programmers who were core in developing the open-publishing framework for Indymedia, put it in the very first post published to the Seattle site:
The web dramatically alters the balance between multinational and activist media. With just a bit of coding and some cheap equipment, we can set up a live automated website that rivals the corporates. Prepare to be swamped by the tide of activist media makers on the ground in Seattle and around the world, telling the real story behind the World Trade [Organization].
The site’s open-publishing architecture presaged the social media networks that would begin to emerge years later and eventually subsume how we communicate online.
Tech Taking a Backseat
Although open publishing was key to the success of Indymedia, the technical aspects alone weren’t what attracted its user base. Just as important were the anti-capitalist and justice-centered values. I came to the Tennessee Indymedia Center’s website, tnimc.org, to write and read stories about how people in Nashville, my hometown, were dying because of cuts to state health care, about how coal extraction had decimated whole mountains and polluted local water supplies, about how police were increasing their presence in public schools.
Local corporate media at the time were either ignoring these issues or, if they were covering them, failed to consistently center the voices of the people and communities affected. Our thinking was that it would be awfully hard to change local policy if our neighbors didn’t know what was happening, and we couldn’t count on the mainstream media to make people understand enough to care. In this way, as grassroots journalists on Indymedia, our work was tactical. We were reporting with an agenda.
Other Indymedia organizers and activists I spoke to felt similarly. “Self-publishing is great. I’m into it,” an early organizer of Indybay told me, who asked to remain anonymous. “But I feel like the main strength of Indymedia was this idea about tactical media. There’s like a purpose to what you’re doing that’s not just about publishing your story.” If you hung around Indymedia types during the early 2000s, there’s a good chance you heard the term “tactical media” batted around. What differentiates tactical media from some imaginary idea of pure journalism is that tactical media is made in support of a political project.
The autonomy of each Indymedia site gave local activist-journalists the flexibility to support different political projects, and to respond to the informational needs of their community. In 2005, for example, the Houston IMC teamed up with the community radio advocacy non-profit Prometheus Radio Project to set up a low-power FM radio station at the Astrodome, where thousands of people displaced from Hurricane Katrina were relocated. As Tish Stringer, a founding member of the Houston IMC, told Democracy Now at the time, “There was a real difficulty getting information for basic things like when to eat, where to eat, how to get my child into school, how to look for jobs, transportation — really basic issues… Media activists in Houston talked about this and decided really radio would be the perfect medium to address this.”
Within days, the Indymedia activists were able to secure three emergency low-power FM licenses. They handed out small donated radios to people inside, set up a studio in an Airstream trailer in the parking lot, and began broadcasting by helping evacuees find missing friends and family members. The station provided critical information about how to apply for aid and aired firsthand accounts from survivors who made it from Louisiana to Texas. Media activists were helping to alleviate the information crisis by connecting families in the Astrodome — all the while producing boots-on-the-ground coverage that people could follow around the world.
The internet wasn’t in everyone’s pocket in the early 2000s and, as illustrated by the Houston activists who broadcast at the Astrodome, publishing online didn’t make sense for reaching people who don’t have the resources to get online. Sakura Sanders, an anti-mining activist who worked on Fault Lines, the printed newspaper of Indybay, explained why their Indymedia collective and so many others found it critical to run a print newspaper: “Online is great for reaching people who already know about you. But this was before social media, so unless you actually went to Indybay deliberately, it’s not like you were going to see these stories posted on someone’s Facebook. Fault Lines was essential to reach beyond the choir. We would leave it at various cafes and stuff.”
Beyond newspapers and radio stations, it was common for Indymedia websites to run their own physical space with a community computer lab, video editing stations, art supplies, and a meeting room for local organizing. Indymedia sites were networked online, but as primarily local projects, it was essential to exist offline too. This was in part because Indymedia was a creature of an earlier digital era, before social media and smartphones. But the benefits of the localism this strategy engendered shouldn’t be lost on us today: in order to serve their communities, organizers had to be present offline too.
The last post on indymedia.org is dated September 2017. New Orleans’ Indymedia site, neworleans.indymedia.org, was last updated in October 2013. Others are still quite active, like the Indymedia site used across Argentina, argentina.indymedia.org, which is updated multiple times a week, sometimes multiple times a day. When I visited the Tennessee IMC’s website this spring, the domain had expired. I texted my friend who helped maintain the site. “Guess I forgot to pay the yearly fee,” they replied.
Indymedia sites around the US started to atrophy around 2008. The network’s decentralization had a double edge. Local outlets had the autonomy to directly serve their communities. But without strong, centralized accountability, it was often difficult to apply for funding or develop leadership that would help ensure sustainability. In 2002, for example, a Ford Foundation grant was disputed because of the foundation’s suspected ties to the Central Intelligence Agency, which was pointed out in an emergency email to the global network by the Argentina IMC shortly before the money was slated to be accepted.
People also burned out. As a volunteer project, those who did have the time and resources to work for free tended come from some level of privilege. Stronger centralization might have provided the tools needed for leadership training, which would have helped to bring new volunteers in and diversify core organizers.
The anti-globalization movement that helped give Indymedia a pillar around which the network could coalesce also began to weaken as political concerns shifted over the years, and Indymedia organizers never landed on a new movement that could unite and guide the tactical work of the collective. IMCs always covered more than the anti-globalization and anti-war activism of the early 2000s, but the loose network benefited from having a broader social movement that it could embed itself within.
Anti-globalization activism provided a shared purpose around which to converge nationally. Activists met at protests around the country, and IMCs filled a need by providing media and tech services for the movement. By the time Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter hit the scene in the United States, Indymedia projects had been winding down for years.
Tomorrow, in Hindsight
Today, social movements depend on Facebook, Google, and Twitter. It’s been a tremendous boost in terms of organizing and lifting stories to reach new audiences. These platforms also connect otherwise disparate users who share a political critique to raise their voice together to force institutional change. Some may call this a “Twitter mob.” Others see it as an essential tool for accountability when there’s no other lever to pull, like creating an uproar that persuades the New York Times to dismiss an opinion columnist for her ties to an infamous Neo-Nazi, or that pushes Google to disband an AI “ethics board” because it included the transphobic head of the Heritage Foundation.
But many are also aware that reliance on corporations like Facebook and Google means giving up control over how we communicate. Someone may ascend to represent a movement online without actually taking part in grassroots advocacy to support it. Going viral gives the impression that an idea is gaining traction, but the constant flow of information required to fuel unending engagement on these sites means something else is bound to go viral soon. It’s difficult to hold anyone’s attention.
“Social media companies are making money off the hard work that we are doing, and it’s devalued the way we organize online,” Vanessa Butterworth, an environmental justice organizer, lamented to me in an interview. “Back in the day we had more in-person communication. And I feel like that showing up, whether it’s in the streets or organizing meetings or whatever — that’s slowly dying. It’s the personalized connection we’re losing.”
A revitalization of an Indymedia-like project today would never be a replacement for the platforms that are so intertwined with our lives. But it could provide a welcome retreat, a place online that is less tethered to corporate interests, where activists across movements locally and globally can share stories, calendars, and concerns without feeding Facebook and Google’s advertising empire.
When social movements share infrastructure that they own, it’s easier to support each other. When we share space, we can begin to build the type of world we’re striving towards. That may mean online communication channels that ban racism and forums that respect privacy from the start. It could mean building archives to store photos and videos of social movements in such a way that facial recognition is prohibited, the files can be deleted at any time, and nobody is profiting off of every view. If there’s ever a future where we can begin to reimagine the internet as a commons, rather than a shopping mall with a handful of big-box platforms that extract our data and our time, building our own network may be a good start.
But in order for anything to last, it has to be used. A resource is used when it’s serving a purpose and there are people at the center keeping it strong. If a new leftist network is built today, its nodes should strive to support a unifying concern on a global or national scale, like immigration, racial justice, or environmental destruction, while remaining deeply connected to local communities and their own particular informational needs. Now might be the perfect time to build something new. The corporations that form our digital sphere are facing a political crisis. They’ve become conduits for violent hate around the world and have made our elections awful. Indymedia shouldn’t be replicated — it was nowhere near perfect. But its example reminds us that a better internet is possible, if we are willing to build it.
April Glaser is a technology and business journalist at Slate. She previously worked at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Prometheus Radio Project, Radio Free Nashville, and the Tennessee Independent Media Center. She lives in Oakland, California.