90 minute chat with Matthew Arnison about IMC (pre-)history

Toby Champion (UK), May 2000

"it's good to get some phone time in"

Summary: A personal journey through community media in Australia, leading up to my involvement in the creation of the www.indymedia.org website in November 1999. Includes some history of cat, active.org.au and our webcasting adventures in the late 90's. It's pretty rough and generally fails to mention many of the key people. But it's a start.

Toby's question: What's the history of the Active software? What's the relationship between CAT and the IMCs?

Matthew's rather long answer:

I started marching in anti-nuke protests when I was twelve. No, before that I got a computer, one of those dinky ones with the plastic keys that go beep...

Okay... there was a really good government radio station in Sydney called Triple J that everyone loved. Then they went national and used that as an excuse to homogenise it. We all got really pissed off and protested about that. So that got me into the idea of community access media. In 1992 we (CAT TV) did some community television - test broadcasts. They were really fun - we had to produce a live broadcast for a whole weekend. That was insane. That's actually where the start of the experience that goes into webcasting comes from. A lot of those people were involved in the J18 stuff.

After that, we got the licence to do free-to-air television all across Australia, which was fantastic. It's going really well in Melbourne, but in Sydney it turned into this big political mess, and we didn't get as much access to management as we'd have liked from progressive groups. So some of us like me got pissed off with that, so went onto the Internet, and that's where in 1995 we started Community Activist Technology (CAT). At first that was just about getting access to the Internet, because it was amazing then that you could talk to activists on the other side of the world for no money. It still is amazing, but it's a lot easier to do. You don't need to have a special access place or anything. So now we've moved onto Web sites, especially database web sites, because that's where we feel we can really help, because there are a lot of freeware sites out there.

At the same time, in 1996 I started working for the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA), an umbrella body for all the community radio stations in Australia, which is really strong as well overall. A few of us from CAT TV starting going along to their conferences. We did a "virtual conference", where we try and put as much of the conference online as possible, for people who couldn't afford the 'plane trip (Australia's a big country - it's hard to get people all in one place). So the way we approached it was, instead of trying to get the official story of what the conference was about, we tried to break through the hierarchy and have people reporting on the sessions, and just trying to have as much of it documented on-the-fly as possible. And that's where we wrote the first automated software. We did it three years in a row, eventually having it really sorted. But the CBAA didn't really appreciate our non-hierarchical approach, so after 1997 we got out of that.

Meanwhile CAT was only just bumbling along, at a bare minimum maintenance level. Then in 1999, Gabrielle Kuiper got Active Sydney started. We'd had the idea to do that in CAT, but we never quite had the momentum. Then Gabrielle came along and suddenly we had stacks of momentum, because of all her connections with Critical Mass and lots of other activists in the city. Suddenly we had a pile of people doing Active Sydney stuff, and a pile of people doing CAT stuff as a linkage. So it really acted like a CAT project. Most of the work was technical and publicity rather than writing, since Active Sydney is mostly about our audience contributing content. We only put less than a tenth of the stuff ideally, and often that is the case. So most of the stuff on there now is from our audience, which is fantastic. We have hundreds of people registered with usernames so they can contribute stuff.

But more importantly for CAT itself, Active Sydney attracted a lot of technical and organising energy to CAT. Then J18 came along. Well, we're the first city in the time zone, and we like doing live stuff. We'd done a few webcasts for Reclaim The Streets, but that had never quite pulled all the pieces together in the right way. For J18 we got a little office, effectively an Independent Media Centre, with seven computers and about a dozen people involved, and we covered the protest all day. You can still see it at j18.cat.org.au/. London did a big web-site on the same day, and they took the opposite approach to us. We did what I call "frozen media nuggets", where you "instant-freeze" stories, and put little clips up, rather than trying to have a continuous live stream, which I think is actually not really a good idea. Live streams are cool if you can do it, but only if you can also do the frozen stuff, because with live-only you just lose all the advantages of having the Internet. I've written about this at www.purplebark.net/maffew/cat/webcast.html. The Internet lets you time-shift and place-shift, but if you've got to sit there and watch a live stream to see what's going on, then you've lost the ability to time-shift. You can't see the highlights - you've got to sit there and watch the whole thing. It also chews an awful lot of bandwidth on the server end, and it's a lot harder to produce really good continuous live stream. It's just a lot more work.

We actually built that webcast software on top of the Active Sydney software, so it's actually a package that's got a calendar, events, the news - which is multimedia now, very simple groups listings so people can put their groups info up themselves as well. And that's great, because we now know about a hundred activist groups in Sydney, and before you'd just be guessing to try and track some of these groups down. They're all listed now online, which is fantastic. And it's not just those groups with email and addresses and web sites, either.

I guess activists are really online in Sydney 'cos Australians generally pick up new techno gadgets really fast. Faxes, videos, mobiles, and now the net. We don't have timed local calls, which helps a lot, although I gather some of those problems have been solved in Britain now with the ISPs giving kickbacks.

We juiced up the news to do multimedia for J18, and we thought that was just brilliant. It was really cool. The whole J18 event, for a start. A lot of the media activists in Sydney gave us their footage, and the fact that the software pretty much held everything together... I mean, we had some big problems, but we had 10,000 hits on the day, which is kinda worth it. That just a Sydney site could have that many hits in a day.

And, we sort of looked at London and thought, that's really cool, but... if they'd have used our software, they could have had so much more stuff. It was a bit dissapointing to watch on the day for us - just a live stream, and a few manually published text stories and the odd photo. We found it difficult to get a sense of exactly what was happening at the time. After the day that site turned into a really important place to find out how J18 actions happened in cities all over the world, including both rich and poor countries. We thought at the time: if only they had the Sydney software running on the London J18 site, they could have picked up so many more stories.

While working on my Ph.D. in Colorado USA, I met up with Freespeech.org people: Brian Drolet, Eric Galatas and Manse, and made plans for Seattle. Manse had a system written in Windows NT, and he was prepared to set it up for us, but Windows is no good for inernational collaborative development, whereas Active is based on Linux free software (which is all developed internationally by volunteers, so it's ideal) so we set up a whole new Active project to develop the Active Sydney software into something that could be used for the Seattle IMC. It was a big rush to get it ready in time, and there was a lot of seat of the pants stuff to keep it running under the skyrocketing audience as the WTO protests took place.

I actually worked pretty heavily on it from Sydney -- I've never been to Seattle. I could help a lot from Sydney, because the system was based on Linux. If we'd used corporate software it would be impossible to do many of the things I did to help out.

Putting the software aside, it's the overall concept that's important for an Independent Media Centre: a whole bunch of media activists coming together to cover an event, bypassing the global corporate filters. The software does make it possible to do a lot more than a manual publishing system though. At Seattle there were 400 media activists, then about 800 signed the visitors' book at the Indymedia centre in Washington DC in April.

There are a few other independent media projects such as news.tao.net, protest.net, damn.tao.ca/, www.activistandiego.org and the San Fransico Bay Area Progressive Calendar that do similar stuff. Some of them allow contributions to go straight up on the site; there's no filtering process at all. Others filter stuff first, and in general I think it's unnecessary. Well, occassionally we have to pull stuff that's completely inappropriate, but we've only ever had to do that a handful of times, so we think it's worth it to keep it open. It avoids a whole load of conflict within the group as well - editorial decisions in any publishing project are always a nightmare. With the web, you don't have to edit stuff, so why do it? At the same time though, I realise that some people will want filtered content, and people from all the IMC's are working on ways to have filtered stuff as well as unfiltered on the site, and letting users choose what they see. In fact, even if we have to pull stuff from the otherwise unfiltered stream, it would be nice to make the stuff available somewhere, along with an explanation of why we pulled it.

A common problem with geeks, activist and otherwise, is that if they don't like what some piece of software does, they go off and write their own that has the features they want. Sure, that means some wacky ideas can get tested out, and people learn a lot about writing software, but overall it's not usually in everyone's best interest. We don't want this to happen with the Active software. We've heard a lot of ideas from people who want to improve the software, some of which they're effectively demanding if they're to use the software at all. Significantly, the ability to have some kind of approval queue for filtering stories. We're trying to incorporate these suggestions at the moment. The biggest problem is that there are very few programmers around who are up for this sort of thing. Another is that, as you can imagine, the software is a complete mess by now, and needs a complete rewrite if it's not going to become unmaintainable. We want to make it more modular, so teams can work on parts.

On the Seattle site we had a separate comments section. It was crap - one big activist flame-war. Washington was great though. People could comment on each article, and a lot of those comments were inspiring. If anyone put up an article that people disagreed with, you'd get really well considered responses putting them right.

In terms of filtering articles, we first of all want people to be able to categorise them, by event or topic. We're also considering some kind of trust system, like Slashdot's "karma" system, where readers vote on articles they think are particularly good. And finally, we'd like the audience to be able to create their own filters, effectively creating their own news wires from one or perhaps more sources.

After Seattle, I hoped the activist geeks would pull together for the long haul. That didn't happen though. They seem mostly to enjoy being there on the day, firefighting. We do really need that and they're good at it, but we need people to work quietly, implementing new features and designing the replacement code. That's really started to gel since Washington DC and Mayday this year.

I think this could be really big. We all need to work together though, internationally. Linus didn't get Linux off the ground by just talking to people in Finland. By using the Internet in the way they did, geek activists have beaten Microsoft at their own game in terms of what software runs the net. Microsoft is really having trouble getting anywhere near full control of the software that runs the net. I think this is one of the biggest activist successes in thirty years! If we follow that tradition of the free software movement, maybe we can take on some of the media giants.

This piece is based on a telephone interview by Toby Champion, a media activst in Brighton, England, in May 2000.

See also: the first chapter of the active software user guide, especially the roots and shoots of the active software.

You can re-use this rant, as long as you give your readers the web address for this page. Please let me know about your copy, especially if you make changes.
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