The Alternative’s alternative

Published on openDemocracy, by Evgeny Morozov, Dec. 29, 2008.

The “Alternative media”, an early-adopter of web technologies, has been left behind by the hyper-individualism of citizen journalism’s new turns.

Whatever their impact on the domestic politics in Greece, the youth riots that have besieged Athens and other Greek cities earlier this month have also given rise to a new global phenomenon – the “networked protest”. While it was not for the first time that the Internet has made the planning and the execution of the protest actions more effective, it was probably the first time that an issue of mostly local importance has triggered solidarity protests across the whole continent, some of them led by the Greek diaspora, but many of them led by disaffected youth who were sympathetic of the movement’s causes.

The Internet was crucial to this whole effort, as many amateur photos and videos were shared and uploaded online instantaneously by the very participants in the protests, creating an illusion of remote participation for anyone who was following the protests on blogs and other social media  …

… With so much riot-related digital content generated elsewhere, the anti-globalization media faces oblivion and needs to find a new role. Curating all the numerous amateur photos, videos, and comments emerging from the riots would be one meaningful contribution they can make. Consider thousands of videos uploaded to YouTube, photos uploaded to Flickr, as well as blog and Twitter messages flying around the Web – it was virtually impossible for Greek and foreign observers alike to make sense of what was going on. And although Indymedia and several other anti-globalization outlets did try to aggregate some of this content at the outset of the riots, they attempts were short-lived, leaving the global public without the curator it needed so badly.

Indymedia’s predicament is not unique. Many less radical institutions – governments, NGOs, think tanks – are struggling to address the same challenge, unable to respond to the rapidly shifting balance of power between the individual and the institution radically disrupted by the Internet. In today’s ultra-networked world, an unaffiliated individual with a laptop and an Internet connection is often more influential and resourceful than an organization with a staff of twenty and a fax machine was only twenty years ago. This is a truly strange period of institutional change when an organization’s vast assets also look like its greatest liabilities.

The Web’s unmatched usefulness in providing access to research materials, mobilizing supporters, and raising money has already triggered protracted and painful soul-searching among many hierarchical, well-staffed and budget-driven organizations, who are getting increasingly unsure of their future role. However, just as traditional media organizations are gradually nudging towards embracing aggregation and curation as activities where they could add value, other institutions, whether anti-globalist or not, will have little choice but to follow suit and become the new networking hubs – rather than the headquarters – of social change, which would be increasingly enacted by individuals. (full long text).

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