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Dec. 9, 2010, 10:30 a.m.

From Indymedia to Wikileaks: What a decade of hacking journalistic culture says about the future of news

The first time I ever heard the words “mirror website,” I was sitting at a debris-strewn desk, hunched over a desktop computer, on the second floor of a nondescript office building on East 29th in Manhattan. I’d recently started volunteering with the New York City Independent Media Center, an organization that would turn out to be one of the first “citizen journalism” organizations in the United States — though certainly no one would have called it that at the time. The IMC was in its third day of participant-powered coverage of protest actions taken against World Economic Forum (WEF) meetings in New York. It was less than five months after September 11; the city was cold and bleak, and people were tense. Really tense. And our website, NYC Indymedia, had slowed to a crawl.

“It’s going to crash,” I muttered.

“Don’t worry,” I was told. “We’ve got it mirrored on a bunch of backup servers. The updates from people using the Open Newswire won’t show up right away, but they will show up, and people will still be able to read the site.”

I wish I could say that the Indymedia site was crashing because we were — like Julian Assange — the targets of powerful governmental forces, but I suspect the website slowness had more to do with unexpected server load and a tenuous back-end infrastructure than with any sort of global conspiracy. Nevertheless, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was all going to be okay. Somewhere, a person who knew all about such complicated things like “mirrors” and “servers” was taking care of it.

I raise this old story from the prehistoric days of online citizen journalism because, when I read tweets like “the first serious infowar is now engaged, and the field of battle is WikiLeaks,” I think it’s worth taking a step back and trying to put recent developments in perspective. The battle over Wikileaks, and the journalistic questions that it raises, are genuinely new developments — but they’re new developments grounded in a few long term trends and a history stretching back nearly two decades. The impact of WikiLeaks on journalism is more an impact of degree than of kind; what’s happening isn’t entirely new, but it is happening on a greater scale than ever before.

I want to talk about two general trends I see shaping journalism, trends that are highlighted in developments at the leading edge of “journalistic hacktivism” over the past decade.

The Internet-powered introduction of new “objects” into the journalistic bloodstream

Collapsing business models aside, the primary change shaping journalism over the past ten years has been the introduction of strange new “digital news objects” into the traditional journalistic work flow. In the days of the coverage of the World Economic Forum by Indymedia, these new objects were first-hand citizen accounts, on-the-scene photos, and other forms of primitive “citizen journalism,” uploaded in real time to websites. Since 2002, we’ve seen these forms of first-hand eyewitness slowly be embraced by mainstream news organizations, from CNN’s iReport to The New York Times’ Moment in Time crowdsourced photo series.

Now we see news organizations struggle to integrate massive amounts of semi-structured data into their traditional workflow — some (though certainly not all) of it coming from non-traditional informational actors like WikiLeaks. Drawing on the pioneering work of media theorist Lev Manovich, Columbia professor Todd Gitlin has recently argued that

…the definitive informational metaphor of our epoch is the database. The database is not just a metaphor, in fact — it’s a certification of what knowledge looks like and how it is to be gained. A metaphor is a carrier, a condensation of meaning. A database is a heap.

While I don’t entirely agree with Gitlin about the political meaning of WikiLeaks (disclosure: Gitlin was my dissertation advisor), I do agree that the challenge traditional journalists now face is how to “come to terms” with the presence of these strange new objects. What journalistic status should we accord databases, and how should we manage them inside conventional news routines? Much like the first citizen photos from the scene of protests and natural disasters required journalists to rethink what counted as journalistic evidence, WikiLeaks’ slow-but-steady release of 250,000 diplomatic cables is prompting journalists to ask similar questions about what they do. The difference between citizen photos and databases is a difference in scale, and extreme differences in scale eventually become differences in kind.

So the presence of these strange new extra-journalistic news objects isn’t all that new. New “quasi-sources” have been hacking journalistic workflow for years. What’s new is the scale of the evidence that’s now bombarding journalism. The question of how to manage reader-submitted photos is a qualitatively different question than the dilemma of how to manage hundreds of thousands of leaked cables being provided by an information-transparency organization whose ultimate motives and values are unclear. Think of the State Department cables as a massive pile of crowdsourced evidence — only in this case the “crowd” is the U.S. diplomatic corps, and the first work of document collection and analysis has been done by an outside organization.

The long rise of the news geeks

In the case of both Indymedia and WikiLeaks, developments which have had a serious impact on the newsroom have been powered by what I like to call the “leading politicized edge” of the online geek community. It’s not surprising that, as leading hacker anthropologist Gabriella Coleman has noted:

Politically minded geeks bred during the era of cheaper PC’s, home-schooled programming, and virtual interactions chose to use Free Software for the implementation of the early proliferation of Indymedia centers. Mailing lists and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) — both widely available in free software versions at the time — were the main communication tools that facilitated conversation between dispersed tech-activists first establishing centers in different locations like Washington DC, Boston, London, and Seattle.

Ten years later, the story is largely the same. Today, working journalists are confronted by ideologies of “information liberation” and terms like “distributed denial of service attacks” (DDOS) and “website mirrors.” While these ideas and innovations have not been created within journalism, they impact the flow of information, and thus impact journalism itself. A few days ago I wrote that Wikileaks was “organized informational anarchism with journalistic consequences.” This new world of geek-powered information innovation requires an appropriate level of response from our centers of journalistic education and from our newsrooms

The occasional news-oriented hacker aside, it’s important for journalists to keep in mind that, despite some surface similarities, all denizens of hacker culture are not the same. Anonymous is not Wikileaks. Indeed, both Anonymous and hacker organizations are quick to point out that Anonymous and distributed denial of service attacks are not “hacking” at all. My tech-savvy friends who first taught me about website mirrors in 2002 were rather unique in the open source world; not everyone in that world cared much about either journalism or the World Economic Forum.

While it might be heartening to swell the ranks of journalism by drawing all advocates of digital transparency into our ranks, journalists need to ponder what aspects of these powerful online communities they want to embrace and what aspects they might want to leave behind. But they can only do that if they think historically about the path online journalism has taken over the past decade, and if they understand the way that today’s hackers and technologists are shaping our information flows.

(Many thanks to Gabriella Coleman for her comments on an earlier draft of this post.)

POSTED     Dec. 9, 2010, 10:30 a.m.
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