Indymedia, Journalism, and Digital Culture (part 6)

Final part of ICA paper, #6

For comments, criticism and a copy of the bibliography, please send me an e-mail.


In the final section of this essay I discuss the ways in which digital culture can be seen as a self-organizing property of Indymedia and journalism. With self-organization or autopoiesis I consider the various ways in which social groups (families, neighbourhoods, circles of friends) and social systems (medicine, law, politics, journalism) continually reproduce themselves by internalizing particular values, beliefs and practices operationally independent from the outside world yet at the same time structurally coupled with other groups and systems within that world. This notion was originally introduced in the 1970s by Chilean biologists Herbert Maturana and Fracisco Varela and has been introduced in the social sciences most prominently by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Self-organization is not particular to digital culture, as much as distantiation, participation and bricolage have manifestations before or next digital culture as well. Indeed, I consider all (social) systems to have autopoietic properties. Niklas Luhmann (1990) primarily considers the communicative acts and relationships within a social system as self-organizing, rather than the actors (that is: people) themselves. My argument therefore maintains that a digital culture is created, reproduced, sustained and recognized as such through the ways in which people establish relationships and communicate about these relationships. What is amazing about a digital culture - rather than a print, visual or information culture - is that it fosters community while at the same time can be fueled by isolation. In other words: we can be (or feel) connected to everyone else within the system - for example through chatrooms, Instant Messaging, group weblogs, Trackback systems and RSS (Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary) feeds on individual weblogs, Usenet discussion groups, Bulletin Boards Systems, SMS-tv, and so on - while at the same time being isolated as individuals sitting at a desk in front of a computer at home, at the office, in a public library or internet cafe. Yet digital culture is not self-created and self-maintained through connected devices and access alone - it also has self-referential properties in that certain values, beliefs and practices are preferred over others. A good example is the emergence of a Netiquette as an evolving set of ethical guidelines for communicating and publishing online. These values are sometimes formulated in opposition to (and thus distantiated from) those upheld by mainstream corporate media: preferring the personal experiental account rather than professional detached observation, heralding openness for all rather than access based on expertise claimed on the basis of institutional authority, attributing more weight to providing a bottom-up platform for individual voices instead of top-down delivering of messages based on a consensual perception of the common denominator. Again we must realize that such values have not sprung into existence when the first Bulletin Board System went online. What has happened, though, is an acceleration of acceptance of these values through the ongoing proliferation of internet access and usage, and a corresponding process of infusing disparate social systems like oppositional social movements and professional journalism, inspiring the emergence of Indymedia and participatory news. If publics increasingly demand to have a say in the news, even though they do not know what they talk about nor are they generally interested in that news, it must be seen as a communicative act and thus an autopoietic component of digital culture. Digital culture, in other words, can be characterized by participation, distantiation and bricolage as its key elements, whih self-organizing properties are part of online (Indymedia) as well as offline (journalism) news media phenomena.

We live in a digital culture. That culture is still evolving - as all cultures are and always will be - in the directions as outlined in this essay. This will have consequences for the way we work, communicate, give meaning to our lives. We are at once local and global, individual and collective, isolated and connected, engaged and apathetic. I hope to have showed that this seemingly eclectic and paradoxical mix of values and charactertistics are by no means mutually exclusive, but rather must be seen as constituents of each other, and parts of a whole that is digital culture. Some of the most pressing debates of today - about authenticity and originality, self-determination and social cohesion, equity and equality - are already influenced by this emerging cultural system all over the world. Social systems in society are feeling the impact of this emerging cultural consensus as well - especially the traditional institutions of modernity: parliamentary democracy and journalism. With a discussion set against the backdrop of Indymedia and journalism I have aimed to synthesize the core elements of digital culture with the often-voiced concerns about the decline or change of national politics and mainstream news media, in order to show how new types of citizenship, participation, activism, dialogue and interactive communication have emerged. There is a message of hope here somewhere.

This sweeping overview of what in my opinion are the three core elements of contemporary digital culture - participation, distantiation, and bricolage - hopefully shows effectively that the phenomena we observe in daily life online have their emergent properties in the offline of days gone by. I realize I am not suggesting anything new or original here - I am merely offering my own bricolage in order participate in the self-organizing system that is academia, and by referring to authors before me building on their ideas and publications, I hope to become part of a creative commons that inherently consists of multiple authorship and collaborative control over the concepts we discuss.

[The End].