10 Years of Anarchist News
From Worker's blog
This is the date that is more-or-less 10 years after the first entry of a very early (think php-nuke) version of anarchistnews on the Wayback Machine. The original mission of anarchistnews was to improve on deficiencies of the active news wires of that time These deficiencies were
- being too broad (as to not be particularly anarchist)
- having a comment section dominated by the admin
- having a comment section onerously and arbitrarily moderated
- being one-dimensional
No good deed goes unpunished so as the years have ticked away the success of resolving these deficiencies has also exposed new, complicated problems. I’ll say that if the goal of anarchistnews was to #attack what had come before, to spurn #society, and create an atmosphere that reflected (although this was unbeknownst to me at the time) a younger and contemporary anarchist perspective... then I feel the past ten years has been an incredible success. If the goal was to create a community, demonstrate how digital life can bridge chasms, and defeat the new corporate technocracy at the communication game... not so much.
What we have done
We have created a place for in-depth conversation on topical stories, a safe space for trolls (of at least four different varieties), the go-to one-stop location for scene drama, and a place to advertise black-clad banner drops, window smashings, and glue lockings. As we are interested in each of these things in some weighted order each day (and that order changes) we consider it a success that most days anarchistnews delivers a different emphasis too.
To the extent that the Internet has a singular watercooler, not controlled by a corporation, for anarchist discussion in North America, anarchistnews has grown to fill that role. (Note that this singularity breeds contempt and that is to be expected, especially from a movement of malcontents and freaks.)
What I have learned
The list of lessons from a project like anarchistnews is long. I’ll start with a personal list and then a categorical one. I have learned that every time you compete with or act with hostility towards someone else you also allow them to enter your life. You think about, whether you realize it or not, the same problems that they do and in some substantial way reconcile yourself to why their approach to problem domain was appropriate. After doing anarchistnews for years I am far less judgmental about decisions that infoshop, libcom, or crimethinc have made with their web boards. Similarly I can understand their frustrations with decisions around anarchistnews. None of us have got it right (#society still stands) or have had anything beyond limited success. This empathy for other people's projects might seem at odds with the playfully hostile tone that is a hallmark of anarchistnews but it's where I’m at.
Here is the tl;dr on categories of lessons. Internationalization is very difficult to do while sitting in the US. Technology problems are a pain in the ass.
Anarchistnews obviously reflects a North American bias. It is in English, reports on actions, analysis, etc from NA first, but also attempts to highlight activity and thought in other parts of the world. It is impossible to fairly editorialize and distill all the different language (even if translated) action blogs and context for a NA audience, at least without more participation from other places. Context is a particular challenge in NA because we live in a place where nearly 350 million people speak the same language (compare this to 500 million people in the EU speaking 23 official languages); grow up watching the same television programs; know the same dozen or so politicians' names; and enter anarchism through the same, very limited, entry points. If anarchistnews did better original reporting of international perspectives I believe it would go a long way towards building more international bridges, which would benefit both sides of each new connection. Even more than with Europe, the scarcity of translation and cross-cultural traffic between the US and Mexico is a dramatic failure for NA anarchism and anarchistnews in particular.
Anarchistnews runs on the open source software Drupal. It has used Drupal (for better and for worse) for at least 8 years and the software has developed from something that a single person could hack into place into a large, sprawling, system that several years ago I lost the capacity to fully grok. The biggest consequence of this is that during the last major upgrade (I believe from 6 to 7) I got outside help... who committed to more than they were willing to do. As a result we are now missing about five years of anarchistnews backups. Realistically this will not be resolved until someone who both gives a fuck about the missing archives and has experience backloading data from drupal6 to drupal7 reaches out to me. This hasn’t happened but I want to extend the invitation. Additional tech drama has included (just in the past year) a very virulent and consistent mixture of federal probing (mostly by IP address in the Arlington VA zone) and international spammers hitting the anarchistnews server pool all the fucking time. I’ve tried many different solutions but haven’t hit the golden ratio (although I’ve had a bit more success lately) of banning IPs, memcache, mysql settings, and tolerance for the proficiency trolls have with TOR. Final note on technology, over the years I’ve tried to get technical help but the issue continues to be that finding people who are competent technologists (of whatever stripe) AND politically on board with anarchistnews (meaning not sectarian) may be possible but would require more time (in meetings, meeting new people, going outside) than it usually takes for me to hack a solution together myself. I have a slow-moving/appropriate mechanism in place that may resolve this issue but... slow.
Sectarian is another way to say clique-with-a-program. Anarchistnews has had limited success in its attempt to be non-sectarian in news coverage . Sectarian politics doesn’t, in fact, look like the war of all tendencies against each other. Mostly sectarian anarchist politics looks like different perspectives looking right past each other. In the context of social scenes this means you end up only hanging out with/being friends with people who share a general orientation but from the perspective of anarchistnews this means that perspectives that feel like they get mocked or a short shrift from the commentators on anarchistnews stop posting their news there. This is incredibly frustrating. For starters this means that for there to be balanced coverage on the site I have to go out and find perspectives that are under-represented (yuck) which always means they end up serving as chum to the trolls rather than balance, it also means that anarchistnews is often seen as a hive-mind where, as the only person that reads every comment, the opposite is true. We strongly believe that any time you rely on one person/perspective to provide balance you are doomed to failure.
Another content note. Uncontroversial (or generally approved of) actions and stories get far fewer comments than controversial things do. This doesn’t seem surprising once it’s stated out loud. But the inverse (which is as obvious) is remarked on all the time as a condemnation of not just anarchistnews, but the Internet in general, society, etc. This just seems myopic. Controversy is controversial. The Internet has created a culture of adrenaline-fueled controversy chasing. The fault of this is... anarchistnews moderation!?
What will change and not
Now that you are familiar with what we’ve learned you can probably guess what is going to change... not much! We were very close to pulling the trigger on some big changes (including removing/displacing comments) but have changed our minds. Over the past 2-3 years I’ve minimized the amount per day that it takes to run the site, I’ve grown inured to the slings and arrows of worker-obsessed trolls, and, upon reflection, feel that removing this venue for discussion wouldn’t have a clearly positive effect (just an arguable removal of negative effect). The momentum of anarchistnews is considerable.
Wishes for other projects
That said I believe there is a lot of room for other projects that fill the holes that anarchistnews leaves untouched. The most obvious would be an exciting, moderated, non-sectarian discussion forum. Somewhere between anarchistnews and the 101 level stuff of http://anarchy101.org and corporate anarchist discussions but with a crew of intelligent and patient moderators. A lot of work but it could be worth doing. Another gap could be a curated RSS feed that accomplishes a lot of what people claim they want in anarchistnews but with no comments. This isn’t so dissimilar to the Indymedia model that anarchistnews is a type of response to (and probably why it hasn’t happened yet) but all that it would require is the work of 2-3 motivated people to make something very usable and useful.
Among the general and vague criticisms that the site gets is the idea that I (the psuedonymous character known as worker) have designs on controlling anarchy which I accomplish by my choice of story and my haikus of hostility (aka the rollers). While I (in my not-worker mode) don’t claim to have no stake in certain arguments that happen on anarchistnews I am sincere when I say that I don’t participate in them. I do not make comments on the site unless as worker and usually then only in response to direct questions. Of course anarchistnews is a frame on topical anarchism but in the context of corporate-hosted conversations about the same topics it is arguable how tight the frame is. Additionally there are very few stories that get submitted to the site (by someone other than me) that do not get posted. Once people caught on that anarchist means uses the term anarchist or demonstrates explicit connection to anarchist ideas there are have been far fewer posts (and even fewer complaints) about what gets submitted. That said, I do not devote a great deal of time hunting down stories to post so if you feel as though your particular tendency isn’t being well represented on the site please use this link and add it.
I want to end this reflection on ten years of anarchistnews by pointing out a specific criticism. I don’t want to take this comment entirely in good faith but it is worth mentioning that comments like this still touch me. They don’t exactly hurt my feelings but they represent exactly the disconnect between critics (like 90% of the commentors on the site) and the people who write the reportbacks, analysis, call outs, and actual content of the site. The implication that anonymity has created a shitshow is a criticism that cuts to the bone and for that I appreciate it but the ahistoricalness of the comment gives me pause. Serious pause. If you have not moderated a site or run a project that people interact with anonymously (which is nearly every project nowadays) its hard to describe how complicated the issues around this are. It is simple to say is that no matter what one chooses around these kinds of issues you are going to be making the wrong choices for a subset of your audience, of your peers, your enemies, and your friends. Anarchistnews has always worked on the premise that anarchy, in its raw, unmediated form is worth the trouble. Trolls, cops, and frenemies haven’t convinced me that this isn’t true, but they are trying.