Collective anarchist publishing in the internet age

The internet brought many advantages to radical organising, not least the speed at which movements can grow and the ease with which complex ideas can be made available to almost everyone. But there were certainly negative side effects and here I want to look at what is probably the most important of these, the move away from sustained collective organising, analysis and preservation of lessons.

It’s useful to start with the statement that there is not point looking back to the past and wishing we where there instead of here, or in a very similar fashion just demanding the ‘discipline’ of past periods without understanding why that discipline was organic to that period.

The easiest way to understand what I mean is to understand the collective newspaper publishing projects of the past. There required many individuals to pool their efforts & cash to produce often well crafted and widely distributed papers. At the time unless you were wealthy this was the only option to reach many people. When printing was technically difficult and expensive it demanded considerable resources from a lot of people in order to distribute your message. And because a lot of resources were going into the distribution of what was a very limited number of words it made sense that a lot of time was spent on what exactly those words were.

I’ve been involved in radical publishing in various forms back to the mid 1980s when I put out once issue of an underground school newspaper called ‘The Extremist.’ As you might guess from that title that beginning was more about stirring the big pot called provocation but over the many years since I was involved in many anarchist publishing projects, very often as a key person in the creation of that project. A lot of these were papers and magazines but I also got in internet publishing very early on and was involved in what was probably the first online anarchist publishing project, Spunk press back in 1992, so long back it wasn’t even initially web based.

Most of these have been based in Ireland where I have lived most of my life although I also was involved setting up publishing in Ontario and internationally in the form of A-Infos and later the Anarkismo site. Many of these projects were related to the Workers Solidarity Movement, an anarchist group I joined in 1990 and continue to be a member of. The WSM has a formal approach to anarchist organisation based on very clear collective policies and processes.

I’ve also been involved in projects that did not have these and so been part of the conflicts that arise when someone uses collective resources to publish something very much at odds with what the rest of a collective thinks. That tends to be very destructive and often the end point of the publishing collective or at the very least the point at which a lot of resources are lost and the work of developing a collective process has to be done in the very difficult circumstances of an ongoing conflict. It’s really worth taking collective process and policies seriously from the start to avoid the enormous damage that is done when disagreement arises and these have to be created on the fly in the context of every process point being felt to have an influence on that disagreement.

In the WSM before the internet became significant 15 of us produced a magazine with about 20,000 words in it every 8 months or so and spent many hours each issue selling about 500 copies. That distribution process alone probably required 50 to 100 hours of labour, selling magazines on the streets, at protests and meetings and packing small bundles to post off to radical bookshops for sale. The articles it contained went through at least three rounds of editing through collective discussion, with the author redrafting after each round. Possibly another 100 hours. The subjects written about and the angle taken were carefully made collective decisions because in effect they were our entire output for that 8 month period and we were going to spend a lot of time convincing people to buy that issue.

This was the only way for us to reach people but it was coincidentally a useful practise that honed writing and editing skills and helped writers realise that relative weaknesses of their personal styles and redress these. Over time this helped many people (and certainly myself) become much better writers both in terms of making fewer technical errors but also in our ability to explain a point in a way that was clear to others.

There is also a loss at an organisational level as the process of collective editing through discussion doesn’t just educate the writer but also all those involved in the editing process. And in doing so it turns a piece from a individual effort albeit based on a collective politics to a collective effort with collective politics. This isn’t simply useful in terms of talking to the public but also in terms of building an internal knowledgable coherency and group spirit.

Our initial use of the internet was simply as an additional distribution point and archive for that collective output but as internet usage became common more and more or our output did no go through that sort of process. Indeed to take advantage of the ability to immediately react to news, and so compete with mainstream framing of stories we developed protocol that allowed members to publish instantly without prior oversight. We figured, correctly as it turned out, that political errors would be few and far between because members were part of an organisation that discussed politics in great detail on a regular basis.

Inevitably this instant publishing had negative effects on quality both in terms of the particular item published and the loss of a chance for development through the experience of being edited. Writers still improve over time, often through exposure to the much more hostile cauldron of the comments section, but it’s a slower and cruder process.
Turning the clock back might improve the quality of articles but only at the cost of losing access to very very much larger numbers of people that instant online publication reaches. It’s not a solution. And its important to recognise that in the pre mass internet days there were an organic drive that made putting a lot of collective work into individual articles almost a requirement.

With that gone and the internet providing near free printing and distribution that no longer exists. It’s notable how many anarchists choose to run personal blogs or wrote long Facebook posts rather than engage in any collective publication process at all, not only does this have a negative effect on quality but it strongly encourages a tendency towards celebrity style ego networks where political disagreement from quieter voices can result in exclusion from the network by those with the larger presence / following. The harmful effect of this in terms of movement building and maintenance is a very important reason to seek to return to collective publishing even if it means you have to engage in a bit more administration as well as creation.

What can be done?

A starting point to thinking about what we can do to improve collective input is to realise there are very different categories of articles, indeed a spectrum between the two poles beneath

A one pole there are instant ‘this is happening now’ pieces that often are no more than a caption to a photograph or video. The entire attraction of such pieces to readers is that they are immediately available, indeed the interest in a captioned photo of the front banner of a demonstration may be enormous at the moment it is taken but minuscule 24 hours later. It’s worth noting here that although this piece is based around the written word much of the same approach applies to audio and video and is even worth considering in photography terms.

At the other pole are long theoretical or analytical pieces about history whose value is entirely in their content and not at all in when they appear. With the exception of anniversaries there is no rush to circulation with a piece about anarchists in the Russian revolution. And eventual readership will be reduced by a rush to circulation whose cost is a less well presented arguments.

There are many in-between positions in that spectrum. A detailed analysis of a story in the news will benefit from collective editing but still needs to be published when the story is in the news and not weeks afterwards.

So what might a collective publishing system look like in the networked age? Below I give a pretty detailed sketch of how it might work based on two assumptions
A) We are talking of a collective that has taken the time to decide what its politics are and has recorded this is written form for future reference. An example of this sort of work is found in the WSM position papers which are agreed and modified every 6-12 months at a national meeting.
B) We are talking of a collective that has internal, private methods of communication and discussion. From a technical point of view this could be as simple as using google docs.

In its original form this text was based on a publishing organisation had done a lot of work both in developing policy and developing methods of decision making. But what follows doesn’t necessarily require that level of work. It does however require a collective process that goes beyond sharing a blog and using disagreements about what has been published to create an informal collective sense of what is suitable.

Don’t get too hung up on the percentages below, I’ve chosen them from my experience of collective publishing to strike what seems to be a reasonable balance between three competing requirements
A. Speed of publication
B. Agreement with what is published
C. Avoiding micro-management and allowing space for some differences of opinion

For online publication

1. Live coverage - Articles no longer that 2-3 paragraphs (and often no more than captions) that tell people what is happening right now and what is thought of that, i.e. drawn from existing policy. Very often this will be a photo or video clip. No prior editing required, page admins welcome to add factual details and correct technical errors post publication.

2. Breaking news - Coverage of a story that is breaking in the news. Overwhelmingly based on the facts being reported with a what we think drawn from existing policy. No prior editing required, page admins welcome to add factual details and correct technical errors.

3. Analysis of news - Coverage of a story that is in the news that assembles the available facts and offers an interpretation of them compatible with existing policy. Submitted via a Google doc for feedback and publishable after 12 hours or as soon as three members have given an OK. If a member objects to a section that section has to either be removed, rewritten or a more formal editorial process is activated as described below. Piece’s can have more than one author and can be generated via google doc in the first place, indeed we’d prefer that to happen.

Post publication removal

Any of the above categories can be unpublished if 10% of the members indicate they think it is unsuitable. It then enters the same editorial process described below for Longer pieces that are not strongly time dependent

4. Time dependent long pieces. These might include reviews of just broadcastTV shows, longer analysis of news issues (e.g. 2012 London riots) etc where as swift as possible publication is of great importance. Submitted via google docs and members have 24 hours to make comments, suggestions and indicate that the article is a) Ready for publication b) Require’s further editing. If more than 30% consider it required further editing it does into the process described below - i.e. The urgency of publication consideration is outweighed by the need for collective editing.

5. Longer pieces that are not strongly time dependent - Submitted via google docs and subject to a 72 hour window when members can add comments, make suggestions. At the end of this period there is a 24 hour (minimum) rewrite period (it can be as long as the author wants) and then a 48 hour period in which any member can indicate that the article is a) Ready for publication b) Require’s further editing. If more than 30% consider it required further editing an editorial meeting should happen within 72 hours either physically or over Skype leading to a second draft. Members then have 48 hours to indicate that the article is ready or not.

a) Ready for publication (50%+)
b) Should be published with an ‘individual opinion’ disclaimer (20% to 49%)
c) Unsuitable for publication (less than 20%)
Less than 20% means the article will not be published as is but the author can opt for another editing round and try again.

Print publication

Print publication has a very much higher demand on resources because it costs money to put ink on paper and it takes collective time to distribute the results. We want our print publications to not only accurately reflect our views but to be well written and understandable to most readers. We also want to be enthusiastic about putting in the hours needed to distribute them. Editing will therefore be more time consuming and rigorous and will have the additional of getting the entire membership to strongly identify with the content.

1. Short time dependent material - normally stickers, posters, leaflets of a couple of paragraphs advertising an event or reacting to news for distribution at protest. Should be fully within policy and signed off on by branch secretary or national secretary for local material or national secretary for national material or local material where a branch does not exist.

2. Newsletters - Normally leaflets of up to 8 pages produced for particular time periods, often a particular demonstration in particular. Require editorial group of 3 members that will take submissions, meet to discuss them in detail and edit them for publication. More than one editing meeting is preferred if time allows. Draft articles should be submitted to circulated internally so any member can comment prior to editing meeting. Where time permits they should also be used as the basis for branch / online discussions. Resource use needs to be approved by branch for local material and national secretary for national material.

3. Magazines and pamphlets. Assumption is that publication is not highly time dependent. A committee will be elected for members that will
a) Meet to discuss content, diversity and allocate articles with guidelines to members to draft with deadline for submission
b) Draft articles should be submitted to circulated internally so any member can comment prior to editing meeting. Where possible the drafts should also be the basis of branch and online discussions.
c) Meet to review in detail each article for compatibility with policy, completeness and readability. Detailed notes will be provided to the author to re-edit and resubmit article to internal.
d) Above editing process will be repeated at least once.
e) Final articles are posted to internal and members have 48 hours to vote on each of them as i) Suitable for publication ii) Not suitable for publication. Any that have a 50% or higher not suitable vote are removed from that issue but may go through the editorial process for following issues or submitted for online publication
g) PDF of final layout is submitted to internal, members have 24 hours to vote as to i) Suitable for publication, ii) Not suitable for publication. If more than 30% vote as not being suitable layout is adjusted and vote repeated as soon as possible until
h) Item is sent to printers and articles are published online, possibly over a few days

Note: This text is a modified version of a discussion document I prepared for internal circulation in the WSM

WORDS: Andrew Flood (follow Andrew on Twitter)


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