In December 2013 David Marty did an extensive interview with Michael Albert. We present it in nine parts – of which this is the second. Other parts address: Radicalization, Offering Vision, Debating Vision, Venezuela, Occupy and IOPS, Fanfare, Chomsky, and a conclusion.
Size, Money, Survival, Success
You do your main work at ZCommunications that you and your partner Lydia Sargent founded in 1987. In Spain one finds the following description on ZCom: “It is the largest leftist/alternative media group in the US.” Is that so? Can you give us a quick tour?
We founded Z Magazine back then, after having spent about ten years in book publishing, at South End Press, which we had also started. We started doing online stuff just a bit later then working on Z Magazine, with Eric Sargent on board too, and then Z Communications, or ZCom, was an overarching name we gave all our projects much more recently.
I am not sure what largest means in your question. My guess would be ZCom may have the most files in its online database, or nearly so, anyhow, but I doubt that is the what you are asking about. ZCom may have also hosted the most writers, over the years, which would not be too surprising given its considerable age. ZCom may have had, at times, the most user features, so to speak, also. But more likely your term largest has in mind the number of users, and about that I don’t know. It was very likely once true, again, where we are just talking about the online part, that ZNet was the largest or nearly the largest left operation online – in terms of number of users – but whether it is now true, I don’t know and I doubt it. But it also depends on what counts as leftist or alternative, I guess. If we say being non corporate, without hierarchy in wages and power, non profit, and without ads is all necessary to be alternative, then I suspect ZCom may be the largest alternative online operation, or one of them, even in terms of number of users, and even in the world, though I don’t know. If we loosen up on what is alternative, however, then there are probably many operations that are larger than ZCom.
ZCom has various aspects. There is online news, blogging, commenting, multimedia, etc. There are also many online features that are barely used, like very powerful user customization and robust user photo albums, for example. And then there are other aspects that are used widely, like ZMag online, the nightly commentaries, and ZNet.
Offline, there is also Z Magazine in print, Z Videos on DVD, and there has been a summer school, as well, and most recently there are ZBooks. The site and the offline parts as well, address all sides of life, with the site having diverse topic pages, for example, and while the site is hosted in the U.S. it is quite international, with diverse place pages for countries around the world. A distinguishing attribute is that the site and offline aspects all prioritize vision and strategy, not just reporting or analyzing social failings.
For finances, in addition to selling print subscriptions and videos, the site does occasional fund drives, like other sites, and also has a relatively successful sustainer program. However, all that is taking a beating from the current economic hard times and from a steadily growing belief among users that all media should be free.
ZCom’s online parts have been operational in various incarnations from literally before the web existed to the present. And its offline parts date from even earlier, including the print magazine, which came first, and then videos and, until recently, a summer school, and finally, most recently, ZBooks. For that matter, South End Press preceded it all.
We know all media around the world are subject to a crisis that has led many projects to either shutdown completely or to at least reboot their business model. How is ZCom, including ZNet, doing amidst all this? What is the present situation with ZCom and what actions have you had to take to cut costs?
My impression is that the current aggravated financial difficulties of alternative media – and in large degree and sometimes even more so, of mainstream media – owe largely to audiences being pinched for funds due to the economic crisis your question highlights, but perhaps owe even more to audiences feeling that of all the things they relate to in their lives, media, and particularly alternative media, should be free. This makes for a powerful double squeeze: diminishing budgets and cyber induced disinclination to pay.
However, a further rarely highlighted and longer running factor is arguably even more critical. An easy way to see this third factor is to recognize that if even one in five users of alternative media around the world – and certainly one in five of our users – paid a modest amount, say two or three dollars a month, there would be no financial shortfalls. So, yes, among people who actually donate, the level of their donations has fallen due to the economic straits people find themselves in and the emergence of a media should be free mindset. But a still larger factor in financial shortages for alternative media is the horribly low percentage of its users who pay or donate anything at all, and this problem is decades old, though growing worse.
ZCom has always felt these pressures, including their recent worsening, much like others have. In response, for example, we are entering the final stages of completely rebuilding our internet sites on a new platform that we can maintain less expensively than in the past, albeit also with fewer features.
Beyond that – and while this is idiosyncratic to our choices it helps indicate the kinds of machinations people have to enter into to deliver information – around twenty years ago we bought a house, relatively cheaply but nonetheless, given our scarcity of funds, only by virtue of considerable help from family. We did it not only to have a place to live and work, thus reducing immediate costs to make Z viable then, but also as a hedge against future difficulties because we anticipated that the house’s value would increase, providing a kind of insurance. That did, indeed, happen, but the economic crisis substantially reduced the increase in value of the house. We hope what remains of the increase once we successfully sell – which is proving very difficult – will e enough so that selling will allow Lydia and myself to take no salary and live on social security and the house revenues, thereby very dramatically reducing Z’s costs.
We are taking other smaller steps, as well, in every facet of operations, yet even all the steps might not be enough to ward off serious cuts in offerings, unless there is also a considerable uptick in user support.
That seems drastic. You spend decades building the organization, and income drops rather than climbing. Why not take advertising as a different route to solvency?
Well, these are drastic times, and getting more so, every day. As to the income dropping, just to get perspective about that, consider the situation of mainstream newspapers in the U.S. The Washington Post and Boston Globe recently sold to super rich buyers who purchased them as a means to have personal influence. The loss in value from the last sale, not many years back, to the present sale, was enormous – upwards of 90% or more of the prior value was lost. So the problem of declining revenues for media undercutting worth and viability is broad and deep.
Advertising – which is not doing the trick even in the mainstream not least due to incursions by Google and soon Facebook – is, in any event, one of the structural debits of mainstream media. Mainstream media sell access to audience to commercial firms to peddle their goods to. As a result, such media are really in business to get the eyeballs of people with disposable income looking at ads. The content they offer is simply a means to that end. This constrains policies. Periodicals don’t want to lose well-heeled users, and don’t want to put them in the wrong mood to like ads. We can’t responsibly critique all that, and then ourselves practice it. Nor would we want to.
As an analogy, suppose someone said to me, why not have a pornography section on ZNet and charge for it somehow. That could pay all your other bills. Even if it was true, which I have no idea, we wouldn’t do it anyhow, nor, I hope, would any other progressive media organization. To me, however, strange as it may sound, for media having ads to pay the bills is worse than having pornography, presumably off to the side, for the same reason.
Come on, really?
Yes. Forget about whether pornography is all that bad, itself, per se. Assume it is, now and forever into the future. Still, if you had a pornography section, with fees, the section would take care of itself. It would attract its own audience, and it need not be present all over the site – perhaps just a link or two to get to it. The political section wouldn’t have to change to permit the porn section to succeed. Now, I think the political section likely would change, becoming less sensitive to feminist and gender issues, but it wouldn’t literally have to for the porn part to generate funds. I wouldn’t do this because of that anticipated effect, and due to the overall hypocrisy of it.
In contrast, however, taking ads means putting them wherever they are most visible. And it means being sure that the pages the ads are on don’t disincline users from responding positively to the ads. And the pressure to accept ads keeps growing. And their presence would be ubiquitous, and the implicit corporate message, contrary to the politics of the site, would be pervasive. And I don’t even need to get subtle about it by pointing out that a porn site sells views of images or words created and involving people who want to sell the stuff, albeit in a context that restricts their options. In contrast, having ads means selling access to people who have no say in the matter.
I have to say, I see ads on left sites all over and while I understand the desperation that presumably causes the choice, I also find it incredibly depressing. I admit I may seem to some a bit fanatical about this, but I believe, nonetheless, I am also right. I should add, I feel ill as well seeing all the free ads for things like Facebook, Twitter, etc. My guess is that if no progressive or left site put up all those links and stuff trying to benefit from Facebook and the rest, even while doing so also totally legitimates them and promotes them, then by this time we would probably have a progressive alternative for social networking. That everyone instead does put the links, seeking immediate benefits, percolates an attitude among us which prevents even thinking about an alternative for social networking, much less trying hard to make it happen – or so it seems to me.
We will come to social networking in just a bit – but, for now, you must have seen plenty of well intended leftist/independent media ventures rise and fall, even before the financial crisis. What are the more common mistakes you find people making when attempting to build alternative media?
We all make mistakes, but I don’t think media makers’ mistakes are at the heart of the alternative media failures you mention. Rather what I indicated above as the reasons for failure, or just overwhelming difficulty, seem to me more structural and general.
Typically, alternative media are very efficient at keeping costs down. Their problem is not that their costs are too high due to mistakes, but that their revenues are too low, due to factors beyond their control. The mistake, if you can call it that, is that alternative media sometimes overestimates the degree to which our audiences will materially support our operations.
More generally, I think an even larger failing, and a correctable one, rests at the feet of the entire left, not just at the feet of the few people who work hard to deliver alternative media. The issue I am referring to isn’t that left media makers aren’t careful, smart, frugal, and efficient. They are all those things, indeed, more so than they should have to be. This is true not only for the most leftist media operations, like Z, that get little large donor help, no institutional help, and due to their users generally being less wealthy, also less per person user donation help – but even for the larger and more supported operations that operate a bit closer to the mainstream. All have horribly less resources than they ought to have.
The mistake I have in mind, then, is that the community of people who want to change the world and who utilize alternative media themselves and who also believe in its value more broadly, beyond just their own benefit, do not often contribute sufficiently to ensure even just alternative media’s preservation, much less its major growth and development.
This problem has existed as long as I have been involved in media, and. of course, longer. We at Z loudly point out the problem over and over. We try to make it a topic of consideration in hopes facing it would change the priorities people have in this regard. But in contrast to Z, must media makers, including and perhaps even more so on the left than in the mainstream, won’t talk forthrightly about the problem for fear of annoying the folks who still donate, or who might. As a result, short run survival fears so dominate immediate choices that long run corrective paths go unexplored. Indeed, for these reasons our raising and re-leasing the issues tends, I think, to isolate us even among left ventures.
Are there many successful examples of alternative online operations, other than ZCom, that you can think of?
It depends how we define successful. The usual left way of defining it is surviving, persisting, etc. If you stay in operation, you are a success. That should tell us something pretty revealing – but it doesn’t. People instead just take for granted that surviving is succeeding without considering what it means. But consider that we are in a struggle for a better world. Given that a better world is the goal, how can merely staying in existence be considered success? If the goal is to preserve a personal job, if the goal is speaking truth to power but not changing power relations, if the goal is feeling radical but not winning radical change, if the goal is feeling a sense of personal accomplishment, but not accomplishing winning a new world, then yes, staying in existence is itself success. But if the goal is actually winning a better world – then while staying alive is better than dying, it is very far from success.
So now we might ask, what circumstances and beliefs make people think that merely staying alive is being successful? Consider an athletic team in a struggle to win a championship. Can you imagine a coach saying that success is merely showing up, each new season, as compared to winning? No coach, not one, and not one player, would ever say that. Indeed, if someone said congratulations on getting through the season without completely falling apart to players on a team whose record was poor and getting no better, they would be angry at the lack of understanding and lack of desire. And this is how I feel when I see people celebrating just hanging on. It you look up Staying Alive on line, you find a Bee Gees song from the disco era with that title. Here are some of the lyrics: “Feel the city breakin’- And ev’rybody shakin’ – And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.” The phrase “Life goin’ nowhere” – gets repeated over and over, plus – stayin’ alive – as the attainable achievement.
So what would constitute success, for you?
Success would be operating at a scale and in a manner that contributes to social communications and social change as much as one’s context reasonably allows and permits, and that continually does better. (Life goin’ onward – and we’re moving forward, moving forward.)
So I cannot help but have to admit by my own standard I think ZCom is far from successful. We do what we can, and I suppose I can understand someone meaning well saying congratulations on surviving so long – but in truth what we do is way too little.
If everyone to the left of the mainstream had these higher standards, then I think everyone to the left of mainstream would donate at least something to alternative media, and there would be massive success. The fact that such support does not exist is the “elephant in the room” issue for the left. That you will not find that shortfall of support explicitly discussed much, outside Z, is pretty incredible. It would be like a sports team constantly losing because its locker room was uncomfortable and noisy, and everyone on the team knowing that that was the cause of losing, that is the “elephant,” and yet no one on the team ever talks about fixing the locker room.
On the other hand, if we take “ success” as meaning “staying alive,” then quite a few operations are succeeding. Indeed, there are many more online operations now than there were ten years ago, though fewer print, film, and other non cyber operations – and I suspect nearly all of the latter and many of the former are in difficult straits.
After some time spent among leftists one detects a certain aversion toward money, therefore also toward any business model one can think of for a viable alternative media. Do you agree with those that say that information, the media, should be free? Why can’t it be just volunteer work? After all, so they say, money is what corrupts the news media, isn’t it?
Money per se isn’t what corrupts media – or anything else, for that matter. Indeed, money – or more accurately, claims on social product – for paying for tools, equipment, office space, salaries, health care, etc., facilitates rather than corrupts alternative media. What is debilitating and corrupting is to have to work at media on the side, more or less like a hobby, without income for doing so and without resources to reach out and do higher quality work.
What also corrupts alternative media, at the opposite extreme, is operating for profit, selling audience to advertisers, and/or having a structure of payments and decision making that distorts values.
Take the two sources of corruption together, and that is why Z aggressively seeks funding help but also refuses to produce for profit and refuses to sell our users to advertisers even though these choices mean we have to scramble just to keep operating, much less to grow.
When we started our first media operation, South End Press, the whole staff lived together in a house that also had our offices. Some of us worked on the side bringing in funds for food and heat and the like. The media work we did, which in those days typically took ten to twelve or more hours a day, six and sometimes even seven days a week, and we did it that way for roughly ten years, included at the outset the very onerous typesetting of books and other such labors, and was done initially without payment, and after a few years with only very low payment. But the volunteerism of all that wasn’t a virtue. It was not something to be praised or emulated. Instead, that voluntarism was a political and ethical travesty that we endured because it was the only available option by which we could generate the type of publishing we felt was needed. Those who helped support our efforts, helped amply. The problem was, and the problem still is, the fifty to a hundred times as many people who didn’t and who don’t help at all, even though they are happy alternative media institutions exist.
Since that time we managed to build enough scale to operate with reasonable salaries, but the basic problem of too little community donor support for alternative media has never been overcome, and recently the situation has even gotten worse due to users fetishizing what they call “free information.”
I want to try to be utterly clear about this. I think the idea that people who work to generate and convey information should not receive income with which to live, for example, but should just volunteer, or that the costs that need to be paid to do media effectively should not be paid, are suicidal notions for a serious left.
People need to understand that nothing is free. Activities involve the use of materials, space, and people’s labor. Calling the news on TV free, for example, or calling Facebook free, is just plain ignorant, and when a leftist makes the claim, it so utterly conflicts with their underlying understanding of the world that it is hard to see why it occurs. TV shows cost a fortune to produce and deliver. Facebook costs a fortune to maintain and deliver. Salaries, rents, equipment, and so on add up. In those cases, advertising pays the bills and since the costs of buying ads is funneled into the cost of the goods that are paying to reach the Facebook or TV audience with ads, everyone who buys any of those goods, pays the bills. Since it isn’t me paying it, directly, out of my pocket, I could say, at least somewhat accurately, hey it is free for me. But that is ignorant or is rationalization – and that is true even before we query, as any leftist or clear thinking person should do, the other costs associated with the policies of TV or Facebook or other media operations.
Okay, someone might reply, what about a volunteer operation. Is it free? No. It isn’t. How can people not see that, I wonder? The output may be free for those consuming the product – yes. But in that case, the cost for that output is paid by the volunteers. Once you put it like that, does it seem like a just, fair, and sensible way to accomplish needed goals? Does it make sense that the audience of an online site, as but one example, should pay nothing because the people doing the work do it for nothing – and, perhaps, because some small group of users provide funds to pay other bills sufficiently for the institution to survive but not grow?
It is certainly true that the costs of dispersing information online are dramatically lower then the costs of doing so via print or film. But the costs are not so much lower that all revenues can be slashed and media will still exist and grow.
Facebook or WorldSocial
ZCom began with ZMagazine, a monthly magazine that published a lot of material from a variety of authors such as Noam Chomsky, yourself, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bell Hooks, John Pilger, Leslie Cagan, Howard Zinn, Ed Herman, Lydia Sargent, Amira Hass, Robert Fisk and many more. Now ZCom includes ZNet, ZVideo, ZMedia Institute and, more recently, ZBooks and ZSocial. That last addition is a leftist social network that aims at offering an alternative to FaceBook and Twitter. What is wrong with Facebook and Twitter? Why are you trying to add such an ambitious new feature to ZNet, which already has a strong presence on the internet?
Two broad reasons. First, that strong presence is less than is needed, as mentioned above, and it is also in danger of further diminution due to lack of finances, also as mentioned above. So we need to solve the funding problem. Rather than think only about Z in that regard, we try to see the problem in the large. Can we solve the problem not just for ourselves, but with a project that can benefit everyone? So that was one reason to pursue social networking.
The second reason was that internet communications and social networking are being totally colonized by corporate giants. So rather than accept that the way for activists to link together online is via corporate sites that sell you to advertisers and seek profits so maintaining the profit system is their reason for existing, and that are also happy to abet spying on every level – we thought, instead, can we find a way to have the international progressive community have its own social networking institutions, without those problems, and with additional benefits, as well?
The task became to figure out and begin making real a system that could provide networking and other features all around the world, to all progressive folks, without advertising, without selling user data, without spying, and without profit making, but with activist priorities and user choices driving development options and with the material benefits accruing to host organizations and projects all around the world. We thought, yes, there has to be a way to do all that – there is that confidence thing, again – and once we thought there was a way, well, we had to try, even at considerable risk.
The plan was that WorldSocial would be a community of subsystems each hosted by one or another alternative media outfit, or radical organization, or movement. ZSocial would be our part of it. Users would pay $3 a month to join WorldSocial by way of one of its components. Everyone on any component would be part of and engage with everyone else in the whole system, thereby bringing diverse constituencies around the world into contact. Funds would go a third to the hosts, a third to projects chosen by users, and a third to the operation’s development.
I saw that you recently put ZSocial on hold. That must have been painful…how does something like that happen? Are there any positive prospects for it, or are you pretty resigned that it is not going to work?
Yes, it was painful, quite depressing, though I don’t think it should be much more painful for me, say, than for you or others, because I think it means tremendous potential may go unattained. How does that happen? Earlier you asked about mistakes by alternative media and I told you I wasn’t sure this ought to be called a mistake, but over estimating an audience’s willingness to be supportive is often an issue. Well, that’s how it happened in this case, too.
ZSocial was to be Z’s component of WorldSocial. Our programmers, who are in Brazil, built the site for meager pay. Was their product perfect? No. Mostly it needed to be faster, to have better hosting, to have some fine tuning, and also to have some experimenting with the interface to refine and make it more friendly. But given the little that the programmers were paid, and even if it had been a whole lot more, I think they did a fine job. So what was the problem?
We announced ZSocial to the Z audience via about 100,000 emails. Even though we also announced it on the site and not just by email, for simplicity let’s say it was proposed to 100,000 people that we wanted them to sign up and participate so as to provide a foundation of users that would (a) sustain the early stage, (b) help us improve the system, and (c) provide ample connectivity for others to later come on board in parallel sites as part of an encompassing WorldSocial.
About 4,000 people responded and signed up for thirty days free use of ZSocial. But think about that. Don’t compare it to other ventures so that by that standard 4,000 is a big number. Compare it to what it ought to be. Everyone on the left is finally beginning to exhibit real concerns about the corporate and spying nature of Facebook and Twitter. The NSA has been revealed for all to see. Those we asked to join ZSocial are Z users and therefore supposedly have heightened awareness and concern about all these matters. The project was described in detail including revealing how it could provide left social networking without spying and commercialization, as well as how it could solve the financial problems of alternative media and even, arguably, the whole left. Nonetheless only 4,000 people gave it a free try. That is 4% of those who were informed by email – and if we count everyone who saw the announcements online, not just in email, it is probably more like 2% or even just 1%.
The second problem was that of the 4,000 people who signed up, after thirty days only about 300 added their credit card information to pay. Yes, it is true that to pay before there are tens of thousands of users required an act of confidence or support, since a user at that stage would not yet get robust interactivity with a large community of fellow users. But still, having seen that it might succeed if there was sufficient support, only a half a percent or less would pay. That is sad, I think, and to top it off, I would get lots of email from serious leftists who supposedly understand the world, telling me that Z should make it completely free – presumably we could then eat dirt, have programers eat dirt, and forego a material solution to financial woes across the left? Do it free, dammit, that is the right approach, was, I am sure, the view of most who even bothered to look at what was being tried. It doesn’t matter that such a prescription was nonsense compared to the stated plan and impossible in any event. The people urging it thought they were being very wise. This may be a good time to recall what I said earlier about it not just being conservatives who at times, believe things that are very obviously contrary to fact.
To diverge for a minute, years back, I and a friend proposed a software production project, again to try to fund the left. To make a long story short, the plan was that the project would create educational and socially valuable software and that the revenues – like for Paul Newman Salad Dressing – would go to movements for peace, justice, labor, feminism, sustainability, etc. It was a long time ago, and there were, in those days, many superior programmers who would have participated for movement level wages because they would be overjoyed at being able to use their talents for good rather than for corporate greed. But still, we needed initial support to pay the reasonable salaries, get space, get equipment, etc.
We went to various left financiers, so to speak, and not one saw the plan as positive. Cynically, I believe this may well have been because if the project had succeeded, those donors would no longer have been as central to left operations.
Then we tried going to computer people. One, who was very well known, and who invented the first spreadsheet program, said yes, this is brilliant, I will lend my name, my talents, etc. However – there is a condition. You have to give me, personally, 50% of the revenues after costs. We explained that that contradicted the entire logic, making the idea – even if we were to agree – no longer viable. He said, yes, he understood that problem, but nonetheless, that was his condition. A perfect Catch 22. You can have me involved to put a great idea into motion, except to have me involved, you have to change the idea so it no longer has any merit.
I think the situation with World Social is sort of similar – users basically say to us, it is a great idea, and I will get on board, all you have to do is make it free – which of course destroys the idea.
So what now? Well, ZSocial is on hold as are the other components of WorldSocial and the overall project. Z cannot any longer cover the losses while waiting for others to take up the cause. If we can elicit a surge of support from some new direction, WorldSocial will come back, if not, then it won’t.
But what is WorldSocial? How advanced was that project?
Of course there are more complete descriptions of all this available, but, succinctly, the idea of WorldSocial was to have lots of components – SyrizaSocial, RedPepperSocial, IlManifestoSocial, UTNESocial, DeLinkeSocial, DemocracyNowSocial, ZSocial, even AFLCIOSocial, or GuardianSocial, say. Each component would appeal to its own particular constituency. It could be a media group, political organization, or movement. The totality of components would constitute WorldSocial.
WorldSocial would provide tools like those provided by FaceBook and Twitter, but without length limits, with lots of real substance, with investments in new features decided by users and guided by activist priorities, without ads, without spying, and so on. You would join a subsystem and pay $3 a month. $1 of that would go to your subsystem host, which means to Syriza, Z, or whoever. $1 from each $3 would go to WorldSocial to pay all its costs, to invest in growth, etc. And the last $1 would go to activist projects around the world, as decided by WorldSocial’s users.
Thus, the system would provide social networking with activist values and aims, without the usual commercial and spying problems, and with two thirds of the payments providing material benefit for organizations, movements, and projects worldwide – and the other third financing the system itself. Users would govern big issues such as growth in features and dispersal of surplus. There would be nothing for host organizations to argue about and thus no sectarian hostilities or argumentative time wasting. Instead, all the hosts would work together in a project whose growth would benefit them all. The result would be solidarity and mutual aid, mutual sharing of ideas, material benefits for all, etc.
The project was brought to the point of hosts and users signing on. A couple of the first organizations we asked to host a component agreed, but most did not, though those who didn’t never offered any criticisms or reasons. In fact, never once has anyone said this is not a good idea and then given a reason why.
The killer factor as far as prospects was that no one had much practical energy for the idea. A couple of early hosts didn’t have energy for inducing their constituencies to sign on or for urging other hosts on board or for propelling a public discussion of the merits or the problems. There was, as a result, pretty much no public discussion at all – just some interviews with me, and some articles we offered on ZNet. Perhaps worst of all for the prospects, the Z audience, as potential users, didn’t provide enough support to sustain the effort through early days.
My guess is WorldSocial could still have literally dozens of subsystems and hundreds of thousands of users, and perhaps even millions, if it could rise above the hindering expectation that it can’t succeed. People won’t join as individual users and organizations won’t join as hosts or exert powerfully on behalf of the project, until they all believe that others will do so too so that their own effort or expenditure will not have been in vain. This is the same thinking that would stop others in Z’s position from even trying at all or indeed from even thinking about such possibilities – but of course it did not stop us from doing so. The cautious sentiment is understandable, yet, given the minuscule risk that one takes by signing on (as compared to the much larger risk we took by actually building the system), I think it is way too cautious, to put it mildly.
Could it still succeed?
What could push WorldSocial into a zone where the momentum of early growth fed more growth, leading to ten and then fifty and then still more hosts getting involved and pushing their constituencies, and leading to 10,000 users signing up, including to pay, and then 50,000, and then way more, is probably for some very large host to take a very active stance for its own constituency, and also urging on others.
For example, here is something I am pretty sure could make a critical difference. On my recent trip to Venezuela I discussed the idea of WorldSocial in depth with folks in the Communications Ministry and involved in social and other media there, and just with political people generally – including various federal officials on the one hand, and local council members, on the other. What I suggested was that Venezuela could host a BolivarSocial (or something like that). The government would have to pay for the users because credit card automated payments to international operations are almost impossible throughout Latin America and certainly in Venezuela – but their doing so would also, at the outset, subsidize the whole operation until it could achieve a viable level. Venezuela’s participation would provide hope of a groundswell of involvement – or it could be Alba, not Venezuela alone, of course that did it – and would thus spur many others to participate too. Finally, I told them, you could host the servers and provide encryption to ward off NSA or other intrusion. For all that, you would wind up getting a nice chunk of the one third of all income going to WorldSocial, which would pay for your housing the servers, etc., so that on balance the system might even wind up a financial benefit to Venezuela, though mostly it would be a great outreach tool for your citizens and especially for developing ties and sharing lessons beyond your borders.
The response was even more positive than I anticipated. Everyone who heard the idea, spelled out more than here, of course, was highly enthusiastic. Will that reaction translate into a plan and actions? I don’t know. So far, it hasn’t.
How do you hang onto hope in such a case?
With effort, and tenaciously, but I don’t understand how anyone could do anything else. The payoff for the left, and for Z too, of Venezuela signing on would be utterly enormous. How could I possibly decide that the aggravation or frustration of hanging on to such hope and trying to actualize it, is so extreme that it outweighs that potential enormous benefit?
Let’s return to Venezuela later, but, for now, to end this section, what is the biggest frustration you deal with at the moment? How much do you estimate is beyond your control and how much can people affect the outcome of alternative media and, for instance, ZCom or WorldSocial? What do you wish would happen in the coming years?
I think you have already done a fine job of unearthing some of the things I find most frustrating. The concerns are not unique to me, I think, though most people on the left won’t aggressively discuss them, or even publicly agree they exist, probably because members of left organizations and projects don’t want to sound ungrateful for whatever modest support they do get. It is what funding advisors tell fund raisers. It is what organizers tell other organizers. Accentuate the positive and the hopeful. Be quiet about the negative and worrisome.
In the short run, accentuating the positive and even exaggerating it, undeniably works better than highlighting the negative. We could have done better for Z, that way. In the long run, however – it is a disastrous choice. Each organization that does it survives fora time but by stop gap methods that crowd out addressing the underlying situation to find a permanent solution. This pattern should sound pretty familiar. After all, we rail at capitalists who seek short run profits by means that bring on longer run global warming – calling the suicidal, jackass, morons, and worse. We are right in those feelings. However, then we seek short run gains, too, paying little or no attention to their long run suicidal implications. We are wrong in that choice.
What frustrates me most, I guess, is how few people on the left have a long view that is oriented not only to fulfilling whatever their personal short term agenda happens to be, and sadly, it is often just staying alive, but also oriented to the well being of the left writ large and of society. My reaction to the pundit advisory to accentuate the positive is, therefore, to instead suggest that people should “tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” The quotation is from the African revolutionary, Amilcar Cabral. We can clarify it. Speaking truth to power is a total waste of time. Power understands only counter power and the possibility of losses. They don’t care about the truth. Speaking truth to ourselves and to each other, however – tell no lies – has profound merit, as does not claiming victories that are unreal or partial. To violate Cabral’s advice, because one doesn’t want to sound negative or to offend, fosters disaster.
Also, the cynicism that is now so incredibly widespread in society, frustrates me immeasurably. And this is especially true when, as currently, so much is possible if only people saw the glass as being half full and tried to turn on the spigot, rather than seeing it as half empty and hunkering down in survival mode while watching a steady drip drip out the bottom. The only solution to not having won a new world yet is to act, not to whine. I admit though, there are moments when I too feel the urge to whine.
Greenwald and Snowden
I would like to change gear to a massive current media event, if you would. What do you think about the way Glenn Greenwald has been handling his involvement with Edward Snowden and the media attacks on both he and Snowden?
Snowden’s courageous revelations have reverberated all over the world, even though so far only a tiny fraction of the total documents are available. I have been very impressed with Snowden and with Greenwald, in particular. I have read Greenwald’s comments, seen quite a few of his interviews, etc. It is not easy to have good views in this world. It is much more difficult to hold on to them, and to present them really clearly and uncompromisingly, while under all kinds of pressure and threat, verbal attack, etc., and even having to deal with attacks on people near you. While staring at exile. Greenwald has done it all very smoothly and intelligently, including not just demolishing absurd and vile accusations, but also offering positive insights.
The intrinsically hard part of it all – other than fear of repression -is, I am guessing, dealing with how to disperse mountains of material most effectively. One issue is, is there any material there that ought not be public? That might be the one place I would disagree with some decision they might make, though it is hard to tell, of course, not knowing what the material is.
For example, suppose there is important information for the public in some country, but that its dispersal would reveal the names of various overseas agents of the U.S. The pressure to not release to avoid all kinds of accusations of endangering lives and hurting security would be enormous, and, in fact, no such releases have occurred. In my view, however, admittedly without lots of careful thought about it, I would say a good way to handle possibly dangerous material would be to literally tell the NSA and media before something like that is to be released that it will happen on such and such a day and time, show the NSA itself the actual material, and tell them to recall and in that way protect anyone who would be endangered by the release. Give them enough time for doing all that or for them to make a case for extenuating circumstances, and then release the material.
In other words, if possible, I would not keep important material from public view to preserve the ability of hidden spies to function. Not getting people killed is one thing. Preserving their spying behaviors is a completely different thing. I can certainly see going slow and careful, both to protect lives and to protect any data that might properly be secret, and even more so to try to generate maximum impact for the information and, as well, to avoid provoking a crippling focus on peripheral attacks about safety rather than dealing with the substance of revelations. And it appears to me Greenwald, Poitras, and whoever else is making such choices is doing a very good job of all that. Release it all at once, and most of the content would never even be noticed. Release it selectively, with effective accompanying commentary, and the impact of it all goes way up.
As to the revelations themselves, the scope of the spying is more than I thought. And the subjects of it are in some cases surprising too – such as heads of allied countries. One thing in the ensuing discussion that has been too little addressed so far, at least in my view, is the massive use of commercial spying by corporations, not just spying by the NSA or other country’s agencies, despite the fact that in the corporate case there isn’t even a pretense of security (which is admittedly mostly security for the rich and powerful and repression for everyone else), because commercial corporate data mining is simply for crass, private profit, though the information that is accumulated is often also utilized by governments.
But mostly I think the revelations are verifying what ought to have been more or less assumed, with the benefit of major consciousness raising for many people, and hopefully growing organized resistance, as well. A troubling aspect, however, is that we are perhaps a little too excited about the level of response. The revelations show that we live in states that have surveillance mechanisms and policies that just ten or twenty years ago would have been deemed by everyone totalitarian horrors. Outrage would have been enormous. Snowden was worried that there would be no discussion, no debate, no resistance, so that his actions would have been totally for naught. The response has been vastly better than that, not least because of the clever handling of information by Greenwald and Poitras, but it still falls hugely short of what a free citizenry ought to feel at such news.
That brings us to a related question. What do you think of the new project Greenwald, Poitras, Scahill and others are undertaking with heavy financial backing from the extremely rich Pierre Omidyar?
I know very little about it, not least because I suspect not very much about it is even decided as yet. That makes it very hard to have much opinion beyond broad guesses.
So, what is your best guess?
Well, if I must answer, I have hope, but I also worry. Presumably, Omidyar is a very competent and confident fellow, who is concerned about the role of journalism and the threats to it, and perhaps also about the general state of the world, and who wants to do something about it all. As a billionaire he figures he ought to be able to. He considered buying the Washington Post, but did not. Then as the Snowden revelations progressed, he became, I am guessing, steadily more concerned about the future of media and journalism and somehow got together with Greenwald, deciding to create a mass media operation that will be totally online and that will stray from usual definitions of such major media organizations in many ways, such as providing far more freedom and sway for reporters to operate however they each individually like, and far more support for them against repression, etc. But beyond that, who knows?
And what do you worry about?
What I worry about is three dimensions of it.
First, I have what ought to be an obvious fear that if it is established it might be somehow, at least to a disproportionate degree, under one person’s personal control. This could of course cripple the prospects. Again, guessing, unless Omidyar is truly exceptional – even beyond caring at all about social justice, itself in very short supply among billionaires – while he may be very open to investigative reporting that takes the government to task, it is possible that he will be far less open to investigative reporting that goes after corporations, and, even more, that goes after the laws and structures and policies that deliver profit and power to corporations and their owners at the expense of working people. Of course, at the same time, Omidyar brings to the project not only his cash, but also technical infrastructure, and probably a lot of creativity, too.
So what is the solution? Ideally, a project will be established in which Omidyar plays a role, but hopefully his level of influence will be based on his hard work and insights, not his bankroll. The money might go to some kind of non revocable fund, for example.
Second, precisely as it succeeds in its own operations, the project could be a disaster for alternative media more broadly. Al Jazeera, Real News, and now this new effort could together effectively gobble up the most popular materials, writers, etc., from all other alternative media, cutting into their means of paying their own bills for more visionary and strategic as well as local contributions that wouldn’t be available from the the larger projects. At worst, if the quality or agenda of the larger projects were to shift rightward – which is far from inconceivable – it would occur having decimated the rest of alternative media first, leaving a hole in communications even worse than existed at the outset.
I don’t think this is anyone’s intention, at least in this case of media, but it is kind of analogous to Amazon wiping out bookstores, say, which was certainly intentional, and perhaps, down the road, with media as with bookstores, we will have not only lost most sources of alternative content with their own particular personalities, local focus, and so on, but then even the big media outlets will devolve into being worse providers. Remember Google started with the guiding slogan, “do no harm.” That didn’t last very long, or, as they would probably claim, their notion of what is harm and what is good, altered.
I think finding a solution to this ripple impact on other media is hard, but doable. These three operations, or now let’s just take the Omidyar/Greenwald effort, have vast resources. Why not devote some of that to not only preserving other alternative media, but strengthening it, and also working together to everyone’s greater gain? Other operations could feed the large ones content, for example, and in return, and even more so because it is a good thing to do, could receive financial help. I don’t know how many operations the big new undertaking could help by such choices, but a good many, I bet, and I am sure some creative thought would uncover other avenues of mutual aid, too.
My third worry is more subtle and structural. Assume the best possible motives, deeply felt, of all involved, at the outset. Suppose, however, that the new operation is established with the same internal structure and operating practices, and also functions in the same broad market milieu as existing mainstream media. Also suppose it utilizes, say, typical lawyers and the like on staff and sitting in on many discussions – with their training and assumptions at play, and with everyone feeling the dictates of internal hierarchies playing out. In that case, the pressure to drift into familiar business policy and then even familiar editorial directions will be enormous. The capacity to address oppositional government-related and owner-related stories would likely suffer, but also, and most quickly, the capacity to relate to coordinator class-related stories would surely suffer. Indeed, in time the whole logic of the undertaking could be subverted by its seemingly well meaning initial institutional choices. It is hard when you are starting a big project to take such a far-sighted and self-critical stance – “tell no lies, claim no easy victories” – but the history of progressive ventures is littered with failures to do so.
And what can be done about this third concern? Well, again, it will be very difficult, in the current world, and at their scale, to deal with. Can they financially forego ads, and ad departments, and so on? That would be very good. If not, can they do ads, but somehow establish some kind of public oversight?
To have an editorial side and a business side, doesn’t accomplish much even accompanied by promises that the business folks will not interfere with the editorial folks. They will. Period. This formal division is ubiquitous in the publishing world and has in no case ever led to content ruling finances. The division is, instead, typically for show, and rhetoric aside, so that the business people aren’t bothered by the content producers, not vice versa.
So I would say, a good sign would be trying to get lawyers and accountants and the like, each of whom is as radically informed as the content folks, and trying to have a decision making structure that puts the content folks in ultimate charge, plus a transparency that guarantees content folks will have the information to have informed views – or, even better than that, to have a workers self managed approach, and, best, to also move toward having equitable remuneration and a fair allocation of tasks so that everyone working in the new project can participate in an informed and confident way.
So, again, based solely, so far, on what I have seen of how Greenwald, in particular, handles himself, I have a lot of hope for the project, albeit tempered by worries.