A Reflexion on the Activist Strategies in the Web 2.0 Era

Towards a New Language Criticism

Tatiana Bazzichelli*

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This is a personal review of the past Activism-Hacking-Artivism Camping, the first collective meeting of the Italian aha@ecn.org mailing-list, which focuses on hacktivism and netculture. I also propose some reflections on social networking vs. freedom of communication in the Web 2.0 social platforms, which was a much discussed issue during our meeting.

A networking art platform

The ahaCamping took place on the 3rd, 4th and 5th of October 2008 at the S.A.L.E independent exhibition space in Venice (The Salt Warehouses, Dorsoduro 187-188). It was organized and managed directly by the subscribers of the AHA mailing list (aha@ecn.org), which is hosted by the Italian independent server Isole Nella Rete (Islands in the Net). The AHA mailing list is the core of the networking project AHA:Activism-Hacking-Artivism (www.ecn.org/aha), which I founded in Rome in 2001 and later developed in Berlin from 2003 to 2008.
The AHA project is a networking art platform created to promote hacktivism and art on the Internet related to the Italian net culture and underground movement. AHA project has contributed to the creation of a network of relations and practices through exhibitions, conferences, workshops and international meetings. The project received an Honorary Mention in the Digital Communities category of the Prix Ars Electronica, at the ARS Electronica Festival in Linz (AU) in September 2007. The key aspect of the AHA project is the community of the mailing list aha@ecn.org, created on the 30th of December 2002. The mailing list is moderated by three women: Eo_Call, Lo|Bo and me (T_Bazz), and it is part of the neighbourhood mailing-lists of Nettime. The aim of the aha list is to encourage participants to think about art as an open network of practices and interventions, providing the possibility of sharing ideas, creative works and projects on art and hacktivism.

The AHA Camping and the development of Hacker Ethics

In March 2008 we had the idea of organizing the ahaCamping. During Turin's Share Festival (www.toshare.it/eng), some members of the AHA mailing-list met to discuss the topics of a future common initiative. Subsequently, we discussed the purpose and details of the Camp on the mailing-list, as well as on an open wiki platform later developed by the subscribers themselves: the ahaCamper (www.ecn.org/aha/camper). The core themes of the ahaCamping were the analysis of Web 2.0 platforms, the relationships between artistic activities and media strategies, the issue of surveillance in the net and urban space, the Post-Fordist analysis of the precarious collective movement, the experimental artistic possibilities offered by social networking, and the concept of porn and sexuality as an open platform of intervention for fluid (and queer) identities.
The AHA Camping was inspired by the (mainly Italian) activity of organizing Hackmeetings, the annual national hacker meetings, which take place in different Italian city every year (www.hackmeeting.org). The basic idea of hacker ethics (for the Italian community) has a strong political and activist meaning and it is strictly related to the idea of sharing knowledge, developing free software and fighting for social and political rights. The Italian Hackmeetings are therefore different from other International experiences, such as for example the CCC Camp in Berlin. The entrance fee for the hackmeetings is minimal and they are organized directly by the participants (which are part of the Hackmeeting mailing list).
The Spanish hacker scene has adopted the same “bottom-up strategy” since 2000 (see www.hacklabs.org/en and www.sindominio.net/hackmeeting) as well as some international hacker meetings called Transhackmeeting, which took inspiration from the Italian ones. The first Transhackmeeting took place in Pula, Croatia, in 2004, and the last in Oslo in 2007 (www.transhackmeeting.org).
The AHA community decided to meet in Venice last October, inspired by the same background which has animated the hacker and activist scene since the beginning of ‘90s (from the Cybernet BBS networks to the Italian Social Center scenario). To set up the meeting, we worked together with the S.A.L.E. collective, an independent local exhibition space, which is at the core of many student social and political activities in the city of Venice.
After three days of workshops and talks, much interesting input was developed but one of the most interesting discussions concerned the definition of our project as a “networking platform”, as the word “networking” has been completely overused after the emergence of the Web 2.0 phenomenon. Since 2001, AHA project has been defined as a social network which critically deals with art and activism.
What does it mean to speak about networking and hacktivism today? I have been asking myself this question for many months as I have begun to analyze the emerging of the Web 2.0 phenomena and the actual meaning of "network effects".
In the definition of “Web 2.0” offered by Tim O’Reilly (first realized in 2004 and then revisited in 2006), “Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the Internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform. Chief among those rules is this: Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them. (This is what I've elsewhere called ‘harnessing collective intelligence’)”.
But where is the real revolution? As Dmytri Kleiner discussed in the article “Info-Enclosure 2.0” (Mute Magazine, January 2007), “The Internet has always been about sharing between users. In fact Usenet, a distributed messaging system, has been operated since 1979! Since long before even Web 1.0, Usenet has been hosting discussions, ‘amateur’ journalism, and enabling photos and file sharing (…)”.
It is clear that Internet as a place of open and free sharing has already existed for quite a while. At the same time, notions of interaction and collective participation have been central to 20th-century art. The concept of networking has been practiced since the ‘50s – for example, with the mail art experiments and, at the beginning of the ‘80s, the Neoist-Network-Web visionary project and the idea of “open situations”. In the hacker and activist scene of the mid-‘90s, the concept of sharing knowledge and collective construction of data has been fundamental to the creation of free software and the development of the GNU/Linux operative system.

A battle of language

The crucial point is that today we are facing a battle of language. The real business revolution is the transformation of language. I personally attended the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin in 2007 and analyzed many presentations of the same event in 2008, and what I found incredibly surprising was that the language used by Tim O’Reilly and the other speakers was very close to the one used by the hackers in the ‘90s. Concepts like openness, Do It Yourself, sharing and social networking are now widely used by the inventors, developers and users of platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, Del.icio.us etc. Sentences like “Open your data and services for re-use by others, and re-use the data and services of others whenever possible”, which once could have been perfect examples of what is literally called hacker ethics, are used today by Tim O’Reilly to define Web 2.0 (http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2006/12/web-20-compact-definition-tryi.html).
On the Tim O’Reilly Radar website is a section for “Open Source”: http://radar.oreilly.com/open_source/ in which we can read:
“The open source paradigm shift transformed how software is developed and deployed. First widely recognized when the disruptive force of Linux changed the game, open source software leverages the power of network effects, enlightened self-interest, and the architecture of participation. Today, the impact of open source on technology development continues to grow, and O'Reilly Radar tracks the key players and projects. O'Reilly has been part of the open source community since the beginning--we convened the 1998 Summit at which the visionary developers who invented key free software languages and tools used to build the Internet infrastructure agreed that ‘open source’ was the right term to describe their licenses and collaborative development process”.
It is therefore obvious that the real business revolution of Web 2.0 is in the strategy of opening new models for the venture capital to solve the dotcom crisis of the early 2000. And the first step towards reaching this goal appears to work on re-appropriating the language used in the first phase of networking culture and to create a new rhetoric to describe the diffusion of a cloud of networking platforms. Unfortunately these platforms of networking are not open at all as they pretend to be, but they are controlled by business companies mainly based in the Silicon Valley headquarters. This is something similar to what already happened in California twenty years ago, when one of the first collective IT amateur experiences, the legendary Homebrew Computer Club (1975-1976), which promoted the motto “Computer Power to the People”, gave rise to twenty-three of the Valley’s major computer companies.
Another example of the re-appropriation of language is shown in a recent post by Tim O’Reilly: “Thoughts on the Financial Crisis” (http://radar.oreilly.com/2008/10/thoughts-on-financial-crisis.html). Facing the current world-wide economical crisis, he suggests “working on stuff that matters”. After the emergence of issues like the oil price shock, global warming, the decline in US and European economic competitiveness and innovation, the proposal is “to have robust strategies” and work on saving lives, reduce our reliance on oil, be prudent in what we spend money on, and get socially active – and do this using the lesson learned from social networking. These strategies recall some of the claims of activist and political groups active among the underground culture in the ‘90s.

Towards a new language criticism

Last winter Bruce Sterling assumed that Web 2.0 is already dead, reconstructing its short and glorious life during a video conference in Turin (see http://dams.campusnet.unito.it). But considering the increasing number of users in MySpace and Facebook, we should still assume that something is going on. What would a valid strategy of radical action be today after a new rhetoric of business has taken over many of the original hacker and activist arguments? How should hackers and activists respond to this appropriation of imaginary?
The answer is to reinvent new subversive strategies for discovering “the bug in the system” by creating a new language criticism. Future reflection on activism and hacker culture should therefore include a deep study of the language and rhetoric of presenting conceptual models and dynamics of networking.
This is what we discussed among other topics at the AHA Camping, reflecting on the ability to face creatively the present development of social (commercial) communities. My position is not to refuse the very popular social networking platforms because commercial and closed; rather, it is to try to construct new artistic and activist experiments at the core of their system. It is necessary to criticize the media, applying the Hands-On hacker attitude in new territories of intervention. Tim O’Reilly is learning from hackers, but hackers should be able to reinvent their strategies once again.

A new language criticism is needed!

*Tatiana Bazzichelli (Rome, IT, 1974), is a communication sociologist and an expert in network culture, hacktivism and net art. She is a Ph.D. Scholar at Aarhus University, Department of Information and Media Studies. She is founder of the networking project AHA: Activism-Hacking-Artivism (2001), which won the Honorary Mention for the Digital Communities category at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz (AU, 2007). From 2003 to 2008 she was a free-lance journalist based in Berlin, Germany, and has organized several exhibitions and conventions on media art and hacktivism. She wrote Networking. The Net as Artwork, book published in December 2006 in Italy by Costa & Nolan, Milan (Preface by Derrick de Kerckhove). The English version of the book, is published by the Digital Aesthetics Research Center of the Aarhus University (2008).