By Tim Hjersted
Aug 13, 2012
It finally hit us several years ago. A heavily monopolized, commercialized and profit-driven media was choking the health of our culture. It was the problem that made every problem in our culture worse. But rather than wait for these media conglomerates to reform, or hope that somebody somewhere would do something about it, we decided: better to just become the media ourselves. We don't need to wait on anyone or any thing; each one of us can become a micro distribution network for the news that matters.
Now, it really took quite a bit of stewing on this problem to get to this point, so maybe I'll take it back to the beginning...
In 2004 a group of friends and I stumbled upon a documentary called The Corporation. This film was almost 3 hours long, but by the time the credits rolled it had quite frankly blown our minds. This was around the time we were almost finished with college, yet this was information we had never heard about from the media, from school, from our friends or families. It was information which felt lucid and profound, conveying a truth about how the world worked that unraveled many of the problems in our society and pointed to a deep-root strategy to solve them.
The Corporation is today's dominant institution, creating great wealth but also great harm. This 26 award-winning documentary examines the nature, evolution, impacts and future of the modern business corporation and the increasing role it plays in society and our everyday lives.
"This should be front page news!" We said to ourselves. "They should be teaching these fundamentals in school, broadcasting this information all over the news." But they weren't, and this made us question why.
The corporate media we learned, with its 24/7 coverage and its dizzying array of channels, reaching into the thousands on satellite TV, was not as diverse as it first appeared. The major news networks, publishing companies, movie studios and other entertainment properties were all owned by just a handful of conglomerates.
Decades of media consolidation has taken its toll on a diverse media. While over 50 voices controlled the majority of information flows in the first half of the last century (which still isn't great) this number has shrunk to just 5 or 6 today.
If a key indicator of the health of a democracy is the state of its journalism, the United States is in deep trouble. In Rich Media, Poor Democracy, Robert McChesney lays the blame for this state of affairs squarely at the doors of the corporate boardrooms of big media, which...
In the realm of education, things aren't any better. The diversity of information in schools is homogenized by a standardized curriculum influenced mostly by top-down decision making. State agencies, book publishers, and special interest groups -- essentially a small minority of people -- end up deciding what millions of children will learn with minimal input from teachers, parents and the students themselves.
If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children.
The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th century when it forced Native American children into government boarding schools. Today, volunteers...
So we have in both the case of our media and in our education a situation where the flow of information is controlled by powerful corporate and state interests with few mechanisms for direct, democratic input. And because these institutions inherently benefit from the way things are, it's no surprise that the spectrum of information imparted to millions every day by these institutions is limited by a bias that upholds the values and interests of the status quo.
Watching documentaries like Rich Media, Poor Democracy and Orwell Rolls in His Grave further deepened this understanding. By 2006 it had become fully apparent to us that these monopolies on the flow of information had become the greatest bottleneck impeding the progress of society, and that breaking this bottleneck remains the number one most important thing we can do to create a better world. It's the first step, the most important step - a foundation upon which all of the other solutions become exponentially easier to realize.
Fortunately, we realized, we don't need $500 million to buy our own news network. We can build our own channels from the bottom up. The answer to a consolidated media isn't another network of the same format and scale as CNN or FOX; it's a diverse ecosystem of 10,000 micro news outlets which has the power to decentralize and democratize the flow of information. It's a media ecosystem that puts the control of the flow of information fully into the hands of the people. The internet has made this possible for the first time ever in human history, and it's the most powerful of these tools, but we also have a number of other mediums to compliment it.
In 2006, our first response was to start local, working to build new information channels that would reduce our city's dependence on corporate-owned media. We started hosting regular public films screenings, bringing in audiences both large and small. For two years we aired documentaries we had bought the rights to on our local Public Access TV station, and, in the following year, we launched a website to start cataloging a video library of alternative perspectives online.
At the same time, we felt a strong solidarity with the hundreds of independent media alternatives that citizen media groups were forming. We all had a role to play in building up a healthy ecosystem of diverse voices and outlets.
Over the next four years, we continued hosting film screenings and expanding our online presence, and during this time, we started to look at how the "Films For Action model" could be replicated in other cities. The struggles we had building up these channels are the same struggles every citizen group has when they first begin. Most organizations are strapped for technical resources and can't afford to hire a Web designer to create a robust news site from scratch, and so far, none of the ‘website-out-of-a-box’ solutions, like Word Press or Blogger have focused on activist functionality.
With that in mind, the 2010 relaunch of the website focused on creating an international platform that made it easy for anyone to create a local chapter website dedicated to providing indy-media for their city. The model and tools that we developed for our own city over the course of several years can now be recreated for any new initiative with just a few clicks.
Fast forward to today. Alternative media on the internet has exploded. Many Youtube videos, activist Facebook pages and websites are dwarfing the nightly reach of the major news networks, and more and more people everyday are "becoming the media." And this is our invitation to you.
There are hundreds of micro-news networks forming that you can replicate or get involved with. If you resonate with the aesthetics and vibe of Films For Action, especially with our focus on film as a strategic medium for change, we hope you'll get involved and consider launching your own local chapter. Our goal is to provide communities all over the globe with the information and perspectives essential to creating a more just, democratic and sustainable world. We eventually hope to see thousands of these initiatives springing up. And your help is essential.
But regardless of what part of this movement of movements you want to get involved with, becoming the media is something everyone can do, from the smallest daily acts to larger-scale projects.
On the personal level, become a news distro that your friends can trust. Grow your friendship circle beyond the choir. Share news and films regularly with your friends on social networks. We can all be news editors now and can decide what information gets shared virally on the internet - whether it's cat videos or profound ideas that could change the world, social media gives us a tremendous power to reach millions of people.
Currently over 90% of this site's traffic comes from Facebook, several million visits a month from all over the world, and that's all thanks to our 600,000 person network on Facebook sharing links regularly from their feed.
You can also try hosting a public film screening in your neighborhood and invite the people that come to your event to join you in hosting even more screenings. If the idea takes off, launch your own Films For Action city chapter and make use of all of the features it provides - further expanding your reach online. Eventually, your group could be hosting multiple film screenings simultaneously all across the city throughout the year - events organized by multiple teams each focused on a different venue or theme and amplified by thousands of supporters who help spread the word about the site and film events via Facebook, email and word of mouth.
By creating a shared foundation of understanding among the audience, you can use these events as spring-boards to catalyze collective community action on a range of possible campaigns. Part of your activity as a group can be to research and design deep-root solutions, activities or projects for your community to initiate at the individual, group and city levels, while identifying national campaigns worth supporting. You can also use the film-screenings to promote existing campaigns being led by other activist groups. For example, you could host a film screening about local food and relocalization to support people getting involved with local food groups who are already working on these issues. In that way, you can help funnel enthusiasm and support for local groups, increasing participation in these groups and giving people hands-on and immediate answers to the question, "what can I do?"
We've always thought, why have 10 or 20 people in a group working on a given issue when we could have 1000? Why try to work uphill trying to solve a problem that only a few hundred people in a city are aware of when we could get 10,000 to 100,000 people aware of it and working on it with us?
What we need are "social change economies of scale." Film screenings, being multiplied across a city via decentralized rhizome networks and in coordination with a central internet hub, have the potential to create the tipping points necessary to create mass awareness and action to make our cities ecologically, economically and socially sustainable.
So, let's skip ahead a couple years. As you continue to keep at it, hosting film screenings, launching campaigns and connecting people to your website, eventually your network will be able to reach most of the city, advancing the public discourse on a range of issues. These discussions will shape local policy and empower communities to tackle issues pro-actively, proposing and implementing innovative ideas rather than constantly responding defensively to new problems. Ever more rapidly, these alternative perspectives will propagate into existing institutions, from local education to business to politics to the social sphere. All in all, your independent media efforts will help amplify the common understandings necessary to catalyze dramatic change at a city-wide level.
At the global level, we'll be helping to seed more networks in more cities across the globe - creating thousands of local independent media centers that are people powered and oriented toward the social good rather than personal profit. And these networks - decentralized but cooperative - will simultaneously provide the logistics to coordinate ever more ambitious and action-oriented campaigns. We'll be able to focus on all of the 10,000 solutions necessary to create a sustainable future, but we'll also be able to quickly mobilize our collective energies to achieve the big things we can only do together.
At the same time, via the Take Action section of our local/global integrated website, we'll be building a vast solutions library full of how-to guides and best practices for innovative solutions. Like the microbial fungi networks that stretch miles wide under the Earth in the Northern U.S., when one part of the network innovates a new model for doing something - they'll be able to share the knowledge of this success so that it can be replicated and improved on in thousands of other places. All together, this physical and virtual network will provide the catalyst needed to ramp up this blossoming revolution of ideas.
We can all feel something big is happening already - with Occupy Wall Street, Transition Towns, Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, and the Zeitgeist Movement, with 350.org, permaculture, post-growth, bioregionalism, relocalization, and the Natural Step, with the animal rights, human rights, indigenous, anarchist, democratic socialist and environmental movements - all of these like-minded movements are responding to the challenge of this decade as quickly as they can - but we still need more momentum. We need another big push to send us past the tipping point - and that push is going to come from a media ecosystem that's dedicated to supporting all of these movements.
What we need is a media infrastructure that will amplify the impact of all of our efforts a thousand fold.
That is the vision we hope to realize from our city chapter model and online learning library. Our ultimate vision is to see tens of thousands of city chapters springing up across the world, providing a people-powered media that exists explicitly to support the movements working to change the world.
This is how we'll turn the tide -- each of us working to break the bottleneck on the flow of information in our own cities. And collectively, we'll be able to create a new information network that rivals the reach and influence of the old corporate giants, but with an entirely new purpose.