Decentralization and Authority at the Media Co-op

Jul 14, 2010

Decentralization and Authority at the Media Co-op

[Disclaimer: I don't speak on behalf of the Media Co-op, but I speak from the Media Co-op. Others may very well disagree with things I say, or wish to express things differently. I hope that they do.]

Recent controversies have resulted in a few people contacting me and asking me, and pressuring me, to take stuff down from the Media Co-op web site. My answer is the same for each one: I cannot.

The baseline assumption seems to be that this organization is top-down in the same way many others are. Because I'm one of the people who has been working on the Dominion and the Media Co-op since the beginning (that being 2003), I'm assumed to have some kind of omnipotence or at least massive influence when it comes to the operations of the project.

In fact, we're working to make an organization that is the exact opposite of that state of affairs, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Our current overlapping structures

The Media Co-op consists of a few different, overlapping things:

  • The Locals (Halifax, Vancouver and Toronto, so far) which are responsible for operating their respective web sites. These web sites all feed into the central site, where people can post work that does not pertain to a particular Local.
  • The three kinds of members: readers, contributors and editors. If they are geographically situated within a local, members may also be a part of a given local.
  • The Dominion, which draws from the coverage of the locals, frequently pays local members for their work, and has its own editorial standards and policies.
  • A central staff, which overlaps to a very large extent with the Dominion's editorial collective, which is responsible for many of the daily operations of the co-op and its publication, the Dominion.

Since it's inception two years ago, the Media Co-op has been in the process of building a structure that embodies participatory democracy, and is resolutely bottom-up.

Media from below

Our decentralized structure has been one of the main contributing factors in the rapid growth of the Media Co-op, from nothing a few years ago into a network that generates thousands of posts per year, not including comments.

What bottom-up means to us, is that the central body of the Media Co-op serves the membership and the Locals, and it doesn't get to tell the Locals what to do. That doesn't mean that we don't have debates and disagreements, but it means that final authority over local editorial decisions rests at the local level.

It's part of a broader philosophical shift, where instead of an organization being led by a central leader, it is "led," inasmuch as the word applies, by the energy and engagement of grassroots-level activity. The institutional structure is there to nuture the grassroots activity, help it rapidly self-replicate and amplify it so that it can reach a greater audience and achieve greater influence.

(I'm not saying we're doing these things particularly well in all cases, but rather I am speaking to our intentions and overall direction.)

The results are always going to be mixed, and plenty of people will do things in one part of the network that people in another part disagree with, and maybe even take some heat for. But we collectively recognize that we're all stronger if we keep building the network together. The self-confidence that's instilled and the innovation that results when people are given autonomy far outweighs the instances of conflict that may result. (That said, it's not always easy to convince everyone of this during a conflict.)

Lessons and future directions

In many ways, the creation of functional networks that combine the flexibility of autonomy with the concentrated strategy and resources that a cental organization affords (while keeping that central organization accountable to its constituents) is a development which is very much in its infancy. (That is not to say that it's a new idea; Indigenous traditions of radical democracy go back thousands of years; the challenge that's only just being met is how to adapt and spread the practices within the present reality.) showed that it was possible for a media network to grow from nothing, into a globe-spanning network of autonomous media outlets in the span of a few years, but it suffered from an inability to adapt to new challenges and make decisions collectively. (That said, many IMCs are still going strong and doing amazing work.)

Greenpeace (to name just one example) took the opposite approach and centralized its operations with fierce efficacy. It has the opposite problem: enourmous amounts of money and organizational capacity under central control, but little impetus to do anything with it. (Quite the opposite, as it turns out.)

Venezuela is experimenting with the extremely interesting model of communas, but that's just starting. The Spanish Civil war gave us a few fascinating examples. Then there was that moment in Argentina. There are the Haudenosaunee, the Zapatistas, the Aymara and many other Indigenous traditions that are from-below in their political structures. The pieces and precendent for this kind of organization/network are everywhere, but to commit to building such a thing is to commit to intensive and occasionally messy experimentation.

Two basic things that I've learned:

  • The more decentralized the operation, the more there needs to be a solid basis of agreed-upon policy and principles moving from the outset.
  • The larger the organization/network, the more important it is for people to be educated about the activities of all the parts they'll be participating in decisionmaking about.

I am personally committed to precisely this project. This is why, when people tell me that I'm "not serious," that I'm "hiding behind the structure" and "only interested in sectarianism" as some recently have, I don't take it personally. Decentralized, bottom-up organizations are an unfamiliar phenomenon, and I hope that in the years to come, the ideas behind them will be less and less foreign.