This year will see a site upgrade and some new web initiatives. Counterfire editor Ady Cousins outlines the perspectives for developing the website in the year ahead
Before looking at Counterfire its worth looking at some recent statistics about web use. According to a recent report by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) - 'Statistical Bulletin: Internet Access - Households and Individuals, 2013' - Internet use continues to grow and change rapidly.
- In 2013, 36 million adults (73%) in Great Britain accessed the Internet every day, 20 million more than in 2006 [Graph 1].
- Access to the Internet using a mobile phone more than doubled between 2010 and 2013, from
24% to 53%. The biggest increase is in young users [Graph 2].
As Graph 3 shows, the internet is used heavily by younger people for social networking and as a news source.
Graph 1: Daily Internet use, 2006 to 2013
Graph 2: Internet use on a mobile phone by age group, 2010 and 2013
Graph 3: Internet activities by age group, 2013
A look at the ONS breakdown of what people do on the internet tells us that the online areas where we operate consists not just of 'Reading or downloading online news, newspapers or magazine' but also 'Social networking, eg Facebook or Twitter'. The site cannot therefore constitute our sole presence online. We are also developing our other forms of publishing such as the broadsheet and books. The web site will remain a central means for building the organisation and influencing the movement, but it must work as part of an integrated, multi-channel strategy.
Site as organiser
The central purpose of Counterfire is to convince people to do something and to help them do it, to help individuals be more effective at opposing war, austerity, racism, sexism, and all injustice and oppression. We also want to convince people that all of these things are linked and structured into a system based on exploitation which can only be overturned by the collective actions of the exploited and oppressed. We want to link people up with others who see the world in similar terms so that we can pool our resources and talents and by conscious, coordinated action have a greater impact than if we were simply a collection of individuals.
Counterfire's capacity to convince, to influence and to be shaped by other activists who see the world in similar terms depends on a sense of identification with the site. The communicating capacity of Counterfire depends on the creation and expansion of this network of people who identify with it and contribute to it and shape it.
The site must send a clear, unambiguous signal that identifies Counterfire with the People's Assembly movement, the revival of strikes and trade unions, the protests against the war on welfare recipients, the student movement against the loans sell-off, the opposition to against racism and fascism and so on.
Based on this perspective the following are the key priorities for the site, which will be upgraded early this year:
The introduction of the events calendar is a step toward improving the site as organiser. As well as supplying the basic information that permits people to get involved, the listings of national and local movement events sends a clear message that we are about doing, about active involvement in the movements.
We should build on this, increase the number of activities that are listed, with local groups responsible for adding their events to the calendar.
The integration and development of the events calendar in the new site is a distinct software project.
News and reports
The reports by members and friends are another central mechanism by which we strengthen the movement and are identified as doing so. Reports concretely demonstrate what we believe revolutionary activity consists of. The reports of visits and solidarity delegations to picket lines, occupations and protests are a clear statement of what type of activity we champion.
The “secret diary' series - personal accounts of working life such as 'Secret diary of a cinema worker' should be much more common on the site.
Improved response to events and quicker article turnaround times have been made possible due to a dedicated web worker.
Delays in adding content to the site are an obstacle to us getting more contributions; they demoralise, alienate and annoy contributors, delays undermine identification and network building.
Our capacity to develop the network requires investment in the central production capacity of the site.
We will continue to increase the amount of reports and news articles we carry – either produced by our members and supporters or reposted from elsewhere.
To help report submission we are exploring an online form that helps in writing short reports.
Not everybody has time or finds writing easy. We will also increase the use of interviews as a means of creating content from transcribed audio.
As well as increasing the number of formal articles by members we also want to increase the use of other material – Facebook posts, tweets, video clips and images. To compile these fragments from the movements into a coherent record or narrative will mean increasing use of the Storify live blogging platform – or some similar platform.
Storify is a live blogging tool which has become our standard approach for reporting on unfolding events - days of action, strikes, occupations, protests and occasionally large developing stories. Rather than relying entirely on content submitted by our own members Storify enables us to use tweets, images, videos and links to other material, arranged on a scrolling timeline. Its a networked description of real events.
It also acts as a social networking tool, helping build relationships with the various contributors and helping to break down the producer / consumer barrier. The method of creating a narrative from many fragments means that anybody can become a reporter simply by tweeting an image or video or a short update. It therefore lowers the barriers to publishing.
Our use of Storify for live blogging has helped put us at the centre of trade union and movement social networks – many union twitter accounts and independent activists have contributed to and shared our coverage of strike days and protests. The identification with Counterfire that this promotes enhances the influence of the organisation and its standing in the movement.
We plan to extend our use of Storify this year in the following ways
Using the events calendars to identify potential live blogging opportunities.
Creating 'after the event' collections of images, videos and mainstream news reports where we are not able to live blog
Following ongoing 'stories' - eg: the movement against austerity, the pay strikes, opposition to war, revolution and counter revolution in Egypt
Overcoming the gap between producer and consumer means readers becoming contributors and also distributors – sharing on Facebook and twitter, forwarding mailouts to friends and colleagues. To make this more organised we will be creating an opt-in mailing list that will provide a daily digest of articles so that they can be distributed via social networks.
We need to increase the number of visitors to the site. To do that we need to establish the site as a centre of intelligent and positive engagement with the movements and those on the Left that agree with us on many things. By posting the work of external contributors and broadening the range of content we attract a broader audience to address with our ideas and increase the weight and influence of the Left as whole.
We have made some headway in extending the range of contributors on the site. A few writers have responded to positive book reviews by writing articles for us.
Mark Perryman has written a number of articles and has been a supporter of what we're trying to do with the site. We've also increased the number of reposts on the site, which we should see as way of encouraging more active engagement with the site by the authors concerned and their followers.
We plan to approach popular Left writers and activists that we work with for original material for all sections of the site.
The site also needs more content on the arts, more film and book reviews, we hope this year to expand these areas and we need volunteers to commission and write articles in these areas.
The 'authority' of a articles is based on the authority of the writer. The reader needs to know about the author. What makes them qualified? Why should we listen to them? The authority of an article is strengthened by the inclusion of biographical details about the person that is writing it. An article is partially the promotion of certain ideas, but its also about promoting the individual that writes the article. Readers will also want to read other articles by the same author.
The following facilities are being built into the new site:
Dynamically insert short author profiles that contain a portrait or avatar, biographical details, contact details, Facebook, Twitter
Dynamically create author pages that list articles by a particular author.
This is a major requirement and so a number of software packages are being evaluated.
Payment for adding articles
Relying on volunteers is unsustainable. It is difficult to organise, and leads to unacceptable backlogs that alienate authors and make the site slow to respond to events as they happen. In the last three months I have been paying someone to add articles. This has led to a huge improvement in turnaround times and freed me up to work on site development. It has also improved the site's capacity to pull in new writers. Getting articles online quickly means we can extend the range of external contributors, and get the work of our members online promptly.
We should continue and if possibly extend this model, whilst not abandoning the use of volunteers totally.
Nationally, the trend is for greater use of mobile devices (mobile phones and tablets) to view websites, as the Graph 3 shows. Growing numbers of visitors are viewing Counterfire on mobile devices. Our mobile readership has increased from 6% of site visitors in December 2010 to 32% in December 2013 - see Graph 4:
Graph 4: Counterfire site visitors by device type 2010 and 2013
This is good news – the combination of the web with mobile devices potentially facilitates more effective organising - what Howard Reingold described as 'deliberate and tactically focused use of wireless communications and mobile social networks in urban political conflict'.
Rather than simply accommodating mobile users, we need to be focussing on them as the trend towards mobiles will increase. The new site will be a ‘responsive’ design, so that irrespective of device used the content is accessible and well presented.
A number of responsive templates have been tested. An initial candidate has been selected and will form the basis of the site upgrade.
Next 12 months and beyond
As well as working in multiple online forms we also produce printed material – the broadsheet, and books. We need to look for ways to make content available in multiple 'channels'.
This requirement for publishing content in multiple channels is obviously not unique to us. There are examples of citizen journalist software tools that operate around the assumption that groups need tools to realise these possibilities. We are currently evaluating a number of tools - such as those produced by Sourcefabric - that operate on a multi-channel assumption.
Moving away from blogging Content Management Systems
Blogging Content Management Systems require configuration and customisation to do the things we would like. This involves installing and maintaing multiple software add-ons, leading to conflicts and issues of compatibility. Moving to a unitary system specifically developed for citizen journalism and or political organising will remove much of the time and investment required to maintain and implement the various components.
Maintenance of a web server, security, updating and installing software, all consume time and resources. It also means our horizons are limited by our technical capacity and time.
A hosted solution mean we simply pay a monthly fee for both the web hosting and the maintenance of the software. Moving to a hosted solution will free us from much of the technical work, improve security, make us less reliant on key individuals and open up development possibilities.
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