Networking "Another World" -- Internet, Technology and the Social Forum

by Alfredo Lopez

" get folks to think about technologists as a part of the movement and not a means to an end."

--Josue Guillen (The Praxis Project) Co-Chair, Communications Working Group

An event as remarkable and complex as the US Social Forum (USSF) was sure to present enormous opportunities and daunting challenges for all its organizers and participants.

We at May First/People Link (MF/PL) knew that from the start. And as technology organizers, we knew that the USSF would inherit both the already complex and nuanced relationship our movements in this country have with technology and the dependence on technology that the Social Forum movement has had world-wide.

As Director of the Brecht Forum Liz Mestres (who's been to other Social Forums, including the first in Brazil) put it: "The Social Forums could not have happened without the Internet and the technology. It would have been impossible."

In fact, in an important way, the Social Forum movement and the Internet are the same development. Battered by decades of social, political and economic dysfunction and repressed in our attempts to carve out an antidote (often by ineffective or unwilling governments), humanity now returns to its roots. We are doing what we have always done since our inception as a species and doing what makes us distinct and successful: reaching out and collaborating.

We reach across the boundaries of nations, over the seemingly insurmountable walls of culture, across the deep and often treacherous oceans of conflict and pain in our specific histories. We turn our backs on all that to focus on what's important and what's at stake: our survival.

And we have built the Internet. We built this technology ourselves: nurturing and using it, making it popular, improving and growing it...massive networks of people (many of whom have never met) in every continent, working together often without pay or compensation of any kind other than to have done it.

And we use it -- 1.4 billion of us -- and in the process of using it we communicate in ways we never have up to now. We are able to tell each other more about ourselves, to show ourselves, to report on our lives every day, to share our ideas. We are able to listen and to share the lives of others: a greater number of others than ever before in places we have never seen.

And it has changed our lives and it is impossible for us to return to the way things were before it.

We are, all of us, part of a huge movement thrusting forward into this "other world" the Social Forum talks about and trying, clumsily, chaotically and inconsistently, to do it together as a world. The Internet is, among so much else, clear proof that "another world is possible."

So it's easy to understand the immediate relationship between the USSF and technology: from the very start, USSF organizing relied on the now accepted protocols like email and mail lists and websites. The reliance on those tools to reach out, announce intentions and begin planning was automatic; at this point in our history, our use of these things isn't a choice, it's an automatic response.

But the challenge for technology organizers at the USSF went much farther than those activities. The real issue was how our movements would incorporate the use of technology to not only realize this event but to enhance it and imbue it with the fundamentally democratic culture that on-line technology represents.

Less than a year before the forum, MF/PL attended one of the early northeast regional US social forum meetings in Massachusetts. Inspired by what we experienced, we reached out to our network of progressive techies, inviting them to the first NYC meeting about the US social forum in October and after the meeting we discussed ways to support the organizing effort.

Several weeks later, when Josue Guillen became Communications Committee Chair, we learned that very little had been done to prepare the technology for this Social Forum. The website was under-developed. One person was in charge of all of it and little thought had been given to how to integrate basic functions like registration and program scheduling into the website.

While it was clear to us that technology would be critical to this event and would help define its character and democracy, the leadership had given precious little attention to this area of the forum. Given that much of our movement doesn't see that communications technology itself represents a struggle for control of our society and culture and therefore needs to be addressed politically, that didn't surprise us. But it was grounds for concern.

There was a vacuum and we wanted to address that problem in the best way politically. Josue Guillen puts it best: "We didn't move to fill the vacuum; we organized into it."

Once the commitment was made, the challenge was clearly defined: how do you organize the technology of a Social Forum?

Organizing the Tech Team

"It was an amazing experience, actually. It was totally collaborative, I learned a lot, and helped others learn. It was a bit high pressure at times, but that was actually a good thing - it really fostered and fueled that collaboration."

--Michelle Murrain

There are progressive technologists all over this country. They work individually or in small collectives, often isolated from each other and always grappling with the problem of how to provide our movements with the technology they need to do their work.

The normal reaction of a provider or shop would have been to take on the entire task -- like a project or job. But that approach would have cheated us of the opportunity the USSF provided us: to unify those technologists into a coordinated team that would not only serve the technology needs of the Social Forum but would influence and help guide its planning and use of the technology so that the event would be as open and participatory as possible.

At the same time, that kind of "team approach" would enrich techies' politics and provide a different Internet experience which contradicted the normal isolation and bring them into the movement as organizers.

At that point, this was no longer an MF/PL effort; it belonged to a committed and involved network of progressive technologists.

Responding to a call we made over the Internet, a group of techies began meeting and planning. Eventually over 30 technologists nationwide began using a series of on-line meetings and mail lists to plan an approach and work with all the teams involved in organizing the forum to discuss that approach and the Forum's needs.

This group, called the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) work group, met for six months every Sunday on-line using chat software.

Throughout the planning and development work, the group stressed the importance of using Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) as both a political statement and the most effective way of keeping these processes open and unencumbered. That was among its first decisions.

The group's first practical task was, of course, the USSF website. After some discussion, the ICT group decided to use Drupal, one of the Internet's most popular and powerful content management systems, as the website's foundation.

But even at that early stage, we all realized that Drupal's default "out of the box" configuration wouldn't come close to meeting this event's needs. It was clear that the site would have to take on the awesome task of registering everyone coming to the Forum as well as most of the logistical communications and data storage, not to mention the promotion and mobilization to the event itself.

Working individually and in mini-teams, the ICT team worked to make all that happen with the development of dozens of specially-designed "scripts" (or mini-programs) for the site and as many customized displays.

The site, of course, is still on-line.

But where do you put a site that is going to do all that? Not only would the site be busy but the various development platforms needed to write and prepare all that programming would have to live on some server. Sharing a server with other websites just wasn't a practical solution.

The ICT team provided the Social Forum with its own server (at MF/PL) and put the public site, all the development sites and all the databases required to run those sites on that server. As we saw later on, without its own server, the Social Forum's website would have crashed under stress and traffic.

A particularly challenging task for that website was registration. This was a lot more than just signing people up.

While individuals could register simply, organizations were allowed to register large numbers of people (starting from the moment they registered to during the actual Forum). This meant that the program had to be flexible enough to track who an organization had registered, allow additional registrations and allow for changes and deletions.

To complicate things further, registration cost money and that money had to be collected on-line during that registration process. When you realize that this was being done for over 10,000 people who needed to be confident that the data on participants and payments was being collected flawlessly, you get a picture of how daunting this was.

A team of techies from the ICT group took that task on and developed a system that fit the Forum perfectly. The source code was, following the FOSS policy, open to anyone and has been shared with several organizers who've requested it in the intervening year.

Similarly complex systems were developed and put into place for event proposals. There were over a thousand of them and the program committee (which made decisions on approvals) needed an on-line system that would allow people to describe their event fully and then allow the Committee to review and approve events.

The logistics committee then needed a system to schedule those events and to display the event schedules before and during the Forum.

Working in teams, the ICT workgroup did all that and the way we approached it allowed the various other workgroups to be as open as possible with approvals and sensitive to particular event sponsors' needs in doing scheduling and venue selection.

The ICT team developed other features like a ride board for people seeking and offering transportation, a section for housing and numerous other resources.

While all this work represents an impressive achievement by the ICT Team, the most important achievement was its relationship with the rest of the staff and leadership of the Social Forum. From the start, the Techie/Organizers communicated constantly with each of the special committees and the National Planning Committee (through the Communications Work Group). The Team published all meeting notes, decisions, discussions and just about everything we did publicly on the web site, operating in a truly transparent way, seeking to anchor our work to the Social Forum's democratic culture and to expand that democracy.

But the real challenges were to come and no one could have predicted how powerful they were.

Wiring the Forum

As much as the Internet played a critical role in organizing the Forum, its major role was during the Forum itself. All the organizing falls flat if the event doesn't run smoothly.

When you get 10,000 people together for over 900 events in a five day period, the array of logistical and organizational issues is stunning and here is where the collaboration of techies nationwide paid off.

Under the leadership of Atlanta-based techie/organizer Aaron Ruscetta, the ICT team borrowed nearly 100 computers (from many different sources around the Atlanta area). Atlanta-based activist Barry Weinstock used his extensive contacts and worked tirelessly to acquire those inexpensive recycled computers, storage systems and the delivery trucks that brought them to the Center. Working with Aaron, Brian Pitts engineered a highly efficient method for installing Open Source software and Linux operating systems that allowed a dozen volunteers to prep, test and pack nearly 100 systems in just one afternoon and then network those computers into several connected networks that were also connected to the Internet.

"It was," Aaron says, "one of my proudest moments."

The on-line registration system handled over 10,000 registrations, check-ins and other interactions by participants. It's important to remember that this was happening on a server located in New York -- it was all done over the Internet from Atlanta.

  • The program and scheduling sections of the site, used by participants throughout the event, allowed event organizers to post vital information and then edit and amend it...all on line.
  • Participants blogged the USSF providing both commentary and reporting on their own activities and experiences. Additionally, since blogging had been going on way before the Forum's opening, they were sharing their local and regional activities (both pro-Forum and in their various struggles).
  • A particularly difficult challenge was the Media Justice Center (MJC). Our tech team worked for three days straight setting up nearly 40 computers for use by media people in on-line writing, video and audio storage and transmission, and many other media-related tasks. Over 350 media workers registered at the MJC.

To make this happen we had to not only connect all those computers in networks that were Internet connected but install various pieces of special software to make the video storage and transmission work possible.

That's when the techies started flooding in.

People with tech skills from all over the country began presenting themselves: stopping ICT members as we were buzzing around the venues, tracking us down in the MJC, emailing and cell phoning us -- all offering their support and asking what we needed done.

There was no shortage of work and our job of assigning people in an organized way was made easier by the willingness of dozens of technologists -- some of whom had actually hitchhiked across the country -- to do whatever was necessary. They improved software, tested computers, wired rooms and participated in the planning and evaluation discussions that are always a major component of any wiring project of this size.

These "volunteers" ranged from progressive techie veterans like Michelle Murrain -- "...mostly I volunteered at the Forum, primarily helping to set up the servers for the Media Center" -- to young techies from as far away as Hawaii.

Thanks to these people, we got everything ready.

During the days before the Social Forum team members met, divided tasks, discussed eventualities and felt we were ready for anything. We also noticed a potential problem.

A couple of days before the Forum was to launch, we noticed that the website had slowed down appreciably under pre-event registration and began a discussion of what that meant. We came to the conclusion that this site would crash under the load it was about to take on.

Our tech team worked all night right before the Forum to split the database portion of the Drupal installation from the site itself: a solution that returned the site to peak performance. There was no recurrence of the latency throughout the Forum.

If I'm an indicator, we thought our problems were over, although we were conscious that nightmares could arise. We had no idea that our worst one was about to occur.

Protecting the Forum

On the morning of the Social Forum, about a half hour before registration was to commence, the website went off-line. Clearly, that kind of problem would not only have crippled registration at the Social Forum but it would have cast the kind of pall no event of this size needs.

With cell phone communications ripping back and forth between Josue and techie Ana Willem at the registration area and several of us at the MJC (where we were still setting up), we worked against an impossible deadline to figure out what was wrong.

Jamie McClelland realized that a router operated by Bell South, which was handling traffic between the social forum and the Internet server running the registration system in New York, was misconfigured or malfunctioning and was dropping all traffic. In short, the computer networks at the Forum were effectively blocked by Bell South from reaching the registration system.

While we'll never know if this was intentional or incompetence, it was clear that something had to be done and we couldn't rely on this corporation to do it.

Working with techie Daniel Kahn Gillmor, Jamie came with a radical idea: why not reroute all Internet traffic around the faulty Bell South router? MF/PL had a server in Delaware that was reachable without going through the broken Bell South router, but the question was how to do it?

Daniel came up with the solution and worked, under intense pressure, for the next 15 minutes to make it happen.

When they were finished all traffic to the Social Forum website stopped being sent directly to New York. Instead, it was rerouted to our Delaware server as if that server was hosting the site. That server, which wasn't hosting anything related to the Forum, transparently forwarded all requests from Delaware to New York where the site actually lived. Although the Internet was designed to route around problems such as the one we were facing, we did not have access to the Bell South routers that needed to be re-configured to go around the faulty connection. We needed an alternative, non-standard way to re-route traffic, one that we could implement ourselves, without relying on Bell South.

So, during the first hour and a half of the Social Forum, registration staff in Atlanta were going to the wrong server looking for the website and being rerouted from that remote location to NYC to get the site. We circumvented Bell South's troublesome router.

I dwell on this because this was, for me, a moment of great pride in the ICT team. We were there to make sure that the event could use the Internet and, when confronted with the power of a corporate system effectively blocking that, our people figured out a way around it.

Registration opened and proceeded flawlessly and, after 90 minutes of that, Bell South's router suddenly reconfigured and we returned to normal functioning.

The system never had a problem after that.

Making Technology Disappear

Techies look at success in a peculiar way: a successful technology is one people don't notice.

In fact, when people notice systems most is when they fail or don't meet expectations. But at the Social Forum, the idea was not for the technology's seamlessness to hide it but to reveal its power and potential and allow it to deepen the Forum's democratic culture.

The key to that was to deepen and increase the interaction people had with the system. For example, if someone walked in and wasn't registered, that person was immediately sent by the registrar to one of the banks of registration computers through which people could self-register. With the help of a techie assigned to that area, people went on line and registered themselves, spending a fraction of the normal time, avoiding lines, learning a bit about the Internet and getting some self-confidence in its use.

"Watching the huge line of attendees move smoothly through the registration process because of an online system that WE built was exhilarating," Josue Guillen remembers, "The tech team was AMAZING! So many people contributing so much of their time, their expertise, was remarkable."

All participants were able to arrange their schedules, get information about events and resources and generally communicate with each other through that website and its various sections and pages.

Finally, for the first time in history, USSF participants blogged the Social Forum while it was going on, providing real coverage of the event for those not there and sparking discussion and reflection among those who were.

Critical to raising Internet consciousness was, of course, doing that among the event's organizers. There is no question that Social Forum organizers deepened their understanding of technology's critical role as they saw what it could do and how it was, in the end, an organizing project in and of itself.

This was no small task because our movements' culture in the U.S. continues to rely on the face to face work that has been the mainstay of organizing for this country's entire history. In that culture, it's easy to view the Internet as just another tool and to take it for granted. Nobody who worked on the USSF will ever take it for granted again.

Says Daniel Kahn Gillmor: "Initially, the leadership seemed to want a typical "contractor" relationship to the tech -- the tech team saw it as more of a mutual organizing activity. Since the whole theory of the forum was "another world is possible", I was pleased that the leadership seemed to mostly come around to seeing the merits of approaching tech work like they'd approach any other communication opportunity.

"I felt that by the start of the forum itself, the tech team got good respect from leadership and other forum participants, in spite of the tension and stress inherent in the process."

What It All Means

The USSF was a phenomenal success in many ways. Its use of technology is certainly among those.

An event of this type is part of history and part of the historical development of a movement, a country and, in the end, an entire humanity. Humanity is always moving forward. It's sometimes difficult to perceive that forward movement but, in the cracks and crevices of culture, in the fabric of social relations and in the often foggy environment of our movements...if you look close enough, it's there.

Perhaps the greatest measure of success for an event of this type is how well it is able to perceive that forward movement, capture it and create an environment that peels away those things that blind us to how well we are doing and brings our successes and our strengths into relief.

One of our greatest strengths is this thing we call the Internet, this remarkable movement we've created based on using this simple and powerful technology and the USSF certainly demonstrated its power and importance.

By that measure of success, the USSF was among the most successful events in modern U.S. history.

As Daniel put it: "We can have a world where our ability to communicate with one another is controlled by a few profit-minded corporations, or we can work to build a community-engaged communications network that brings people together with goals of justice, equality, and liberty. That other world is possible, but if we just go with the default options offered by the large infotech corps, we won't get there. So i think the role of tech in future USSFs is a large one."

New York-based veteran activist Alfredo Lopez is Co-Director of May First/People Link.

Last modified 13 years ago Last modified on Sep 23, 2008, 8:13:06 PM