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<nettime> Rise and Decline of the Syndicate
Arns/Broeckmann on Wed, 14 Nov 2001 00:06:05 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Rise and Decline of the Syndicate



Rise and Decline of the Syndicate: the End of an Imagined Community

Inke Arns & Andreas Broeckmann, Berlin, November 2001

The Syndicate mailing list imploded and went down in August 2001,
destroying the life-line of the Syndicate network. The network had been in
a shaky situation for a while, due - we believe - to the destabilisation
of the problematic balance between personal contacts of list members,
lurking and filtering-and-not-reading-let-alone-posting subscribers, and a
growing number of self-promoters who used the list as a personal
performance space and disregarded the social rules of the online
community.

Some people insisted on continuing the list on a new server, taking over
the subscriber list, while we decided to form a new list, SPECTRE, which
has been running on the previous Syndicate list-serve in Berlin since 28
Aug 2001. The list currently has 250 new subscribers (Nov 01) and
continues the tradition of the Syndicate list as a low-noise, open
platform for exchange and cooperation in media culture in Europe.

After six years of successful work with and for the Syndicate community,
the demise of the Syndicate list in August 2001 was a rather shocking
experience for many of us, imposing on us the realisation how feeble such
a community channel can be, and how easily destroyed. It proved that
responsibility and care are essential elements in a viable social online
environment, and we had to learn the hard way that there is no consensus
about the rules that should guide behaviour and interaction. The following
text gives a brief summary from our personal perspective of the Syndicate
initiative as it developed since its inception in 1996, and attempts an
evaluation of its end.


Andreas started administering the Syndicate mailing list after its
installation on the server of the Ars Electronica Center in Linz (aec.at)
in January 1996, helping people to subscribe, unsubscribe and post to the
majordomo list. As the subscriber base grew from the original 30
subscribers to about 300 in 1998, Inke joined in administering the list
and - together with Arthur Bueno of the V2_Organisation in Rotterdam, who
also maintained the Syndicate website and archive on www.v2.nl/syndicate
from 1998-2000 - mostly managed the list administration through these
years. We taught ourselves the basic majordomo commands, had our private
mail accounts jammed with bounced messages, and therefore installed an
admin account. Each time we would look into this account there would be
hundreds of mails sitting there and voraciously waiting for us ... but
somehow it worked. Problems started appearing on an entirely different
field.

With its completely open structure (technically and socially speaking) the
Syndicate mailing list soon proved to be vulnerable. In the beginning of
November 1998 the list was first targeted: all the subscribers were
unsubscribed. Luckily we had been extracting the "who"-file on an almost
daily basis and thus were able to reconstruct the list quickly. In
September 2000 the list software on the server faced a serious crash which
the sysops in Linz could not take care of because of the festival they
were in at the time. So we decided to relocate the list onto a server to
which we would have easier access for administration and configuration.
Since then, the Syndicate list was hosted by an ISP in Berlin
(openoffice.de) which also soon gave us the opportunity to switch from
Majordomo to the more easily administratable Mailman software.

But the Syndicate was much more than a piece of software: it was a network
of people. The Syndicate was founded in January 1996 on the last day of
the Next 5 Minutes 2 Festival in Rotterdam. It was a network which devoted
itself to fostering contacts and co-operation, improvements in
communication and an exchange between institutions and individuals in
Eastern and Western Europe active in the media and media culture. By
allowing regular e-mail communication between participants regarding
forthcoming events and collaborative projects the Syndicate mailing list
developed into an important channel and information resource for
announcing and reporting new projects, events and developments in media
culture. The complete mail archive is kept at
http://www.v2.nl/mail/v2east/

Since the first meeting in Rotterdam in 1996, which was attended by 30
media artists and activists, journalists and curators from 12 Eastern and
Western European countries, the Syndicate network grew steadily. In August
2001, it linked over 500 members from more than 30 European and a number
of non-European countries. The original idea was to establish an East-West
network as well as an East-East network. In the meantime, however, the
Syndicate had increasingly developed into an all-European forum for media
culture and art. Over the last few years the division between East and
West had been growing less important as people cooperated in ever-changing
constellations, in ad-hoc as well as long-lasting partnerships.

Syndicate meetings and workshops have been held regularly, in most cases
as part of festivals and conferences. The main meetings have taken place
at half-yearly intervals in Rotterdam (Sept. 96), Liverpool (April 97),
Kassel (July 97), Dessau (Nov. 97), Tirana (May 98), Skopje (Oct. 98),
Budapest (April 99), and Helsinki (Oct. 99), with many smaller meetings
and joint projects, presentations and workshops happening in between.
Readers edited by Inke and published on the occasion of some of the
meetings (Rotterdam 1996, Ostranenie Dessau 1997, Junction Skopje 1998)
have collected the most important texts from the mailing list in printed
form.

It was worth condensing Syndicate stuff in this way because most of the
time the mail traffic was dominated by announcements. Attempts to turn the
Syndicate list into a discussion list and encouragements for people to
send their personal reports, views, perceptions of what was happening,
were met by only limited response. In the beginning, when many people on
the list still knew each other personally, this strategy was more
successful, later, with the exploding rate of lurkers, less.

While in the first three years of its existence, the Syndicate held its
meetings quite regularly (almost every six months!), and organised panels
and workshops with its members, since 1999 the Syndicate list came to be
more like a sleeping beauty which in times of crisis would awake and show
its full potential. Suddenly, when necessary, everybody was back on,
communicating almost breathlessly with each other ("Have you heard about
X?" - "The cultural center Y was closed!" - "Z received his mobilisation
call.") The list was last activated in order to support Edi Muka,
Tirana-based long term Syndicalist, who had been sacked from his post at
the cultural center Pyramid by some politically malevolent officials.

The meetings and personal contacts off-list were an essential part of the
Syndicate network: they grounded the Syndicate in a network of friendly
and working relationships, with strong ties and allegiances that spanned
across Europe and made many cooperations between artists, initiatives and
institutions possible. The Syndicate thus opened multiple channels between
artists and cultural producers in Europe and beyond, which is probably its
greatest achievement. It connected people and made them aware of each
other's practice, creating multiple options for international cooperation
projects.

A structure like that can work so long as it is supported and protected by
a sufficient number of participants. It needs an ethical consensus about
what is and what isn't possible on the list, which kinds of actions
support and which may tilt the social equilibrium. The case of Andrej
Tisma, a Yugoslav artist from multi-cultural Novi Sad and a defender of
the Milosevic regime throughout the late 90s, is a case in point: many
perceived his tirades against the West and against NATO as pure Serbian
propaganda which became unbearable at some point. Later, Tisma came back
to the list and continued his criticisms by posting links to anti-NATO web
pages he had created. For us, he was always an interesting sign post of
Serb nationalist ideology which it was good to be aware of. And it was
good that he showed that people can be artists 'like you and me', and be
Serb nationalists at the same time. The Syndicate could handle his
presence after he agreed to tune down his rants.

However, this consensus was further eroded through the last two years. The
nn episode on Syndicate in August 2001, then, was a symptom, but not the
reason for the death of Syndicate. This started way before August 2001.
Not only that there were no more meetings after 1999, one could also
notice that since mid 1999 people felt less and less responsible for the
list. Many Syndicalists of the first hour grew more silent (this was
partly incited by the hefty discussions during the NATO bombings in
Yugoslavia), perhaps more weary, perhaps less naive, many also changed
their personal circumstances and got involved in other things (new jobs,
new families, new countries ...). At the same time, the number of
subscribers kept growing: more and more newbies kept flowing onto the
Syndicate list.

The major change that occurred on the Syndicate around that time (1999)
was the transition from a network of people and of trust to a more and
more anonymous mailing list, a list for announcements like so many others.
A growing majority of Syndicate subscribers now tended to see the mailing
list merely as a quick and handy tool for spreading self promotion. The
mailing list was to serve them for promotional goals, rather than as a
tool of communication. When calls went out for support in the
adminstration of the list, far too few people responded at all. Many
people still do not understand the voluntary nature of the Syndicate
initiative, and that the whole project depended on the sharing of work and
responsibility. Too many people took the efforts of too few people for
granted. Investing time and energy in the administration of such a list
became more and more frustrating. When some fellow Syndicalists joined the
admin team early 2001, we could have realised that the project had peaked
and should have been transformed into something different altogether.

The net entity nn (Netochka Nezvanova, integer, antiorp, etc.), a
pseudonym used by an international group of artists and programmers in
their extensive and aggressive mailing list-based online-performances and
for other art projects, had been subscribed to the Syndicate list in 1997.
It was, as the first of less than a handful of people ever, unsubscribed
against its will because it was spamming the list so heavily that all
meaningful communication was blocked. In January 2001, nn sent an e-mail
asking to again be subscribed to the Syndicate mailing list. (What nn
never bothered to realise was that subscription to the list had always
been open so that, at any point, it could have subscribed itself - we have
always wondered why Majordomo is such a blind spot in this technophile
entity's arsenal.) After getting assurances from nn that she was not out
to misuse the list, we subscribed it to the Syndicate list.

Naively, as we had to realise. nn went from one or two messages every day
in February to an average of three to five message in April and up to
eight and ten messages per day in May and June - and that on a list which
had a regular daily traffic of three to five messages a day. The
distributed nature of the nn collective makes it possible for them to keep
posting 24 hours a day - great for promoting your online presence,
irritating for people who have a less frantic life rhythm. nn's messages
are always cryptic, sometimes amusing, often tediously repetitive in their
quirky rhetorics and style, and generally irritating for the majority of
people. Its activity on the Syndicate - like on many other lists it has
used and terrorised - soon came to look like a hijack. But the sheer mass
of traffic nn was generating, the sheer amount of nn's presence, was
overwhelming. Perhaps this phenomenon could be compared to SMEGL, short
for super mental grid lock, a term that was developed to describe traffic
jam situations in NYC back in the eighties (or was this term coined in
Berlin-Kreuzberg's famous Fischbuero? Who knows, the boundaries get
blurred...).

In the spring of 2001, nn's and other people's activities who use open,
unmoderated mailing lists for promulgating their self-promotional e-mails,
triggered discussions about 'spam art', on Syndicate as well as on other
lists. Actually, given the extreme openness and vulnerability of a
structure like the Syndicate it remains quite astonishing that this
structure survived for such a long time. What happened in the course of
2000/2001 (not only to Syndicate, but also to several other mailing lists)
was that the openness of these lists, i.e. the fact that they were
unmoderated, was massively abused, and, finally, destroyed, by relentless
'creative' spamming. One of the basic principles of the Internet - its
openness - suddenly seemed to become a mere tool for attacking this very
principle. 'Netiquette' did not seem to be of much value anymore and was
sacrificed for the egotistical self-expression of (distributed) artist
egos. The irony of this process is that, like any good parasite, this
artistic practice depends on the existence of lively online communities:
it not only bites, but kills the hand that feeds it. - These parasite
nomads will find new hosts, no doubt, but they have over the past year
helped to erode the social fabric of the wider net cultural population so
much that communities have to protect themselves from attacks and hijacks
more aggressively than before. Their adolescent carelessness is partly
responsible for the withering of the romantic utopia of a completely open,
sociable online environment. However educational that may be, we despise
the deliberation with which these people act.

nn got unsubscribed from the Syndicate without warning on a day when there
had been nothing but ten messages from her. After some days of silence and
sighs of relief, angry protests by nn came through. On the list,
accusations of censorship and/or dictatorship were made. A small but noisy
faction denounced unsubscribing nn as an act against the freedom of
speech. They called the administrators fascists, murderers, and
'threatened' to report the case to 'Index on Censorship'. While some other
list members welcomed the departure of nn on and off the list and the
admin team again and again explained their move, the ludicrous allegations
and vociferous insults continued.

The real shock for us was that the majority of list subscribers did not
participate in the discussion and thus silently seemed to accept what was
going on. It was personally hurtful not to receive more support against
the insults raised against us, but more frustrating was the indifference
that made the whole process possible. Within few days, the alienation from
the atmosphere on the list was so great that we admitted defeat,
re-subscribed nn and began to withdraw from the Syndicate. The list was
moved to a different server and is now administered by other people at
anart.no/~syndicate. We wanted to avoid further verbiage and conflict and
therefore gave up the name, but we insist that from our perspective the
Syndicate project that was founded in 1996 ended in August 2001. What
remains under its name is a zombie kept alive by misconceptions about what
the Syndicate really was. Maybe we should have stopped the project
altogether in the summer?

Filtering has, in a way, done us in. Before there were effective e-mail
clients that could filter out lists and other mail communication,
everybody on the list got everything more or less instantly, which also
meant a higher level of social awareness and social control of what goes
on on the list. Today, many people filter the lists they subscribe to and
only look at the postings at irregular intervals - some mailboxes don't
get opened for months. Like this, people consume the list passively and do
not even notice a fiasco like the one that we experienced on the Syndicate
list in the summer. I guess that some people who remain subscribed to the
Syndicate list still have not noticed that anything has changed. For a
social community, that kind of behaviour - automated deferance - can be
fatal.


"There's a spectre haunting Europe ..."

In August 2001, after unsubscribing from the Syndicate, we initiated a new
mailing list under the name SPECTRE. It is an open, unmoderated list for
media art and culture in Deep Europe. SPECTRE offers a channel for
practical information exchange concerning events, projects and initiatives
organized within the field of media culture, and hosts discussions and
critical commentary about the development of art, culture and politics in
and beyond Europe. Deep Europe is not a particular territory, but is based
on an attitude and experience of layered identities and histories -
ubiquitous in Europe, yet in no way restricted by its topographical
borders. (The term Deep Europe was coined by Anna Balint in 1996. It was
passed on by Geert Lovink. It was used by Andreas Broeckmann and Inke
Arns. It was interpreted by Luchezar Boyadjiev. It was used more by Sally
Jane Norman, Iliyana Nedkova, Nina Czegledy, Edi Muka, and many others.)

SPECTRE is a channel for people involved in old and new media in art and
culture. Importantly, many people on this list know each other personally.
SPECTRE aims to facilitate real-life meetings and favours real
face-to-face (screen-to-screen) cooperation, test-bed experiences and
environments to provoke querying of issues of cultural
identity/identification and difference (translatable as well as
untranslatable or irreducible). The new list was immediately welcomed by
many frustrated Syndicalists who quickly made the move.

SPECTRE is an unmoderated, but by not means open mailing list. With the
Syndicate experience in mind we felt the need to explicitely formulate
some basic, apparently no longer self-evident netiquette rules, like
"meaningful discussions require mutual respect," and "self-advertise with
care!" The list is initially hosted by the two of us who also have to
approve requests for subscription. The blurb explicitely reads:
"Subscriptions may be terminated or suspended in the case of persistent
violation of netiquette." We regret that we have to introduce such a
system of control but see no other effective way of protecting something
that is dear to us. A lack of sensible protection brought down the
Syndicate. Information about SPECTRE:
http://coredump.buug.de/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/spectre

We try to continue the good Syndicate tradition of amiable exchange and
are more hesitant about the illusion of being an 'online community'. We
maintain our romantic belief in lasting friendships and insist on the need
to infuse networks with a strong sense of conviviality. We believe in
people and their needs more than we believe in art.

Inke Arns, Andreas Broeckmann

Berlin, November 2001






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