Collective memory in activist media

by Ellen Craig

Collective memory can take on a few different meanings. Author Holly Thorpe defines it as “representation of the past, both the past shared by a group and a past that is collectively commemorated, that enacts and gives substance to the group’s identity, its present conditions and its vision of the future.” Or it can be explained on as “the memory of a group of people, typically passed from one generation to the next.” However you might define it, collective memory is certainly a place of political contestation and struggle, because it can be chosen selectively or highlighted to fit the needs of a particular group. This ownership of ‘history’ can subsequently shape our interpretation of the past and thus our future behaviours.  

In our research, we considered two key areas of collective memory: movement memory and institutional memory. Movement memory refers to the relationship between media activism and social movement history. Our research found that the mandate of most alternative and activist media projects we studied aligned with movement memory as a key role. Rabble, a Canadian activist news website and blog, stressed the archival importance and utility of the Rabble website, so much so that the media project has a policy of not deleting content from their site. Meanwhile in the UK, Bristol Cable, an activist newspaper and website, sometimes publishes stories in more than one language, giving special attention to those particularly affected by an event. For example, a Somali youth wrote a story for Bristol Cable about his experience of being under the constant threat of deportation. This article was written in both English and Somali, which was extremely powerful. The article could be read by Somalis who might identify with the story, as well as an nglish-speaking audience, perhaps unaware of the struggles experienced by those living around them. Participants from both Canada and Europe agreed that shedding light on stories which are under/unreported/mis-covered by the mainstream media was a top priority. This type of coverage contributes to deepening and expanding collective memory.

Institutional memory can be defined as memory that is internal to media collectives, and can include documents, practices, and technologies that relate to documenting and sharing the history of a project including its policies, meeting minutes, orientation manuals and practices, etc. Institutional memory is important in any type of organization, and especially to media activist collectives. For example, when there is turnover, institutional memory is an excellent source of information for new members. As well, having documents outlining practices allows for more widespread, shared knowledge, thereby preventing having just one person who knows everything about the project.  

In general, we found that institutional memory tends to be informal and reliant on embodied memory carried in the heads of the longest-standing collective members. There are many issues which can arise from relying on long-standing collective members, however. One research participant explained that when someone leaves a project and things aren’t well-documented, institutional memory can be lost. Groundwire community radio addressed this turnover issue by asking potential members to commit to the project for a minimum of 6 months. Another problem which an interviewee from the Media Co-op identified, was that there can be a power dynamic between new members and those who have been with the project for a longer time. This is because longer-term project members are able to control information and memory, by sharing or withholding when they so choose.

In Canada, activist media projects use a variety of platforms like Slack, Google Drive, and Trello. These platforms are useful, because media activists are able to look back and see the process of how a story was covered, or a workshop was planned. Despite using platforms like these, many participants from both Canada and Europe agreed that more needed to be done to preserve institutional memory, whether through hiring an archivist, or finding a better system to store old issues, clips, stories, etc.

One thing is for certain: collective memory within alternative media is extremely valuable and an important part of the sustainability of activist media projects.