This paper explores the manner in which the Internet is becoming more commercialized as mass media providers make major investments into marketing their online presence while producing sophisticated home pages within the World Wide Web and commercial online services such as CompuServe and America Online. In a sense, we can speak of online audiences now being channeled through the online chaos to various sites through such services as Pathfinder and Yahoo. Furthermore, the earlier freedoms and no-holds-barred character of online discussion forums and Usenet can no longer be taken for granted. Many are monitored by interested parties or sponsored by agencies that should be expected to have a vested interest in the dialogue's content.
The Internet is currently being heralded as a hotbed of creativity, new technologies, radical thinking, and social empowerment. That is, it is a means by which existing social groupings or structures of inequality can be rearranged or transformed. There are a number of reasons for this. In this introductory section, I wish to explore the elements that support this reputation. Later sections concentrate on how commercial interests are beginning to dominate online services and Internet media. Concerns are raised regarding the changing environment of online discussions and informational sources.
Over the past 20 years, North American popular culture has treated anything associated with computers as the foundation of the information revolution, in other words, the building blocks of a "new age." By its very nature, the Internet is an extension of western society's awe for computers. The Internet is a generally nonstructured network of computers and computer users by which digitalized conversations and information exchanges are conducted.
The Internet is also associated with a people who are privileged to occupy particular societal sectors during peculiar historical junctures. Such people have played key roles in all of the various modern sociopolitical revolutions such as the French Revolution, Russian Revolution, and various post-materialist social movements in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s: universities, youth, arts/music/literature, and those involved in new economic developments. In other words, we view the Internet as a revolution of the intelligentsia.
For those who are interested, we can cite some summary statistics that show that Internet usage is concentrated in some of these socioeconomic pockets. Using American data, the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press reported in the fall of 1995 that 3.3 million people get on the Internet through the university. Six percent of Americans who are 18 to 29 years old access the World Wide Web, compared to only one percent of those over 50. Eight percent of Americans who have completed a college degree use the World Wide Web, compared to only one percent whose education is limited to a high school degree. Therefore, it is only natural that we would expect that Internet discussions, debates, and general content would be of a higher caliber compared to major network television programming.
The Internet also breaks through spatial boundaries. From a desk in Toronto, a person can now access a newspaper archive in Minnesota, send an e-mail to the President of the United States, look at Volvo cars and a list of their specifications, and research the credentials of a political science faculty in an Australian university. Of course, these things could have been done 20 years ago using the following resources: accessing the microfilm files at the city library; sending a letter through the postal system to the President; flipping through car magazines or contacting a local Volvo dealership; and consulting an academic calendar at the closest university resource/counseling center. What makes the Internet appear so powerful is that it promises convenience, monetary savings, and immediate results with fewer "go-betweens" (such as librarians, dealers, and postal workers). Furthermore, not everyone lives in such informational resource-rich cities as Toronto, New York, or London.
In addition to cutting through space, the Internet also appears to cut through political boundaries. The Internet provides information that defies legal controls. Take for example the events that surround the coverage of a mass murderer's dealings with the courts. In Canada during the early stages of the Paul Benardo legal proceedings, many Canadians resorted to the Internet in order to by-pass a court directed media blackout. Information was published online in the United States and posted on Internet bulletin boards and newsgroups where any Canadian with a modem could gain access. Those who relied on television or the print media for coverage were left in the dark. This politically transcendent power has been identified as a major contributor to the liberation of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union's breakup.
Much has also been made of the so-called "pull" nature of the Internet. That is, instead of serving audiences through what are thought to be broadly appealing services (that is, Madison Avenue's lowest common denominator), the Internet has been able to service particular niches and specific tastes. An example of the contrast is as follows: Parenting Magazine aims its articles at a large numbers of readers: They pertain to general health, lifestyle, and dietary concerns. A parenting newsgroup will contain both postings of a wide and narrow appeal. A person may post a query regarding the health effects of vegetarianism in warm climates while another may be concerned about the dangers of a new automotive product. In other words, it is the user who can determine content rather than a publisher, advertiser, or editor.
Finally, the Internet promotes creativity. For example, a fledgling poet can easily create a home page containing his or her works. Such home pages often come free with the Internet provider's services. Once created, the home page can be accessed by anyone who uses the WWW. Prior to this, the poet would have faced the following hurdles: finding a magazine that would be willing to publish an unknown poet, or creating a chap book of poetry and distributing it among friends, local coffeehouses, and the occasional local bookstore. In contrast, the World Wide Web reduces overhead and distribution costs. An artist/writer's work gets worldwide distribution with only a small investment and no editorial bottlenecks. The vanity press is no longer restricted to the wealthy who wish to publish their own biographies.
This bottleneck-breaking power also serves those who want to promote a particular perspective: white supremacists, gay rights, anti-Buchanan GOP satirists, fan clubs, animal rights activists, and so on. Those wishing to find a voice outside the mainstream media can do so on the Internet.
The empowering nature of the Internet is therefore seen in its ability to transcend borders, ignore censoring authorities, and enhance individual tastes and interests. However, we need to look beyond some of the rose-colored prophecies and take stock of our surroundings. This paper discusses some of the disconcerting trends that have recently occurred on the Internet and questions some of what now appear to be outdated claims. To paraphrase Hegel, for every synthesis there is an antithesis. If the first half of the 1990s was the soil in which the Internet social revolution was planted, the second half will sprout the counterrevolution. The following discussion shows the ways in which Internet-related strengths such as creative individualism are increasingly being shoved aside by the commercial interests of the traditional giants of the mass media.
Until quite recently, for most North Americans (outside the military) the Internet served primarily as a vehicle for enhancing research and education. In the 1980s and within a number of regions and systems, Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) were implemented that explicitly banned Internet usage aimed at profit-making. NSFNet, the primary American national Internet network for research and academia, banned "use-for-profit activities ... or use by for-profit institutions." In a sense, the Internet had become a forum by which individuals could communicate with other individuals throughout the world. All one had to do was get online, and then one could sidestep the editorial boards of academic journals, TV/radio or print media news editors, a censorious legal system, and so on. In other words, a noncommercial environment gave the Internet user a sense of freedom from (to use a slightly outdated expression) "vested interests."
Those days are over. The millions of people who use the Internet in the mid-1990s face a daily barrage of sales pitches and advertisements. Looking back at trends in how people have used the Internet, two major developments have occurred to promote commercialization of the Internet: the commercial online services and the exploding growth of the World Wide Web. Both are examined here.
The commercial online services have played a major role in promoting online usage within the general public. The major online services (America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy, and the Microsoft Network) together claim to have 11.2 million subscribers. Equipped with toll-free telephone numbers to help new members overcome the unavoidable technical problems that are associated with setting up a modem, the commercial online services have done a good job in promoting their services to Internet neophytes. In contrast to learning Unix or figuring out how to deal with an understaffed local Internet provider, the new user simply inserts a free disk or CD-ROM (obtained through junk mail, by phoning a toll-free number, or by purchasing an Internet magazine) and types "install".
While this was the easiest way to get online, using these services was generally costly and did not provide full Internet access. Until a year ago, with the exception of a few services such as Delphi, commercial online services such as America Online (AOL) and CompuServe operated within their isolated worlds. To access the full array of Internet newsgroups or the WWW, a subscriber would have to go elsewhere. This changed in 1995: All of the major online services now provide their own services in addition to serving as a gateway into the Internet. (Subscribers were quick to jump into the Internet; one side-effect of this has been that newsgroups in 1995 became swamped by what were derisively called "AOL newbies".) In this sense, therefore, commercial online services have enabled a large number of people to access the Internet.
1995, therefore, was the year that commercial online users could "have their cake and eat it too." They could enjoy the privileges of the commercial online service ("Chat Rooms," interactive sessions with celebrities, electronic newsstands, and so forth.) in addition to exploring the Internet when they were interested. To illustrate this point, an AOL user can access Atlantic Monthly in AOL and then move on to the CNN Homepage within the WWW.
For the past year, many thought (and continue to think) that these services are dinosaurs left over from an earlier era. For cheaper costs, Internet users can now bypass these companies and head straight into the Internet. While on the one hand, it is true that a number of online companies (GEnie, Delphi, e-World, to name a few) have since become marginalized, on the other hand, larger online companies have survived by building upon their brand value and familiarity, by moving to make their rates competitive (for example, AOL in Canada is now a fraction of what it cost one year ago), and by providing quality support services (such as a toll-free technical support line, e-mail support, and online chat session supports). Furthermore, AOL's Steve Case issues a regular message to the AOL community, while CompuServe builds its brand loyalty by providing a CD-ROM magazine that is sent regularly to every online subscriber.
The fact that these services continue to draw large numbers of online subscribers has the following implication for the nature of Internet media: It costs a lot of money to establish and effectively market a media site within these services. This is not a place for your neighborhood store or for a public radio/media provider. On the media front, increasingly it appears as though the successful companies will be those with the long purses and technical resources. Therefore, when one looks at news, political coverage, and business-related discussions, the commercial online services provide a quicker and more flexible service than the regular print or television media, yet the content continues to be provided by the same companies: Time, Newsweek, Consumer Reports, the New York Times, and so on.
The Internet media counterrevolution now under way is largely tied to its expanding ability to provide increasingly complex content. As users have increasingly gained access to faster computer processors and modems (28.8 kilobits per second or higher), Internet usage has been able to shift from text to graphics. Downloading graphics such as those offered by USA Today or Time Online now takes a fraction of the time it once took. As a result, the World Wide Web is perfectly suited to the rise of online "infotainment". Thus, there is information geared towards old-styled mass media entertainment (for example, ESPN SportsZone) and leisure rather than towards the arts in their noncommercial forms or pure research.
Of course professional and academic newsgroups continue to provoke open debates, and individuals continue to operate their own WWW homepages and produce e-zines. The fact that the number of home pages that can be created is limited only by the number of computers with modems, means that a small online publication is not squeezed out of the medium when others "set up shop." In this way it differs from the FM radio band where only so many operators can broadcast within a city's perimeter. However, while the small media providers are able to co-exist with the big media players, there are some real implications when big companies set up shop. These are as follows:
There are consequences. The consuming public will get its news and sports more quickly than before as the large media players commit more resources to the development of Web sites. However, as the Internet public gets channeled into these mass media locations through the successful application of transmedia marketing strategies, it is doubtful that in the future they will become any more engaged than they are today in high quality discussions regarding social structures or economic inequality. Just as in the past, alternative media, social criticism, underground forms of art, and political dissent are found in every city. That is, if one takes the effort to look for them.
The Internet's reputation for free speech and open mindedness can be traced to the rise of Usenet, e-mail lists, and online discussion forums. Usenet is the Internet's system of newsgroups. Such groups are focused on particular subjects (such as Volkswagen drivers) or devoted to particular audiences (such as biologists). An e-mail list is a mailing list that is devoted to a particular subject (for example, a Montreal Expos Fan Club bulletin that gets e-mailed for free to anyone who wants to subscribe). An online discussion forum is similar to a newsgroup except that it is held in real time.
Such online forums are generally perceived to be a liberating social force for a number of reasons:
What needs to be understood is that while online discussions and newsgroup forums continue to flourish, they are doing so within a changing institutional environment. In contrast to the time when traditionally open university-based newsgroups were rarely monitored when the newsgroup was created and then left to develop on its own, many of the discussion forums of today operate through the online commercial services or sponsored by commercial interests. Instead of relying on the participants to self-monitor the group, the service provider sometimes acts as a censor. The February 1996 issue of Wired asked the following questions regarding AOL: "What is the role of the world's largest online service? Overweening mother? Dictatorial enforcer? Gawky adolescent? In one month AOL banned the word breast (then rescinded the ban upon realizing its ridiculous effects on the discussion of breast cancer) and arbitrarily censored a legitimate, text-only advertisement for gay videos ... Or was it arbitrary? The title Black Magic was nixed, but Magic Choices was not."
In addition to the relatively controlled environment of the online services, many discussion forums are directly operated and sponsored by media corporations. For example, the automobile forum in CompuServe is sponsored by Automobile Magazine. In fact, at times (although infrequently) an editor may step into the discussion if he or she believes that a factual error has been made by a participant. While such forums are useful, informative, and interesting, the environment is different. It is unclear what standards of behavior are in place from forum to forum. Furthermore, a series of content analysis studies would be interesting if applied to the open Usenet and those groups that are sponsored by corporations, or that exist within the commercial online services.
One of the advantages of the Internet, in terms of research and the availability of information is that newspapers and magazines from around the world are establishing WWW homepages. This information revolution means that anyone with a computer and modem can access media holdings without stepping into a library. This shift to online media sources appears timely in the face of the cutbacks in government spending that are occurring throughout North America. As privately maintained online media libraries become more prevalent, citizens need to recognize the potential danger that services once in the hands of public institutions (libraries and educational institutions) will be left in the hands of the for-profit media providers themselves. One far-reaching consequence might be that instead of empowering the citizen in understanding his or her own history, online news services may lead to a decline in historical objectivity as information increasingly gets moved from the public sector into the private sector.
This paper has explored a number of issues as they pertain to the Internet as a media provider. With the explosive growth of the World Wide Web there has also been the increasing acceptance of commercialism. Major media providers such as Time Warner are seeking market share within the Internet. Such companies are proving successful at marketing themselves within the heavily traveled areas of the Internet (for example, Yahoo, Pathfinder, AOL) and in the traditional media (such as in magazine advertisements and television promotions).
To the extent that it provides yet another means for providing information, transcends geographical barriers and political borders, the Internet is an empowering tool. We have to ask for whom this tool is empowering. In terms of providing a new means of communication, it is doubtful that it enables free speech and creativity beyond what most North Americans were able to find in the pre-Internet mass media era of 20 years ago. We need to think about what causes people to choose different forms of media and to prefer particular content.
It is a form of mental laziness to think that a medium on its own can provide empowering content. After all, most cities have functioning community radio and television stations, coffee-houses with "open" stages, musical fairs in which alternative styles of music are performed, and countless community centers and church basements in which discussion groups or forums can be held. Just because the Internet has the capacity to be an international forum, and to provide consumer information in the blink of an eye, does not mean that it will automatically empower citizenship, enhance our communities, nor provide a more in-depth meaning to our lives. To uncritically place our trust in the growth of new forms of informational media can only worsen the tendency towards nonthinking passiveness that currently marks much of North American life.