Super Highway to the Same Old Spot?

Five years into the Internet revolution, which promised to overthrow the media establishment, Dissent magazine declares victory for the corporate status quo. AlterNet news service and our own Webmaster Leif Utne say the fight has just begun.

Four years ago, when I began interviewing workers in New York’s Internet industry, I was struck by an irony: Even though their employers and clients were some of the largest media and technology conglomerates in the world, these people saw themselves as part of the “freest medium around,” taking part in a technological revolution in which “interactivity” would unleash a democratic spirit and crumble ignorance and tyranny. This was before the new economy really took off (and well before the recent crashes) when New York’s hip young Internet pioneers were hungry idealists.

Perhaps because nobody made much money back in those days, industry gatherings featured conversations quoting cultural theorists like Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Marshall McLuhan rather than stock prices. The air was full of talk about worker-owned startups changing the rules of the economy and the new information era setting us all free.

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Those charmingly quixotic visions of electronic utopia were based on the idea that mouse clicks somehow differ from remote control clicks. Passively receiving information was looked on as so 20th Century, just like television. In the idealized universe of cyberspace, users–not professional media hacks–were going to build the Internet out of their own passions.

This communitarian image of the Internet was so prevalent in the Web’s early days that a venture capitalist like Esther Dyson could rave about the “powerful enabling technology fostering the development of communities.”

Unfortunately, this free medium turned out to be quite expensive. Perhaps it was true for a while that anybody could just “throw something up” on the Web and people all over the world would read it, but now the Internet seems to be increasing corporate consolidation in the media.

This news may run counter to the euphoria about Internet-organized protests, progressive Web sites, and nonprofit uses of Internet publishing, but it’s getting harder to dispute. The merger of old and new media symbolized in the America Online (AOL)-

Time Warner deal seems a better barometer for the future of the Web than activ-ists plotting the Seattle WTO protests online. As Nation columnist and prominent progressive commentator Eric Alterman wrote in IntellectualCapital

.com, a for-profit online bipartisan policy journal: “The great and painful irony of the explosion of new media during the past decade is that while it has falsely appeared to democratize media, it has actually cemented the power of the nine or so conglomerates that control most of the communications world. Given the price of both Internet technology and the ‘content,’ these new technologies can be leveraged only through enormous economies of scale.”

Startup costs for professional Web publications are now higher than those for their print counterparts. Online magazines spend more than 50 percent of their budgets on marketing, and hourly rather than daily or weekly news updates mean higher editorial costs. A profusion of new Web sites makes it harder to get people’s attention, so that only the ones with fat advertising budgets are in a position to stand out from the pack. Salon.com, for example, reported a loss of $21.9 million in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2000, and $13.6 million in the nine months following.

The spreading influence of big money on the Web may have hit the political idealists hard, but the crushing blow is how people generally use the Internet. To most Web users, interactivity is more likely to be about checking stock prices or bidding for tchotchkes on eBay than debating ecology issues or building community. As the Web becomes more twitchy and flashy, it’s no wonder that the “stickiest” sites (a term used by the industry to indicate how long someone stays on a site) are those that emulate the eye-glazing effects of television.

Excluding pornography, few sectors of Internet content turn a profit, and the only successful sites people are willing to pay for have been business boosters like TheStreet.com and Wall Street Journal Interactive. When people do log on for “news,” the most popular category is weather, and the Weather Channel’s Web site alone gets more unique visitors a month (more than 9 million) than any single online newspaper or magazine in the country. When forecasts become the day’s most important message (today’s high: 10,600 with partial clouds clearing in active trading), hopes for the Internet as a new democratic medium seem all wet.

That’s not to say there isn’t some interesting political and cultural criticism on the Web. But between “repurposed” articles from print publications, often rambling personal essays and PR-driven book and movie reviews, thoughtful analysis is in danger of being crowded out. Notable exceptions to this trend include three of the largest and oldest online magazines: Slate (www.slate.msn.com), Salon (www.salon.com), and Feed (www.feedmag.com). All three publish extensive original articles and have some of the best writing online as well as links to related material both within and outside of their Web sites. However, content-heavy sites such as these have yet to figure out what their “business model” should be: Fewer than 0.02 percent of viewers click through to advertisers’ sites, most subscription efforts have flopped, and selling the information gathered about users and what they do online makes some folks squirm (and rightly so).

In such a context, the scraps of smart writing that make it online seem more like niche marketing to the intellectual set than a breakthrough in political and cultural thinking.

Salon.com: Founded by former Mother Jones staffer David Talbot, along with journalists he later worked with at the San Francisco Examiner, Salon attempts to do progressive coverage of politics and culture. Talbot once told The Los Angeles Times he wanted his epitaph to read, “He made a cultural impact.” Still, as editor of a publicly traded magazine, he answers to the fickle cycles of the market, and when Salon’s stock value tumbled in the summer of 1999, he was quick to cut 9 percent of its staff, including the founders of its celebrated Mothers Who Think section, its media critic, and half of its full-time book review staff. Last December, the company cut another 25 jobs, or 20 percent, of its workforce.

A new design places the shopping section in one corner and headlines from a wire feed in another. The articles seem more about creating buzz than making a cultural impact. When Dan Savage, a syndicated sex columnist, covered right-winger Gary Bauer’s presidential campaign, he wrote hilariously of his plot to give Bauer the flu as revenge for his attacks on gays and lesbians. Perhaps the decision to run such a piece was journalistically questionable, but Salon got wide, if critical, coverage in the print press for it, just as it did for breaking the story of Republican Representative Henry Hyde’s own affair as he was chairing a congressional probe into Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Salon’s political coverage usually gets no further than Washington antics in-side the Beltway, although the coverage from the Seattle protests in November 1999 was a notable exception.

Slate.com: Old-media journalists have delighted in Salon’s tit for tat with Slate, even though the rivalry has the vapid entertainment value of the bickering between a high school’s yearbook and newspaper staffs. As part of the Microsoft network of content sites, Slate is not required to publicly share its financial information, although editor Michael Kinsley (formerly editor of The New Republic) assured his readers that Slate is losing money less quickly than Salon’s multimillions-a-year burn rate.

Slate is certainly the smuggest of the Web zines. While it’s true that it features good writers and takes its political coverage more seriously than either Salon or Feed, its smarmy, politically agnostic tone is at times unbearable. Scott Shuger’s scandalously politically incorrect summaries in the Today’s Papers feature are the same kind of summary of the morning papers he wrote when he worked for naval intelligence. “Blacks can afford good stereos but not computers” was one of his editorial asides on a report on the digital divide between haves and have nots.

Slate is heavy on commentary and summary but light on actual reporting. Still, the magazine had almost 2 million “unique visitors” a month (the online metric for measuring “traffic” to Web sites), which is a million more viewers than Salon, its closest competitor. (Both are tiny compared to the 16 million visitors a month to AOL’s news site, the most popular news site on the Internet.)

Microsoft has seamlessly integrated Slate into MSN.com with a strip of links along the top of Slate’s pages to MSN’s shopping, e-mail, and Web portal sites and links at the bottom to Microsoft’s travel, auto shopping, and chat sites. Taken as a whole, Kinsley’s magazine looks like a child lost in the middle of a shopping mall.

Feed.com: In contrast to Slate, Feed magazine trumpets its own romantic origins (founded in a New York apartment, money borrowed from family), bare-bones finances (claiming to have spent only $2 million in five years), and dreamy visionary (co-founder Steven Johnson was dubbed a “cultural critic with a poet’s heart” in The Village Voice). But last summer, Feed announced its merger with Suck.com, Wired’s more-ironic-than-thou online daily, ending its independence as the oldest online magazine.

In Feed’s short, snappy essays on cultural and social life, writers will quote from the likes of Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, talk about the feminist implications of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or debate biological determinism alongside musings on ad campaigns. Although its daily reports can feel a little like a 700-word rant, Feed’s writers often strike a fine balance between fresh commentary and thoughtful reflection. Special issues–including a fabulous one on cities–and occasional longer essays and interviews give the magazine a welcome shot of substance.

The coverage in Feed tends to stay cultural and high tech, although politics slip in from time to time. Consider these thoughts on the nature of work today from a recent review essay by their book critic, Keith Gessen: “The machine, it seems, will suggest its own form of resistance. And if that’s not political enough, if you need statistics and categories, sorry, that’s not what we’re about here in the New Media. If the price for ridding ourselves of the arrogant dogma of work-as-an-evil was losing, also, our political imagination, it was a high price indeed. But, I don’t know. Maybe we had it coming.”

Maybe we did indeed. Given this powerful new medium for communication, we all paid the price of our political imagination. Now that the Internet is losing its claim to be a wide-open public space, now that it’s heavily capitalized with market thinking, all we have left to show for our dreams of a revolution is a handful of protest sites and the belief that somehow the medium is the message.

Our sense that we are in control online–free to click on and off a site as we see fit–obscures the fact that there are advertisers, editors, and marketers all counting those clicks, desperate to figure out some way to make money from them. But, hey, if the information is free for the taking, how can we resist?

Gina Neff is a student in the sociology program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. From the leftist political journal Dissent (Winter 2001). Subscriptions: $22/yr. (4 issues) from Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834

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