Under the radar of all but the most savvy Internet users, powerful
commercial forces are rapidly creating a digital media system for the
United States that threatens to undermine our ability to create a civil
and just society. The takeover of YouTube by Google announced October 9
and the 2005 buyout by Rupert Murdoch of MySpace are not just about
mega-deals for new media. They are the leading edge of a powerful
interactive system that is being designed to serve the interests of some of
the wealthiest corporations on the planet. (EDITOR'S NOTE: The Nation has a content relationship with both companies: YouTube hosts our online videos and Google advertisments appear on this site.)
Aware that social networking sites like MySpace and YouTube are
attracting the key youth audience, and aiming to maintain their
influence over future generations of consumers, marketers are
aggressively seizing the initiative. Leveraging existing relationships
with Yahoo!, Microsoft, the phone and cable companies, Google and the
other large players, the advertising industry are developing an
array of immersive online experiences--like MTV's Virtual Laguna Beach and Studio.com's Go Deep--that seamlessly blend relationships with products and brands.
Advertisers are harnessing technology that targets and follows Internet
users on their journeys through cyberspace, collecting data and tracking
behavior. Virtual software marketing tools will be deployed across the
digital landscape so that wherever we go, whatever we do do--e-mail,
instant messaging, mobile communications or searches--we will be immersed
in enticing content for the lifelong sell: Witness the work of Oddcast, a New York-based
immersive media company, whose "conversational character products"
represent a new medium for marketing to get inside consumers' heads.
YouTube capitalizes on the growing proclivity of
Internet users to be creators of information as well as consumers. And
as the network television and cable audiences age, advertisers are
increasingly aware that "user-created content"--be it a cute kitty video
or clips from The Daily Show--are key to attracting young audiences. But as the Goo-Tube model
develops, behind each video will be a powerful connection to an ad,
targeted to the user's online behavior, as well as the stealth
collection of personal data. As Ross Levinsohn, president of Fox
Interactive, noted about his company's acquisition of MySpace, "the
digital gold inside of MySpace wasn't the number of users, but the
information they're providing." [Google, it should be noted, now also
represents the interests of Rupert Murdoch's US empire. In August
Google became Fox's
principal online advertising agent for MySpace, Fox TV and Fox
Given this emerging marketing model, the US broadband infrastructure may
well become one giant "brandwashing" machine. The most powerful
communications system ever developed by humans is increasingly being put
in the service of selling, commercialization and commodification. And it
will lead to an inherently conservative and narcissistic political
culture, in which the interests of the self and the consumption of
products are the primary, most visible, media messages. And unless we
begin to challenge it now, the emerging digital culture will seriously
challenge our ability to effectively communicate, inform and organize.
A handful of companies now dominate much of the US new-media market. Five
corporations--Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, Verizon and Qwest--control
the wires and cable lines delivering us broadband, digital TV and, soon, much wireless service. The viral "Singing Puppy"
campaign from Nokia is an early warning that soon even our phone calls
will become platforms for commercials. A few other major
players--especially Google, News Corp., Viacom and Microsoft--have done
the necessary deals to strategically grow their broadband content
businesses (buying gaming sites and other programming to insure they
ensnare the key youth market). Even if the pending update to the
Communications Act of 1996 preserves the core principle of network
neutrality, the voices of these most powerful media companies are
likely to be the loudest.
More mergers in coming years will continue the consolidation of old
media giants with the new. It's only a matter of time before a handful
of companies will own TV, radio and newspaper properties along with
key online services. This further interferes with the ability of mainstream news
media to serve as an effective watchdog on government and big
Though the Internet
was originally envisioned to serve the public interest, there is no
guarantee it will continue to do so. Like radio, broadcast TV and
cable, it will continue to be shaped by politics, telecommunication
policies and the market. Web activists envision a medium that will
always support social change and can serve as a platform to distribute
diverse points of view. But if the economic relationships
between the old and new media are allowed to dominate online culture,
what guarantees do we have that the Internet will continue to be the "people's" medium? Events are moving quickly; media and telecommunications giants already have a powerful hold on members of
Congress; regardless of which party is in power, it is unlikely our
elected officials will deliver a federal policy that that puts the needs
of citizens ahead of corporations.
That's why I suggest that progressives begin to get real--and get
smart--about digital media. While we have a few reliable
outlets--Democracy Now!, Alternet, Huffington Post and The
Nation--the progressive community lacks a reliable well-connected
broadband infrastructure that will deliver an array of news and
cultural content to national and community audiences. I'm not talking
about the wires and connections but about building a coalition of
tech-savvy content providers that will deliver to PCs, TVs and cellphones a flow of alternative news and information challenging the status quo.
Imagine progressive organizations making smart deals with a variety of providers
to carry this content deep in the heart of the digital distribution
system. Imagine nimble, creative enterprises willing to experiment with
new business models. Imagine having the courage to go beyond foundation
grants and pledge drives and becoming adept at paying your own way.
Imagine developing socially responsible advertising that respects personal
privacy, is transparent about how data is collected and used, allows
consumers to opt out of immersive experiences, fosters independent
identity, builds community and supports social justice.
Foundations and the so-called
Democracy Alliance have the potential to be the economic engines
for such experiments and do the organizing necessary to patch together a
content-challenge to the status quo.
As YouTube, Google, MySpace and immersive media marketing reshape the
digital landscape, we need to be sure that public interest remains in
the picture. And as tech-savvy progressive media find their place in
that landscape, we must work together to build an online culture that
not only pitches products but works for equity, social justice and the riches of a civil society.
Jeffrey Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (www.democraticmedia.org), a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to maintaining the diversity and openness of the new broadband communications systems. He is the author of the forthcoming Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy, to be published in January by The New Press.
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