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.
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, phone and cable companies, Google and other large players, the advertising industry is 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 behaviour. Virtual software marketing tools will be deployed across the digital landscape so that wherever we go, whatever we 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.
'User created' ad machine
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 behaviour, 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 U.S. empire. In August, Google became Fox's principal online advertising agent for MySpace, Fox TV and Fox Interactive.]
Given this emerging marketing model, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 ensure 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 business.
Preserving the public interest
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 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, in the U.S., reliable outlets include 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. This article is distributed by Alternet.org.
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