Highway to Nowhere: Salon, Slate, Feed, and Internet Publishing

Highway to Nowhere: Salon, Slate, Feed, and Internet Publishing

Four years ago, when I began interviewing people who work 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, workers I spoke to told me that they loved being in “the freest medium around,” in which the new technological revolution in “interactivity” would unleash a democratic spirit and crumble ignorance and tyranny. Hyperbole? Of course. But before the first rumblings of the bulls and initial public offerings in Silicon Alley, New York’s young and hip Internet pioneers were broke and idealistic. Perhaps because nobody made much money back in those days, industry gatherings were more likely to end in conversations quoting Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault and Marshall McLuhan rather than stock prices. Still, even in the early days of Internet publishing, the talk of worker-owned startups changing the rules of the economy and the promise of information setting us all free seemed charmingly quixotic.

Those early fantasies of communitarian utopia were based on the idea that mouse clicks differ somehow from those of a remote control. Passively receiving information, well, that’s just oh-so-television! Users themselves—not professional media hacks—were to build the Internet and its communities with their own involvement, time, and passions. The network and the Web became new metaphors for social organization: we’re nodes linked together by the choice and freedom to connect with like-minded others. Leaving aside the fact that there were (and still are) those who are left out, disconnected, and not plugged in, this comunitarian image of the Internet so prevailed that a venture capitalist like Esther Dyson could rave about the “powerful enabling technology fostering the development of communities.”

Unfortunately, this free medium is quite expensive. Perhaps it was true for a while that anybody could just “throw something up” on the Web and people would read it, but now the vehicle that seemed perfect for spreading democracy and do-it-yourself broadsiding is actually increasing the concentration of media. This is a contentious statement, given the euphoria over Internet-organized protests, progressive Web sites, and wonders of nonprofit uses of Internet publishing. The merger of old and new media in the America Online (AOL) and Time Warner deal only amplified the dirge for Internet media independence begun by a chorus of commentators.This excludes American Online’s proprietary news and entertainment channels to which only AOL subscribers have access , which both get more viewers per month than CNet and ZDNet Eric Alterman wrote in IntellectualCapital.com, a for-profit on-line 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 po...


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