from the pages of February 1995


 Hooked and Wired 2

By Michael Albert


In the first part of this two part article (in December's issue) I argued that the provision of information free had problems as well as virtues. The virtues were of course the potential for greater access to more information by more people. The problem I focused on was a flood of material of steadily declining quality due to the absence of "publishers" and revenues to support producers (writers, photographers, etc.). There are other interesting issues, as well. For example, I like to play the Japanese board game Go, and there is a club for doing so in the Boston area. In the club Go is a social, face to face, game. But now you can also play Go via the Internet, with people all over the world, any time day or night, free. The club, not too surprisingly, is in trouble for memberships and rent. What does this kind of trade-off mean for social interaction, compared to interaction via cyberspace? Though these types of sociological problems are certainly interesting and important, here I would like to address another layer of the picture I started to paint last time of the Internet and media.

Much to the surprise of many left critics, the current trend on the Internet is for capitalist companies to offer their wares entirely free. Thus, outfits like Time Magazine are rushing to establish what are called Web sites which make available to Internet users free copies of Time. And Time not only gives Internet users free access to an online version of the magaizine, with the graphics, etc., but they provide a kind of superset of the magazine, with extra articles, video, sound clips, extended dialog with writers, and so on. And this is what other similarly oriented periodicals are also rushing to do.

So what's going on? Since when is Time Magazine in business to provide product free? How can the CEO-types at Time possibly permit a better version of the magazine they hawk for money to be had for free? And it isn't even made available at no cost to Time. Far from it. Time and any other periodical following this route has to set up a very elaborate set of "pages" on the World Wide Web and these pages have to be updated regularly, not only for each new issue, but for breaking information. In Time's case the pages are even interactive, allowing forum-like discussions of article contents. There are newspapers now going online which are updating news content, not weekly, or even daily, but hourly and in some cases reportedly every 20 minutes. This takes a substantial infrastructure and many skilled employees and the product transcends the old-fashioned pay as you go paper for news and for ease of use, yet. like cyber Time, it is provided free.

And all this is just a warm up for what is to come. Because World Wide Web use, though growing fantastically rapidly, is still quite low. So what we have is profit-seeking company after profit-seeking company betting on this arena of free communications, trying to push it along, setting up the infrastructure even before the audience exists. So, where are the Internet profits for Time et. al. going to come from?

Advertising. You, the Internet info-surfer, use Mosaic or some other Web reader to access Time's World Wide Web pages. In those pages you can't help but notice the embedded ads. And why is Time betting that corporate advertising departments will pay high prices to place those ad on Time's WWW pages?

It is quite like the newstand relationship. The corporate advertiser wants the eyes of prospective buyers to gaze appreciatively at their ad. Time offers to provide lots of eyes of people in the mood to buy, and with the bucks to do it. And in cyberspace the advertiser gets a bonus. If the user clicks on the ad, whoosh, they are in the advertiser's showroom, getting outfited for a purchase. The potential customer can make a purchase with the click of a button before the effect of the ad wears off. Every ad is a gateway to more convincing video and audio enticement, and then a purchase. It is like a live, endlessly diverse Sear's catalog with limitless reach into homes for instant purchasing. There are all kinds of implications for Madison Avenue, for showrooms, etc. Why do we need auto dealers, for example, when we can click on an ad, enter the GM plant, and test out any of dozens of models, getting all our questions answered by people from the parent company, and then buying cheaper, easier, and with whatever special features we might want as well?

But however important some of these "marketing" dynamics may be, I want to look instead at a particular two-part implication for communicating information. First, the information provided via cyber Time and its competitors is funded entirely, 100 percent, by advertising. This is even worse than now where at least Time gets some revenue from subscriptions and sales. The entire reason for being of the electronic periodical is the conveyance of ready buyers to eager advertisers, and the implications for the content of cyber Time should be pretty obvious.

And what about dissident publications? What about Z? Well suppose we put Z on line. There is no technical obstacle to prevent us from doing that, down the road a way. And suppose we make cyber Z a superset of paper Z. We put in some video, some interviews, extra articles, author/reader discussion. We are talking a ways in the future, so let's assume that all this stuff is accessible via really fast internet connections so it is quick, easy, and free but for the internet link, which may itself be free.

Where's the problem? The problem is, we don't have ads. We don't want ads. We couldn't get ads if we wanted them. So if we are to have a presense on this critical part of the Internet in the future, it will have to earn its keep by charging a fee for use. And then we will have the ironic spectacle of Time Magazine (et. al.) providing a wealth of highly artistic and very efficient Web pages, all for free, and Z (or ITT or the Progressive, or Monthly Review, or whoever) charging for access to similar but far less elaborate pages maintained by volunteer staff. The corporate bloodsucking, profit seeking, bohemoth offers information for free. The people-loving, social, anti-corporate dissident operation charges a fee. Great. And which users wants to pay the dissident outfits fee. The one who agrees with us and is willing to pay to support us, you note. Fine. But what happened to outreach?

You might say it isn't all that different from now. It is just an extension. Their price is down some per total content, our's is up. But the contrast becomes stark when it is them FREE versus us paid. It becomes philosophical as well as material, or appears to anyway.

I am far from sure that this is the Internet future. It is what many many companies are betting on. But it remains to be seen whether the ads will work sufficiently well for advertisers to pay big bucks to buy them. But if they do, everything else is in place and ready to go. And the way the dissident community will be marginalized in this scenario will have little to do with high costs of entry, or simplistic censorship, or even high costs of use. It will have to do instead with the dynamics of advertising and the irony of dissidents having to charge people who wish to access dissident information, while mainstream outfits willingly give it away free.