The vast Internet is many things to many people. Accustomed to their own routes through cyberspace, individuals may assume that what they see is fairly typical. But in society as a whole, what are the Web's dominant traffic patterns?
While some view it as an expansive bastion of decentralised communication and democratic discourse, the Internet now functions quite differently overall. In total, the World Wide Web is scarcely more civic-minded than your local bank.
Consider the flat-out judgement rendered by America's leading organ of capitalism a few weeks ago. The Wall Street Journal tilts toward the delusional on its ideology-laden editorial pages, but its news reporting is-out of investor necessity-right on the money. And the paper was on target with a 23 July piece by reporter Thomas E Weber, who scrutinised the evolving role of the Web.
Back in the summer of 1993, "cyberspace had remained practically free of advertisements, but marketers were beginning to eye the medium." Eight years later, Weber wrote, "it's difficult to remember that quaint, commercial-free Internet. Marketers didn't just eye the medium-they conquered it." He added: "The Internet has been transformed largely into a place of commerce."
But the Internet remains, for many, an object of illusion.
As if looking backward through the wrong end of a telescope, some observers are dazzled by the virtues of their personal treks online. But whatever cyber-stars are in the eyes of certain individuals, the business calculations of hard-nosed number-crunchers are focused elsewhere. And the documented trends are enough to make the most avaricious media tycoon grin.
Websites operated by just four corporations account for 50.4 percent of the time that US users of the Web are now spending online, the authoritative Jupiter Media Metrix research firm reported in early summer. At the top of the heap were AOL Time Warner's sites, with 32 percent of all minutes spent online in the nation, followed by Microsoft (7.5 percent) and Yahoo (7.2 percent).
Jupiter senior analyst Aram Sinnreich said the figures "show an irrefutable trend toward online media consolidation and indicate that the playing field is anything but even." He cited the data as refutation of the still-popular notion that "severe market dominance is impossible on the Internet."
The most heavily trafficked sites are overwhelmingly devoted to commercial activities in one form or another, such as online shopping, financial services, investment, corporate-screened entertainment, travel deals and market research. Meanwhile, even on many nonprofit sites, banner ads are bigger than ever. And intrusive pop-up advertisements are spreading. To make matters appreciably worse, the owners of some key search engines are avidly prostituting their services. (The most powerful search-scam offenders include AltaVista, AOL, Microsoft and Lycos. For details, visit www.commercialalert.org.)
These days, if you use one of the Internet's main search engines to find whatever, the chances are good that the top results came from dollars rather than relevance or quality. "Search engine optimisation is the number one strategy for generating qualified traffic to your site," said a recent sales pitch offering prominence in search-engine listings. "Eighty-five percent of all traffic is generated via search queries and over 90 percent of that traffic is driven to the top 30 results. If you're not in the top 30, you're not in a position to compete!"
But faith in the democratic character of the Internet is resilient; a myth that will not die. And the more that huge outfits ravage cyberspace, the more useful the mythology becomes, laying a thick fog over the realities of mega-media domination.
The spectacular dot-com plunge has caused many corporate managers to sharpen their cost-cutting knives, endangering just about any media content that doesn't seem to directly correlate with boosting revenue.
Before the Los Angeles Times cancelled his long-running and insightful column "Digital Natio" in mid-July, scholar Gary Chapman gained many readers as he tracked digital trends. Four months ago, he was citing informed predictions that Web browsers will become outdated within five years, giving way to "widespread use of interactive TV networks managed by large media companies."
The dot-com flameouts have sped up the Net's commercial-isation-as quests for cash-flow, market share and multimedia synergy become more voracious. "The idea that anyone with an e-commerce Web site could sell anything under the sun seems completely dead now," Chapman noted last spring. "The alternative seems to be a move toward closed networks, not unlike America Online, in which the user experience is guided, shaped and far more controlled-something advertisers and online retailers are demanding. In other words, there is a growing sense in the high-tech industry that consumer networks of the future will begin to look more like television-indeed, some believe interactive digital TV is the true wave of the future."
For a time, the Internet seemed to elude the profit-driven matrix squeezing media and public life. Some illusions die hard. But hopefully we can move forward with new resolve to fight against corporate power-and for truly democratic media.