Globalization and the perpetuation of free-market neo-liberal economic values goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of global commercial mass-media systems and as these outlets become concentrated into the control of less than a handful of commercial giants we stand to lose the voices of those untouched by vested interests and preoccupied with the acquisition of wealth and the maintenance of the political status quo. Web 2.0, that is to say, interactive, participant-based online media (Cohen, 6) offers consumers another voice; user-generated content on websites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as the in-numerous blogs and indie-media are free from corporate bias and censorship and hold the potential to revolutionise the current media systems and thus, democratise them, creating a free flow of ideas and culture. But, capitalism, as we shall see, has a knack for innovative forms of exploitation and Web 2.0 may be the cleverest yet.
In his paper “Policing the Thinkable” the academic and socialist activist Robert W .McChesney discusses the essential lie at the heart of free-market competitive media industries (and indeed all free-market industries) that, by a combination of veritable price-fixing, political corruption and consolidation of ownership there can be no such thing as true “competition” in the neo-liberal sense. AOL Time Warner, Disney, Bertelsmann, Vivendi Universal, Sony, Viacom and News Corp virtually own every major film studio, satellite and cable television networks, music companies, book publishers and more making it impossible for upstart newcomers to challenge their vice-grip like power and rendering the notion of meritocratic competition moot. It is not enough, anymore, to own the means of production in order to consolidate power, but in the information age, one must own the means of communication.
Conversely, these companies continually perpetuate the message of choice and their news outlets consistently boast about the authority and objective clarity of their reporting. Take Fox News’ laughable tagline “Fair and Balanced” which is so blatantly in opposition to everything the network embodies that you imagine it must be some kind of distasteful joke. McChesney maintains that professionalism in journalism has been weeded out by big business (102) who have directed a limited focus and imposed their ideology upon the reporting and in the media output in general. “The great strength of the commercial system is its ability to generate commercially marinated light entertainment, which suits perfectly the sort of depoliticised and inegalitarian society as exists in neoliberalism’s spawning ground, the United States.”
Only the internet can provide salvation in this corrupt and unbalanced playing field. It has the potential to undermine and subvert the current media giants: a single YouTube video can go viral, social networking tools such as Twitter can aid a revolution and we can even be privy to the secrets of the C.I.A. The truth, as they say, is out there. Or, at least, different accounts of the truth. Web 2.0’s emphasis on user-generated content opens the flow of content and away from preordained market interest, democratising the platform. Users on sites such as YouTube, or its adult mirror, XTube can even make money from their content and the websites offer to facilitate monetary transactions, making their own capital as intermediaries (Mowlabocus, 70) and this serves to further blur the line between consumers and producers (resulting in the amusing portmanteau, prosumer). However, the webs awesome, potentially revolutionary power has not gone unnoticed and unchecked by market forces. “The reason the internet will not set us free is the thoroughly corrupt nature of communication policy making in the United States, and…worldwide.” (McChesney, 103)
Web 2.0 does not and can not operate without considerable market investment and the investors typically stem from the financial elite, the media conglomerates who must are struggling to find new, post-Fordist models of capitalism to reign in the consumerist pandora’s box the free internet has unleashed. Nicole S.Cohen notes how FaceBook is far from the “free” networking tool of leisure it appears to be. Like all new technologies web 2.0 reorganises the production/distribution model rather than revolutionising it in order to extend its control over the workforce and increase capital gains (Cohen, 6) and to this end FaceBook has reorganised the consumers into unpaid producers, marketing their own content back to themselves, selling their personal information to advertisers in the process. This immaterial labour has material worth, and FaceBook has managed to captialise upon social interrelation so that knowledge produced collectively can become private property and profit is made.
No matter how free the internet is, to innovative neo-liberal capitalism, that freedom is exploitable. As in every other mode of cultural hegemony imposed upon what’s fashionably termed the “99%”, (or the proletariat *cough* solidarity comrades *cough*) big business has managed to manufacture consent from the masses, making them complicit in their own cultural domination by clicking “I agree” to terms and conditions they never read.
An altogether too obvious example of big business’ vested interests and its corrupt relationship with government policy can be clearly seen in the recent S.O.P.A debacle. The Stop Online Piracy Act which was championed by media conglomerates and the motion-picture and music industry was, by all accounts, poorly thought-out and unwieldy and would have been a dark step toward internet censorship and greater corporate control. Millions of users and organisations came out in protest with some 7000 websites “blacking out” on the 18th of January, 2012 which has resulted in the bill being delayed, at least for now. Online opponents of the bill showed their outrage in a number of novel ways but I think the literary economy and the universality of the meme exemplifies the communal and collective nature of the internet, the same virtues the bill was determined to undermine.
The above “Ancient Aliens” meme plays with our expectations and familiarity with the form. Its subversion of the form, whilst being hilarious, is also brilliantly critical of the bill. The following meme is a rather more obvious affair, again demonstrating the internet’s shared cultural lexicon, its penchant for copywrite infringement and also its general stance on S.O.P.A.
The bill’s proposal clearly demonstrates the insidious link between media conglomerates and law-makers and their attempts to once again curb and censor the free flow of information but the protests decisive impact and the communal effort that arose from the situation demonstrates the web’s unrestricted and empowering functionality. Perhaps all is not lost.
McChesney, R.W. (2006) ‘Poilicing The Thinkable’ Hassan, R & Thomas, J (eds.) The New Media Theory Reader
Cohen, Nicole S. “The Valorization of Surveillance: Towards a Political Economy of Facebook.” Democratic Communiqué 22, No. 1, Spring 2008 1.22 (2008): 5-22.
Mowlabocus, Sharif. “Porn 2.0: Technology, Social Practice and the New Online Porn Industry.” Ed. Feona Attwood. Porn.com: Making Sense of Online Pornography. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. Print.