For a while there, the Internet and the World Wide Web showed great promise. They whispered sweet nothings in our ears, promising to be the voice of the marginalized, the new democracy, the great equalizer.
But it wasn’t to be, for the Internet has a new master. No, it’s not Google. No, it’s not Microsoft. And no, it’s not even good ole’ Uncle Sam. They’re just caretakers. The Internet’s new master is bigger than they’ll ever be, and far, far older.
Meet the master
The Internet’s new master is the same master who holds the leash of all traditional commercial media.
The Internet’s new master is money and power. Not the capacity to earn money or the capacity to increase power (although those are certainly nice fringe-benefits). No, the Internet’s new master is the moneyed, powerful collective. Those who simultaneously mould and reflect ‘mainstream’ opinion, values, and behavior.
I suppose we should have foreseen it, given the Internet’s military birthplace. But then, we were young and optimistic, and boy did we want to believe!
A little melodramatic? Perhaps. But fairly accurate nonetheless. Let me explain…
The early promise of equity
The Internet started out as a network of computers set up for military purposes. To cut a long story short, the World Wide Web started out simply because it could; the Internet was there to host it, and the technology was there to deliver it. Both were heralded as the new face of democracy – at long last, the voiceless had a voice.
Of course, even in those heady days, we all recognized some fundamental practical and technological limitations which really threw a spanner in the works for the ‘New World Orderless’ theory. To begin with, the great majority of the world’s population didn’t even have access to a computer, much less own one with Internet access. In fact, that was still the case even after the new master took the reins (and probably still is).
But we had faith in the Internet’s potential. I even wrote a paper in the mid 90s discussing the Internet’s promise for empowerment, and I quote:
“Being such a decentralized, anonymous form of communication, the Internet offers great opportunities to the world’s oppressed – improved (anonymous if desired) communications capabilities, and better access to more sources of local and international news, to name just a couple. At the same time, the Internet poses great threats to the world’s existing media and political powers, not only because of the re-distribution of information (and, therefore, power) to the populace, but also because of the apparent impracticality (impossibility?) of regulating the information flowing in and out of any country.”
Alas, I did not see the Internet’s true potential for censorship and control… Content.
He who wields content is king
We often hear that “content is king”. The logic of the argument is as follows. For some time now, the lion’s share (some 80%) of Internet traffic to the average website has been coming from the major search engines. What’s more, when people use search engines, they rarely look past the second page of search results. Additionally, research suggests that being number 1 in Google equates to twice as much traffic as being number 2. This means you need to rank in the first two pages of the major search engines – ideally at number 1 – before your voice begins to be heard. The only way to reach the top of the search engines is to have thousands of links back to your website from other websites. There are two ‘reliable’ ways of achieving this goal:
1) Publish helpful information on your website and constantly update it so that others link to your site because it’s so great – keep ‘eyes on paper’. Some popular methods include news sites, BLOGS, folksonomies, journals, e-newsletters, and customizable web portals like Google Personalized, which allows visitors to choose (from a pre-determined selection) what they see, e.g. news, email, weather, stocks, etc.
2) Write helpful articles and let publishers of newsletters and ezines use them for free – on the proviso that they link back to your site. (These articles are quite often written by SEO copywriters, and they need to be submitted to established article banks, from which they are gathered by online publishers for free.)
In other words, to reach the top of the search engines, you need to publish virtual reams and reams of high quality, informed content (i.e. copy). And you need to keep doing it indefinitely.
On the basis of this evidence, the saying that “content is king” has become somewhat of a truism. But when we look closely, the saying is inaccurate. There’s nothing wrong with the logic; it’s the conclusion that’s the problem. In reality, content is no more king than was the sword. In reality, he who wields the content is king (and I say “he” with intent, as the wielder is generally male or some patriarchal organization).
And who wields the content? Only those with the social power to command an education and the money to indulge in the time-consuming task of researching, writing, and publishing said content (or those who have the budget and foresight to engage an SEO copywriter).
Wielding content is getting harder
Even for search engine (SEO) copywriters like myself, this is a task which is becoming more and more time consuming, simply because more and more content is being added to the Internet (largely as a result of the content emphasis of search engine ranking!). To illustrate: In 1997, there were an estimated 200 million pages on the World Wide Web (K. Bharat and A. Broder, ‘A technique for measuring the relative size and overlap of public web search engines’ [WWW1998]). By 1998, that number had jumped to 800 million pages (S. Lawrence and C.L. Giles, ‘Accessibility of information on the web’ [Nature 400:107-109, 1999]). A mere 7 years later, the estimate is now 11.5 billion pages (A. Gulli and A. Signorini, ‘The Indexable Web is more than 11.5 billion pages’ ).
In other words, nowadays your Internet opinion is only heard above the virtual din if you can really REALLY churn out the content. And that takes a great investment in time and money.
Information overload – the most effective form of censorship
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying the Internet denies us access to information. It certainly doesn’t do that. But ironically, it’s the Internet’s very openness that provides its greatest censorship power. With 11.5 billion pages currently online, and nearly 10 million more added each day, we’re all starting to wonder how much of that information can be trusted. We look for helpful content, and we keep going back for it, but only if we trust the source. And, as a rule of thumb, we only trust websites which:
• rank highly in the major search engines;
• have a high Google PageRank (PR) – PR is how Google scores importance. It gives all sites a mark out of 10. Any site with a PR of 4 or above is generally considered fairly credible. More and more web-savvy people are using PR to assess site credibility and authority. (You can see the PR of every site you visit by downloading the Google Toolbar (http://toolbar.google.com).); and/or
• are referred to us by a friend, colleague, or industry thought leader (which usually only happens if at least one of the first two conditions applies).
The result… We only trust the very people who were feeding us misinformation and disinformation for years before the emergence of the Internet.
And where does this leave average Jo on the street? Even if she has the education, time, and money to publish a website, an increasing state of e-information overload will likely result in the marginalization of her website anyway. At best, she’ll be seen as an uninformed minority; at worst, a muck-raking conspiracy theorist!
Conclusion – dare we hope?
Several generations have wondered what they could achieve if they could only get on TV. Television being what it is, that wish never came to fruition unless you were happy to appear on the Jerry Springer Show, Cops, or Judge Judy, or you have what it takes to star in American Idol, Big Brother, Amazing Race, or Survivor. Then along came the Internet. It claims to offer everything TV cannot. Unfortunately, as it stands, the Internet is no more true to its promise than TV. The vast majority of high ranking, highly trafficked websites are published by powerful, affluent corporations. There are a few anomalies, but they’re no more than that. Like the ‘everyday’ people on ‘reality TV’, the small-time stars of the Internet are the exceptions to the rule.
But I haven’t given up hope. All previous comments notwithstanding, I’m inclined to see the cup as half full. After all, every now and then, when the master’s back is turned, someone manages to slip the beast a treat to get it to perform a trick or two (such as a folksonomy). I like to think that my early days of optimism were something more than idealism bolstered by naivety. I still believe the technology of the Internet offers great promise. I just hope that ‘the powers that be’ don’t have too great a head start, and that all of us small people won’t be pushed to the margins where we’ll have to content ourselves with a lifetime of chanting “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!”
Maybe folksonomies are the answer – or the prelude to the answer – or a part of the prelude. Or maybe the Internet will turn out to be history’s greatest hoax after all. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m looking forward to watching it unfold. For better or for worse, it will certainly be interesting…