The Impact of the Net

This is an assignment written as part of my recent masters in Broadcast Production. It was interesting to take an overview of online media, a decade after regularly writing about its impacts. In a sense surprisingly little has changed… Remix culture is still alive, and still illegal. Podcasts and online video are more popular than ever, but have done little to replace established media. Blogs have ceased to matter, despite the efforts of medium and aggregators, and more surprisingly despite their utility and disseminators of free specialist knowledge. There exists in the public conversation only the polarised ‘mainstream media’ and the ephemeral and even more polarised tweet. The level of online discourse has hence inarguably diminished; a further impact of the ‘Eternal September’ ongoing since the weeds of the net outgrew the ivy league. Overall though, the online world of 2017 looks remarkably similar to the world of a decade past.

Title: An optimistic view of the impact of the internet is that it is a democratic and life-enhancing force for culture and communication. The main criticisms of that hopeful approach are that the internet has enabled unequal access, centralization of power and new forms of power through surveillance. (Hesmondhalgh, David. The Cultural Industries (3rded). Ch9 Sage 2013) Analyse these contrasting arguments with reference to broadcasting.


Today’s English language internet is dominated by a single search engine (Google), two social networks (Facebook and Twitter), and a few hundred smartphone applications (, 2017) (Perry, 2016). Yet it is also paradoxically stocked by ‘user created content’ – the podcasts, comments, blog posts, images and videos created by the nets 3.5 billion users (ITU, 2016). Today’s ‘network of networks’ is in a sense the final medium, a canvas for all current and future communications technologies, from mobile phone calls to virtual reality. But it exists in a state of tension. Since its inception the internet has struggled with competing imperatives – openness vs privacy, free speech vs censorship, commercialisation vs open source, privacy vs the panopticon. The internet frees us to communicate instantaneously across the globe, even as it makes the monitoring and permanent storage of that communication trivial. It lets us publish our ideas and creative work, even as it makes them so ubiquitous, easily mimicked and duplicated as to be valueless. It’s the source of limitless education and constant manipulation. This essay will examine how this most contradictory of mediums has impacted broadcasters and audiences alike.

The Evolution of the Net

The internet was born at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the US defence department. Work at APRA and the RAND think tank in the 1960’s and early 70’s laid the groundwork for a single grand computer network, interconnecting all others. The network was based on the decentralised structure of the human brain, an interconnected system with no single point of failure (Ryan, 2010). Beginning in 1973 the net spread from exclusive military use to the research community (Ziewitz, 2011). Through enthusiasts and later commercial internet service providers, the net opened to home users beginning in the late 1970’s (Ryan, 2010). The advent of the world wide web, developed at CERN in 1991, popularised the domestic and commercial uses of the net (Berners-Lee & Fischetti, 2000). However, the modern internet, composed of mobile apps, the web, chat services, cloud storage and processing, file-sharing, the ‘always on’ elements of computer operating systems and the emerging ‘internet of things’, still relies on the core infrastructure developed at ARPA (Khodkari & Maghrebi, 2016).

As bulletin board systems, gopher internet relay chat, and latterly the web spread, they competed with private subscription services offering curated programmatic content. Services like Compuserve and America Online did not initially include access to the open internet, despite relying on its underlying TCP/IP technology (Ryan, 2010). Like today’s social networks they were ‘walled gardens’, private spaces where content modelled on network television was curated, managed and sanitised (Bruns & Burgess, 2015). In stark contrast, the ‘user generated’ wilds of the early internet contained any number of thorns, from pirated media and illegal pornography, to guides to the manufacture and use of weapons (Deibert, 2010).

Ultimately the internet’s greater variety of content and wider pool of users outcompeted the private online services. But this dynamic conflict between the open free transfer of information and corporate networks that offer polished services at the expense of user control, continues to this day (Noam et al, 2003). Today’s internet user primarily consumes and produces content through closed source applications purchased from curated stores owned and operated by powerful corporations (Adams et al, 2012).

The utopian vision of an internet free from censorship and corporate control was articulated in an influential statement ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ by Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) founder John Perry Bardow. Bardow and technologists and hackers like him stood for the vision of an internet free from “legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement”. They sought to “create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace…. more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before” (EFF, 1996). Put another way, ‘information wants to be free’ (Clarke, 2016).

“Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property’, the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.”

Stewart Brand, ‘The Media Lab, Inventing the Future at MIT’, 1987

As broadcasters encountered the internet they found in it both a place to promote their content, and an existential risk (Lee & Lee, 2015). The net offered access to a global audience, yet it made the mechanisms of broadcast television all but obsolete. Despite the crude low resolution imagery of early internet video, and the slow speeds of early file transfer programmes over dialup internet, by the late 1990’s it was already apparent that all programming would ultimately be available in some form online (Dowling et al, 1998).


All Consuming Platforms

This came to pass first through the free sharing enabled by peer-to-peer platforms like BitTorrent, and later via corporate stores and streaming platforms. Today all major broadcasters and production companies offer their programming for sale or rental online. Surprisingly, broadcast television has not disappeared in the wake of ubiquitous online access and cheap ‘prosumer’ content creation technology. Instead broadcasters have adapted in a wide variety of ways to the inescapable reality of the internet. Streaming TV services both net native (Netflix, Amazon), and ‘old media’ owned (Hulu, BBC iPlayer, RTE Player, HBO Go etc) provide always on access to archives of previously broadcast progammes. Enabling viewers to ‘binge watch’ entire series in a short period (Matrix, 2014). Increasingly these services commission new programming for an online only audience (Carr & Somaiya, 2014). The pressure these platforms (and other forms of ad skipping) have put on traditional advertising has massively increased product placement (Schweidel et al, 2014). Meanwhile broadcast television has balkanized: Bifurcating into a small number of premium channels developing high end scripted productions, and a much larger number of channels producing low budget, often exploitative, reality programming (Serpe, 2013). The turnover of new programming formats is enormously higher than before, creating a multi-billion euro format market for programmes that can be customized and resold in multiple territories (Moran, 2013).

Podcasting, a new medium for the distribution of audio content developed in the early 2000s, initially empowered independent creators to cheaply release spoken word programming. However, as with video, centralised ownership and the ‘discoverability problem’ have led to podcasts charts becoming dominated by traditional broadcasters and new media companies founded by former traditional broadcasters (Bottomley, 2015). In recent weeks facebook have announced the launch of ‘live audio’, an integrated platform for audio streaming, which threatens to take a wall off a significant segment of the field dominated by podcasting (Facebook, 2016). A similar path was followed by blogging which initially promised to give air to a diversity of perspectives. Over time aggregator sites like Reddit, blog-like news organisations such as Gawker and Buzzfeed, and centralised platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Medium leveraged network effects to overwhelm independent sites (Arthur, 2009). While blogs and non-commercial media outlets like Indiemedia still exist, their significance has greatly decreased. Today, the primary outlets for ‘user created content’ are platforms like twitter, facebook and youtube (Brake, 2004). These sites limit what can be posted, disseminated and ‘monitized’; practicing de facto censorship in response to commercial and political imperatives (Heins, 2013). Often prohibiting anonymous or pseudonymous posting (van der Nagel & Frith, 2015). While intended to reduce online abuse, this can endanger writers and creators working in authoritarian regimes (Grönlund & Wakabi, 2015), or in vulnerable domestic circumstances.

The recommendation and filtering engines that keep users returning to these sites have resulted in the creation of ‘filter bubbles’: Wells of inoffensive agreeable opinion, leading to the polarisation of political perspectives and the mistaken impression of uniformity (Bakshy et al, 2015). This trend has culminated in the creation and dissemination of ‘fake news’, wilfully misleading articles with provocative titles that are widely shared within partisan political bubbles (Khaldarova & Pantti, 2016). Allegations persist that such articles – in addition to state sponsored ‘astroturfing’ (fake grassroots campaigning) had a role in influencing the 2016 US elections (Bessi & Ferrara, 2016).

By centralising distribution and identity, the new media sites also enable profoundly invasive surveillance. The widely publicised leaks of Edward Snowdon and Chelsey Manning revealed ubiquitous surveillance of online communication and social media sites (Stoycheff, 2016). Blanket online surveillance is carried out internationally by American intelligence agencies like the NSA, and in the UK and Ireland by British military intelligence GCHQ. As far back as the late eighteenth century Jeremy Bentham predicted the chilling effect constant imperceptible surveillance would have on the surveilled (Sheridan & Foucault, 1977). Experiments by Facebook in manipulating user emotion through subtle variations in the content of their ‘news feed’, point to the additional dangers of affect manipulation (Grimmelmann, 2014).

Worryingly, the analysis of so called ‘big data’ the aggregated and commodified behaviour of citizens online and off, produces only correlations. To employ these correlations predictively requires experimental hypothesis testing (Zuboff, 2015). This creates an enormous incentive for the manipulation of mass audiences online. Zuboff, 2015, refers to the large media platforms as ‘surveillance capitalists’, commodifying the behaviour of their users in ever more invasive and manipulative ways. The authoritarian regime in China has already developed a social network that penalises antisocial behaviour via a ‘social credit score’ (SATPRC, 2014). This formalises the rankings provided by ‘subscriptions’ and ‘likes’, that already accrue to inoffensive and extreme opinions alike across social networks. Chinese officials have stated that this “new system will reward those who report acts of breach of trust” (BBC News, 2015).


Illegal Art

With the advent of file sharing and the online hosting of media, internet users formed a new adversarial relationship with ‘big content’. As the early file trading networks like Gnutella and Napster grew, so did the fear that the unmetered sharing of information would undercut corporate profits. New laws were rapidly drafted which penalised and even criminalised file sharing and thousands – including many college students, found themselves sued for large sums. Non-commercial infringement was no defence against laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Librarians and lecturers could be prosecuted for making ‘infringing copies’ of scholarly texts or articles (Clark, D, 2002).

While these laws had a negligible effect on the popularity of filesharing (and filesharing in turn has had a negligible effect on music sales), they had a distinct impact on the evolutionary direction of the internet (Oberholzer & Strumpf, 2007) (Oberholzer & Strumpf, 2016). The new intellectual property regime meant that broadcasters and programme makers had for the first time control over the kinds of devices and services that could distribute their content. In the 1980’s broadcasters lost the battle to prevent home taping (Madrigal, 2012), creating a new video rental market which ultimately spurred the creation of DVD and Blu-ray. Now however, unapproved use and sale could be legally sanctioned. Where the unsanctioned re-edit and recording of soul & disco gave birth to hip hop, now such innovation was impractical. While various forms of ‘illegal art’ have emerged since the advent of the new international copyright regime – from mashup videos to vaporwave – we’ve also seen the prohibition of work of immense popularity. In 2004, the American artist Danger Mouse produced a critically acclaimed record combining elements of the Beatles White Album with JZ’s Black Album. The Grey album became enormously popular but was rapidly removed from online distribution by the corporations who owned copyrights to both original recordings (Gunderson, 2004). Where two decades before sampling had provided the backbone of a nascent hiphop scene, now one of the most popular and innovative artists in a generation had been censored in the name of profit (McLeod, 2004). Latterly, an uneasy compromise has been arrived at, with record companies largely tolerating the non-commercial release of ‘mixtapes’ – albums containing ‘uncleared’ samples, as hype building exercises that develop anticipation for tours and official releases (Anderson, 2008). However, in the realm of video such tolerance has not come to pass, with ‘DCMA takedown requests’ frequently employed to remove not only ‘infringing’ art, but also political statements, critical product reviews, and other material likely to threaten corporate profits (Loren, 2011). While the modern IP regime originated in the US, the last three decades have seen a concerted effort at ‘copyright harmonisaton’: The export of American intellectual property and trademark law (often accompanied by more severe criminal penalties) internationally (Sell, 2003) (Baker, 2004).


The internet’s impact on culture and communications has been complex, nuanced and multifarious. Inarguably the net has made possible a level of surveillance and manipulation previously undreamt of. The roles of broadcaster and content producer have merged, as countless new distribution opportunities developed and became subsumed by the social networks. Broadcasters and programme makers can today find global audiences more readily and cheaply than ever before. Native speakers can subscribe to programming and channels in their own languages almost anywhere on earth. Minority interest programming can be created exclusively for new platforms without recourse to traditional gatekeepers. At the same time, programme makers must contend with abusive copyright regimes (and conversely piracy), overwhelming competition, less captive audiences and declining advertising revenue. The big winners in this new landscape have been intellectually undemanding entertainment formats, appealing to mass audiences and easily customised to local markets.
Perhaps the greatest threats to critically engaged broadcasting arise from state and corporate censorship. Today censorship can arise algorithmically, from well intentioned efforts to increase user engagement, and with it profits. It can enable the worst elements of authoritarian state surveillance and intervention: The observation and manipulation of the intimate communications of everyday people. Under East Germany’s notorious Stazi regime, the practice of Zersetzung was employed against dissidents (Dennis, 2006). This was the willful distortion of a person’s experience of the world. The secret destruction of their personal and professional relationships. Zersetzung was a form of state gaslighting that isolated and psychologically injured its victims. Today’s online media landscape has the potential to be just as damaging. Internet users, cut off from one another in self referencing echo chambers, can become radically disconnected. These bubbles threaten the very possibility of a shared political and cultural landscape: And with the the stability of society, family and social relationships.

The net has accelerated financial inequality, even as it has led to unparalleled economic growth and access to information. We live in a Golden Age of Television (Thompson, 2013), with the most inventive, high quality drama ever broadcast. And yet enormous audiences prefer to watch and share the most trivial short form videos: Distractions that represent the least informative and edifying forms of escapism. We can publicise our interests and find others who share them. Yet keeping our viewing preferences, our online behavior and our communications private is all but impossible.

The impact of the internet has no valance. It has not been to influence mass communication, but rather to replace it. It has not merely affected existing media, but rather engulfed it. Broadcasting and narrowcasting are classifications of a bygone age. Media and communication are now united in a spectacular, universal panopticon. A place where any may speak, but where it is increasingly difficult to truly listen.



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