In the Belly of the Monster

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
1 May, 2018
Editorial: 198
Fecha de publicación original: 18 enero, 2000

There’s no heaven without clouds, no paradise without its serpent

The latest big merger of this turn of the century, AOL’s mega-bite of Time Warner, has brought to the surface of our society the most mature vision of industrial culture so far. Viewed with a certain tragic nostalgia by the media, the fusion of these two groups has provoked reactions that have gone from general confusion about what’s going on to a terror of the unknown approaching us in giant leaps and bounds. A good look into the belly of the monster would have sufficed to spare us the cataclysmic metaphors we have been bombarded with with such praiseworthy generosity. The media would have discovered that the real content provider in this new marriage is not Time Warner –or not only– but AOL, thanks to the sustained activity of its 20 million subscribers.

But that would have meant taking a look at the other side of the coin, an unthinkable voyage into the nether regions of what is called “the virtual” and, let’s face it, the traditional media are just not up to it. Instead, they feel the best thing to do in these cases is to find a few somewhat gruesome definitions, half a dozen references to “all-powerful corporations stalking up to challenge political power”, and timidly greet the new times that are a-coming, and that’s it. In this way, they make out that the important aspect of AOL is that it is the main US Internet provider and the first Net business to gobble up a big multinational out there. It’s all as simple as that.

And what would they have found in the belly of the monster? Well, what we have already said: AOL is one of the biggest content providers of all types on the Internet. But it differs from its new partner substantially in one respect. While Time Warner content is produced by newsrooms, in AOL this job is done fundamentally by its own subscribers, some 20 million internauts. In the cared for and exclusive space designed for AOL, these navigators know each other, receive and post information, hold thousands of forums on the human and the divine, access services of all kinds, create theatre, literature, enjoy themselves and even buy things too. They spend thousands of dollars a month in real and virtual shops via AOL. The company is an Internet access provider, but it is, above all, a protected space where users can do “almost everything”, “as though they were on the Internet”, whose network they can navigate whenever they please. Whether we like this cyberspace model or not, it is, without doubt, part of the virtual world.

The merger has rekindled the nightmare of the powers-that-be in the era of the Internet. We should ask ourselves if AOL could become in the future the Time Warner of the past. What corridors (of power) have their respective heads Steve Case and Gerald Levin been down? The former, we know, has traversed those of his company and they have been lined with people many of whom only grew beards after they had earned their first salaries. The latter knows the ins and outs of the White House, the Defence Department and other corners of the political and economic power spectrum via his media, such as Time magazine or CNN. But Case gobbled Levin. What a culture shock! How long will it take the AOL boss to realise that he has been dubbed the baddie for the rest of the century by the prophets of doom (who love naming things), the hydra-like multimedia that conquers all? Will he be able to make it?

And that is not the only conflict that has to be resolved. Time Warner and AOL are about as alike as a camel and a jelly fish. Finding a middle ground between the latest innovator in the communications industry, Ted Turner, at the head of media trained to offer a clear and definitive vision of the world, and the virtual world made up of the subscribers to AOL is not going to be that easy. If business lies in what internauts do, and not what is done for them as though they were incapacitated and incapable of any responsibility, the clash between talent and subrogation is on the cards.

Finally, to be brief, there is the other question that the media brings up every time two giants meet: Will the merger of AOL and Time Warner threaten freedom of expression? Will we be able to say whatever we like? The answer, in the first place, is simple and we have had it for a while: those that won’t be able to say what they want are the media involved in the merger, who now find a new messiah in the midst of their newsrooms and another company to turn into the holy church. Time Warner is already the product of a number of important mergers, both within its group as well as amongst its competitors, who have managed to substantially reduce freedom of expression in their own media by subjecting them to corporate logic, lowering the quality of their information, imposing their agenda of events on a world scale (“that’s what CNN said”), bringing about a noticeable drop in the standards of investigative journalism, enhancing media sensationalism and, without doubt, chasing readers away from this type of journalism towards new ways of getting information.

Before AOL bared its teeth, the number of communications groups was undergoing a noticeable “shrinking” process while at the same time plumping up their respective portfolios with other media, whether printed press, radio, or TV (see the editorial “The Big Crush”). Thus, for quite some time now we have witnessed a process of the growing potential power of a few corporations over public opinion, as scientist Cayetano López describes so well in a leading article in the newspaper El País(16/1/00, “Abre nuevas oportunidades”) Prisa’s crown jewel, the only Spanish group in the communications field forging a global multimedia conglomerate, along with Telefónica.

The other surprise the AOL mouthful brought with it was the figures. They don’t add up. Time Warner holds five times more income, six times the number of employees and will generate 70% of the group’s profits. But its forays into the Internet were about as successful as a Summer Olympic Games in the Antarctic. Time threw away hundreds of millions of dollars on its Full Service Network, on a big portal and Pathfinder, the jewel in its crown, to which many paid reverence for its “quality content”. In all these cases, the content came from a sizeable staff of journalists, communicators and experts of all kinds. Time did not give much credit, obviously enough, to what people would do if left to their own devices. It will be interesting to see how they deal with their new bosses when they get together.

AOL still is, amongst other things, a network for those who prefer to operate within a controlled environment, where no-one says shit, piss, cock or arse without permission. A gigantic Intranet with bridges linking it to the Net of Nets. The future of the new group will be decided to a large extent by this area of ebb and flow: between what AOL will do in the real world, now that it has a powerful aircraft carrier to navigate on and what it manages to do with its new partner in the virtual world where up until now Time Warner has behaved like a skier on an airplane. AOL has 20 million subscribers to experiment with. That is its tangible strongest point. In the meantime, 180 million (and growing) internauts live out there, many millions of them without coming across any of the new monster’s pages. Although, it must be said, lots use the navigator that AOL bought for 4,000 million dollars in November 1998 and distributes free on the market, the same as its competitor. The Internet is funny that way.

Translation: Bridget King