Under the radar of all but the most savvy Internet users, powerful commercial forces are rapidly creating a digital media system for the United States that threatens to undermine our ability to create a civil and just society. The takeover of YouTube by Google announced October 9 and the 2005 buyout by Rupert Murdoch of MySpace are not just about mega-deals for new media. They are the leading edge of a powerful interactive system that is being designed to serve the interests of some of the wealthiest corporations on the planet. (EDITOR’S NOTE: The Nation has a content relationship with both companies: YouTube hosts our online videos and Google advertisments appear on this site.)
Aware that social networking sites like MySpace and YouTube are attracting the key youth audience, and aiming to maintain their influence over future generations of consumers, marketers are aggressively seizing the initiative. Leveraging existing relationships with Yahoo!, Microsoft, the phone and cable companies, Google and the other large players, the advertising industry are developing an array of immersive online experiences–like MTV’s Virtual Laguna Beach and Studio.com’s Go Deep–that seamlessly blend relationships with products and brands.
Advertisers are harnessing technology that targets and follows Internet users on their journeys through cyberspace, collecting data and tracking behavior. Virtual software marketing tools will be deployed across the digital landscape so that wherever we go, whatever we do do–e-mail, instant messaging, mobile communications or searches–we will be immersed in enticing content for the lifelong sell: Witness the work of Oddcast, a New York-based immersive media company, whose “conversational character products” represent a new medium for marketing to get inside consumers’ heads.
YouTube capitalizes on the growing proclivity of Internet users to be creators of information as well as consumers. And as the network television and cable audiences age, advertisers are increasingly aware that “user-created content”–be it a cute kitty video or clips from The Daily Show–are key to attracting young audiences. But as the Goo-Tube model develops, behind each video will be a powerful connection to an ad, targeted to the user’s online behavior, as well as the stealth collection of personal data. As Ross Levinsohn, president of Fox Interactive, noted about his company’s acquisition of MySpace, “the digital gold inside of MySpace wasn’t the number of users, but the information they’re providing.” [Google, it should be noted, now also represents the interests of Rupert Murdoch’s US empire. In August Google became Fox’s principal online advertising agent for MySpace, Fox TV and Fox Interactive.]
Given this emerging marketing model, the US broadband infrastructure may well become one giant “brandwashing” machine. The most powerful communications system ever developed by humans is increasingly being put in the service of selling, commercialization and commodification. And it will lead to an inherently conservative and narcissistic political culture, in which the interests of the self and the consumption of products are the primary, most visible, media messages. And unless we begin to challenge it now, the emerging digital culture will seriously challenge our ability to effectively communicate, inform and organize.