The political economy of e-mediation

K. Patelis 1999



The current paradigm for perceiving e-communication constructs the Internet as a metaphor for the direct communication between autonomous free individuals. The Internet allegedly brings to life the marketplace of ideas, and the free market itself. Essential to the model presented is proof that communication in the on-line world is in no way mediated. Any factor that mediates communication compromises individual soveirgnity hence puts the model in danger. A perception of software as neutral, as a benign tool for individual empowerment and of e-intermediators as bystanders who add utility to surfing is essential to maintaining the model. In addition to this there is a tendency to analyse e-communication as fragmented, as occurring after a user views the desired Web-page. This essentially fragments the mediation in question and inevitably diminishes its importance in understanding on-line power. This paper will critically analyse e-mediation as cultural force. The focus of the talk will be America On-line who will function as a case study which exemplifies the analysis offered. Starting point will be an analysis of software as cultural environment that constructs information in the same way language constructs perception. Furthermore a critical analysis of portal sites and the way in which they attempt to structure surfing. Key to this is perceiving of on-line power as configured by the interplay of the industries that form the on-line world. In short it is essential to comprehend that the on-line experience is not fragmented, and that it is in the interplay and mix of telecoms, isp's, search engines, software and content providers that the most important formation of online power is constituted: signposting. How Signposting's function for the on-line news environment of AOL will be examined.

The hype with regard to the transformation the Internet heralds for society is allegedly over, techno futurism, Netopia or Internetphilia as the hype in question has been named, has given way to an enlightened pragmatism which accepts the Internet as part of a developing state capitalist economy to which information technology is essential. Though there are strong reasons to assert that this is strictly speaking not true, particularly if one does not confine Internet analysis to the wired world, and that the party is far from over, during this talk I will assume that the ideology in question has evolved.; and that though its intensity and dependence on hype has diminished, its core assertions remain. These are mainly articulating through a related metaphor: that of the free market place of goods. The Internet is a symbol for the free market, a dynamic nature like entity who's driving force is the sovereign individual who's demand drives innovation. The two metaphors in question, the market place of ideas and of goods, are very similar, their key difference is that the second situates the Internet within the global capitalist system. Instead of direct democracy and speakers corner images we are being bombarded with rhetoric about one to one marketing. But the core of the metaphor does not change, it is a strikingly simplistic image of direct exchange, an agora in which the middleman is dead. The Internet marks the beginning of an era of dis-intermediation, a mode of communicating and exchanging goods in which representation is absent. At the hart of the metaphor lies the abstract rational decision maker, the modern free individual, the consumer in control. The Netuser can exercise his/her desire without mediation, he is therefore free from all external restrictions as Internet becomes an extension of individual freedom. But how can one defend such image in the face of a commercially saturated Internet? Can we deny the existence of yahoo in e-paradise? There are two main arguments which defend the image of a free and direct marketplace in the light of e-conglomeration. Functionality and customisation. Together they guarantee that intermediation is benign and that there is no power in e-representation. E-mediators construct and foster the image of the Internet as a chaotic landscape to create a feeling of unsafety and disorder. What they offer to consumers is firstly a safe territory in that chaotic landscape, a place in which all this information makes sense and secondly a way to make this chaotic landscape function, essentially the structuration necessary to make surfing sensicle. The second weapon offered to the sovereign consumer in this renewed digital capitalist revolution is customisation. Customisation is changing our lives and the way we do business. The focal point stressed by e-missionaries has seized to be that the individual can always click and choose through myriads of sites thus form his/her own experience but that they can customise their experience. It is not that we can always click out of Yahoo and go to an unknown site but that Yahoo is now My Yahoo. We are presented with the opportunity to participate a market that is composed by thousands of niche markets. This paper presents an analysis that rebuts the above metaphor. Its aim is to create a map of intermediation on-line analysing the working of intermediators to establish that communication on-line is mediated thus not benign but structured in a very particular fashion. For the image of a unmediated world this paper substitutes a commercially saturated structured by profit cultural environment. The example of AOL is used to provide such analysis within the constraints of this paper. To this end a methodological custom has to be overcome: the fragmentation of the on-line experience and the distinction between infrastructure and content. Current research is marked by a tendency to analyse the Internet using neat categories and a distinction between infrastructure and content. Political economy analysts center round telecommunication and cultural theorists around a very vague entity named content. This distinction is also reflected in regulation where the carrier status of the Internet, that is the Net as a delivery platform, and content regulation are distinguished from each other requiring allegedly different regulatory approaches. In addition to such separation content is usually fragmented from the workings of search engines, ISP's and software to mean: a web page. An understanding of e-mediation can not be given with such tools of analysis because software search engines and ISP's can not neatly be classified either as infrastructure or content. Software structures our perception of information and is thus a powerful cultural force. In addition such analysis undermines the power configurations constituted through a combination of the fragments in question. The on-line process is in fact continuos and our understanding of it has to take such continuity in account. A theory of signposting aids us to perceive of the on-line communication not as fragmented but as a holistic and uniform process of structuration. A theory signposting The on-line world is situated within the intersection of five key industries: telecomms , software, internet service providers, classification and search providers and on-line content providers. It is in how these industries intertwine overlap and mix that the most important formation of on-line power is constituted: sign-posting. Understanding consumption or use on the Internet as occurring when the user views/uses a Web page is wrong. It ignores that it is the totality and interaction between the different parts which formulate the on-line world that structures and forms the on-line experience (consumption). And it is in the ability to determine such intersection and interaction that on-line power lies. On-line power can only be understood if the totality of Internet related industries are defined as industrial and cultural actors which form our on-line experience. Sign-posting is a form of multi-industrial structuration. It is about drawing attention to certain content and creating the illusion of disintermediation or benign intermediation that is intermediation beneficial to the user. Singposting is about creating a sense of authored place, a sense of territory, safety, property a path in e-chaos. The full complexities of intermediation on-line can only be explored in any length within the constraints of this paper vis a vis an example; the focus of this paper is on a major industrial and cultural actor of the intersection of these industries, an actor who's increasing power in shaping the boundaries of on-line experiences (for its users & audience) is paradigmatic for future developments. Such power lies in the ability to signpost users to particular content and to determine structures aesthetic conventions for the production of on-line content that facilitate commercialisation. The major player in question is AOL. Our understanding of intermediation will be enhanced through the example of AOL since it operates and aims for the control of the different parts of the Internet economy perfectly putting in motion the theory presented above, in the company's words " what this all reflects is our vision of "AOL anywhere" - extending the AOL brand and experience wherever consumer demands and technology permit" (Company report page 2). AOL is the only company that attempts to signpost a user from the beginning till the end of the on-line experience. AOL creates a sense of territory in the electronic frontier, it has become a separate "place", a destination for users. Ironically AOL's services are presented as neutral when in fact what is on offer is a very particular biased service. An authored on-line environment. AOL is offers biased e-mediation as disintermediation. : the Web made simple "this is a truly great opportunity to contribute more to the development of a revolutionary new medium and AOL's emergence as a leader in this industry. We have made tremendous progress building a mass-market brand and leveraging the power of our rapidly growing audience. Now we are ready to marshal our full scale partnerships and capabilities to create additional value across multiple brands" Pitman President of AOL (AOL 1998). "AOL: we're on mission to build a global medium as central to people's lives as the telephone or television and even more valuable" AOL Annual Report 1999 AOL, founded in 1985, is a $ 2 billion multi-brand new media company, company operating AOL Networks and AOL Studios (content provision) with 8,500 million employees. The company owns CompuServe Interactive Services with 2 million users worldwide and Netscape Co., thus control of the Netscape browser. The company's public company investments are valued at nearly $200 million and its competitors (mentioned in its on-line report) vary from Yahoo, Lycos and Infoseek to global media companies and news papers including Walt Disney, CBS. AOL's audience, which is more than its 12,5 million members , an audience of 15 million, that is somewhat more than 15 % of the entire Web user population, is composed by affluent Americans. In 1998 63% of members are college graduates 60% professional executive technical or academic, members, which spend 15% less time watching television than the general U.S. audience. 24% make more 100 thousand dollars and the rest make more then 60.000. More than half of members are women. This means that AOL's mass-market audience brings together the largest concentrated group of upscale customers in the media world (Media Space 1998) The company's Web site, claims to be the most accessed site from home. Ever since the development of the Internet AOL has invested in picturing the Net as a chaotic mesh, a difficult and unordely entity, intelligently marketing its services as the messia that can structure such anarchic landscape and make the on-line experience possible. The AOL promise is a journey through cyberspace "sit back and enjoy the ride" is the slogan. Naturalism characterises the images evoked, that is a perception of technology like a biological force, which goes hand in hand with a description of AOL's function as benign but at the same time indispensable (the unresolvable tension of on-line service provision). AOL's T.V. advert for European viewers crystalises these issues. The advert stereotypically features a household in which two kids are "playing" with the Internet. To guide them and keep them safe comes AOL, symbolised on screen by transparent maternal character, a humanoid, which speaks and looks like a human but is clearly not. The humanoid is transparent symbolising the neutrality of the help AOL offers. The family scenario unfolding presents AOL as a family service provider. The naturalism in operation is worth noting: AOL is presented as similar to a biological organism. The irony is incredible: the humanoid keep the kids safe by installing on-line filters but one has to ask who invited it in the house? AOL takes pride in its decision to provide more than access to the Internet and structure its "audience's" on-line experience by providing the resources, chat rooms and software to use the Internet. To put it in the words of its C.E.O Case, "putting the full power of AOL to work for all our brands will allow us to recognize the growing synergies between our subscription-based on-line networks, AOL and CompuServe and Studios and original content properties like Digital City Entertainment Asylum. Electra and Wordplay (AOL Press 1998:1). In other words AOL is in business acknowledging that structuring a Web experience means more than with providing a company homepage. Its entire strategy is based on homogenising the on-line experience by intervening in the different industries involved in the internet economy. This includes software: AOL's acquisition of Netscape Communication positions AOL in the lead of browsing software. AOL has also seeked strategic agreements with Microsoft to make the AOL icon accessible via desktop folder on the WINDOWS 95 and 98 operating systems. The software given to AOL users is a branded version of the Internet explorer, it reflect the logic and aesthetic of the site contributing to the homogenity of the AOL cultural envoiroment offered. THE SITE: SIGNPOSTING IN THE FIRST INSTANCE American Online utilises specialised retention programs designed to increase customer loyalty and satisfaction and to maximise customer subscription life AOL constructs a narrative for the user. The narrative consists of nothing but the idea that for the anarchic open cyberspace AOL substitutes a safe, structured place, an authored experience, a story to be lived. The territorial metaphor is essential in understanding the appeal of this narrative. AOL provides users with a authored "place" in cyberspace, a controlled part of the chaotic frontier, a branded wild West. The narrative essentially builds an Internet experience that limits the user to being a consumer and by segmenting and categorising such consumption, structuring his consumer desires/requests. The intervention does not solely operate in limiting the way in which needs can be satisfied but in outlining what these needs are. It defines Web utility. In short AOL defines the function of the Web for the user. It is not merely that it hierchases content, it is that it hierchases and packages what content types are desirable. It creates a tightly singposted web of sites from which the users should not be compelled to exit. The user is constrantly reminded that what is on offer is essentially the Web. This is why is a very tightly structured site, everything is neatly planed to create the impression that is a complete, Internet experience, one that does not make it necessary for user to leave the site or the links from it and look else where for a fulfilling on-line experience. This is achieved by the site's architecture as well as by the format and design in which the content appears throughout the site. On a very basic aesthetic level the entire site is based on the use of three basic colors: red , blue and white ( black is use for letter only). Red is used to frame a page , it provides for skeleton and designates "structure", blue is used to connote further links. The function of the design will become more apparent when the packaging and structuring is further explored. There are two major levels on which packaging operates: the AOL menu and the Web centers. The AOL menu Like with other portal sites "the menu" is imperative for the well functioning of the site as a hole. It has become an aesthetic convention symbolically sinonimous to functioncality, thus impossible to avoid . When first entering and in every single page on the site the user faces a standardised red frame. This frame consists of 5 red boxes appearing on the top of the screen and the same five boxes appearing on the bottom (FIGURE 1). These boxes are nothing but an on-line menu, they set the choices and functions that the Web has, they customise the content accessible. These are Netfind (AOL's own search engine), Web centers, My news, Shopping and Free Products . The AOL front page is nothing but a breakdown of this menu showing in more detail what each choice offers. This menu defines how one uses the AOL and what one experiences in the Web because for the new user it defines what one can be searching for on-line. It umbrellas the whole of the users experience in AOL uniting existing material, creating a feeling of continuity and safety. The construction of cyberspace as inherently chaotic and lawless aids to exacerbate these feelings. The user is meant to feel sheltered from getting lost in cyberspace, that this Web site is safe controlled and professional. This is the prototype of a commercial digital aesthetic. Implicit in its existence is the idea that "professional" Web sites should offer similar functionality and customisation; that a site properly serving the public should have standard customised options that run through the whole of the site unite the users experience, provide continuity, making surfing sensicle. In other words categorising material, segmenting and signposting audiences is naturalised and is built in aesthetic conventions of how on-line site should be built. Hierchasing content is considered a process by which functionality is added to existing content. Consequently an aesthetic that draws clear boundaries between Web pages is considered beneficial. The development of such aesthetic formats and conventions should not be taken lightly for their film equivalent is the development of Hollywood aesthetics and narratives . Developing an aesthetic and design that categorises and frames information in neat segmented areas allows for further commodification and is therefore an ultimate goal for AOL. Spreading this approach to design is part of the AOL project. As it typically advises other Web site builders; "People have short attention spans. Two minutes is about all the time people will spend doing any one thing anymore. What does this means to you? Make you pages clear, concise and to the point. If someone has to scroll down more than twice to get through your page, its too long. The best thing to do is to split up your data into clear categories ( like Products, Services, Customers, etc) instead of bombarding your visitors with information that they probably won't read" (Prime Host ) A further dramatic consequence of the existence of this prototype is that it strictly hierchasises the information available in AOL. It puts certain content on the forthfront. Simple user Web pages or Web pages of small business are kept in the background not exposed. This consolidates the idea that Internet user sites are distinct from sites of institutions because they are less professional and less reliable. In fact AOL has packaged all small content into one neat on-line area: HomeTown AOL. Home town AOL is a AOL packaged "community" , it is where one can find all individual user and business homepages. Hometown is only accessible through the "free products" option in the main AOL menu. Hometown creates a dichotomy between personal individual Web casting and professional Web casting. It build on a false qualitative distinction between individually produced communication and company produced communication . The implication is the company produced content is more "professional", hence better. Of course with Web casting values and standards in developement it is not really made explicit what kind of professionally HomeTown pages lack. In Hometown AOL the Web pages available are segmented in 11 categories, including Business Park, Cultures and Beliefs, Education, News and Entertainment. Such categorisation is arbitrary and entirely problematic. For example Philosophy and Politics can be found under Cultures and Beliefs between ethnicity and religion. According to the DDC, the system of classification used by 95% of libraries worldwide however philosophy is a larger category of knowledge then all of these. The arbitrary set of categories is matched by an arbitrary set of community rules for users Contributing to Hometown AOL ( any Aol member that desires a Web page i.e. a large % of the 13 million AOL users) these are in operation because "it is essential that content reflects our community standards and we may remove any member pages if in our judgements it does not meet those standards" . These standards give absolute editorial control to AOL in so far as HomeTown is concerned and because they are rather vague they give AOL even more control. So for example "explicit/vulgar/obscene language" is not permitted, "racial ethnic or otherwise objectionable content" is not permitted neither is "advice on how to make bombs". The naturalisation of such ambivalent standards set by an unaccountable body is problematic. But AOL desire for control does not only relate to ethical standard but to aesthetic as well: Hometown AOL contributors are not permitted to eliminate the Hometown Frame set. The terrestrial equivalent of such control would be to make all people broadcasting in access TV speak from behind the same desk using the same studio waiting the same clothes. Aol's control of business related pages is also dramatic: small business are not allowed to make on-line transactions, payments ( e-commerce is not allowed), and AOL also reserves the right to terminate any links to outside commercial sites beyond hometown as well soliciting for advertisers and sponsors. The Netfinder AOL's provides a search engine for its users and visitors, a special branded version of Excite for the U.S. and a special branded version of Lycos for Europe. The search engine is like all other AOL products naturalised as part of cyberspace as the only viable option. When AOL users are running a search Netfinder searches through somewhat 55,000 Web pages indexed in its database, when in fact users think it is searching throughout the Web. AOL's Web centers WE ORGANISE THE WEB FOR YOU ! (the motto underneath Web centers) AOL Web centers function as gateways to the on-line experience. They categorise available options and signpost to particular sites. With the pretence that such categorisation proves ultimately beneficial for the user AOL advertises this channel-type content structuring. To give too examples from the company profile " AOL has packaged its content into categories of information or channels, which are represented as buttons on the main channels screen. These channels contain original AOL content, information from leading media partners and links to related areas on the Weband..packaging of top Web programming, products and services into one easy to use Web site makes it convenient for Internet users and AOL members worldwide to locate useful information on the Web and communicate, family and business colleges". There are 16 channels Including: Entertainment, News, Personal Finance, Business & Careers, Autos, Health, International, Travel, Computing, Sports, Local, Research & Learn, Home & Garden , Pictures & Albums. Now there are central omissions in these categories, for example there is no Art category. The category international implies that despite AOL's distinct effort to present AOL service as global Aol considers America its base. There is furthermore no category in which political governmental or non-profit organizational material can be accessed from. This in addition to being an example of a profit-orientanted and commercial bias is a shortcoming according to the standards that AOL has set. It clearly breaches AOL's promise to shareholders according to which " we also believe the Internet will help reconnect people with their sense of civic community and with their elected leaders. So we are working to develop innovative models for effectively using the online medium to allow citizens to become more engaged in the political process" With no politics option on the menu this is hardly effective. We are of course never told how these categories can in fact group distinctive bodies of knowledge and what bodies of knowledge they link to. No methodology or logic which guides the structuration in question is provided, no account of how these categories function or are related is given. What is given is a list of Web sites, users are singposted to particular material when they are given the illusion that this is the only/best material available. The above analysis points to a set of obvious but repeated contradictions and biased practices. At the hart of the problem lies a refusal on the part of AOL and many other companies on-line to admit that there are mediating on-line experiences. Such refusal and denial of responsibility may stem from marketing needs or from the hegemonic position that Internetphila's second articulation has in the business world. On line providers are providing with Channels, categories and content without really reflecting upon what the difference between the three is. There is not acceptance that normative claims should be made about the function of the different services provided. Such normative claims are not made a priory because it is supposedly the user who defines the utility of a category, genre of content. In the case of AOL it is clear that this is not so. In search of a mission statement or some kind of coherent set of goals that AOL aims to provide one predictably encounters a description of a benign function, one that adds utility and strucutration or a complete disvowment of responsibility for content, in AOL Terms of Use " do not assume AOL content is error free". Do we not assume the BBC news is error free? Avoiding to ask the question "what is the aim of on-line structuration?" does not rid of it, which is why AOL operations are illegitimate with many contradictions. Pointing to such systematic avoidance and the contradictions it produces may appear as left wing paranoia when referring to web-entertainment. For a genre that has traditionally been defined by a rather strict set of normative claims about its function in a liberal democratic society such avoidance and contradictions can posit severe problems. Examining AOL's My-news shows why the above analysis is not a cautious paranoid examination of on-line power. AOL defines itself as transparent neutral mediator performing solely operational functions. What occurs when they claims to such transparency are made with regard to an area that has traditionally been charged with performing very important civic function? Neutrality in news gathering has always been the objective, but this objective has been one that journalists and media organisations have struggled for and battled with; AOL claims that such struggle is not necessary because with the Internet neutrality is not a social "function" but an automatic technological reality. In other words is it possible to maintain the argument that AOL has no power over its users in so far as framing the news agenda is concerned even when such framing is one that has been defined as a very important social political function for decades? My News : no vision no journlists Like most on-line portals, or channels My news is not a gateway to a knowledge area, a balanced and fair access to all existing resources but signposter signposting users to particular resources. The agenda provided through digital frames and hyperlinks is framed in a very particular fashion; in other words framing in the on-line world includes links to other Web resources. The AOL news site has an 15,4 million audience reach, which positions it at the top of the ratings for on-line news (Media Matrix 1998). The site can be accessed through the main AOL menu or from the red frame bar that appears on the top of every AOL page. The headline news of the hour appears in a box on the top of the front page, often amalgamated with e-commerce content. For example on the 07/04/99, the story on the NATO bombing of Serbia was literally in the same box as an e-commerce offer (click and buy). The box was using the same font for both stories to the extent that they where not that easily distinguishable. News is updated more than once a day so this story may change though the day. Clicking on both the headline , the 'news ' or the "my news" button takes the user to a the main news site called My news. The pretence of neutrality mentioned above is reflected on the site. For example from 1999 onwards the definition of "my news" provided upon request to users inquiring upon the nature of the service provided was "a premier customisable news source on the Internet" aiming to provide the user with his/hers preferred news. How such goal can be realised is not explained or problematised what is essentially implied is that such neutral customisation is a automatic natural task. Such lack of reflection and problematisation as to what news customisation, is as well as an absence of a coherent vision of how the neutrality desired will be achieved, is betrayed by AOL's advice for consumers that do not want to customise the News site. According to AOL the advice is simple "if you 'd rather not personalise your news, we automatically offer you a version of my News featuring the most popular news and information categories!" Pornography is the most popular content on-line, not of course what AOL means here. The employment structure and composition of the news team is also telling with regard to this standard denial that AOL is providing news content. My News claims to have a dedicated team of writers, editors, producers and engineers to provide the best customised news service on the Web. No journalists are employed (or at least if they are they are never featured, they never author the content, their names are not available as part of staff ). The team is composed of 13 engineers, 4 people in Q& A , 3 business specialist, 7 senior members in managing positions, and 6 production workers. The My News site does not have an editor, it has a Product/Program Manager. His vision of the My News site is very poor, manifesting no ethical journalistic anxieties, as him himself declares on the site "basically my current goals in life are to work to make My News the greatest thing since the dawn of creation and to have a blast doing it. So far, not doing too bad on either goal. When not working or working , I can usually be found vegging out on a longer chair at the beach, losing money playing pool, watching CNN in anticipation of the 'Breaking News" music , or spending gobs of time with Jen." (Bill Firshing Personal Bio) The structure of the news site produced is important in our analysis, as the argument put forth is that it is not only the text that forms on-line cultural environments but the whole of a site. It is by examining the site as a whole and the links to other sites offered that one can understand how signposting in news is the off-line equivalent of framing. In other words there are two levels on which the My News site can be analised, because there are two levels on which the My News site is an authored environment. The first level is similar to print media or even T.V news in which a content analysis would suffice to prove there has been a selection of particular sources and that news has been framed in a particular fashion. The second level, which should be included in on-line news analysis, is that which takes links to other sites, links to stories and Web pages, as well as the general framing of these in the whole of the site as part of what AOL has authored. The My news site includes therefore the totality of the links (sources) on the site and the hierarchical relationship between them. These are measured against the imaginary totality of sources that could exist. Such totality of AOL provided links is the authored environment that AOL provides users with, it is "the work" . And though it is AOL's intention to deny such authorship AOL clearly provides such second level of determination of content, essentially signposting produces very biased news coverage environments. The main My News default site is organised around a central page called front page, and the rest of the site is subdivided into 5 sections: News, Business Sports, Entertainment, Weather. News was the section chosen as more important to be analised. The Front page by default features Top Stories, Front page headlines. Under Front page headlines the headlines of News Stories, Business Stories, Sport stories and Business Stories :Technology are featured. On the left hand side of screen there is a frame , in pale yellow that features other links and sources on offer by default. The frame appears on every single page on the AOL My News site, it is the frame in which the story and other options are contextualised in. The options the frame offers change but it appears as the "menu" for " more " news. In the Front Page the options given in this frame are: -------------------------------------------------------------- a) Welcome my news, the link that allows customers to customise b) Weather c) Stocks and a default portfolio d) Scoreboard ( Sport results) e) The Lighter Side: Ann Landers Buzzsaw Today's Crossword f) Daily Briefing : CNN Top Story , The Wall Street Journal Hourly Business Updates, Warner Bors Hip Clip g) Featured Sites --------------------------------------------------------------------------- With regard to (a) and the issues of customisation one can note the following: My News is a choice in the menu that implies that the user can customise content to meet his interests and needs. Its appearance in the AOL format that runs throughout the AOL functions as a re-minder that the user has the ultimate control of what she/he views and that the user can customise on-line content to meet the needs and interest, if this is true then signposting is an individual choice. When attempting to customise my news a user will quickly discover the limitations of customisation. Each customisable link, takes the user to a list of "other links" from which the user can choose, a freedom "a la cart "! Below is are some examples of the options given to a user for customising their front page, examples that typify the limitations in question: AOL SOURCES: SIGNPOSTING AS CUSTOMISATION? Personalize your Front Page (optional) News Top News Top International News Top Political News Business Top Business News Top Technology News Markets Columns Sports Top Sports News NBA NHL College Hoops (M) College Hoops (W) College Football College Hockey MLB NFL MLS Entertainment Entertainment Movies and Film Television and Video People ------------ Customize Your Daily Briefing Daily Briefing provided by RealNetworks. ABCNews Headlines Air Force Radio News Air Force News And Views Ask Dr. Science Daily Yomiuri Earth & Sky Blue Moons FOX News - Headlines This Day In History NetRadio News NetRadio This is True, Really News I Don't Know Any More!! PNO Radio News News About The Gay Community Pacifica Network News Bombs Increasing <Picture>The World Kosovo Talks Get Green Light Yomiuri News Stream - Japanese Customize your headlines News News : Top Reuters News News : International : Top News News : Washington : Top Political News News : Top News News : Calendars and Recaps News : U.S. Elections News : International News : National News : News Analysis News : Opinions and Editorials News : Science News : Washington News : Washington : White House Business Business Business : Top News Business : Technology : Top News Business : Government Business : Calendars and Recaps Business : Columns and Consumer News Business : Earning Reports Business : Trade Business : Industry News : Industry Business : Markets Business : Markets : Stocks Business : Technology Sports Sports Sports : Top Reuters News Sports : Major League Baseball Sports : National Basketball Association Sports : National Football League Sports : National Hockey League Sports : NCAA Football Sports : NCAA Men's Basketball Sports : NCAA Women's Basketball Sports : NCAA Hockey Sports : Major League Soccer Entertainment Entertainment Entertainment : Arts and Culture Entertainment : Computers and Online Entertainment : Industry News Entertainment : Movies and Film Entertainment : Music Entertainment : People Entertainment : Reviews Entertainment : Television and Video Entertainment : Theater Edit Featured Sites Please use the list below to customize your featured sites. Simply click within the checkbox to select or unselected a particular topic. You may select up to 30 topics. Albuquerque Journal Anchorage Daily News Anderson Herald-Bulletin Arizona Republic Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Atlanta Journal-Constitution Baltimore Sun Billings Gazette Boston Globe Boston Herald CBS News CBS News CNN Charleston Gazette Charlotte Observer Chattanooga Free Press Chicago Sun-Times Chicago Tribune Cincinnati Enquirer Cleveland Plain Dealer Commercial Appeal Daily Oklahoman Dallas Morning News Denver Post Deseret News Detroit Free Press Detroit News Fargo Forum Fox News Hartford Courant Honolulu Star-Bulletin Houston Chronicle Indianapolis Star and News Kansas City Star Las Vegas Review-Journal Las Vegas Sun Los Angeles Times Louisville Courier-Journal MSNBC Manchester Union Leader Miami Herald Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Minneapolis Star Tribune Mobile Register Nando.Net New York Daily News New York Post Newark Star Ledger Newport News Daily Press Newsday Oregonian Philadelphia Inquirer Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Portland Press Herald Providence Journal-Bulletin Rocky Mountain News Salt Lake Tribune San Antonio Express-News San Francisco Chronicle San Francisco Examiner San Jose Mercury News Seattle Times Slate St. Louis Post-Dispatch St. Paul Pioneer Press The New York Times The State The Washington Post USAToday Virginian-Pilot Wichita Eagle The above choices for customisation link to 76 sites that clearly belong to the mainstream, they are sites run by succefull media companies. These are exclusively U.S. based. If it is the quantity of links to other sources that matters to prove that a news site is infact customisable then AOL has clearly failed to be a neutral source provider, because there are at least 1563 newspapers on-line in the U.S. (and that is not counting other broadcasting channels ) and AOL signposts to only 4,6% of them. If it is a plurality of viewpoints that AOL aims at then there are notable omissions. The U.S. rich alternative press is not represented, the Red Paper, Papper Tiger TV, and European press is interily ignored. If the above is taken to be the broader frame AOL has to offer for news gathering, then one can say that it is AOL intention to keep users in the mainstream of on-line news content production, and in particular in the American mainstream content production. With regard to option B of the frame one has to mention that it offers the same choices as E, it signposts to the same sites as E. The positioning of C and D in the default frame/menu normalises stock prices and subsequently financial activity as part of everyday life. This is a value laden assumption about the normal categories of information a user needs, particularly for a provider that markets itself as the family provider. It essentially naturalises information on stock prices as part of news agenda. This decision goes hand in hand with a general technocratic financially orientated news front page which encompasses 2 main news categories that are business orientated and no art one on the default menu. There are also some general comments to be made about the front page and the site in general. Though one can personalise choices, the user has no choice as to whether the currency of news matters to him. The time of update is not customisable. This is some what ironic because the reason for which currency has been an important element of news making is because keeping track of time typifies more general responsibility to provide accurate news. Currency is also a metaphor for accuracy and neutrality. It is paradoxical that AOL gives its users the right to personalise all preferences but not their relationship to time. AOL seems willing to break other journalistic conventions but not the idea that news has to be precise and consequently new. This is also ironic given that some news items stay on the site for days (a matter taken on latter) Finally there is no arts section, there is no documentary section and no editors note, on the default FrontPage site. A section on art can be introduced by the user under entertainment. The NEWS HOME >From the Front Page one can access the News home, the structure of which is important to understand news coverage: the default main news page features Top News, National News, Washington, International, Science. Each category features somewhat 5 headlines of stories available for reading. It is worth mentioning that very often the stories featured in each category overlap, so that some stories are promoted as the Key stories. This is particularly true of some headline stories. To give an example on the 22, 27 of January at least two stories on the Top Stories where featured on the Front Page Headlines category . The user clicks on the story in question which takes him to an other page, the "story page". At the same time the News site page offers the same standardised design yellow frame/menu bar, with the following extra choices ------------------------------------------------------------------- My News ( like in the Front page) Weather ( like in the Front page) Snapshots : Today in History, News Calender, Religion Briefs, Weather Almanac, Obituaries in the News, Sunday TV News Shows, Editorial Roundup, Canadian Briefs, Latin American Brief Daily Briefing: NPR Hourly News, ABC headlines, FOX News Headlines My government: Featured Sites: ABCNews. Com, USAToday, The New York Times ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Choosing from one of these options the user goes to the featured sites. These sites are all commercial mainstream news sites, and in no way reflect the plurality of the sites available ( which as we have mentioned before is more than 3000 sites). When one clicks on a story one can read the story as well as a set of options on the standardised menu bar. These options are MORE News linking to other sites or stories and a Search option. In view of a first story the primer problem with regard to responsibility and AOL is immediately apparent. No story is copyrighted by AOL, all stories have not been written by AOL authors. All links on the standardised bar are however authored by AOL. Who has copyright for the page? This is not to mention that until the beginning of March AOL featured A.P. stories almost exclusively without informing users of its agreement. Who was the author of the page A.P. or AOL? Conclusion The above are only fragments and examples of the ill practices of intermediation on-line. Though alone they may appear as details of a chaotic landscape, their implications extend well beyond their triviality. The lack of responsibility and accountability in on-line mediation is an important parameter of the on-line communication that regulator and critics alike have repeatedly ignored. Intermediation is by definition not nautral but at the same time it is not an ill, our lives democracies and societies have been founded on it for years. There can be not democracy without representation, even in its direct forms language mediates and constructs experiences. But representation is democratic only if it obeys those that is represents and there are mechanism to assure this. The mechanisms are very straightforward: accountability , responsibility . Values that have governed our lives and media functions for years. The model of the Internet we are presented with takes mediation and thus accountability and responsibility out of the agenda ignoring unfortunately a democratic e-communication be constituted without them. The result is a model of direct exchange that has become the alibi for commercial joy riding in the on-line world.

E-Mediation by America On-line, in Preferred Placement. (prel. draft of article published in Richard Rogers, ed.(2000) Preferred Placement - Knowledge Politics on the Web Jan van Eyck Editions: Maastricht.

Preaching to the Complacent (published in Crash Media)

The Political Economy of Internet (published in Curran, J. Media Organisations London; Arnold)

The Economy An Economy with no mediation? (published in the reader)