By taking over Time Warner, is America Online rescuing one of our culture's most familiar dinosaurs?
On the record, the $183 billion dino-deal is being billed as a friendly merger, but in the Dulles corporate bastion of the New Economy, some folks are saying that AOL has saved Time Warner's assets. The result, they aver, will be nothing less than a planetary shift. Roll over Henry Luce, tell Sam Warner the news. We in our living rooms will no longer be couch potatoes but mouse potatoes.
At the very least, it's a great day for American cultural imperialism, says Bruce Sterling, futurist and author of "Islands in the Net." "There's never been more demand for it. America's never been more culturally dominant." If AOL can figure out a way for CNN's billion potential viewers worldwide to link up with each other, "you've got a hot property there if they have a modicum of sanity." Throw in Hollywood's movies and People magazine and resistance is futile.
For you and me and the screens that will soon sprout on our dashboards and wristwatches and eyeglasses, it all depends on the way things tilt. If Time Warner had taken over AOL, it would have been interpreted as the AOLiens cashing in their bloated stock options to go fishing. But at the merger announcement it was Steve Case, chairman and chief executive officer of AOL, who was wearing the big fat yellow power tie, that Freudian billy club. It was an amazing moment for somebody who 17 years ago was doing new pizza development for Pizza Hut.
In that lies the hope that this deal ushers in something new and perhaps better. After all, the promise of the Internet is that cheap, empowering technologies will let a thousand Spielbergs bloom. The Internet pipe goes two ways. Dead, we hope, will be the notion that a few hoity-toity hotshots determine everything you see and hear and read.
Hey, it's a good dream.
The alternative is that the newly created conglomerate gives in to inertia and meetings and suits. (In a wonderful display of cultural panic and corporate pandering, Time Warner's Chairman and Chief Executive Gerald Levin showed up at the announcement in a sport coat and open-neck shirt--just one of those groovy new media kids, our Jerry.)
If AOL becomes just another traditional, arbiter-of-taste, top-down media empire like Time Warner, what we're facing is a stunning number of ways to be inundated with Martha Stewart--on your computer, your TV, your refrigerator screen . . .
"If AOL does not stand alone, Time Warner will try to screw it up," e-mailed Rob Fried, a producer of Hollywood movies including "Godzilla" who just launched an entertainment site called whatshotnow.com. "Time Warner is old-school media, meaning they try to rule the world with exclusive contracts. The Internet is inherently about choice. If Time Warner tries to impose their content on AOL, AOL will begin to fail."
AOL has built its sizzling success on connecting consumers, customers, users, members, whatever you want to call us. With AOL technology, members could vote for the most influential person of the 20th century; Time magazine told us it was Einstein.
"Steve Case is a stud," says Josh Harris, chairman of Pseudo Programs, a New York-based Internet television network. "He clearly understands the need to integrate traditional media with the Net and he has the platform to do it."
Time magazine represents the media model in which the elite broadcasts its pronouncements to the unwashed, says Kevin Kelly, author of "New Rules for the New Economy" and editor at large of Wired. It's a one-to-many medium.
"It absolutely needs interactivity," Kelly says. "Only half of what people want to do is be driven. The Web is about a coherent, liquid way to add other dimensions to our lives. We want to talk many-to-many like in chat rooms, and have peer conversations tailored to ourselves. We want to be able to drive. What we want is well-rounded media that does both. It will drive when we don't feel like driving, but will also give us the power to talk to our friends, talk back, customize the message and invite advertisers in if they have something we care about. It's not about old versus new media, but about complete media, full media."
Television networks, after all, are ill-named. They're not real networks, they're top-down hierarchies. The idea of viewers offering content is laughable.
Yet in the best of all possible Webs, if a kid in the basement uploads her video clip of a plane crash to her AOL home page, she will have the same possible audience as CNN. Talk about reversal of power.
In the worst of all possible Webs, of course, nut cases spew hate, paranoia and lies--and that's just the political Web sites. AOL does at least try to act as a buffer against the uglier aspects of the freewheeling Web.
Whichever Web emerges, the new AOL "is going to dramatically change the landscape of many businesses. There will finally be a studio who understands the mentality of the Internet user and their demand for expressing their views," says Fried. "Hollywood traditionally ignores the consumer. This is precisely why Hollywood has failed up until now on the Internet. I have no doubt that there are executives at other studios in a panic state that Time Warner made such a deal before them. Had you asked those people a week ago, they would probably have criticized the same deal."
If AOL imposes its wily ways on Time Warner, we may well see a new grass-roots wave of words and images. "There is something very tenacious about the decentralizing nature of this technology," says Sherry Turkle, author of "Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet," and professor of the sociology of science at MIT. Even if the Internet is suddenly swamped by corporate Bigfoots such as AOL Time Warner, she thinks there will still be ample room for all types of democratic activity.
After all, "information wants to be free," as it was famously put by Internet pioneer Stewart Brand.
"Yeah, I said that," Brand acknowledged yesterday. "But nobody remembers the second line, which is 'Information also wants to be expensive.' That's the paradox that drives this thing."
But wait! Why are we telling you what this all means to our culture as if we were part of an aging 20th-century style, top-down, one-to-many mega-media corporation? For the real voice of the people, we take you now to the AOL News, Sports and Finance chat room yesterday evening. Topic One was the merger. There you'd find a lot of LOL (laughing out loud) and a certain amount of cynicism:
OnlineHost: *** You are in 'News, Sports & Finance - Todays News'***
ThammR: Damn. . . . more than I make in a whole year !!!!
MT CAL ONE: but, here I sit, running four cemeteries for a living LOL
Fara218493: Thamm lol
Jeh4797: just a year?
DREAMGIRL888: And to think that Steve Case is young! What a great success story!
ThammR: Had rough year
WeeksL: What does the AOL-Time Warner news mean to users of the Internet?
ThammR: Weeks . . . pay more get less !!! what else ?
Staff writers Sharon Waxman and Marc Fisher contributed to this report.
CAPTION: In the Internet culture, Time magazine wouldn't just pick the century's top figure, it would ask for the people's opinion.
CAPTION: If AOL becomes just another traditional media empire, users may find themselves inundated with Martha Stewart.