John Horvath on Sun, 21 Sep 1997 18:12:28 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Re: The User is the Content

More McLuhanite Garbage
by John Horvath

As net critique becomes more refined, so too is the hype and American
egocentrism that permeates the writings of Internet utopians. A case
in point is Luis Soares essay "The User is the Content"
<>. Reading between the lines,
Soares' essay turns out to be nothing more than an elaborate piece of
propaganda designed to sell the "Internet dream" (also known as the
Californian Ideology) to an audience apparently more critical than the
average user.

The most intellectually offensive passage in the essay comes early on,
when Soares makes the following assertion:

"A lot can be said about the faults of an economy focused on the market,
about the importance of popular culture. However, the truth is that,
good or bad, the United States view of the masses, entertained and
consuming, has been a world-wide success."

A perfect counter to this can be found in Jeremy Seabrook's brilliant
essay "False Promises" (Toward Freedom, Vol.46, No.5: The Cultural
Counter-Revolution <>). He
illustrates perfectly the cultural paradigm in which the "success" that
Soares, along with American breast-beaters and wannabees, so rapturously
talk about. "This culture is associated with leisure and affluence,"
writes Seabrook, "it promises a world of fun, excitement, novelty, and
endless distraction. It's full of laughter and color. What could be more
welcome to those whose existence has been marked by misery, want,
insufficiency, and loss?"

The catch is (conspiracy theorists please take note) is that "the
iconography of young and beautiful celebrities, the carnival of music,
light, and entertainment is profoundly subversive. It poisons criticism
of and resistance to the rest of Western development. It enfolds the
young in a warm, inclusive embrace of luxury and affluence they'll never
have. [...] It makes tangible the elsewhere for which so many poor
people long, and transplants them into fantasy and sterile, actionless
dreaming. With this comes passivity and inertia, de-energizing and
wasting the abilities and capacities of people to do anything for

The negative effects of this American cultural perversion, as those
mentioned above by Seabrook, can not only be seen outside the US but
also within that great country of entertained and consuming masses. Is
it any wonder that the US has so many problems with drugs, crime, and a
general apathy and disorientation among youth? Is this what Soares means
by success? Along these lines, it should come as no surprise that the
Internet has made such an impact in North America (sans Mexico, of

Among all the negative qualities of an American entertained and
consuming society, we of course failed to mention the poverty of North
American basic education (Mexico included this time). It's bad enough
that the US military-industrial complex (remember that phrase?) spends
so much money producing smart bombs while public schools produce dumb
kids (most of whom probably don't know that Budapest and Bucharest are
different cities), but what is really worrying is that writers like
Soares regard using a remote control and flicking through channels as a
"truly intelligent use of interaction put into service in the television

Perhaps the only bit of wisdom to come out of Soares' article is when he
soberly states that "what television produces, trades, sells and deals
in are audiences." However, he quickly begins to lose control as he
jumps by leaps and bounds to the conclusion that the Internet is or will
not be that way.

Like most, an essay on the Internet just wouldn't be complete without
some reference to McLuhan and that oft-repeated phrase "the medium is
the message." Soares, however, goes a bit further than most by pointing
out the second part of the phrase: the user is the content.
Unfortunately, his arguments that Internet content (i.e. users) will not
travel along the same road as television content (i.e. audiences) is
weak. Many have already come to the conclusion, eloquently put by
Andersen Consulting (Electronic Publishing: Strategic Developments for
the European Publishing Industry towards the Year 2000 (Executive
Summary) <>), that "the
Internet will be the cheap mass medium for commodity content and
commercials." In fact, many would argue that it's already that way.
Hence, within the phrase "the user is the content", the content has
become merely the trash upon which marketing strategies is being built
for big business.

Along with a reference to McLuhan, Soares' essay wouldn't be complete if
he somehow didn't throw in a few words about revolution, power, and
youth. He starts out by pointing out that "the appearance of the
personal computer [...] was a milestone, along with camcorders, of the
general entrance in the home market of increasingly powerful tools for
media production." This would be nice if it were true, but it's not. And
perhaps this is why the Internet will degenerate into insignificance.

While it may be true that "the transition that began with the portable
Kodak camera has been generalised and has put an increasingly powerful
and varied aggregate of tools for media production into the hands of the
consumer," the problem is that these tools are not used to their full
potential. In order to do so it would require work and, like Soares had
admitted at the beginning, people are interested in just consuming and
being entertained.

VCRs and camcorders preceded the Internet in such things as media art or
the idea of distance and flexible education. However, they quickly
degenerated into plug-ins for enhancing the average television set. Most
people use their camcorders to tape their kids soccer (football) game or
for a wedding, while the idea of having university lectures on tape and
letting students do courses at home using a VCR never really caught on
in a big way.

Perhaps the biggest (and the most common) piece of misinformation that
most seem to affix to the Internet, which subsequently makes so many
erroneously assume its beneficial qualities, is the model of networking
as a many-to-many medium. In the words of Soares: "the one-to-many model
is not very useful if the many are in control."

Of course, he doesn't say in control of what. But apart from this minor
slip, what nearly all experienced users (I will consider Soares an
experienced user in this case) fail to understand or appreciate is that
the Internet is a jungle to the less experienced, full of information
that is often untargeted, difficult to find, and of questionable quality
and relevance.

It's easy to say that you can broadcast your message to the world, that
you have a form of mass media at your fingertips (literally), but try to
explain to someone just how to do it. You have to first find an audience
(easier said then done); you can't just press a broadcast button and
then suddenly your message zooms throughout the Internet at the speed of
light. Thus, you have to know who to send your message to. This would
entail registering with a newsgroup or mailing list, which means even
before you have a chance to send anything you are swamped with messages.
But when you finally are ready to broadcast "to the world" on your
screen, you still have to first make sure that your message conforms to
any of the guidelines set by any of the mailing lists you wish to send
your message to. And then, when this is finally accomplished and you
have finally sent your message on its way, you have to hope that it is
read. Perhaps simply e-mail is not effective enough, so you would also
need to set up a web site, which in this case would take time and a
little work (not a good idea if you want to be among the happily
consuming and entertained masses). At the end of the day, well-placed
graffiti in the center of town probably does a lot more and is more
effective in getting your message across than the Internet.

What Soares' essay comes down to is a popular trap baited with an
enticing truism: the Internet is a "level playing field" and the result
of the free market (i.e. American-style capitalism). Once this truism is
swallowed, the trap is sprung, for the next step is to accept free market
capitalism, as Soares says, for "good or bad".

The free market, like the "level playing field" of the Internet, are
both illusions. Noam Chomsky once commented that a piece of paper is
more of a level playing field than the Internet. Indeed, looking at it
from a global perspective, it is definitely much cheaper, easier to use,
and far more people have access to it.

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