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The Corporate Colonization of Online Attention and the Marginalization of Critical Communication?

The Corporate Colonization of Online Attention and the Marginalization of Critical Communication?

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Published by James Felton Keith
This article provides a general exploration of the argument that the Internet’s
potential for extending strong democratic culture through critical communication
is being undermined by a corporate colonization of cyberspace. The article
investigates which sites are attracting the attention of participants seeking public
content and interaction. The investigation finds that large corporate portals
and commercial media sites are dominating online attention for news, information,
and interaction, privileging consumer content and practices while
marginalizing many voices and critical forms of participation. This situation
threatens to limit the Internet’s contribution to the expansion of democratic culture.
More research is needed to identify exactly what is being represented on
which sites and how different groups are participating. However, the general
colonization trend seems clear, and this article concludes by considering public
policy options and civil society initiatives that may increase the visibility of
marginalized voices and critical communication online.
This article provides a general exploration of the argument that the Internet’s
potential for extending strong democratic culture through critical communication
is being undermined by a corporate colonization of cyberspace. The article
investigates which sites are attracting the attention of participants seeking public
content and interaction. The investigation finds that large corporate portals
and commercial media sites are dominating online attention for news, information,
and interaction, privileging consumer content and practices while
marginalizing many voices and critical forms of participation. This situation
threatens to limit the Internet’s contribution to the expansion of democratic culture.
More research is needed to identify exactly what is being represented on
which sites and how different groups are participating. However, the general
colonization trend seems clear, and this article concludes by considering public
policy options and civil society initiatives that may increase the visibility of
marginalized voices and critical communication online.

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Published by: James Felton Keith on Feb 24, 2011
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LincolnDahlberg
TheCorporateColonizationofOnlineAttentionandtheMarginalizationofCriticalCommunication?
ThisarticleprovidesageneralexplorationoftheargumentthattheInternet’spotentialforextendingstrongdemocraticculturethroughcriticalcommunicationisbeingunderminedbyacorporatecolonizationofcyberspace.Thearticleinvestigateswhichsitesareattractingtheattentionofparticipantsseekingpubliccontentandinteraction.Theinvestigationfindsthatlargecorporateportalsandcommercialmediasitesaredominatingonlineattentionfornews,information,andinteraction,privilegingconsumercontentandpracticeswhilemarginalizingmanyvoicesandcriticalformsofparticipation.ThissituationthreatenstolimittheInternet’scontributiontotheexpansionofdemocraticculture.Moreresearchisneededtoidentifyexactlywhatisbeingrepresentedonwhichsitesandhowdifferentgroupsareparticipating.However,thegeneralcolonizationtrendseemsclear,andthisarticleconcludesbyconsideringpublicpolicyoptionsandcivilsocietyinitiativesthatmayincreasethevisibilityofmarginalizedvoicesandcriticalcommunicationonline.
Keywords:corporatecolonization;criticalcommunication;democracy;Internet;onlineattention;portalCorporateColonizationThesisManydemocratictheoriststodayagreethatattheheartofanystrongdemocraticsocietymustbeavibrantsphereofmoral-practicaldiscourse(criticalcommunication)involvingopenandreflexivearticulationandcontestationofdiversepositionsonproblemsoflivingtogetherwithdifference(seeBauman2002;Benhabib,1996;Boggs,2000;Bohman,1996;Dryzek,2000;Habermas,1996;Young,2000).Thesafeguardingofthiscommunicationfromstatepowerisnecessaryforthefreepublicinterrogationofofficialdecision-makingprocessesandhenceforpoliticalsystemstobeheldaccountabletothesocalleddemocraticwill.Needlesstosay,autonomyfromstatepowerhasbeenfarfromrealizedinthemass-mediatedspacesthroughwhichsuchcommunicationpredominantlytakesplaceintoday’slarge-scale,dispersedsocieties.However,intheseneoliberaltimes,itisprivateeconomicpowerthatislargelydominatingmediasystems,posingthemostsignificantthreattodemocraticculture.Criticaltheoristsandpoliticaleconomistshavedemonstratedsoundlyhowprivatized,commercializedmediaisinstrumentalizingcommunicationandthusunderminingthepublicsphere(seeBoggs,2000;Curran,2000;Gandy,2002;Herman&McChesney,1997;Kellner,2004;McChesney,1999;D.Schiller,1999;H.I.Schiller,1989).Thesecriticshaveshownhowthemassmedia,inparticular,havebeencapturedbypowerfulconservativeinterests,leadingtothemarginalizationof
 
criticalandlesspowerfulvoicesinthecentraldiscursivearenasofliberal-capitalistsocieties.However,therehasbeenmuchrecentexcitementamongadvocatesofdemocraticcommunicationaboutthepossibilityoftheInternet’sradicallyenhancingthepublicsphere.TheInternetisseenassubvertingstateandcorporatepower,offeringaspacetovoiceotherwisemarginalizedpositions.Kellner(2004)putforwardthisvisioneloquently:TheInternet,bycontrast[tothecorporatemedia],providespotentialforademocraticrevitalizationofthepublicsphere.TheInternetmakesaccessiblemoreinformationavailabletoagreaternumberofpeople,moreeasily,andfromawiderarrayofsourcesthananyinstrumentofinformationandcommunicationinhistory.Itisconstantlyastonishingtodiscovertheextensivearrayofmaterialavailable,articulatingeveryconceivablepointofviewandprovidingnews,opinion,andsourcesofastrikingvarietyanddiversity.Moreover,theInternetallowstwo-waycommunicationanddemocraticparticipationinpublicdialogue,activitythatisessentialtoproducingavitaldemocracy...theInternet...containsthemostvariedandextensivesourcesofinformationandentertainmenteverassembledinasinglemedium.TheInternetcansenddisparatetypesandsourcesofinformationandimagesinstantlythroughouttheworldandisincreasinglybeingusedbyavarietyofoppositionalgroups.(p.51)TheInternet,aspresentlystands,allowsforpubliccommunicationrelativelyfreeofstateandcorporatecontrol.Itisaglobaldecentralized,two-waymediumthatisnotcurrentlyownedbyanyonecorporationorgovernment.Infact,thefundamentalsoftwareprotocolsthatenableInternetcommunicationareembeddedwithinthepublicdomain.Thispotentialforcriticalcommunicationcanbeseenunfoldinginpractice.Throughe-mail,discussionspaces,publishingsites(fromWeblogstoonlinemedia),andWebbroadcasting(audio-videostreaming),avastnetworkofactorsengageinthearticulationandcontestationofpositionsonamyriadofissuesoflocal,national,andinternationalsignificance.Researchhasdemonstratedthatvariousfactorstendtolimittheeffectivenessofthisonlineengagement,includingpoor-qualitydiscourse,stratifiedparticipation,andstatecontrolofdataflowsthroughsurveillanceandregulationatthenetwork’sends(seeDahlberg,2001;Davis,1999;Fung&Kedl,2000;Hill&Hughes,1998;Wilhelm,2000).Despitetheseproblems,theInternetcontinuestofacilitatethearticulationandcontestationofpositions,whichsupportstheexpansionofstrongdemocraticculture.However,anumberofcriticalcommentatorsarguethatthelimitingfactorslistedabovedonotincludethemostsignificantthreattotheextensionofthepublicsphereonline.Theybelievethegreatestthreattobethecorporatecolonizationofcyberspace.Theargumentisthatpowerfulcorporationssupportedbyneoliberalpoliciesarere-creatingandreinforcingthroughtheInternetthedominantdiscoursesandpracticesofconsumercapitalism,marginalizingcriticalcommunicationcentraltostrongdemocratic
 
culture(Barney,2000,2003;Fortier,2001;McChesney,1999;Napoli,1998;D.Schiller,1999).Inthisarticle,Iexplorethiscolonizationthesis.However,Iapproachthetaskinasomewhatdifferentwayfrompreviousinvestigations.ThelimitedamountofworkundertakensofarinthisareahasconcentratedonthepossibilitiesofcorporatecontrolofonlinecommunicationaffordedbytheincreasingcorporateownershipofInternetcontent,software,andbandwidth.Ihaveelsewhereexaminedthethreattoonlinedemocraticcommunicationstemmingfromtheincreasingcorporateownershipofthesethreelayers(Dahlberg,2004a).Thisisimportantwork,asithighlightstheneedforurgentgovernmentaction,includinglegislativemeasures,toensurethatspaceonlineispreservedfornondiscriminatoryandnoninstrumentalcommunication.However,thisworkdoesnottakeintoaccountthefullextentofthecorporatethreattothepotentialofInternet’sexpandingthepublicsphere.Itisnotnecessarytoownandcontrolall,orevenanextensiveamount,ofInternetspaceintermsofthedataspaceconstitutedbybitstohaveamajorimpactononlinecommunicationanduse.Thisisbecausetheroutetothedominationofonlinepracticeisthedominationofonlineattention,achievedthroughcontroloverkeycontent,software,andbandwidth.Spacemaybepreservedforcriticalcommunicationfreeofcorporateinterests;yetsuchcommunicationmaybelargelymarginalizedinthecompetitionforuserattention.Howsuccessfulthenhavecorporationsbeenatdominatingonlineattentionorientedtopublicdiscourse(news,information,discussion),andwhatistheimpactofthisoncriticalcommunication?Thisisaquestionyettobeextensivelyexaminedincommunicationresearchfocusedonenhancingdemocraticculture.Inthisarticle,Iundertakeacriticalandgeneralexaminationofthisquestion.Theexaminationiscriticalinthatitinvolvesreasonedproblematizationandcritique,consistentwithhowIusetheterminthephrase“criticalcommunicationconstitutingthepublicsphere.”TheapproachhereisfocusedonreasonedargumentationaimedatcontributingtoanongoingdiscourseabouttheInternetanddemocracy,ratherthanapplyingaparticularmethodtoprovideso-calledobjectivefindings.Theexaminationisgeneralinthattheargumentmadeisnotfocusedonaparticularcontextbutmakesbroad-based(andpreliminary)claimssupportedbyreasoningbasedoncurrentlyavailableresearch,statistics,andmyownobservations.AlthoughtheexaminationdoesfocusmostlyonthecaseoftheUnitedStates,italsodrawsexamplesfromelsewheretohighlightglobaltrends.ThisgeneralexplorationwillcomplementresearchontheproblemsforonlinedemocracyoftheincreasingcorporateownershipoftheInternetandwilllaythebasisformorespecificandin-depthresearchofthequestionofattentioncontrolanditsimpactononlinecriticalcommunication.TheCorporateDominationofOnlineAttentionAttentionisarguablythemostvaluableresourceonline(Davenport&Beck,2001;Goldhaber,1997;Hargittai,2004).Althoughitisrelativelystraightforward(forthosewiththeresources)togetviewspublishedontheInternet,havingthemnoticedisanothermatter.WithmillionsofWebpages,andmillionsmoremessages

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