The AOL Time Warner Merger
by Elizabeth Weaver Engel
It's been an exciting week in technology news. Tuesday
morning, I sit down to my Washington Post and a scone and discover that
AOL, who recently gobbled up Netscape, is now eyeing Time Warner. Wednesday
morning, I sit down to my Washington Post and toast and a grapefruit and
discover that AOL's stock, the asset they were planning to use to buy Time
Warner, has taken a dive. Thursday morning, I sit down to my Washington
Post and a bowl of granola and discover that aspects of the Justice
Department proposed settlement offer for Microsoft have been leaked - and
everyone was scooped by USA Today (the shame!). Then Friday, I sit down
to my Washington Post and a fruit shake and discover that Bill Gates has
resigned as CEO of the Evil Empire...oops, I meant Microsoft...in favor of his
good buddy Steve Ballmer. My head is spinning! What's going to arrive tomorrow
morning over crepes - an Apple/Sun merger? Linus Torvalds buys IBM? A joint
Steve Case-Bob Vila commercial for Time-Life's home improvement series?
So what does it all mean? I haven't a clue. Why did Bill
Gates choose now to step down? Shot in the dark, but I'm guessing it has
something to do with whatever is in that proposed Justice Department settlement
that wasn't leaked. But what? I don't even have a good guess. Although I
think breaking up Microsoft is starting to look inevitable. But the rest seems
to be a crap shoot at the moment.
But I do know that the AOL Time Warner thing worries me. The
business types are trumpeting a new era of partnership between old and new
media, with new media providing the delivery-means-of-the-moment of old media's
high quality, reputable content. The hot trend online is portal sites, but so
far the big drawback has been that there's no there there. Portal sites
have been mostly lists of links, which the average person is quite capable of
generating for herself. To get those eyeballs back, you need to add some value
beyond the standard Geocities homepage list o' links. After all, hasn't lack of
quality content always been the main problem with the web?
Well, no. I would argue that lack of "approved" content has
always been the web's greatest strength. Remember the bad old days of communism
and the cold war? One of the perpetual pieces of Evil Empire (I'm talking
Russia during the Regan era here) evidence was the state- controlled press.
Nobody could get any news the government didn't approve, and if there's one
thing the Communist Party didn't have going for it, it was strong enforcement
of full disclosure. Sure, I know that the US government isn't buying up the
web. But big media business, the same small group of people who already control
our purportedly free press, is.
The web has been the last bastion of the disgruntled, the
odd, the angry, the lovesick, the alternative, the left wing nuts, the right
wing nuts, the losers, the certifiable geniuses, and the certifiably insane.
No, it did not make for a good footnote in your term paper. Yes, it did make
for an excellent source of free wheeling discussion about everything under the
sun. I know, I know. People have been decrying the end of the pure web, the web
of geeks, the web where people interacted without regard for class, gender,
race, color, or creed, the web of the free flow of ideas, almost since it
started seeping into public consciousness in the early 1990's (do note that the
early free interaction without regard for color, race, gender, class, yadda,
yadda, was taking place mostly between upper middle-class white geek men. Not
exactly a shining example of diversity.). But the insidious influence of big
media really could be the death knell of the web as those of us who've been
around for a few years know it.
The web has been one place where any yahoo with a modem
could put up a site saying anything she wanted. Yeah, sure, much of it is
horrible - bigoted, racist, exploitative - or just bad - sappy, ignorant,
embarrassing, dumb, dull, pointless - or some combination of the above. But the
possibility of flashes of brilliance, humor, insight, and profound social,
economic, and political commentary was always there, and was even occasionally
Do we really want to lose that to the people who brought us
Instant Messaging, People magazine, a Warner Brothers store in Times
Square, the WB, and You've Got Mail?
Elizabeth Weaver Engel welcomes your
comments on this article.