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AOL-Time Warner: bye bye freewheeling web?

Ashley Crawford

In 1995 the outspoken American author Kathy Acker was taken off-line by America On-Line. Acker’s charged fiction first appeared in the 1970s in underground, alternative publications. By the mid-80s she had established a huge audience and was hitting out at the mainstream, attacking everything from government to the education system, religion to social values. Her turbo-charged writing made her a natural denizen of the net. Taking an account with AOL, Acker built a reputation as an outspoken member of the internet community. However, AOL took a dim view of her anarchistic approach and Acker’s account was deleted.

America On-Line has an extremely bad reputation amongst the culturati on the internet for its intense censorship in online forums. Now its merger with Time Warner makes it quite possibly the most powerful player on the wires.

Bruce Sterling, author of The Hacker Crackdown, points to the plethora of anti-AOL sites on the net such as AOL Watch, and Douglas Rushkoff, author of Cyberia and Media Virus, hopes that people will rapidly tire of the content offered by the gigantic merger.

“I’ve always thought of AOL as training wheels for the real Internet. But a lot of people consciously choose pre-digested media, and these people—perhaps a majority—they’ll get what they ask for.

“The size of AOL/Time Warner in itself won’t change the opportunities for alternative viewpoints. If anything does, it will be the structure and functioning of our information infrastructure. AOL and Time Warner are both entertainment companies. They are simply looking for new ways to push their content. People who are genuinely interested in communicating, organising, educating and networking, well, they can get a taste through AOL…and if they get frustrated enough, they’ll venture out onto the Internet or whatever else is around.”

If anything, says Rushkoff, “this merger promises only to limit what people might be exposed to, but not necessarily what they can get a hold of.”

“It’s pretty clear that variety ain’t gonna be the spice of life for much longer on the Web,” says the author of Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture, Darren Tofts. “There is a growing uniformity and homogeneity which is all based on free web hosting, product placement and a pervasive parasitical approach to linking; one big in-crowd really. I suspect what will happen with AOL will be an intensification and consolidation of these features.”

“The real issue in the merger is who controls broadband,” says Sydney media theorist McKenzie Wark. “The cable systems are going to get broadband up before the phone companies do, and so the Internet/TV merger will happen first on cable systems. AOL Time Warner are positioning themselves to control cable access, Internet subscribers and content. It may be the usual messy merger that bogs a company down for years, or it might provide the kind of monopolistic leverage that the shareholders want and that the rest of us should fear.”

According to RU Sirius, the founder of the cyber magazine Mondo 2000, there is a real danger of people being seduced by the giant body, but, he says, given the changing nature of media it will be a short term problem. “There is a very real chance that there will be a substantial pocket of clueless people for whom AOL will BE the Internet,” says Sirius. “They won’t know the difference between the two. But in the cultural and business environments we have now, how long can that last? Less than a single generation certainly.”

Richard Metzger, editor of the New York-based online magazine Disinformation ( believes the internet is already overly crowded with cultural detritus. “Well, look at the current state of the Internet…it’s a vast wasteland…cultural landfill.

“I think that all of the punditry chattering about the AOL Time Warner deal neglect to ask themselves: ‘Do I care about this content?’ And I think most people will answer ‘No, I pay it no mind, I only use email.’ Beyond the MGM movie catalogue and CNN, the value of this stuff, content-wise is, to my mind, fairly negligible to AOL.”

Metzger points to the failure of Time Warner’s Pathfinder site and asks why anyone would “want to look at the same exact stuff with a different URL?”

“With the amount of sheer white noise going on with all these newly minted.coms spending millions of dollars on primetime advertising campaigns where their product or service is only distinguished by whether it’s Whoopie Goldberg or Geena Davis advertising their product, what chance do these businesses have anyway?

“The Internet was always just a delivery service, a better conduit than a fanzine…Anyone thinking that they can start on the WWW now and garner an audience is dead wrong. It’s a way too crowded field and let’s face it, turn on the TV and see just how thin the talent pool has been spread! The herd has been thinned, already, and it’s all gonna be downhill from here for the foreseeable future…”

Even the technology editor for—an AOL content partner—saw the merger as a disastrous precedent, writing that “AOL Time Warner’s interests are now aligned opposite those of a freewheeling, independent Internet.”

With its substantial music and cinema holdings Time Warner will inevitably gain greater access to new markets. The fear many express is that this will allow the mainstream to dominate the internet. Music that might be defined as alternative will be crowded out.

“I don’t fear the mainstream,” says the lead singer of US band Pere Ubu. “I fear the people who fear the mainstream. Media, politicians and generic do-gooders have dedicated themselves to retraining the ignorant mass of ordinary people. The internet is an exciting tool. History can be rewritten, science invented, political thought channelled, morality redefined. These are the people who succeed in companies like Time Warner and AOL.

“It’s hardly surprising that corporate policy is to marginalize protestantism. So the real ‘danger’ is not to pornographers and social renegades, but to the mainstream by means of a process in which the ‘authorized’ reference sources become a handful of anodyne internet sites rewriting history to tickle the market and contorting truth to avoid offense.”

Genesis P Orridge, whose bands Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle are renowned in alternative circles, is even more apocalyptic. “Financially we are in the throes of hottest passion. Everyone is doing everyone else in a corporate parody of a bacchanalian orgy, complete with intrigues and perversions. We would do well to recall the last daze of Rome when everything was possible and the sacred and profane unified in power.

“What we are witnessing is the copulation of gargantuan entities whose tendrils probe into and feed off almost every living being on earth. It should come as no surprise that these various entities occasionally absorb each other like amoeba. What once were corporations are now sentient beings a little like feudal warlords in the Middle Ages. They have their ikonagraphic banners, their heraldic crests, and they wage wars of consuming attrition until new territories succumb to their power. A great, and ironic difference from the previous Middle Ages is that in years of old, soldiers and camp followers were paid for their services. Now the grunts, serfs and strap-hangers pay their Feudal Lords for the privilege of wearing their Lord’s ikon in return for their services.

“AOL and Time Warner merging is part of this catastrophic process, as is the ethnic neo-tribalism upsurging everywhere. We are entering a New Dark Ages, where these corporate super-entities will wage Jihad upon each other until one blue micro-chip bond conglomerate is pivotally positioned to encompass omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence and digital infallibility on behalf of all remaining human beings.

“We are watching an anti-intellectual coup of a willingly servile homo-sapiens by entities we imagined we created, but which really are independently sentient at this point with their own agendas and megalomaniac cravings.”

However the internet is an inherently anarchic environment. Individuals have already claimed the domain names and, and they’ve even installed a pornography page at with the slogan “So sleazy, no wonder I’m number one.”

AOL’s power play may have met its match in Georgia resident Christopher Alan. He claimed the domain (Stephen Case is the chairman of the new entity) and then composed an online rockabilly song about it:

“When you bought Time-Warner we were all impressed/How come you didn’t buy your web address?/ You may be a big-shot down at AOL/but I’m the one that got your URL!”

RealTime issue #36 April-May 2000 pg. 29

© Ashley Crawford; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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