As the Egyptian Revolution trembles and realisation dawns that power needs to be seized and will rarely if ever give up without a fight, the role of the media (old, social, new and multi) is again under the spotlight. So too in the Wild West where news of AOLs purchase of The Huffington Post for $315 million has surprised (and pissed-off) many. The post, founded in 2005 as a sort of antidote to the popular right wing Drudge Report, has been a home for home to the US soft-left and a by-word in participatory journalism. It played a significant part in re-balancing the media landscape from shock-jocks and Guidoesque loony-right blogosphere.
Like a sort of vejazzled Guardian online the site was littered with good cultural commentary, environmental analysis and a progressive politics rarely seen in US media-land, crucially it was backed by some well-heeled sponsors. In response to the readers ‘n’ writers backlash the Huffington sent out a mass email to the disaffected. “Your posts will have an even bigger impact on the national and global conversation,” she wrote. “That’s the only real change you’ll notice — more people reading what you wrote.”
“Socialite Arianna Huffington built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists. She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and leftist. Now she’s cashed in and three thousand indie bloggers find themselves working for a megacorp. But the Huffington Post is not Arianna’s to sell. It is ours: the lefty writers and readers, environmentalism activists and anti-corporate organizers who flooded the site with 25 million visits a month. So we’re going to take it back. We’ll stop going to her site. And we’ll stop blogging for her too.”
Huff writer – and occasional Bella contributor – Pat Kane sees it differently:
“How does it feel – as an occasional Huff Post Blogger who knew there would never be any payment involved – to observe the whole enterprise being sold to AOL for three hundred or so million dollars? I suppose I should be outraged that my free labour has contributed to a valuation from which I won’t receive a penny of direct profit. But I’m not – and that perhaps because I look at the world of huge sales and takeovers of web enterprises as essentially a far-off farce. Antonio Negri often talks about how capital is parasitic on the informational commons – that space of flows which the open internet, historically configured by the state (in its US military form) and scholarly hackers, currently represents. Sometimes I don’t think it’s parasitic, though, as much as highly delusional. Really, are Google and Facebook valuing Twitter for purchase at between $8-10 billion, for a technology that essentially the textually-rendered blethering of the knowledge classes? What a madhouse they’re in. The great paradox of net commerce is that it’s trying to monetise a process which is essentially a kind of functional left anarchism/liberatarian socialism, as least in its end-to-end, copy-anything structure: an information system that takes from each according to ability, and gives to each according to need.
Yes, if the Man changes the link structure to Ted Nelson’s Hypertext option (a micro-penny royalty to each author on every click), and if we are not vigilant about issues like net neutrality and state filtering and shutdown, then we will have a different web – something like the controlled “CD Rom in your hand” experience of the iPad, but on every screen. But as long as it’s wired the way it is – and we articulately defend that digital constitution, as Lawrence Lessig once asked us to – then its power to allow communities and individuals to organise and express themselves, in ways never before possible, means it will thumb its nose at any commercial enclosure. I think it’s one of the loveliest ironies of the moment that the guy whose Facebook page was part of the rallying call in Egypt was a Google marketing executive, who lied to his Emirates employers about taking some home leave, so he could help organise the first day of rage. It shows how net values inspire individuals, even when they’re at the heart of enterprises that are nakedly commercial in their net ambitions.
What’s certainly required is some new thinking about how we sustain the open web – Douglas Rushkoff is right to say we need to scour the recent past to think of new, less controllable, more resilient web structures. I’ll continue to write for the Huff Post, knowing that the person with the real power in the situation is me, the blogger. And the point is to invest in the health of the host, not worry about the latest parasite.”
Here at Bella we are still waiting for BigMediaInc to swoop down and offer us gazillions for our scribblings, until then, nobody owns us…