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The Internet – assessing its main social, political, and cultural impacts in America (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted October 1, 2018

This series is based on a draft of a paper read at the “Media in America/America in Media” Conference (Lublin, Poland: Maria Curie-Sklodowska University), May 25-26, 2017.

Can the Internet challenge today’s informational and cultural monopoly? Can the Internet generate real resistance to current-day trends, or does it mainly just accentuate them?

It could be argued that the effect on society of the emergence of electronic mass media (and their immediate precursors such as cinema) has been profoundly underestimated by most thinkers, or interpreted in banal and fairly trivial terms. One point that can almost immediately be made is that there are considerable differences between the mass media before the emergence of the Internet as a mass medium, and afterwards.  The real birth of the Internet was in 1995, with the creation of the first websites which could be accessed by anyone who had a computer with an Internet connection. With ever-faster connections and ever-faster microcomputers – be they today in tablets, phones, or the next generation of wearable tech -- the Internet spawned all kinds of new media developments that had never really been possible before, or had been prefigured only in some kind of fragmentary form. Thus, to look at the impact of the somewhat earlier media (mainly cinema, television, and the VCR) and then to try to examine the multifarious impacts of the post-1995 Internet, are largely separate questions.

As the Internet develops, we learn through different events and junctures about different aspects of its possible impact – such as the emergence of Amazon; of Napster; of political blogs; of MMORPGs; of Google; of MySpace; of YouTube; of Facebook; of SecondLife; of iTunes; of Twitter; of podcasts; of smartphones; of the universe of Apps that have already become an indispensable part of life for many, and so forth.

The Internet arose as a truly mass phenomenon in the mid-to-late 1990s. In more recent years, we have moved into the so-called Internet Two – characterized by (among others) Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google, Instagram, and smartphones. The Internet had arrived, however, after three to four decades of some of the most intense, unidirectional mass media and mass educational conditioning in human history.

In terms of human consciousness, it could be argued with a broad sweep, that the realm of modern media (mainly cinema, television, and Internet) constitutes a new type of reality, of various dimensions -- parts of which can also be stored and recreated for viewing or listening by most people.

Until the emergence of the mass Internet after 1995, the situation was that, while almost anyone could use a camcorder, there was no easy way of widely distributing personal content. In the pre-Internet days, the video content that could be given a truly mass-audience constituted only an infinitesimal portion of all videotape filmed. Of course, just having video content today theoretically available to everyone on the Web who wishes to view it certainly does not guarantee it a mass-audience. What can be seen is that much of Web content, even today, is driven by the inertia, resources, and economic as well as cultural power of vast media enterprises, franchises and brands. This weight of inertia goes back three to four decades, at least.

Pre-1995, almost everything in media that was widely available was produced by a relatively small number of different types of professionals, such as Hollywood movie directors and network television producers. And the final say on virtually all the sounds, speech, and images which could become available to a truly large, mass-audience was further channeled through an extremely small number of effective decision-makers, or “gatekeepers”. However, the weight of the pre-1995 media is such that the hegemony of various media enterprises, franchises and brands, endlessly and almost effortlessly continues. In fact, an argument could be made that such phenomena as celebrity gossip websites have in fact intensified many people’s never-ending excitation over various entertainment and sports celebrities.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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