Selling the blogosphere

October 17, 2005
News that America Online, the faded prodigy of the early Internet era, has paid more than $15 million for a baby company consisting of 85 blogs is like an expo of abstract art: There’s something to it, but you’re not sure what.

The company AOL bought is Weblogs Inc. Network, which was started by a pair of Manhattan tech visionaries in 2004. They realized that the online content originated by bloggers  whether commentary, geeky expertise, participatory journalism or idiosyncratic musings  not only could command an audience, but could work for advertisers. So they gathered a bunch of bloggers together, offered them equity in the new company the blogs would constitute — most opted for weekly paychecks, which may not have been wise — and arranged to sell ads on the blogs to venturesome advertisers.

Comes now AOL, the online pioneer that had such dazzling success recruiting subscribers that at the height of the dot.com bacchanal it was able to buy one of the world’s truly colossal media conglomerates. Those days are gone. No longer the dashing suitor that swept up Time Warner in 2000, AOL lately has been the dissolute ex-, snoring on the couch with the TV on, unable to sleep off its fling with obsolete dial-up technology. So on one level, AOL’s buy-in to the blogosphere is a canny move to buy back some of its mojo.

On another level, it’s one more sign of the keen interest of big time, corporate media  and few are as big time and corporate as Time Warner, AOL’s former conquest and current master  in colonizing the Internet with outposts through which to harvest value that eludes existing operations. Rupert Murdoch’s giant News Corp. in July paid $580 million for the owner of MySpace.com, a two-year-old social networking bazaar that’s the country’s fifth-most viewed Internet site. VNU, the big Dutch owner of Adweek, Billboard and Nielsen’s Ratings, signed a deal for European rights to Gawker Media, another blog aggregator. VNU will translate and distribute Gizmodo, a popular blog for tech enthusiasts, and will hire local bloggers for original content.

Still another, more skeptical perspective is that this is a reprise of the Tech Bubble of the late ‘90s: Greed-addled, deep-pocket money overpays for hyped-up businesses with huge promise and no future. “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable,” as Oscar Wilde said of the English country gentleman galloping after a fox.

Now, though, the business plan is clear, and the revenues are flowing. Internet advertising is up 15 percent over last year. Myspace.com reportedly claimed $79 million in revenues last year, and Weblogs was getting $1 million a year just from ads that rode to its blogs from Google clicks.

Great. So does this mean that the future of the blogosphere, the wildest and least inhibited frontier of the information empire, rests on turning itself into another marketing channel? That the most original and least corporate voices of cyberspace can be financially sustained  or “monetized,” in the groovy lingo of the New Economy  only by having sandwich boards hung on them?

That would be sad. After 15 years of hearing that the Internet should be “free,” we would discover that freedom’s just another word for nothing left but sales. It’s the same Orwellian claptrap the TV network bosses offer when they praise “free TV.” They don’t mean free. They mean commercial, engineered to sell us things. They mean clever new ways to insinuate buy messages into programming itself.

Weblogs’ founders insist they’ll maintain editorial control and ads won’t influence content. They’re dreaming. Of course the bloggers won’t shill for advertisers. That would be obvious and ineffective, and would rob the sites of credibility.

That’s not the danger. The corruption isn’t that crude. Will the AOL-run Weblogs look to hire bloggers who are attracting audiences of interest to advertisers? Naturally. And will it prefer those to the truly independent, the ones who might advise you not on what to buy but against buying anything, or who draw people who don’t have the money or inclination to be customers?

You bet. Everywhere, the Internet is turning into the most skillfully calibrated marketing instrument since people first made money that folds. The whole logic of commercialization ensures a privileged platform for whatever moves products. That logic creates both noise and silences, loud benefits and quiet costs. It’s why none of this is free.

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