Contemplation vs. Consumption: Making Sense of the Commercial Web

How does the commercial web shape our behavior online?

Contemplation vs. Consumption: Making Sense of the Commercial Web

The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor. Metropolitan Books. 288 pages.

MORE AND MORE, I find myself relating to culture — writing, art, music — through the internet. Some of it is just a matter of convenience: the web is an incredibly efficient tool for both finding and distributing cultural work, and a limitless supply of text, sounds, and images is never more than a few clicks away. But this same efficiency has made it incredibly easy for companies to turn much of the web into an explicitly commercial space. There is a difference between a good consumer experience and a fulfilling cultural one. And an explicitly commercial internet — a commercial web — is a place where consumption will always win out.

While there have been a spate of recent books looking at the downsides of modern technology — Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows are two prominent examples — most have tended to focus on the technological architecture of the web, underestimating the economic infrastructure that undergirds the commercial web. For that reason alone, Astra Taylor’s book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age,is a valuable contribution to the discussion, because it focuses on the context of the commercial web — especially the economic incentives that shape so much of what happens online. In fact, she very deliberately sets herself apart from writers like Carr and Lanier, calling out arguments that “make technology too central” for “sidestepping the thorny issue of the larger social structures in which we and our technologies are embedded.”

When you look at culture and media from this point of view — asking not about how art, writing, and music are distributed but who holds cultural power — there has been a lot less “disruption” in the digital era than is often supposed. One of the most appealing aspects of the web is the way it seems to empower individual creators. Anyone can write a blog post or story, record a song, create an image, or film a movie and immediately post it online for anyone to experience. But in practice, a handful of big players dominate the web. According to Nielson data cited by Taylor, the top seven percent of news websites attract 80 percent of all traffic. Elsewhere, the top 10 percent of videos on YouTube garner about 80 percent of all views, a mere 0.8 percent of titles on Netflix generate 30 percent of all rentals, and so on. The online bookseller Amazon is so successful that it now accounts for up to half of all book sales (e-book and print).

The fact is, there are still large corporate middlemen profiting quite well off culture. And a whole new layer of digital middlemen has risen up to replace the ones that have faded away: service providers (Comcast, etc.), social media companies (such as Facebook), search engines (especially Google). In many ways, these new middlemen are the “commercial web,” if one wants to look at it separately from the internet at large. When we look at just how big the giants of the commercial web have gotten, it certainly makes it hard to see the internet as primarily a vehicle for the empowerment of individual creators. “My view,” Taylor writes, “is that there is as much continuity as change in our new world, for good and for ill.” If anything, Taylor writes with a sense that the web hasn’t lived up to its promise. There are a lot of reasons for this — many of them rooted in the economic realities that exist offline. But there are also a whole host of ideologies that have been appropriated by the commercial web and now serve to reinforce the consumer-driven ethos of its biggest players. Some of these ideologies include “open culture” and the “long tail,” both of which Taylor critiques at length.

Open culture is one of the lynchpin ideas not just of the commercial web, but also the internet as a whole. It has its roots in open software, but has become something much more amorphous. Basically, it refers to systems and practices that emphasize making something as widely accessible as possible: “Open is Google and Wi-Fi, decentralization and entrepreneurialism […] Closed equals Hollywood and cable television, central planning and entrenched industry.” The idea is that an open web is one where ease of use and ease of access comes first — and that cultural work, and information itself, ought to be widely available (for free). Its appeal is rather obvious: an open web is one where traditional gatekeepers — publishers, art dealers, media companies, corporate news organizations, governments — no longer can block access to ideas, information, or creative works. And it’s very difficult for anyone concerned about culture to oppose making cultural work more widely available. After all, what’s the point in creating something that can’t be shared? An open culture sounds democratic. And it has a lot of good things to recommend it — I’m certainly glad that the internet allows me to more easily access untraditional news organizations like Civil Eats.

However, in practice, “open culture” is often made to serve entrenched interests. For starters, the online world doesn’t exist in isolation from the real world. And the problems of the real world often seep into the commercial web. As Taylor notes, “Openness in this context is ultimately about promoting competition, not with protecting equality in the traditional sense.” For example, up to one-third of US households lack a broadband connection. This means that they’re at a distinct disadvantage in creating and distributing work online. While open culture activists would rightly hold distinctly non-open cable companies responsible for this, the fact is that the reason so many Americans lack a top-flight internet connection is simply the fact that it isn’t profitable to offer them one. And this is the problem — when you rely on markets to reinforce open culture, then the resulting “openness” will inevitably favor the better-off. After all, that’s where the money is. To that end, Taylor spotlights research by sociologist Eszter Hargittai that indicates there are substantial divergences “in rates of (online) participation, dependent on socioeconomic status, race, and gender.” Certainly there are other ways of accessing the internet — most obviously, via phone — but someone with a broadband connection obviously has significantly more access to the internet than someone who doesn’t. But an “open culture” that focuses on breaking down barriers for companies doesn’t have much to offer people who either can’t afford to get online or live in a rural area where broadband service doesn’t even exist.

Even people with good access are still disadvantaged in the present competition-oriented version of openness. In fact, openness is often used as a shield for quasi-monopolistic behavior. “In the realm of media and culture,” Taylor writes, “the uncomfortable truth is that the information age has been accompanied by increasing consolidation and centralization.” On a typical day, nearly a quarter of all consumer internet traffic is in North America; one in seven people in the world has a Facebook account. And then there are the previously mentioned behemoths of Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube. To explain just why a handful of sites loom so large on the decentralized World Wide Web, Taylor cites Metcalfe’s Law (mostly formulated by Ethernet pioneer Robert Metcalfe), which says, “the value of a network increases exponentially by the numbers of connections or users.” This is most obvious in social media — for me personally, the biggest reason I stick with Facebook is simply that so many people I know already use it. Its appeal is directly tied to its size. But this inevitably means that a successful social network by definition needs to be huge. Bigness itself confers a certain power, including the power to profit through advertising.

Companies obscure the implications of this bigness by invoking another seemingly progressive idea — namely the “long tail.” The long tail is what happens when the cost of distribution drops so much that it’s easy for people to seek out and obtain more obscure, niche art, music, and writing. It’s an exciting idea. Where in the past avant-garde musicians or experimental writers needed to go through large traditional “gatekeepers,” like a record label or a publisher, now they can post their work online at little to no cost, giving them a chance to find an audience. This argument is most associated with Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail, which Taylor sums up very well: “Anderson describes the Internet as an infinite shelf at the biggest store in the universe […] where demand will inevitably move from the head to the tail, trickling down from the top of the distribution curve to the bottom.” The idea is simply that the greater availability of more and more cultural works (and cultural products) will erode blockbuster-centric mass culture, and that this will be a boon to creators and readers/listeners/viewers alike. The problem, though, as Taylor points out, is that, “The evidence all around us contradicts that view.” As we’ve already seen, big players have gotten very, very big online. But this hasn’t really weakened the cultural role of traditional gatekeepers like big media companies. Even in the music industry — the exemplar of a business “disrupted” by the web — is dominated by big players. As Taylor points out, major labels “control a larger portion of the market today than they did in the late nineties.” The truth is rather brutal: “Instead of leveling the field between small and large, the open Internet has dramatically tilted it in favor of the most massive players.”

How does this happen? Well, one interesting piece of data Taylor looks at concerns online database analyses conducted by the University of Chicago’s James Evans. He discovered, “As the number of sources available online broadened, fewer journals and articles were cite, those that were cited were more recent, and citations were connected to fewer sources.” Basically, digitizing academic journals led to a narrowing of research cited. Again, the very efficiency of the digital database “shrank” users’ scholarship. People could see right away what the “big” articles were, and that’s what they read. There’s a logic to this. Of course any scholar is going to be interested in what other people in the field are reading. So when a particular article is a “hit,” people are going to be drawn to it. And that in turn amplifies the hit’s reach — the more people who read an article, the more people who can cite it in their own work. But electronic databases are so efficient — the speed of digital communication means that you know right away when a particular article goes “viral” in the community — that hits become hits even faster. Human beings have limited time — no one can read every article published in their field. So a really efficient database has the side effect of meaning fewer articles are read overall. Basically, it used to take longer for scholars to hear about hits, so the hits didn’t demand their attention right away — which meant they ended up reading a broader cross-section of articles. By making the process of finding out about hits that much easier, the database ended up making those hits that much bigger.

This doesn’t mean that no one survives outside the “big head,” but it does say that there is nothing intrinsic about the web that automatically undermines blockbusters or even big media gatekeepers. The failure of open culture and the long tail to live up to their utmost potential is not just a disappointment for those of us who hoped the web would empower smaller creators. The commercial web has appropriated both ideas to justify the centrality of advertising to the online experience. Taylor notes that many supporters of open culture, such as copyright reformer Lawrence Lessig, often find themselves supporting the idea of a web largely driven by advertising. As Taylor rightly observes, “Lessig and others believe that the problem is not commercialization of culture but control.” The idea is that since many commercial web stalwarts rely on either users’ actions (or algorithms rooted in users’ actions), they are automatically superior to traditional gatekeepers. Since the commercial web’s giants exercise less direct control over cultural work, it is easy to assume that they are less likely to bend and shape cultural work to their own ends. But the reality is more complicated.

For starters, Facebook, Google, and the rest are as wealthy and powerful as any traditional media company. Their money, of course, comes from advertising. When you open Facebook, you see all kinds of content posted by friends — either created by themselves or imported from other places around the web. This is, quite famously, Facebook’s business model. It provides free (“open”) access to its site — anyone can join, and almost anyone’s content can be posted there (again, almost); Facebook in turn makes revenue by targeting ads to its users, based on their interests and behavior. Google also makes its money off targeted ads. So do a lot of other digital media giants. One could even say that the primary role of culture on the commercial web is to provide “bait” to get people to watch and read ads. This is the “commercialization” Taylor thinks people like Lessig are underestimating. She thinks it’s actually a very negative environment for cultural creators. And I think she’s correct, because the demands of advertisers run counter to the needs of both cultural workers and their audiences.

An advertising-driven platform stacks the deck against the kind of serious, idiosyncratic work that fuels cultural engagement. If you’re a visual artist who uses nudity in your work, don’t expect to go viral on Facebook, because the site restricts sexually explicit material, even if it has artistic merit. The thing is, advertisers tend to shy away from challenging work precisely because it challenges people. One cautionary tale, among many, is the photographer/filmmaker Matt Wolf’s experience working with Absolut Vodka, which Taylor lays out in detail. The vodka company reached out to Wolf about creating “a series of ten short artists’ portraits in conjunction with an event held in Los Angeles and New York.” Wolf was promised Absolut’s role would be strictly “behind the scenes,” and he would be allowed to work as he saw fit. This didn’t last though. The company began to make demands on his work, telling him it “couldn’t be political, show nudity, or have any driving or sports in it.” After the work was complete, Absolut posted it on a website with prominent company branding. In the end, Absolut dictated the parameters of Wolf’s project and used it for what is euphemistically called “sponsored content.” The experience left Wolf disillusioned, especially since many of the profiles he created focused on artists he knew and respected. “It was really a wake-up call,” he says now. “I never would have stepped into the opportunity if that was how it was framed.”

The risk becomes that, if traditional institutions that support the arts continue to decline, more and more creators will be stuck in similar situations. As Taylor puts it, “When advertisers call the shots, they encourage only that which will help them sell.” Wolf’s experience makes perfect sense in the context of an advertising-driven model of cultural creation. Certain topics might generate controversy for Absolut, so those topics become verboten. And, even if corporate branding becomes more subtle, it remains essential — because for an advertisement to work, you have to know who’s behind it. The idea behind sponsored content is to give the creator just enough leeway to generate something that doesn’t immediately read as a “commercial” — with the hopes of drawing the attention of someone who would never click on a pop-up or banner ad. But sponsored content devalues culture, because it reduces cultural work into mere marketing. And that inevitability means that work that cuts against the interest of marketers — the kind work that inspires contemplation instead of consumption — falls by the wayside.

At this point, it bears noting that the commercial web simply doesn’t offer much to creators in terms of monetary compensation, unless they’re willing to either accept corporate sponsorship (the way Matt Wolf did) or work for an institution (like, say, Buzzfeed) that relies on advertising. The internet, of course, makes it extremely easy (and inexpensive) to copy and distribute cultural work, whether it be text, images, sounds, or anything else. More importantly, new creators face very little barriers to entry — anyone can start a blog, upload a song or film, or put together an e-book, without going through a traditional middleman. We all know this. And all know that the ensuing competition has driven the cost of most cultural products online to nothing. I for one certainly enjoy that — and I spend far more time online surfing “free” websites than I do watching TV or even reading books. But this comes at a cost — mainly I’m not doing very much to support the people whose work I’m enjoying. Ultimately, this leaves little choice to creators but to turn to sponsors or sponsor-driven patrons. And that means we’re all facing the same pressures Matt Wolf experienced with Absolut, even if we don’t know it yet. If the commercial web becomes the primary conduit for culture, then it is the values of the commercial web — the values of consumption and advertising — that will define that culture. This means that corporate interests (gatekeepers, if you will) actually have just as much power as they always have. In some cases they have more.

Taylor proposes to offset the influence of these new gatekeepers with something she calls “cultural democracy.” Put simply,

Cultural democracy means that a diversity of voices and viewpoints is expressed and accessible; that visibility and notoriety should not be the consequence of cumulative advantage alone; and that influence within the cultural field is achieved by a variety of factors, not simply ceded to those who can afford to pay to be seen and heard.

Taylor puts forth a number of different ideas for promoting cultural democracy. For starters, she calls for strengthening the cultural commons, and nurturing spaces for culture that exist outside of large corporations. She also simply encourages people to be willing to pay to support challenging, thoughtful culture work — and calls for a greater public role in supporting the arts. Most importantly, she supports “strong common carriage obligations” for the cable companies and other service providers (like Verizon) that operate what are essentially monopolies on internet access — allowing them to generate profit margins of over 95 percent on broadband connections alone.

One can see the influence of the Occupy movement on Taylor’s thinking — indeed, she is a key figure in Strike Debt, a debt-relief effort which emerged almost directly from Occupy. The cultural democracy she aspires to is much closer to the direct democracy sometimes associated with anarchism — where there is an emphasis on allowing all voices to be heard and consensus, not “majority rules” (or “the market knows best”), is seen as the ideal. But it would be a mistake to see Taylor’s views as just an offshoot of a particular political outlook. Because the values of cultural democracy are, in fact, very healthy for culture. For starters, a strong cultural commons would offer the benefits of the looser, open web that Lessig and his adherents aspire to, without simply tilting the economic playing field from one set of companies (traditional media) to another (the commercial web). More importantly, Taylor’s cultural democracy offers a cultural landscape that doesn’t reflect the values of the market. One of the more insidious repercussions of the commercial web’s cultural dominance is that it promotes a set of values — efficiency, quantification, profit-seeking — antithetical to what culture, art, literature, and music really do.

Culture — all culture — is at its best when it fosters reflection. This is, inherently, something that can’t be quantified or tabulated. But it can be described, albeit only in personal or idiosyncratic terms. One such description appears in Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947 – 1963, from a journal entry written in late 1950, when she was still a teenager:

I’m reading [Jack London’s novel] Martin Eden for the first time in three years. I can see clearly now, over four years after I first read it, how enormous a personal influence it has been on me, despite the fact that I consider it insignificant as art. Although I had read adult literature as a child…the reading of the London book coincided with my real awakening to life, as marked by my beginning thee notebooks at the end of my twelfth year. There is not an idea in Martin Eden about which I do not have a strong conviction, and many of my conceptions were formed under the direct stimulation of this novel.

This passage sticks with me because it conveys the depth of a meaningful cultural experience. As she reads Martin Eden again, Sontag not only realizes the book’s influence over her, but she also gets a glimpse of how she has changed since she first encountered the book. A cultural experience — whether reading, seeing, or listening to cultural work — is an imaginative process. You need to take the writer’s words and ideas into your mind and interact with them in some way. It is, quite literally, a form of thinking. The same is true of any art — to really listen to a piece of music, to really look at a painting, requires some degree of immersion.

Culture, in all its forms, offers you a place where you can be alone with your own thoughts, your own emotions, your own imagination. And it does this by giving you access to the creation of someone else’s imagination. When we embrace this experience in the way Sontag does, the results can be quite profound. And while the Sontag of Reborn writes as a very young woman, she continued to experience the written word in the same intense way throughout her life, culminating in her essay “A Letter to Borges,” which appeared in the very last collection of nonfiction she published in her lifetime, Where the Stress Falls: “Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. Some people think of reading only as a kind of escape from the ‘real’ world to an imaginary world, the world of books. Books are much more. They are a way of being fully human.” That is the role of all art, all culture — to give us a way of being fully human.

At first glance, Sontag’s self-transcendence might seem removed from Taylor’s cultural democracy. But on closer inspection, the two emerge as mutually reinforcing ideals. Because both are diametrically opposed to the commodified view of culture encapsulated by the commercial web. In the end, they are two sides of one idea — that sublimating cultural works to the logic of the market ultimately limits culture itself. Taylor approaches culture from the perspective of a creator — she’s a fairly prominent documentary filmmaker, best known for Zizek! and Examined Life — and the personal experiences of other filmmakers, working artists, photojournalists, professional musicians, and other creative workers form the emotional backbone of The People’s Platform. Sontag writes from the perspective of the person immersed in culture — in her case as a reader — and it’s her own personal culture experience that takes center stage. But the two need each other. Both artistic creation and artistic reception are imaginative acts. Without the imagination of the artist the work does not exist; without the imagination of the audience the work is not complete. To look at this process only from the perspective of the market is to lose sight of what culture really is. The kind of immersion Sontag is describing is precisely the opposite of what an advertising-driven commercial web requires. After all, a person who slowly contemplates a particular piece of cultural work won’t have time to view all that many advertisements. The worry is twofold — the commercial web doesn’t offer us a way to support creative workers, meaning less creative work gets made, and the needs of advertisers create strong incentives for the commercial web to emphasize simple, disposable content over the kind of work that fosters the contemplation necessary for culture to really “work.”

This problem extends beyond the web, of course. Taylor is correct when she notes the line between the digital world and the offline world is not very thick. The commercial web reflects society as a whole — and the hard truth is that reforming it will require pushing to better distribute political, cultural, and economic power on a society-wide basis. That is a problem far bigger than a single book can really solve, and Taylor doesn’t really offer a convincing way of initiating that level of political and economic change. And I don’t pretend to offer any magic solution either — beyond the rather obvious statement that political change requires a lot of organizing, a lot of coalition-building, and a lot of hard work. In the meantime, it is important to support writers, artists, and musicians, (even if that means just paying them a little money for access to their work), and to support cultural websites that shun advertising and its insidious sibling, “sponsored content.” I also agree with Taylor that it is important to preserve offline spaces that promote and nurture culture, such as when she looks at the publishing industry and notices “physical stores outperform virtual ones three to one in introducing buyers to books, though more sales take place online,” meaning physical bookstores “make literary culture more heterogeneous.” Part of resisting the commercial web is simply recognizing that a lot of culture exists outside it — and cultural diversity ought to include openness to different media as well as different ideas.


Guy Patrick Cunningham is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in The MillionsBookslut, and The Brooklyn Rail, among other publications.

LARB Contributor

Guy Patrick Cunningham is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in The Millions, Bookslut, and The Brooklyn Rail, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @GuysLibrary.


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