USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

Confessions of an E-Columnist

I'm an e-columnist, and this is my Web page just waiting to be bought.

Click here for the headlines:

Big Brother is AOL. Portal power is pervasive. Microsoft is a paper tiger. Justice Department anti-trust division shuts down. AT&T controls nothing. AOL whining about open access turns out to be pure bull.

And coming soon... Broadband cable now owned by AOL -- will they let other portals play?

Now, tell us what you think: Vote, chat, anything to pretend that democracy is alive. Don't just check your e-mail. Confused? That's OK, this being an e-column it's expected to be unedited, even incoherent, but determinedly commercial. I only need you to hit the frame long enough to purchase one of our pop-up products -- a Net nanny for the kids, a sanitized movie or record, something fuzzy and cute from the Warner Brothers store.

Instant message from concerned virtual reader about the AOL merger: What happens to CNN, the premier source of free news for much of the world? Has Turner sold out the independence of CNN for his cool $9 billion?

Instant reply from e-columnist: Who the hell knows? CNN doesn't even show up on the new corporate charts, not a profit center; if new Time-Warner-AOL stock goes in the toilet, CNN could be through. But then again, not making profit could be CNN's saving grace, since little on the Net does -- just look at Salon and Slate. Maybe CNN could make out big running banner adds for porn sites? If the medium is the message, for the Internet it has been sex.

No one knows what this thing called the Internet is. Every prediction, including on Y2K, has proved wrong. Truth is, the Net provides more confusion than clarity, more libel than truth, more noise than music.

Indeed, the success of AOL can be attributed solely to the fact that it alone cleaned up the Internet's act. AOL has been the zone of calm. Information is ordered in neat boxes, and no computer skills are required. AOL's proudest, if implicit, boast is that it is idiot-proof, but pure. Smut, whatever that is, is censored, and even discussions about breast cancer have on occasion been suspect. Look for an even prissier version of AOL version 6.0 now that they wouldn't want to do anything to jeopardize this mainstream merger.

Forget the Internet as a wild zone of libertarian freedom. The hacker anarchists have lost out and the corporate co-opters have won. AOL now sets the model for success and all other portals, site managers and start-ups will seek to emulate. Diversity is out, niches are gone, it's Skippy peanut butter time. AOL is the Levitown of the Internet, mom and apple pie, '50s boredom, conformity and dullness as a virtue: A Net nanny reigning in potentially restless souls.

Not to worry about every getting lost -- or inspired -- surfing the net again. AOL will hardwire America and the world into the legend codes of revealed truth handed down by the Warner brothers and Henry Luce. Time style will now float, endlessly oozing through cyberspace in dulling rhythmic bursts of prose.

What a perfect match they are, the bland of the new and the bland of the old. Life magazine lives again, only now you will be able to sub in pictures of your own happily smiling family as it enjoys the good life tucked in between the commercials. The sappy old movies, properly colorized and digitized, will be there for instant viewing. All emanating, even as you sleep, from chips built into your latest HDTV sets, and, eventually, your brain, where you can change the channel merely by having a different thought that you believed, silly you, was actually yours.

Am I being negative? Not good for an aspiring e-columnist. Get with the program -- e-writers are cheerful folk. They live for stock options which are based on the ability of their Web site owners to sell stuff. Don't forget that's what this is all about.

Combine the Time-Warner subscription base with the 21 million families that AOL owns and you get individual instant targetable customer profiles. AOL will design an environment for news, shopping, health, friendship and family so finely tuned to your needs that you will never want to leave home. And if you do, there will be a wireless contraption telling you what to eat and think.

Sorry, I got it wrong at the beginning. AOL isn't Big Brother, it will be invisible, fading in the background, ever powerful but nonthreatening, just there as a natural extension of self. Welcome to the brave new world.