In a market share race that is mirroring the cable news ratings battle, Facebook has caught up with its once much bigger rival MySpace:
“Facebook hit the mark in April 2008 by posting 115 million unique monthly visitors. Myspace has maintained similar traffic numbers for the past year, but Facebook has grown from less than 40,000 unique monthly visitors in April 2007 to the 115 million that it is today.”
The armies of consolidation are on the march. Last week, Microsoft made a surprise $44 billion bid for Yahoo. Microsoft is desperately trying to shore up its exposed Internet flank, which Google is battering brutally. Snatching up Yahoo would go a long way toward putting Microsoft back in the online game.
Enter News Corporation. Rupert Murdoch is now reportedly offering a deal that allows Yahoo to remain mostly independent. He would trade Fox Interactive Media for a 20% stake in the new and improved Yahoo. FIM is significant property. It includes Myspace, Photobucket, games giants IGN and GameSpy, AmericanIdol.com, and the MyFox internet platform for the News Corp-owned television station group.
I’m not sure which of these is better (or worse, to put a negative spin on it). Murdoch is, of course, pure evil. But his proposal would leave Yahoo independent and in control of some of the biggest destinations on the web. And all it would cost them is a 20% chunk of the company. Microsoft is a serial monopolist in its own right, and their deal would consume Yahoo whole. On the other hand, they aren’t Murdoch.
Ultimately the problem’s roots go back to the hyper-consolidation that has created an environment where all parties believe that they have to become gargantuan just to be able to compete and survive. In this matter, there don’t seem to be any good options.
In another assault on personal privacy by News Corp. and its progeny, MySpace has announced that they will begin offering a “viral fundraising tool” to candidates for president. The stated purpose of the tool is to allow members to make contributions to the candidates of their choice. On the surface this may not seem worthy of outrage or objection. It might even be considered a public service. The problem with the tool as proposed is that it will also be able to track the donation histories of MySpace members. Do you really want Rupert Murdoch to know to whom you contribute and how much? Do you think that information would be safe in those massive archives that already contain mountains of data about you and your personal life; your buying habits; your professional affairs, etc.?
I would feel a bit nervous permitting an enterprise that has had such a sordid history of privacy violations to be in control of such data. This may be a good time to remind everyone that when MySpace was acquired it was actually as a subsidiary of Intermix, which is the company News Corp. had purchased. Just weeks before the acquisition, Intermix settled a lawsuit with the State of New York with the payment of 7.5 million dollars. They were accused of clandestinely distributing spyware with many of the software and services they provided. I’m sot so sure that the integrity of MySpace’s new owner is any more trustworthy than their previous owners.
This announcement is just the latest escalation of the risk to privacy with regard to voting issues and MySpace. Earlier this year MySpace revealed plans for presidential “Town Halls” and a “virtual primary” to be held on the site next January. These initiatives would provide additional elements of members’ electoral preferences with which to shape sophisticated profiles of MySpace users.
The questions arising from these projects are serious. There is a real threat of the loss of the concept of a secret ballot. This is especially worrisome when the caretaker of the former secrets is a less than reputable mega-corporation. In addition, funds raised via resources provided by MySpace could be construed as bundled contributions. The impact of this fundraising, if successful, might potentially influence candidates’ positions and voting on matters related to News Corp. Is it really worth potentially sacrificing personal privacy and political principle just to participate in a statistically irrelevant exercise in election handicapping? I think not.
As the giant multi-national media conglomerates continue to grow, they are becoming even more brazen in their ambition and arrogance. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., in the midst of a proposed acquisition of Dow Jones, doesn’t intend to slow down. The president of Fox Entertainment, Peter Chernin, spoke at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association conference yesterday and declared that…
This is a market that Murdoch and his ilk do not intend abandon to the unwashed hordes of a free blogiverse.
“You’ll see more acquisitions. This is a world where the big get bigger. You’ll see increased consolidation.”
That statement should not be construed as an executive assessment of future corporate activity. It is a threat. It is a loaded missile launcher aimed at free thinking, independence minded citizens of America and the world. These words must be taken as seriously as the man who uttered them.
Even as Chernin spoke, his boss News Corp. was in the process of gobbling up Photobucket, an image storage and sharing web site. While this may not be as consequential as the Dow Jones deal, it does give Fox’s Interactive Media group another 41 million users and advances the imperial interests of its MySpace division. The impact of this should not be underestimated. In this morning’s, release of its quarterly earnings, Cisco’s CEO, John Chambers predicted that…
“…consumer Internet traffic will surpass corporate traffic for the first time this year ‘because of next-generation services such as blogs and wikis.’“
This is a market that Murdoch and his ilk do not intend abandon to the unwashed hordes of a free blogiverse. Time Warner CEO, Dick Parsons spoke at the same NCTA conference where he boastfully vowed that he and his corporatist troops will not surrender ground to upstarts and insurgents:
“The Googles of the world, they are the Custer of the modern world. We are the Sioux nation. They will lose this war if they go to war. The notion that the new kids on the block have taken over is a false notion.”
It is somewhat beyond ironic that Parsons would align himself analogously with the oppressed and overwhelmed nation of Native Americans when he has so much more in common with a clueless general fighting for an aggressive and imperialistic state. His words reek with hostility toward a new media world he seems incapable of comprehending. This is not the first eruption of Parsons’ cluelessness. He was quoted in Siva Vaidhyanathan’s book, The Anarchist in the Library, defending corporate dominion over creative and intellectual property and making the absurd and repulsive assertion that such authority is a requirement for the advancement of culture:
“This isn’t just about a bunch of kids stealing music. It’s an assault on everything that constitutes cultural expression of our society. If we fail to protect and preserve our intellectual property system, the culture will atrophy. And the corporations won’t be the only ones hurt. Artists will have no incentive to create. Worst-case scenario: the country will end up in a sort of Cultural Dark Age.”
If Parsons thinks that the reasons artists create is for material compensation, he has no business running a company that represents artists. His astonishingly ignorant point of view deserves an extended essay all its own. For now I’ll just link to this well articulated response from The Future of the Book.
Unfortunately, the Cultural Dark Age to which Parsons alludes is a very real possibility, though not for the reasons he suggests. It is corporations like the one he heads that will lead us over that cliff. Big Media still has more in common with Custer’s army than with the Sioux. The difference is that in today’s theater of war Custer’s reinforcements would be a phone call away and the Sioux nation would be reduced to rubble. That’s kind of the way it turned out anyway, it would just happen faster today.
The commoditization of culture is much more harmful to open societies than is its free distribution. The American Idolization of America presents a truly nightmarish scenario that trivializes creativity and expression. And as the media behemoths expand beyond all proportion, there is a risk of the bubble bursting like a car bomb in the marketplace of ideas.
In an article last April, I predicted the decline of MySpace as a result of over-commercialization and desertion by bored users:
“These examples of commercialization foreshadow precisely how the culture of MySpace will become tarnished and unappealing. Its members will come to feel disinterested and exploited.”
Now the Washington Post is catching up with me. In their story this past Sunday, they interviewed MySpace users and found that many of them have gotten over thier initial addiction to the site. Not only are they and their friends deleting their profiles, the ones that stay are spending much less time there. One former user summed up the downtrend by stating simply that, “I’ve grown out of it. I thought it was kind of pointless.”
A MySpace spokesperson, in the mold of Baghdad Bob (“What American troops?”), discounts these reports as anecdotal and cites the growing number of new profiles. There was no breakdown of whether these where net new profiles, or how many of them are advertisers of other commercial accounts.
I continue to maintain that MySpace has less than two years before it joins the ranks of Friendster has-beens and Rupert Murdoch’s brilliant acquisition will be seen as another dotcom folly. The deeper folly may be the notion that giant media conglomerates like News Corp can glom onto a trendy counter-culture craze without extinguishing its coolness.
YouTube is going down the same road (or series of tubes) now that it has been swallowed up by neo-megalith, The Google. There was speculation prior to the acquisition that once YouTube had a deep pocketed parent, the copyright-wingers would crest the hill with their army of lawyers. Last week YouTube agreed to remove 30,000 videos at the request of a Japanese publishers group. And now, Comedy Central, demonstrating their obtuse short-sightedness, has ordered all of its content off the site. Even before the buyout, YouTube ratted out a user to the Viacom Police, who set upon said user forthwith with a lawsuit.
The beauty of the Internet is that it’s a fluid environment that allows people to flow to the services that provide the most value and allows communities to find their own level when their needs are being fulfilled. MySpace has been working contrary to those goals by expanding intrusive marketing initiatives and cracking down on content bandits. YouTube faces many of the same risks. And since Big Media has always considered these upstarts a threat, they may not be the least bit troubled by their waning prospects, even as they devour them. But so long as the Internet’s flow is unimpeded, people will continue to seek and find new ways to set information free.
OK, here it is. This blows the lid off of the totalitarian overlords once and for all. The mother of all conspiracies and MySpace is at the center of it.
Go back with me to February 2002, when the existence of the Total Information Awareness (TIA) Office at DARPA was disclosed by the New York times. John Poindexter, the former Reagan National Security Advisor who was convicted of lying to Congress about his management of the Iran-contra affair, was the head of TIA, whose mission was to:
…gather as much information as possible about everyone in a centralized location for easy perusal by the United States government, including Internet activity, credit card purchase histories, airline ticket purchases, car rentals, medical records, educational transcripts, driver’s licenses, utility bills, tax returns, and any other available data.
After having been revealed, the hue and cry from the public resonated through the halls of Congress. Russ Feingold introduced the Data-Mining Moratorium Act of 2003, to suspend operations at TIA until a review of its practices could be completed. Not surprisingly, the review was never initiated by the Republican majority and the program just seemed to fade away.
In fact, some of the critical technologies were surreptitiously transferred to other intelligence agencies including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Advanced Research and Development Activity (ARDA), a branch of the NSA. The NSA, of course, was already engaging in illegal covert programs to wiretap phone conversations and collect records from the phone companies. The NSA chief through much of that time was General Michael Hayden, who was also a deputy to John Negroponte, Director of DHS. Negroponte was also Ambassador to El Salvador while Poindexter was at the White House funding contras in Nicaragua. More recently we learned that the government is also tracking private banking transactions without obtaining warrants or submitting to any judicial oversight. And Hayden went on to become the Director of the CIA.
Stay with me now – here’s where it gets interesting. ARDA, which has changed its name to the Disruptive Technology Office (I’m not kidding), has been funding research into the mass harvesting of the information available on social networks like MySpace. The New Scientist reports that:
By adding online social networking data to its phone analyses, the NSA could connect people at deeper levels, through shared activities…..data the NSA could combine with social networking details includes information on purchases, where we go (available from cellphone records, which cite the base station a call came from) and what major financial transactions we make.
Combining that data with the personal information that MySpace collects, the recorded network of friends, and the communications that are made and stored online, will produce some pretty thorough profiles.
Now, with the government creating these clandestine agencies, shuffling them around and changing their names, supporting them with ever more technology to pry deeper into our personal lives, and attacking the media any time they report on some aspect of these activities so as to insure their secrecy, what is the next piece of this puzzle to fall into place?
Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of News Corp and Fox News, buys MySpace for $580 million dollars. Never mind that MySpace, while growing its membership exponentially, has lost money since its inception. What better steward for this program of privacy obliteration than the committed right-wing baron of one of the world’s largest media empires?
Am I just paranoid, or does it seem like there really is a governmental and corporate cabal that is positioning itself to become the Big Brother that Orwell warned us about?
News Corpse readers know that I am not a fan of MySpace. But they will also know that I am even more opposed to government intrusion into civil liberty and free expression. Consequently, I find myself in the awkward position of defending MySpace from the congressional thought police.
The truth is that DOPA, the “Deleting Online Predators Act” (PDF), is an assault on much more than MySpace. This bill, offered by Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA), purports to protect minors from sexual deviants patrolling the Internet by banning access to social networking sites on computers in schools, libraries and other federally funded property. Here’s how the bill defines “social networking”
“…a commercially operated Internet website that allows users to create web pages or profiles that provide information about themselves and are available to other users and offers a mechanism of communication with other users, such as a forum, chat room, e-mail, or instant messenger.”
That definition is so broad that it would also prohibit access to sites like Flickr, Wikipedia, DailyKos, and virtually every public blog on services like Blogger and Live Journal. Even Instant Messaging services would be at risk.
Fitzpatrick, the bill’s author, argues that the bill is necessary because,
“…this new technology has become a feeding ground for child predators that use these sites as just another way to do our children harm.”
Trying to blame social networking for the behavior of sexual deviants is short-sighted and distracts from efforts to implement effective legal reform. While the incidence of online child assaults has been sensationalized by the media, it’s actual occurrence is much less than that of the offline variety. Many more children have been assaulted by teachers, but I don’t hear calls for banning children from schools. The practical effect of this legislation, other than arbitrary censorship, is that children from low income families will be disproportionately excluded from access because they are less likely to have computers at home and are more dependent on public terminals.
But protecting children isn’t really what these folks are after. DOPA is the product of the House Suburban Caucus. Its founder, Mark Kirk (R-IL), recently commissioned a poll to identify issues that would appeal to suburban families and take attention away from the bigger issues facing the nation like Iraq, NSA wiretapping, gas prices, etc. The caucus now includes 18 Republican members. They are gaining some measure of influence and have recently met with Karl Rove and Denny Hastert.
In the end, this is just another cynical political scheme by Republican fear mongers to forestall the electoral beating they anticipate in November. The refrain is all too familiar now. If it isn’t terrorists on our doorstep, it’s perverts in our kids’ bedrooms. And their response always seems to be more chipping away at freedom.
It was inevitable. Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of MySpace was going to destroy it. Everyone knew that. Now the evidence is at hand and on display in the New York Times.
The decline begins with monetizing everything that moves. With Fox as the parent company, MySpace becomes just another mainstream vehicle to inject advertising into the tattered veins of a public that is viewed as nothing but consumption junkies. The lust for revenue will overpower whatever social benefit the service presently offers. And for those who hoped that MySpace’s founders, Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson, would insulate their brainchild from the suits, they will only be bitterly disappointed by reality. The Times reports this repulsive initiative…
“…to expand one of Mr. DeWolfe’s advertising ideas – turning advertisers into members of the MySpace community, with their own profiles, like the teenagers’ – so that the young people who often spend hours each day on MySpace can become “friends” with movies, cellphone companies and even deodorants. Young people can link to the profiles set up for these goods and services, as they would to real friends, and these commercial “friends” can even send them messages – ads, really, but of a whole new kind.”
Deodorants as a whole new kind of real friend for the young people. Now that’s innovation! But that’s not all. The new bosses think it would be a good idea to start charging the many bands that have created profiles and use the site to develop and connect with their fans. This idea is so bad that even DeWolfe opposes it. Unfortunately, the Fox Interactive Media boss, Ross Levinsohn, has ideas of his own and dismisses DeWolfe’s objections…
“…saying it was appropriate for the people running MySpace to be more concerned at this point about serving users than making money.”
That’s essentially an admission that, at some point in the near future, it will be appropriate to be more concerned about making money than serving users. These examples of commercialization foreshadow precisely how the culture of MySpace will become tarnished and unappealing. Its members will come to feel disinterested and exploited. But I’ve always considered the real threat to be the invasion of privacy by intrusive marketing strategies. This avenue is not being ignored by Fox:
“Mr. Levinsohn says he also hopes to raise ad rates by collecting more user data so advertisers can find the most promising prospects. To use the site, people need to provide their age, location and sex, and often volunteer their sexual orientation and personal interests. Some of that information is already being used to select ads to display. Soon, the site will track when users visit profile pages and other sections devoted to topics of interest to advertisers.”
I’m sure that will provide them with a truckload of demographic data they can use to throw ads at their membership. But they will also know a lot more about their members than any of them would be likely approve. When you combine the personal data that members volunteer with the data that can be collected from the relationships in their network of friends and add the data acquired by monitoring their surfing habits, you end up with a profile that can be awfully revealing.
Knowing that the folks behind MySpace have previously been affiliated with business practices wherein they unlawfully spied on their customers, should give MySpace users sufficient cause for alarm to reconsider remaining in the network.