K.Patelis on Tue, 28 Mar 2000 23:04:23 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] aol last year- a published piece

Dear All,

I wrote this last year it has already been printed in the Web Epistemology
book published by the Van Eyck Academy. AOL has seen the spotlight so I
thought it might be of interest for those researching AOL.


The political economy of e-mediation

Department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths College, University of
London, SE14 NW, London, U.K.


The current paradigm for perceiving e-communication constructs the
Internet as a metaphor for the direct communication between autonomous
free individuals. The Internet allegedly brings to life the marketplace of
ideas, and the free market itself. Essential to the model presented is
proof that communication in the on-line world is in no way mediated. Any
factor that mediates communication compromises individual soveirgnity
hence puts the model in danger. A perception of software as neutral, as a
benign tool for individual empowerment and of e-intermediators as
bystanders who add utility to surfing is essential to maintaining the
model. In addition to this there is a tendency to analyse e-communication
as fragmented, as occurring after a user views the desired Web-page. This
essentially fragments the mediation in question and inevitably diminishes
its importance in understanding on-line power. This paper will critically
analyse e-mediation as cultural force. The focus of the talk will be
America On-line who will function as a case study which exemplifies the
analysis offered. Starting point will be an analysis of software as
cultural environment that constructs information in the same way language
constructs perception. Furthermore a critical analysis of portal sites and
the way in which they attempt to structure surfing. Key to this is
perceiving of on-line power as configured by the interplay of the
industries that form the on-line world. In short it is essential to
comprehend that the on-line experience is not fragmented, and that it is
in the interplay and mix of telecoms, isp's, search engines, software and
content providers that the most important formation of online power is
constituted: signposting. How Signposting's function for the on-line news
environment of AOL will be examined.


The hype with regard to the transformation the Internet heralds for
society is allegedly over, techno futurism, Netopia or Internetphilia as
the hype in question has been named, has given way to an enlightened
pragmatism which accepts the Internet as part of a developing state
capitalist economy to which information technology is essential. 

Though there are strong reasons to assert that this is strictly speaking
not true, particularly if one does not confine Internet analysis to the
wired world, and that the party is far from over, during this talk I will
assume that the ideology in question has evolved.; and that though its
intensity and dependence on hype has diminished, its core assertions
remain. These are mainly articulating through a related metaphor: that of
the free market place of goods. The Internet is a symbol for the free
market, a dynamic nature like entity who's driving force is the sovereign
individual who's demand drives innovation. 

The two metaphors in question, the market place of ideas and of goods, are
very similar, their key difference is that the second situates the
Internet within the global capitalist system. Instead of direct democracy
and speakers corner images we are being bombarded with rhetoric about one
to one marketing. But the core of the metaphor does not change, it is a
strikingly simplistic image of direct exchange, an agora in which the
middleman is dead. The Internet marks the beginning of an era of
dis-intermediation, a mode of communicating and exchanging goods in which
representation is absent. At the hart of the metaphor lies the abstract
rational decision maker, the modern free individual, the consumer in
control. The Netuser can exercise his/her desire without mediation, he is
therefore free from all external restrictions as Internet becomes an
extension of individual freedom.
But how can one defend such image in the face of a commercially saturated
Can we deny the existence of yahoo in e-paradise? There are two main
arguments which defend the image of a free and direct marketplace in the
light of e-conglomeration. Functionality and customisation. Together they
guarantee that intermediation is benign and that there is no power in
E-mediators construct and foster the image of the Internet as a chaotic
landscape to create a feeling of unsafety and disorder. What they offer to
consumers is firstly a safe territory in that chaotic landscape, a place
in which all this information makes sense and secondly a way to make this
chaotic landscape function, essentially the structuration necessary to
make surfing sensicle.
The second weapon offered to the sovereign consumer in this renewed
digital capitalist revolution is customisation. Customisation is changing
our lives and the way we do business. The focal point stressed by
e-missionaries has seized to be that the individual can always click and
choose through myriads of sites thus form his/her own experience but that
they can customise their experience. It is not that we can always click
out of Yahoo and go to an unknown site but that Yahoo is now My Yahoo. We
are presented with the opportunity to participate a market that is
composed by thousands of niche markets.

This paper presents an analysis that rebuts the above metaphor. Its aim is
to create a map of intermediation on-line analysing the working of
intermediators to establish that communication on-line is mediated thus
not benign but structured in a very particular fashion. For the image of a
unmediated world this paper substitutes a commercially saturated
structured by profit cultural environment. The example of AOL is used to
provide such analysis within the constraints of this paper. To this end a
methodological custom has to be overcome: the fragmentation of the on-line
experience and the distinction between infrastructure and content. Current
research is marked by a tendency to analyse the Internet using neat
categories and a distinction between infrastructure and content. Political
economy analysts center round telecommunication and cultural theorists
around a very vague entity named content. This distinction is also
reflected in regulation where the carrier status of the Internet, that is
the Net as a delivery platform, and content regulation are distinguished
from each other requiring allegedly different regulatory approaches. In
addition to such separation content is usually fragmented from the
workings of search engines, ISP's and software to mean: a web page. An
understanding of e-mediation can not be given with such tools of analysis
because software search engines and ISP's can not neatly be classified
either as infrastructure or content. Software structures our perception of
information and is thus a powerful cultural force. In addition such
analysis undermines the power configurations constituted through a
combination of the fragments in question. The on-line process is in fact
continuos and our understanding of it has to take such continuity in
A theory of signposting aids us to perceive of the on-line communication
not as fragmented but as a holistic and uniform process of structuration. 

A theory signposting
The on-line world is situated within the intersection of five key
industries: telecomms , software, internet service providers,
classification and search providers and on-line content providers. It is
in how these industries intertwine overlap and mix that the most important
formation of on-line power is constituted: sign-posting. Understanding
consumption or use on the Internet as occurring when the user views/uses a
Web page is wrong. It ignores that it is the totality and interaction
between the different parts which formulate the on-line world that
structures and forms the on-line experience (consumption). And it is in
the ability to determine such intersection and interaction that on-line
power lies. On-line power can only be understood if the totality of
Internet related industries are defined as industrial and cultural actors
which form our on-line experience. Sign-posting is a form of
multi-industrial structuration. It is about drawing attention to certain
content and creating the illusion of disintermediation or benign
intermediation that is intermediation beneficial to the user. Singposting
is about creating a sense of authored place, a sense of territory, safety,
property a path in e-chaos.

The full complexities of intermediation on-line can only be explored in
any length within the constraints of this paper vis a vis an example; the
focus of this paper is on a major industrial and cultural actor of the
intersection of these industries, an actor who's increasing power in
shaping the boundaries of on-line experiences (for its users &
audience) is paradigmatic for future developments. Such power lies in the
ability to signpost users to particular content and to determine
structures aesthetic conventions for the production of on-line content
that facilitate commercialisation. The major player in question is
AOL. Our understanding of intermediation will be enhanced through the
example of AOL since it operates and aims for the control of the different
parts of the Internet economy perfectly putting in motion the theory
presented above, in the company's words " what this all reflects is our
vision of "AOL anywhere" - extending the AOL brand and experience wherever
consumer demands and technology permit" (Company report page 2). AOL is
the only company that attempts to signpost a user from the beginning till
the end of the on-line experience. AOL creates a sense of territory in the
electronic frontier, it has become a separate "place", a destination for
users. Ironically AOL's services are presented as neutral when in fact
what is on offer is a very particular biased service. An authored on-line
environment. AOL is offers biased e-mediation as disintermediation. 
AOL.com : the Web made simple
					 "this is a truly great
opportunity to contribute more to the development of a revolutionary new
medium and AOL's emergence as a leader in this industry. We have made
tremendous progress building a mass-market brand and leveraging the power
of our rapidly growing audience. Now we are ready to marshal our full
scale partnerships and capabilities to create additional value across
multiple brands" Pitman President of AOL (AOL 1998). 

"AOL: we're on mission to build a global medium as central to people's
lives as the telephone or television and even more valuable" AOL Annual
Report 1999

AOL, founded in 1985, is a $ 2 billion multi-brand new media company,
company operating AOL Networks and AOL Studios (content provision) with
8,500 million employees. The company owns CompuServe Interactive Services
with 2 million users worldwide and Netscape Co., thus control of the
Netscape browser. The company's public company investments are valued at
nearly $200 million and its competitors (mentioned in its on-line
report) vary from Yahoo, Lycos and Infoseek to global media companies and
news papers including Walt Disney, CBS.

AOL's audience, which is more than its 12,5 million members , an audience
of 15 million, that is somewhat more than 15 % of the entire Web user
population, is composed by affluent Americans. In 1998 63% of members are
college graduates 60% professional executive technical or academic,
members, which spend 15% less time watching television than the general
U.S. audience. 24% make more 100 thousand dollars and the rest make more
then 60.000. More than half of members are women. This means that
AOL's mass-market audience brings together the largest concentrated group
of upscale customers in the media world (Media Space 1998)

The company's Web site, www.AOL.com claims to be the most accessed site
from home.

Ever since the development of the Internet AOL has invested in picturing
the Net as a chaotic mesh, a difficult and unordely entity, intelligently
marketing its services as the messia that can structure such anarchic
landscape and make the on-line experience possible. The AOL promise is a
journey through cyberspace "sit back and enjoy the ride" is the
slogan. Naturalism characterises the images evoked, that is a perception
of technology like a biological force, which goes hand in hand with a
description of AOL's function as benign but at the same time indispensable
(the unresolvable tension of on-line service provision). AOL's T.V. advert
for European viewers crystalises these issues. The advert stereotypically
features a household in which two kids are "playing" with the Internet. To
guide them and keep them safe comes AOL, symbolised on screen by
transparent maternal character, a humanoid, which speaks and looks like a
human but is clearly not. The humanoid is transparent symbolising the
neutrality of the help AOL offers. The family scenario unfolding presents
AOL as a family service provider. The naturalism in operation is worth
noting: AOL is presented as similar to a biological organism. The irony is
incredible: the humanoid keep the kids safe by installing on-line filters
but one has to ask who invited it in the house? 

AOL takes pride in its decision to provide more than access to the
Internet and structure its "audience's" on-line experience by providing
the resources, chat rooms and software to use the Internet. To put it in
the words of its C.E.O Case, "putting the full power of AOL to work for
all our brands will allow us to recognize the growing synergies between
our subscription-based on-line networks, AOL and CompuServe and Studios
and original content properties like Digital City Entertainment
Asylum. Electra and Wordplay (AOL Press 1998:1). In other words AOL is in
business acknowledging that structuring a Web experience means more than
with providing a company homepage. Its entire strategy is based on
homogenising the on-line experience by intervening in the different
industries involved in the internet economy. This includes software: AOL's
acquisition of Netscape Communication positions AOL in the lead of
browsing software. AOL has also seeked strategic agreements with Microsoft
to make the AOL icon accessible via desktop folder on the WINDOWS 95 and
98 operating systems. The software given to AOL users is a branded version
of the Internet explorer, it reflect the logic and aesthetic of the
AOL.com site contributing to the homogenity of the AOL cultural
envoiroment offered. 


				American Online utilises specialised
retention programs designed to increase customer loyalty and satisfaction
and to maximise customer subscription life 

AOL constructs a narrative for the user. The narrative consists of nothing
but the idea that for the anarchic open cyberspace AOL substitutes a safe,
structured place, an authored experience, a story to be lived. The
territorial metaphor is essential in understanding the appeal of this
narrative. AOL provides users with a authored "place" in cyberspace, a
controlled part of the chaotic frontier, a branded wild West. The
narrative essentially builds an Internet experience that limits the user
to being a consumer and by segmenting and categorising such consumption,
structuring his consumer desires/requests. The intervention does not
solely operate in limiting the way in which needs can be satisfied but in
outlining what these needs are. It defines Web utility. In short AOL
defines the function of the Web for the user. It is not merely that it
hierchases content, it is that it hierchases and packages what content
types are desirable. It creates a tightly singposted web of sites from
which the users should not be compelled to exit. The user is constrantly
reminded that what is on offer is essentially the Web. This is why AOL.com
is a very tightly structured site, everything is neatly planed to create
the impression that AOL.com is a complete, Internet experience, one that
does not make it necessary for user to leave the site or the links from it
and look else where for a fulfilling on-line experience.
This is achieved by the site's architecture as well as by the format and
design in which the content appears throughout the site. On a very basic
aesthetic level the entire site is based on the use of three basic
colors: red , blue and white ( black is use for letter only). Red is used
to frame a page , it provides for skeleton and designates "structure",
blue is used to connote further links. The function of the design will
become more apparent when the packaging and structuring is further
explored. There are two major levels on which packaging operates: the AOL
menu and the Web centers.

The AOL menu

Like with other portal sites "the menu" is imperative for the well
functioning of the site as a hole. It has become an aesthetic convention
symbolically sinonimous to functioncality, thus impossible to avoid . 

When first entering AOL.com and in every single page on the site the user
faces a standardised red frame. This frame consists of 5 red boxes
appearing on the top of the screen and the same five boxes appearing on
the bottom (FIGURE 1). These boxes are nothing but an on-line menu, they
set the choices and functions that the Web has, they customise the content
These are Netfind (AOL's own search engine), Web centers, My news,
Shopping and Free Products . The AOL front page is nothing but a breakdown
of this menu showing in more detail what each choice offers. This menu
defines how one uses the AOL and what one experiences in the Web because
for the new user it defines what one can be searching for on-line. It
umbrellas the whole of the users experience in AOL uniting existing
material, creating a feeling of continuity and safety. The construction of
cyberspace as inherently chaotic and lawless aids to exacerbate these
feelings. The user is meant to feel sheltered from getting lost in
cyberspace, that this Web site is safe controlled and professional. This
is the prototype of a commercial digital aesthetic. Implicit in its
existence is the idea that "professional" Web sites should offer similar
functionality and customisation; that a site properly serving the public
should have standard customised options that run through the whole of the
site unite the users experience, provide continuity, making surfing
sensicle. In other words categorising material, segmenting and signposting
audiences is naturalised and is built in aesthetic conventions of how
on-line site should be built. Hierchasing content is considered a process
by which functionality is added to existing content. Consequently an
aesthetic that draws clear boundaries between Web pages is considered
The development of such aesthetic formats and conventions should not be
taken lightly for their film equivalent is the development of Hollywood
aesthetics and narratives . Developing an aesthetic and design that
categorises and frames information in neat segmented areas allows for
further commodification and is therefore an ultimate goal for
AOL. Spreading this approach to design is part of the AOL project. As it
typically advises other Web site builders; "People have short attention
spans. Two minutes is about all the time people will spend doing any one
thing anymore. What does this means to you? Make you pages clear, concise
and to the point. If someone has to scroll down more than twice to get
through your page, its too long. The best thing to do is to split up your
data into clear categories ( like Products, Services, Customers,
etc) instead of bombarding your visitors with information that they
probably won't read" (Prime Host ) 

A further dramatic consequence of the existence of this prototype is that
it strictly hierchasises the information available in AOL. It puts certain
content on the forthfront. Simple user Web pages or Web pages of small
business are kept in the background not exposed. This consolidates the
idea that Internet user sites are distinct from sites of institutions
because they are less professional and less reliable. In fact AOL has
packaged all small content into one neat on-line area: HomeTown AOL. Home
town AOL is a AOL packaged "community" , it is where one can find all
individual user and business homepages. Hometown is only accessible
through the "free products" option in the main AOL menu. Hometown creates
a dichotomy between personal individual Web casting and professional Web
casting. It build on a false qualitative distinction between individually
produced communication and company produced communication . The
implication is the company produced content is more "professional", hence
better. Of course with Web casting values and standards in developement it
is not really made explicit what kind of professionally HomeTown pages
In Hometown AOL the Web pages available are segmented in 11 categories,
including Business Park, Cultures and Beliefs, Education, News and
Entertainment. Such categorisation is arbitrary and entirely
problematic. For example Philosophy and Politics can be found under
Cultures and Beliefs between ethnicity and religion. According to the DDC,
the system of classification used by 95% of libraries worldwide however
philosophy is a larger category of knowledge then all of these. 

The arbitrary set of categories is matched by an arbitrary set of
community rules for users Contributing to Hometown AOL ( any Aol member
that desires a Web page i.e. a large % of the 13 million AOL users) these
are in operation because "it is essential that content reflects our
community standards and we may remove any member pages if in our
judgements it does not meet those standards" . These standards give
absolute editorial control to AOL in so far as HomeTown is concerned and
because they are rather vague they give AOL even more control. So for
example "explicit/vulgar/obscene language" is not permitted, "racial
ethnic or otherwise objectionable content" is not permitted neither is
"advice on how to make bombs". The naturalisation of such ambivalent
standards set by an unaccountable body is problematic. But AOL desire for
control does not only relate to ethical standard but to aesthetic as
well: Hometown AOL contributors are not permitted to eliminate the
Hometown Frame set. The terrestrial equivalent of such control would be to
make all people broadcasting in access TV speak from behind the same desk
using the same studio waiting the same clothes.
Aol's control of business related pages is also dramatic: small business
are not allowed to make on-line transactions, payments ( e-commerce is not
allowed), and AOL also reserves the right to terminate any links to
outside commercial sites beyond hometown as well soliciting for
advertisers and sponsors.

The Netfinder

AOL's provides a search engine for its users and visitors, a special
branded version of Excite for the U.S. and a special branded version of
Lycos for Europe. The search engine is like all other AOL products
naturalised as part of cyberspace as the only viable option. When AOL
users are running a search Netfinder searches through somewhat 55,000 Web
pages indexed in its database, when in fact users think it is searching
throughout the Web.

AOL's Web centers

WE ORGANISE THE WEB FOR YOU ! (the motto underneath Web centers) 

AOL Web centers function as gateways to the on-line experience. They
categorise available options and signpost to particular sites. With the
pretence that such categorisation proves ultimately beneficial for the
user AOL advertises this channel-type content structuring. To give too
examples from the company profile " AOL has packaged its content into
categories of information or channels, which are represented as buttons on
the main channels screen. These channels contain original AOL content,
information from leading media partners and links to related areas on the
Weband..packaging of top Web programming, products and services into one
easy to use Web site AOL.com makes it convenient for Internet users and
AOL members worldwide to locate useful information on the Web and
communicate, family and business colleges". 

There are 16 channels Including: Entertainment, News, Personal Finance,
Business & Careers, Autos, Health, International, Travel, Computing,
Sports, Local, Research & Learn, Home & Garden , Pictures & Albums. Now
there are central omissions in these categories, for example there is no
Art category. The category international implies that despite AOL's
distinct effort to present AOL service as global Aol considers America its
base. There is furthermore no category in which political governmental or
non-profit organizational material can be accessed from. This in addition
to being an example of a profit-orientanted and commercial bias is a
shortcoming according to the standards that AOL has set. It clearly
breaches AOL's promise to shareholders according to which " we also
believe the Internet will help reconnect people with their sense of civic
community and with their elected leaders. So we are working to develop
innovative models for effectively using the online medium to allow
citizens to become more engaged in the political process" With no politics
option on the menu this is hardly effective. We are of course never told
how these categories can in fact group distinctive bodies of knowledge and
what bodies of knowledge they link to. No methodology or logic which
guides the structuration in question is provided, no account of how these
categories function or are related is given. What is given is a list of
Web sites, users are singposted to particular material when they are given
the illusion that this is the only/best material available.

The above analysis points to a set of obvious but repeated contradictions
and biased practices. At the hart of the problem lies a refusal on the
part of AOL and many other companies on-line to admit that there are
mediating on-line experiences. Such refusal and denial of responsibility
may stem from marketing needs or from the hegemonic position that
Internetphila's second articulation has in the business world. On line
providers are providing with Channels, categories and content without
really reflecting upon what the difference between the three is. There is
not acceptance that normative claims should be made about the function of
the different services provided. Such normative claims are not made a
priory because it is supposedly the user who defines the utility of a
category, genre of content. In the case of AOL it is clear that this is
not so. In search of a mission statement or some kind of coherent set of
goals that AOL aims to provide one predictably encounters a description of
a benign function, one that adds utility and strucutration or a complete
disvowment of responsibility for content, in AOL Terms of Use " do not
assume AOL content is error free". Do we not assume the BBC news is error

Avoiding to ask the question "what is the aim of on-line
structuration?" does not rid of it, which is why AOL operations are
illegitimate with many contradictions. Pointing to such systematic
avoidance and the contradictions it produces may appear as left wing
paranoia when referring to web-entertainment. For a genre that has
traditionally been defined by a rather strict set of normative claims
about its function in a liberal democratic society such avoidance and
contradictions can posit severe problems. Examining AOL's My-news shows
why the above analysis is not a cautious paranoid examination of on-line
power. AOL defines itself as transparent neutral mediator performing
solely operational functions. What occurs when they claims to such
transparency are made with regard to an area that has traditionally been
charged with performing very important civic function? Neutrality in news
gathering has always been the objective, but this objective has been one
that journalists and media organisations have struggled for and battled
with; AOL claims that such struggle is not necessary because with the
Internet neutrality is not a social "function" but an automatic
technological reality. In other words is it possible to maintain the
argument that AOL has no power over its users in so far as framing the
news agenda is concerned even when such framing is one that has been
defined as a very important social political function for decades?

My News : no vision no journlists

Like most on-line portals, or channels My news is not a gateway to a
knowledge area, a balanced and fair access to all existing resources but
signposter signposting users to particular resources. The agenda provided
through digital frames and hyperlinks is framed in a very particular
fashion; in other words framing in the on-line world includes links to
other Web resources.

The AOL news site has an 15,4 million audience reach, which positions it
at the top of the ratings for on-line news (Media Matrix 1998). The site
can be accessed through the main AOL menu or from the red frame bar that
appears on the top of every AOL page. The headline news of the hour
appears in a box on the top of the front page, often amalgamated with
e-commerce content. For example on the 07/04/99, the story on the NATO
bombing of Serbia was literally in the same box as an e-commerce offer
(click and buy). The box was using the same font for both stories to the
extent that they where not that easily distinguishable. News is updated
more than once a day so this story may change though the day. Clicking on
both the headline , the 'news ' or the "my news" button takes the user to
a the main news site called My news.

The pretence of neutrality mentioned above is reflected on the site. For
example from 1999 onwards the definition of "my news" provided upon
request to users inquiring upon the nature of the service provided was "a
premier customisable news source on the Internet" aiming to provide the
user with his/hers preferred news. How such goal can be realised is not
explained or problematised what is essentially implied is that such
neutral customisation is a automatic natural task. Such lack of reflection
and problematisation as to what news customisation, is as well as an
absence of a coherent vision of how the neutrality desired will be
achieved, is betrayed by AOL's advice for consumers that do not want to
customise the News site. According to AOL the advice is simple "if you 'd
rather not personalise your news, we automatically offer you a version of
my News featuring the most popular news and information
categories!" Pornography is the most popular content on-line, not of
course what AOL means here.

The employment structure and composition of the AOL.com news team is also
telling with regard to this standard denial that AOL is providing news
content. My News claims to have a dedicated team of writers, editors,
producers and engineers to provide the best customised news service on the
Web. No journalists are employed (or at least if they are they are never
featured, they never author the content, their names are not available as
part of staff ). The team is composed of 13 engineers, 4 people in Q& A ,
3 business specialist, 7 senior members in managing positions, and 6
production workers. The My News site does not have an editor, it has a
Product/Program Manager. His vision of the My News site is very poor,
manifesting no ethical journalistic anxieties, as him himself declares on
the site "basically my current goals in life are to work to make My News
the greatest thing since the dawn of creation and to have a blast doing
it. So far, not doing too bad on either goal. When not working or working
, I can usually be found vegging out on a longer chair at the beach,
losing money playing pool, watching CNN in anticipation of the 'Breaking
News" music , or spending gobs of time with Jen." (Bill Firshing Personal
The structure of the news site produced is important in our analysis, as
the argument put forth is that it is not only the text that forms on-line
cultural environments but the whole of a site. It is by examining the site
as a whole and the links to other sites offered that one can understand
how signposting in news is the off-line equivalent of framing. In other
words there are two levels on which the My News site can be analised,
because there are two levels on which the My News site is an authored
environment. The first level is similar to print media or even T.V news in
which a content analysis would suffice to prove there has been a selection
of particular sources and that news has been framed in a particular
fashion. The second level, which should be included in on-line news
analysis, is that which takes links to other sites, links to stories and
Web pages, as well as the general framing of these in the whole of the
site as part of what AOL has authored. The My news site includes therefore
the totality of the links (sources) on the site and the hierarchical
relationship between them. These are measured against the imaginary
totality of sources that could exist. Such totality of AOL provided links
is the authored environment that AOL provides users with, it is "the
work" . And though it is AOL's intention to deny such authorship AOL
clearly provides such second level of determination of content,
essentially signposting produces very biased news coverage environments. 

The main My News default site is organised around a central page called
front page, and the rest of the site is subdivided into 5 sections: News,
Business Sports, Entertainment, Weather. News was the section chosen as
more important to be analised.
The Front page by default features Top Stories, Front page
headlines. Under Front page headlines the headlines of News Stories,
Business Stories, Sport stories and Business Stories :Technology are
featured. On the left hand side of screen there is a frame , in pale
yellow that features other links and sources on offer by default. The
frame appears on every single page on the AOL My News site, it is the
frame in which the story and other options are contextualised in. The
options the frame offers change but it appears as the "menu" for " more
" news. In the Front Page the options given in this frame
are: --------------------------------------------------------------
a) Welcome my news, the link that allows customers to customise b) Weather
c) Stocks and a default portfolio
d) Scoreboard ( Sport results)
e) The Lighter Side: Ann Landers Buzzsaw Today's Crossword f) Daily
Briefing : CNN Top Story , The Wall Street Journal Hourly Business
Updates, Warner Bors Hip Clip
g) Featured Sites
With regard to (a) and the issues of customisation one can note the
following: My News is a choice in the menu that implies that the user can
customise content to meet his interests and needs. Its appearance in the
AOL format that runs throughout the AOL functions as a re-minder that the
user has the ultimate control of what she/he views and that the user can
customise on-line content to meet the needs and interest, if this is true
then signposting is an individual choice. When attempting to customise my
news a user will quickly discover the limitations of customisation. Each
customisable link, takes the user to a list of "other links" from which
the user can choose, a freedom "a la cart "! Below is are some examples of
the options given to a user for customising their front page, examples
that typify the limitations in question: 


Personalize your Front Page (optional)
Top News
Top International News
Top Political News

Top Business News
Top Technology News

Top Sports News
College Hoops (M)
College Hoops (W)
College Football
College Hockey
Movies and Film

Television and Video

Customize Your Daily Briefing
Daily Briefing provided by RealNetworks. 

ABCNews Headlines
Air Force Radio News
Air Force News And Views
Ask Dr. Science
Daily Yomiuri
Earth & Sky Blue Moons
FOX News - Headlines
HistoryChannel.com: This Day In History
NetRadio News
NetRadio This is True, Really News I Don't Know Any More!! 
PNO Radio News News About The Gay Community Pacifica Network News Bombs
Increasing <Picture>The World Kosovo Talks Get Green Light Yomiuri News
Stream - Japanese

Customize your headlines

News : Top Reuters News
News : International : Top News
News : Washington : Top Political News
News : Top News
News : Calendars and Recaps
News : U.S. Elections
News : International
News : National
News : News Analysis
News : Opinions and Editorials
News : Science
News : Washington
News : Washington : White House

Business : Top News
Business : Technology : Top News
Business : Government
Business : Calendars and Recaps
Business : Columns and Consumer News
Business : Earning Reports
Business : Trade
Business : Industry News : Industry
Business : Markets
Business : Markets : Stocks
Business : Technology

Sports : Top Reuters News
Sports : Major League Baseball
Sports : National Basketball Association Sports : National Football League
Sports : National Hockey League
Sports : NCAA Football
Sports : NCAA Men's Basketball
Sports : NCAA Women's Basketball
Sports : NCAA Hockey
Sports : Major League Soccer

Entertainment : Arts and Culture
Entertainment : Computers and Online
Entertainment : Industry News
Entertainment : Movies and Film
Entertainment : Music
Entertainment : People
Entertainment : Reviews
Entertainment : Television and Video
Entertainment : Theater

Edit Featured Sites
Please use the list below to customize your featured sites. Simply click
within the checkbox to select or unselected a particular topic. You may
select up to 30 topics.

Albuquerque Journal
Anchorage Daily News
Anderson Herald-Bulletin
Arizona Republic
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Baltimore Sun
Billings Gazette
Boston Globe
Boston Herald
CBS News
CBS News
Charleston Gazette
Charlotte Observer
Chattanooga Free Press
Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Tribune
Cincinnati Enquirer
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Commercial Appeal
Daily Oklahoman
Dallas Morning News
Denver Post
Deseret News
Detroit Free Press
Detroit News
Fargo Forum
Fox News
Hartford Courant
Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Houston Chronicle
Indianapolis Star and News
Kansas City Star
Las Vegas Review-Journal
Las Vegas Sun
Los Angeles Times
Louisville Courier-Journal
Manchester Union Leader
Miami Herald
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Mobile Register
New York Daily News
New York Post
Newark Star Ledger
Newport News Daily Press
Philadelphia Inquirer
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Portland Press Herald
Providence Journal-Bulletin
Rocky Mountain News
Salt Lake Tribune
San Antonio Express-News
San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco Examiner
San Jose Mercury News
Seattle Times
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
St. Paul Pioneer Press
The New York Times
The State
The Washington Post
Wichita Eagle

The above choices for customisation link to 76 sites that clearly belong
to the mainstream, they are sites run by succefull media companies. These
are exclusively U.S. based. If it is the quantity of links to other
sources that matters to prove that a news site is infact customisable then
AOL has clearly failed to be a neutral source provider, because there are
at least 1563 newspapers on-line in the U.S. (and that is not counting
other broadcasting channels ) and AOL signposts to only 4,6% of them. If
it is a plurality of viewpoints that AOL aims at then there are notable
omissions. The U.S. rich alternative press is not represented, the Red
Paper, Papper Tiger TV, and European press is interily ignored. If the
above is taken to be the broader frame AOL has to offer for news
gathering, then one can say that it is AOL intention to keep users in the
mainstream of on-line news content production, and in particular in the
American mainstream content production.

With regard to option B of the frame one has to mention that it offers the
same choices as E, it signposts to the same sites as E. The positioning of
C and D in the default frame/menu normalises stock prices and subsequently
financial activity as part of everyday life. This is a value laden
assumption about the normal categories of information a user needs,
particularly for a provider that markets itself as the family provider. It
essentially naturalises information on stock prices as part of news
agenda. This decision goes hand in hand with a general technocratic
financially orientated news front page which encompasses 2 main news
categories that are business orientated and no art one on the default
There are also some general comments to be made about the front page and
the site in general. Though one can personalise choices, the user has no
choice as to whether the currency of news matters to him. The time of
update is not customisable. This is some what ironic because the reason
for which currency has been an important element of news making is because
keeping track of time typifies more general responsibility to provide
accurate news. Currency is also a metaphor for accuracy and neutrality. It
is paradoxical that AOL gives its users the right to personalise all
preferences but not their relationship to time. AOL seems willing to break
other journalistic conventions but not the idea that news has to be
precise and consequently new. This is also ironic given that some news
items stay on the site for days (a matter taken on latter) Finally there
is no arts section, there is no documentary section and no editors note,
on the default FrontPage site. A section on art can be introduced by the
user under entertainment. 

>From the Front Page one can access the News home, the structure of which
is important to understand news coverage: the default main news page
features Top News, National News, Washington, International, Science. Each
category features somewhat 5 headlines of stories available for
reading. It is worth mentioning that very often the stories featured in
each category overlap, so that some stories are promoted as the Key
stories. This is particularly true of some headline stories. To give an
example on the 22, 27 of January at least two stories on the Top Stories
where featured on the Front Page Headlines category . The user clicks on
the story in question which takes him to an other page, the "story page".
At the same time the News site page offers the same standardised design
yellow frame/menu bar, with the following extra choices
------------------------------------------------------------------- My
News ( like in the Front page)
Weather ( like in the Front page)
Snapshots : Today in History, News Calender, Religion Briefs, Weather
Almanac, Obituaries in the News, Sunday TV News Shows, Editorial Roundup,
Canadian Briefs, Latin American Brief
Daily Briefing: NPR Hourly News, ABC headlines, FOX News Headlines My
Featured Sites: ABCNews. Com, USAToday, The New York Times
Choosing from one of these options the user goes to the featured
sites. These sites are all commercial mainstream news sites, and in no way
reflect the plurality of the sites available ( which as we have mentioned
before is more than 3000 sites).
When one clicks on a story one can read the story as well as a set of
options on the standardised menu bar. These options are MORE News linking
to other sites or stories and a Search option. In view of a first story
the primer problem with regard to responsibility and AOL is immediately
apparent. No story is copyrighted by AOL, all stories have not been
written by AOL authors. All links on the standardised bar are however
authored by AOL. Who has copyright for the page? This is not to mention
that until the beginning of March AOL featured A.P. stories almost
exclusively without informing users of its agreement. Who was the author
of the page A.P. or AOL? 

The above are only fragments and examples of the ill practices of
intermediation on-line. Though alone they may appear as details of a
chaotic landscape, their implications extend well beyond their
triviality. The lack of responsibility and accountability in on-line
mediation is an important parameter of the on-line communication that
regulator and critics alike have repeatedly ignored.
Intermediation is by definition not nautral but at the same time it is not
an ill, our lives democracies and societies have been founded on it for
years. There can be not democracy without representation, even in its
direct forms language mediates and constructs experiences. But
representation is democratic only if it obeys those that is represents and
there are mechanism to assure this. The mechanisms are very
straightforward: accountability , responsibility . Values that have
governed our lives and media functions for years. The model of the
Internet we are presented with takes mediation and thus accountability and
responsibility out of the agenda ignoring unfortunately a democratic
e-communication be constituted without them. The result is a model of
direct exchange that has become the alibi for commercial joy riding in the
on-line world.

Korinna Patelis
Department of Media and Communications
Goldsmiths College-London-SE14 6NW
DIRECT LINE 0171-9197243

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