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Paying the Piper

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When teaching popular cultural semiotics—especially with respect to the mass media—perhaps the most crucial point to impart to your students is that the way mass media is financed determines the nature of its content. That is, the mass media in themselves (from the Hearst newspapers to the Internet) are only conveyors of information, and therefore ideologically neutral technologies, but their content is not neutral and is determined by the motivations of those who control them. It is easy to presume that all mass media follow the American model, which is a commercial one financed by advertising and marketing, but that is not always the case. British radio and television, for example, were at first financed by a governmental agency that we know as the BBC. Programming was determined by public servants, who happened to believe that radio and television should be employed to inform and culturally educate the British public. Broadcasting costs were paid by the government, and funded by the licensing fees paid by purchasers of radios and televisions. From the start, American radio and television were funded quite differently. One only had to purchase a radio or TV and the rest was free. Broadcasting costs were paid by the commercial sponsors who bought advertising time. This apparently trivial fact is of profound significance: with the motive of reaching the largest possible audience/market, commercial American media content was designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. This is why, scarcely a decade into the television era, American TV was already being referred to as a “vast wasteland.” Something of the sort is now happening with the new media kid (800-pound gorilla, actually) on the block: the Internet. Your Facebook page is free, and all those neat Google services (Google Earth, anyone?) are free, because advertising and marketing agreements are paying the bills. While there are services and content on the Web that require consumer-paid subscriptions, the highest profile content and service providers (Facebook, Google, YouTube, Yahoo, Linkedin, etc.) are still without cost (at least, in a direct monetary sense: having one’s personal information mined for marketing purposes is a different kind of cost, just as having one’s television entertainment interrupted by commercials is a different kind of cost), and this has created an expectation among Internet users of free content. Since the Internet is an infinitely vaster and more segmented medium than radio or television ever were or could be, the relationship between commercial sponsorship and Web content is much more complicated to analyze. Nevertheless, to analyze the Internet semiotically, we must consider—as a part of the system within which it signifies—the way in which it is financed. For in spite of the apparently democratic (or bottom-up) nature of so much of the Internet’s user-created content, the fact that the most prominent modalities for creating that content are provided by giant corporate interests suggests a top-down structure that contradicts any such democratic claims. Indeed, as Facebook pages consolidate the once much more decentralized terrain of the blogosphere, a certain monopolistic tendency familiar to the history of capitalism is beginning to appear. Such developments make it especially important that we subject digital technology to the same sort of critique that semiotics applies to all popular cultural phenomena.
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.