Gated Communities Online

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 July 1997

Throughout the United States, huge billboards with a large Netscape-style pointing finger herald the launch of Microsoft Network. Well, actually the re-launch of Microsoft Network, or MSN.

The service was originally conceived as a subscriber-only, direct dial-up online access provider like America Online and Compuserve, where paying subscribers use special software packaged with Win95 to access member-only services like news, sports, email, and bulletin boards, as well a gateway to the Internet in general. When Microsoft management realized that the Web and its dominant browser software, Netscape, were quickly devouring the online world, they completely re-conceived their network strategy.

In the new game plan, everything on MSN would be accessible from the World Wide Web - just another website in the great global Internet community, perhaps optimized for Microsoft’s own web browser, Internet Explorer. Though some people - most notably Netscape supporters - expressed some alarm about a company as powerful as Microsoft setting Internet standards, no one could blame them for trying to compete with Netscape by creating a web site with bells and whistles initially only ringable and blowable with their own plug-ins. So far, no harm no foul.

But these days, redesigning a Web site really just amounts to the reworking of a business plan. The MSN relaunch and most other splashy announcements of breakthrough Internet services merely camouflage new ways to charge people for things they used to get for free. That’s right - MSN, the web site, costs money. While anyone can get through to the first few layers of teasers and advertisements, only folks who pay for “Premier Service” can access the real stuff. It’s a gated community on the Web.

MSN isn’t the only company looking for new ways to charge for access to web sites. Sources at MTV Networks began gently leaking last month that they, too, will soon be charging for access to their online service. Instead of charging consumers, though, they’ll be charging access providers. Relying on the business model of their successful cable television network, MTV execs hope that online services will choose to pay MTV so that subscribers can access the site, just as local cable TV providers must pay MTV a per-household charge for each home capable of receiving the signal.

MTV is banking on a ground-swell similar to the one that accompanied their famous “I want my MTV” campaign of the 1980’s, where kids demanded music television from their parents, who in turn demanded it of their cable providers. With a barrage of clever advertising and cross-promotion on their cable channel, it might just work - creating yet another members-only area in cyberspace. In this case, subscribers to larger commercial services will probably win out over subscribers to local, public access, or government-sponsored Internet providers who may not be willing to dole out cash they don’t have for entertainment-oriented services.

Is it wrong to make money off the Internet? Certainly not. If companies want to charge people in one way or another for access to the goodies on their servers’ hard drives, who are we to tell them no? The trouble comes in when the entire direction of the Internet and its technical standards can be shifted by a few big companies fighting for their own business plans. This trouble multiplies when new standards - like the zoning laws fought over by commercial land contractors - take nothing but business into account. That’s how the United States became a nation of strip malls, slums, and suburbs, and it’s how the Internet could devolve into a set of closed commercial communities within a slum of underdeveloped public ones.

The development of gated communities online needn’t ruin the Internet. It might make freeform browsing a bit more difficult, but it shouldn’t prevent anyone from getting to a conference or discussion they could get to before. The problem is that if they do their jobs well, the designers of the gated communities will make it difficult for paying subscribers to tell when they have accessed a members-only area. The transition will be seamless for anyone who has paid the price, or whose access provider has paid the price for her.

If you get into a discussion group within one of the online gated communities, you might not even realize that it is not open to the public. If you participate there, then the public Usenet group that could have benefited from your voice will lose it. And you, in turn, will lose your exposure to the uncensored chorus of voices from around the world. You will become part of an unwitting elite within an already much-too-elite community of online participants. Chances are, most of what you share will simply become fodder for the service provider’s market analysis.

We can’t and shouldn’t even try to stop people from making money by entertaining us online. But neither can we can abandon our online public spaces for the gated communities that these entertainers offer us. My sincere advice is that when you visit a commercial site, take but do not give. Watch their movies, play their games, listen to their music, but don’t mistake their discussion area for a public space. You should never have to pay to make your voice heard - and if you already are doing so, then consider who it is that might be listening.