Signs of the Times

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 25 July 2002

When AOL bought Time Warner, the New York Times asked me to write a comment piece. “What does it all mean?” my assigning editor asked.

What I wrote was that AOL’s purchase of Time Warner heralded the end of the dotcom bubble. AOL was cashing in its casino chips. And just like the gambler who trades in his coloured plastic disks for real cash, AOL’s Steve Case understood that his run was over and that it was time to trade in his stock certificates for those of a company that had genuine assets.

The New York Times refused to run the piece. They told me I was misreading the landscape to such an extent that for them to publish such a view would be irresponsible. See, all the experts - at least all the experts the Times was listening to - believed that the AOL purchase of Time Warner indicated “new” media’s domination of “old” media. Interactivity would take over. Time Warner’s only hope of getting in the game was to be absorbed by a new media company.

Of course, what was really happening was that Time Warner, after having failed in its many efforts to establish a profitable foothold on the internet, decided they had to get “interactive” by any means necessary. Meanwhile, its share price had been driven down, at least in comparison with all those Nasdaq tech stocks, by Wall Street’s focus on the dotcom universe.

Meanwhile, AOL, a company with few tangible assets other than a subscriber base whose growth had already begun to slow down, understood that the pyramid scheme on which its fortunes were made had run its course. (A recent Washington Post report suggests revenue-enhancing deals.) They needed to use their absurdly and temporarily inflated stock price to buy something real. No - they didn’t go buy another fake internet company. They bought a company with real, calculable assets such as a cable network, a film library, a host of magazines, and television stations.

Once it had completed the deal, what did AOL do? It let go of the best staff members at their magazines (print publishing? obsolete medium!), and changed the corporate culture at Time Warner to such an extent that former chairman Gerald Levin left in what can only be interpreted as a sickened disgust. (In his farewell speech, he quoted a Bible passage about the need to maintain an ethical template.)

Finally, AOL management admits that its lofty predictions of the “synergy” dividend were vastly inflated. The board has put old Time Warner execs back in charge of the company, and is hoping that AOL Time Warner may, some day, become as good and real a conglomerate as Time Warner was in the first place.

And - once again in sad ignorance of what the internet is and could be - the financial gurus are telling us that AOL’s failure means that old media is once again conquering new media. Order has been restored.

What they don’t get, and what real internet enthusiasts have been saying since AOL took off in the early 1990s, is that a company like AOL never had a future. AOL was a training ground: an introduction to the internet for people who didn’t know how to deal with FTP. None of us thought it could last, because once the technological barriers to entry for the internet had been lowered, no one would need AOL’s simplistic interface or it’s child-safe, digital content wading pools. People would want to get on the “real” internet, using real browsers and email programs.

AOL’s demise may represent the power of old media - movies and magazines are a much more sustaining and profitable form of content than anything to be found online. But it also represents the power of new media: the internet is a living culture, not a shopping mall, and any effort to make it safer, easier, or more predictably mainstream is not only shortsighted, but unnecessary.