A Clash of Cultures on the Internet

Howard Besser
School of Library & Information Studies
University of California, Berkeley
(since 1998, in UCLA's School of Education & Information Studies)

(an edited version of this appeared as an "Open Forum" piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 25, 1994)


In April 1994 a Phoenix law firm posted an advertisement to 6,000 Usenet (Internet) news groups. The presence of an ad on the Internet provoked a firestorm of protest from over 30,000 Internet users who flooded the lawyers' mailboxes with hate-mail, conducted terrorist-type acts against the lawyers, and eventually led the Internet service provider to cut off the law firm's access.

 This was not the first skirmish over the nature and purpose of the emerging Information Superhighway. And in the coming months, we can expect many more turf wars over advertising on the Internet.

 Why is advertising on the Internet controversial? A key reason is that it does not fit with the existing Internet culture. In some ways it is subversive to that existing culture, and bringing commercialization to the Internet can be seen as a colonization of one culture by another.

 Until recently, information placed on the Internet was put there in the spirit of cooperation and sharing. The small amount of advertising tended to be more informational than commercial, resembling want-ads on a bulletin board (often individuals seeking or selling a single piece of used, hard-to-find equipment). Writers would post their writings on the Internet not to sell them, but to encourage people to read them. People with problems would post questions seeking answers or advice. Libraries and museums would post information to encourage learning and scholarship. In general, institutions and individuals would expect no compensation for the information they posted, yet each would expect that others would also freely post, all contributing to the common good.

 The original pioneers on the Internet (two decades ago) were people who we might today call computer hackers. The culture they established focused on using the network for communication, sharing of programs, and the sharing of other information. The spirit was one of pioneers cooperating with each other in the exploration of new territories.

 In the late 1980s and early 1990s a second wave of settlers joined the Internet. This second wave was primarily people interested in the free distribution of information (libraries, academia, museums, and political organizations). Members of this second wave had a culture that was on important levels compatible with the early Internet settlers (free exchange of information), and most of the cultural conflicts that broke out revolved around the lack of computer literacy among the newcomers.

 Unlike the second wave of settlers, the current wave flocking to the Internet (advertisers and other commercializers) bring an outlook that is not compatible with the existing Internet cultures. The commercializers have little or no sensitivity to the existing culture. Indeed, they don't really understand that people would make a conscious choice to keep commercialization from intruding into the various aspects of their lives.

 The advertisers see their role as innocuous: providing information about products and services to people, which the people can choose to ignore if they so desire. Yet many Internet habitués find this type of dissemination intrusive. They might offer the analogy that the advertisers would view a beautiful landscapes as an opportunity to construct a billboard, while the Internet users would like to enjoy the scenery without being subjected to the ads. And they would lament the fact that our contemporary society offers so few places to go where one will not be bombarded by advertisements.

 In these cultural clashes, advertisers compare the Internet to magazines and newspapers (where most people expect ads) while Internet diehards compare the Internet to telephones and interpersonal conversations (where ads would be considered intrusive). In fact, Internet areas such as Usenet are areas of two-way communication where, unlike newspapers and magazines, anyone can post messages and contribute equally to the content. Yet, unlike telephone conversations, these areas are disseminated widely, which is what attracts those interested in advertising.

 This clash of views and of cultures will continue for some time into the future. A large number of current Internet users see the coming of commercialization as a direct threat to the free exchange of information. One not unlike a wave of cultural imperialism that will adversely affect major aspects of their daily interactions.

 Yet, many Internet faithful are worried over the ability of the current Internet structure to sustain itself economically. These people take a stand similar to those in third world countries who argue that the key to future economic survival lies in attracting business, other types of investment, and the culture that accompanies them. But, just as critics of third world development argue that these changes colonize them and leave them dependent upon consumer products, critics of Internet commercialization argue that a commercialized Internet will bear only superficial resemblance to the current Internet.

 This is why Internet advertising provokes such a strong reaction in many people. The more militant see themselves as warriors fighting for the survival of a way of life they see threatened by a culture that has demonstrated its colonizing influence many times in the past. They believe that an Internet with advertising will bear about as much resemblance to the current Internet as third world countries with television, coca-cola, mickey mouse emblems, and infant formulas bear to their former selves. They contend that they are fighting for the preservation of their culture.

Last modified: 11/4/2000