In the first five minutes after the Internet Big Bang, the impulse to build a Web portal and create a personalized mini-net probably made some kind of sense. In today’s context, on the other hand, that impulse is absurd. Now that digital space is on a course for infinite expansion, filtering Web content through a portal is like trying to repackage the Pacific Ocean as a series of labeled pickle jars.
In its current incarnation, the typical Web portal is a surreal amalgam of local news reporting, soft-core porn and reruns of America’s Funniest Home Videos. As such, it amounts to nothing less than the Springerization of digital space, at a time when that venerable precursor of Reality TV has been completely eclipsed by outrageous goings on in Congress.
Of course, there’s plenty more than Yahoo.com to make you shake your head at your screen. But why should corporate entities, purporting to uphold Standards, continually dish out recycled material their audiences can post on their own? Or am I to assume that an article entitled 5 Regional Burger Chains We Wish Were National is rife with entertainment value because, obviously, the average consumer has only a limited opportunity to see fast food vendors up close?
Tour bus to Nowhere.
While I get the idea that users might enjoy having a guided tour of the Web, what’s missing is any discernible sense of direction, let alone selection. At Yahoo on 7-19-13, a story about Satanists vies for attention with a voyeuristic account of a grieving mother and rumors about Brad and Angelina because, again, users have no other access to rumors about famous couples rumored not to be rumors.
If I seem unaccountably irritated by this phenomenon, that’s only because it’s just as much a form of environmental pollution as the industrial smog that threatens to dissolve the city of Beijing by 2014.
By serving up a non-stop diet of drivel, portal Web sites of this stripe cloud the issues we need to confront as a global society. The more we’re supersized with infauxmation, the harder it is to see everyday life clearly, let alone topics like education, climate change, healthcare reform or, excuse me, social justice.
Seen from that perspective I can’t justify the persistence of sites managed by AOL, AT&T, Verizon, Excite or MSN, to name only American examples, that contribute to a peculiarly 21st century form of mental illness. That is, the inability to distinguish between reality and Reality.
I watch, therefore I am.
Look no farther than the 2010 Tyler Clementi tragedy to see this phenomenon in action. While the sociopathic cruelty exhibited in this case has many roots, one of them is surely the incessant viewing of dehumanized, contextless news stories.
I have no doubt that the person who “shared a video” of an intensely private moment saw it as nothing more than a valued contribution to Reality. In today’s world, he may even have seen it as a creative act, as the start of a brilliant film career in an age when “everyone’s a publisher.”
Sure, I know there’s more to it than that.
But if you’re not appalled by the proliferation of mental sludge in digital space, consider the impact of this schlock-n-shock pollution on the ecosystem your branded content inhabits. Ask yourself this: If you wouldn’t park your car within two feet of a toxic slag heap, why would you post your advertorial within two clicks of “Jennifer Lawrence reunites with ex-beaux?”
Trouble is, with the explosive mania driving the shared content trend, you have no idea what consumers have seen by the time they click through to your Web presence, not to mention what might appear right next to your rollover banner.
In light of that, you’d think AT&T, for example, would recognize a simple truth: The same logo that appears on its Official Site also appears on its portal—creating a direct link between “Can you name these freaky stars?” and “The Nation’s Fastest 4GLTE Network.”
And it gets worse. When you consider how often a newsertainment story gets followed, retweeted, and Digged, it’s clearly the onset of “World War C”—as zombie content threatens to devour the last shreds of brand differentiation. After all, when everything consumers encounter online gets tossed into the same value-neutral bin, you can hardly expect them to know the difference between your latest cross-promotion and “Snoop Lion teams up with Chelsea Handler.”