Rheingold argues that when people spread the idea that electronic networks are inherently democratic without specifying the hard work that must be done to harvest that democratising power, they can become unwitting agents of commodification.
Habermas makes a distinction between the critical functions of communicative processes and functions that aim to influence the decision of consumers, voters and clients.
The critical functions are self-regulated and inclusive, while those aiming to influence are implemented by organisations that aim to promote purchasing power, loyalty or conformist behaviour.
These two functions compete with each other. The principle of publicity turns "against itself and thereby reduces its critical efficacy" (Habermas in Calhoun, 1993: 437).
Public sphere sold to consumers
He sees the public sphere as a commodity that is sold to consumers, using manipulative techniques and imagery to seduce them. Television in particular has introduced flashy, phoney, often violent imagery to replace reading, writing, and rational discourse.
Increasingly, aspects of advertising and public relations have undermined the public sphere by supplanting genuine discourse with fake discourse, leading to a radical deterioration of the public sphere (Rheingold, 1993: 285).
Politicians are now sold as commodities, citizens are viewed as consumers, and issues are decided with staged events and quotes pre-worded by publicity specialists.
Politicians routinely spend large sums to improve their appearance for television and advertising appearances, through techniques such as image consultants, expensive wardrobes and haircuts, facelifts, exercise regimes and the like, in much the same way as actors and models do.
They package themselves more attractively for the electorateís metaphorical supermarket shelf.
Advertising promotes consumer identity
Dahlgren argues that the discourses of advertising in the public sphere encourage consumption and promote "a consumerist subject position, which certainly manifests itself in a general way in social subjectivity. ...The commodification of everyday practices and social relations is beyond dispute" (Dahlgren, 1995:22).
The consumer identity has become the accepted model for political decision making. Discourse has degenerated into publicity, which harnesses the power of electronic media's seductive imagery to affect society's ideas and beliefs.
Internet duplicates and subverts
The Internet has the potential to both duplicate and subvert this effect. It duplicates it in that the same advertising and public relations are engaged with the Internet; and yet the Internet still has room for many other dissenting voices, which do not originate from commercial interests.
Many thousands of individual, non-commercial web sites, weblogs, newsgroups and so on operate independent of commercial considerations.
Women and servants often took a primary role in the literary public sphere of the 17th and 18th centuries, but not in the political public sphere.
In the educated classes, men viewed the political and literary spheres as identical with one another.
Habermas comments: "In the self-understanding of public opinion", by which I assume he meant the educated men of the political public sphere:
Habermas comments that this blurring of the category "human being" and "property owner" was easier to make because most of the members of the public sphere were both property owners and educated.
This was because a person's education was a consequence of social status - which was determined by the extent of his property holdings.
This allowed the freedom of the individual to converge with the interests of property owners.
This bears significant resemblance to today's media, due to the concentration of media ownership and the pressures of providing editorial content suited to the higher socio-economic groups advertisers favour (Habermas, 1989: 56).
Public sphere no longer protected
Habermas argues that under the liberal model of the public sphere, institutions of public rational-critical debate were protected from interference by public authorities because they were in the hands of private people.
During the last century, they have become commercialised and concentrated economically, technologically and organisationally - gradually becoming sites of power.
So although public institutions remain in private hands, their critical functions are threatened (Habermas, 1989: 188).
A public sphere dominated by the commercial media does not allow access by everyone, nor does it allow rational-critical debate. Instead, it acts as a focus for competing claims to power over market share, political loyalty, votes etc (Peters, 1993: 560).
Internet in many hands
While the Internet remains in a large number of private hands, its effects on democracy are more likely to remain positive than if it were concentrated within fewer organisations.
However, Rheingold comments that powerful, rich organisations may be able to control access to virtual communities as they have been able to control other media in the past.
The need for common technical and other standards also gives large companies an advantage (Stallabrass, 1995: 20), perhaps making it more likely that concentration will increase.
These organisations are likely to operate in order to earn revenue. And commercial journalism that dominates general public discourse seeks a market, not a community (Schudson in Calhoun, 1993:153), changing the nature of any debate significantly.
Internet as profit centre
The Internet can be seen as bringing people together in alienation rather than solidarity. Individual users do not usually see that people in a political and economic structure produce the Internet.
In the rush to commercialise, the Internet created an investor frenzy, abated since the "dot com" stock market crash of 2000.
With the current explosion of numbers using Internet, pay-per-use has already begun to be introduced to generate capital for services - for example:
Their business models include:
The Internet also provides an ideal forum for public relations. Many thousands of companies have already provided web sites that are not intended to generate profit, but are intended to generate brand loyalty, positive image and to collect demographic and other information about the customer.
Information about customers
As the user gathers information about the product, the company can gather data about its customers, greatly enhancing its ability to create public acceptance and to influence buying behaviour (Stallabrass, 1995: 20).
Co-operation as a profit generator
The co-operative ideology of the Internetís originators is clashing with capitalism. An obvious example is the clash between Napster and the recording industry.
The Napster story is well documented elsewhere. n brief, the story is as follows. The companyís purpose was to enable individuals to swap music files with each other over the Internet.
Set up in 1999, by February 2001, 60 million users were using the service to do just that. The Recording Industry Association of America took it to court, and won on copyright grounds.
Napster was forced to close its free service, and was eventually bought out by Bertelsman, a major force in the music recording world.
While Napster as a company has not prospered, the concept behind it has burgeoned. Free file-sharing applications like KaZaA and Gnutella have millions of users.
Threat or boost for profits?
The main question for businesses who deal primarily in data, is whether the culture of sharing on the Internet is a threat to their profits or whether it can be harnessed as a highly lucrative profit making concern:
The MP3 movement may have already had its day, but file-swapping still continues in a quieter way. Will the record labels eventually catch up to reality and offer a reasonable product that customers won't resist?
Guidance as a profit generator
The Internet is complex and large, so users are keen to find guidance (such as search engines, fast, reliable connections and research tools). Large companies have the opportunity to fill this need and the potential for profits.
Google is an example of a company currently fulfilling this need to its financial advantage, and also to the advantage of many Internet users.
Such services also have the potential to influence public debate through their immense reach.
Google, currently the most popular search engine, serves 150 million searches a day and Global unique users per month: 36.5 million (Google, 2002).
The sites it promotes to the top of its results are highly visible. The potential for profits and an influence on discussion in the public sphere are enormous.