The Internet has the potential to challenge the existing media monopoly and combat commodification's effects, but there are several powerful factors opposing this potential. This question is an important one for a medium in its infancy.
There are four important factors applicable to the Internet that do not overlap with traditional mass media, and which bear on the Internet’s potential for democracy:
The structural features of traditional mass media that allowed media concentration to occur are not present on the Internet.
Means of production
For example, to be a television broadcaster one requires a television station and transmitter.
There are a finite number of these, and as starting one is extremely expensive it is difficult for an individual or small group to own the means of production.
To be a newspaper publisher one must have, or be able to pay for, the means of printing, bulk quantities of paper, and distribution mechanisms.
Anarchic structure works against control
The Internet, on the other hand, is not a physical structure. It is spread across an enormous number of computers across the world. It would be theoretically possible for a conglomerate to take control of these.
The deliberately anarchic, decentralised physical structure of the Internet mitigates against this. It would be very difficult to identify every participating computer and to take control of it.
However, it is conceivable that one or two large companies could buy every Internet service provider, and control the means of distribution that way.
Indeed, in some countries this has already occurred, such as China, where just three service providers are controlled by the state (NUA).
Does decentralisation mean less power?
If the Internet remains free of monopolistic control, it has been suggested that it will not fulfil its potential but remain on the margins of the media culture (McChesney).
However, while smaller media companies have less buying power and less influence in the market, this argument assumes that only large conglomerates can create worthwhile media, and that individuals and small publishers have nothing useful to contribute.
New concept of mass media
Perhaps the very conception of "mass media" may have to be revised, from that of communications by large companies to large groups of viewers, to smaller niche companies as well as large ones, publishing for niche markets of specialty interests.
A fascinating development in this area is the use of the Internet by ordinary citizens to report breaking news as it happens, such as:
The impact of these reports demonstrate the power of the individual to contribute to the body of facts behind political issues.
September 11 attacks
Directly after the New York attack in September 2001, for example, various articles circulated by email around the world in a matter of hours, putting points of view radically different from that were presented in the traditional media.
These were picked up by mainstream media who were forced to respond to them.
One of the most distinctive features of the Internet as a medium is its interactivity.
Feedback on journalism
A journalist or television producer who writes a newspaper article or produces a television show has only one main way to assess the impact and popularity of the item: the number of people who buy the service as a whole.
For example, an individual story on a news bulletin or current affairs show must rely on ratings figures to see if anyone is watching.
This figure does not impart any evaluative information such as whether the viewer enjoyed the show, had any opinions on the content, disputed any of the facts presented, had a different point of view to put forward or had information to contribute.
The Internet as a medium can readily provide this rich data in relation to each item published, if the publisher so desires.
It has been interesting to see the impact of "individual article" ratings upon online newspapers. Journalists are beginning to be more responsive to their readers, some receiving dozens or more emails daily. This means they are forced to be more in touch with their needs and requirements.
Lively discussions have ensued about particular issues; letters pages have become forums, where many more issues could be canvassed than is possible, for example, in one page of print.
For instance, the online version of the Sydney Morning Herald contains many more letters than the print version; and there is a reader forum moderated by an editor where political views are debated.
Many sites now include the facility for readers to post their opinions and talk with each other about the topic at hand.
Two-way communication easier
A citizen can see the remarks of others, and contribute to an ongoing debate, between other citizens and between citizens and their political representatives (but see "Response to electorate", above).
Complex arguments could be put forward, and responded to by the politician the following day.
This could be much more sophisticated than the simple phone-in polls that some TV news bulletins provide, which are no more than the public opinion polls Habermas criticises for their lack of rational debate.
All of these features are likely to contribute to a more responsive medium than print and broadcast journalism is structured to be. This is likely to become a significant positive force for the formation of a collective political will and debate in the public sphere.
The Internet has the capacity to provide fora for groups of readers to create their own content on a particular subject, much more easily than most forms of media are able to.
For example, the pioneer site Amazon.com has official editorial reviews of books, CDs and other products. However they also provide a mechanism for readers to contribute their own thoughts on the same products, listed together with the "official" materials.
They also allow individuals to create their lists of favourite items for others to read and rate.
Other sites such as Slashdot.org, are almost entirely created by its registered users, including new stories, comments on stories, reviews, etc.
These can form real communities around shared interests and have the potential to be used as a basis for political activity.
Longevity of materials
Materials that would have a short life in print or broadcast media can have a much longer life on the Internet. These include things such as articles in newspapers, transcripts of interviews, private communication in letters or forums and so on.
Because political debate in the traditional media is restricted and sold as a commodity (see "Commodification", above), this has significant implications. Comments that would otherwise be heard once and be extremely difficult to retrieve now have a long life.
Usenet is a particularly compelling example. Comments made on political issues in newsgroups are available for searching years later. Of course, this can have negative effects as well for those living in repressive countries.
However, it creates an enormously valuable repository of the evolving discussion, which can be traced through time and reviewed at leisure, something that was extraordinarily difficult to do before the Internet.
A common view is that the free market tends to result in media that responds to and expresses the views of the people. However, there are some important reasons why this is misleading.
Curran outlines various forces that tend to undermine the traditional mass media's ability to respond to and air the views of the people (Curran, 1991: 92):
Market entry costs
There are currently no restrictions on market entry besides rising costs for anything more than a basic web site.
These costs can be significant. For example, the relatively large financial resources wielded by publishers such as MSN, CNN and so on make it difficult for smaller publishers, community groups and individuals to compete for audiences.
Recognising the impact of this new medium, large media companies, telecommunications and computing companies are acting to gain the most influence and control over the Internet as possible.
This is likely to mean market dominance will become an increasingly powerful influencing factor on the Internet as a mass medium.
This has already begun to follow the pattern that magazines, newspapers and other publications have in print media: an ever decreasing number of proprietors, leading to more media concentration.
In traditional media, powerful individual owners of large conglomerates mean that a few people can influence media output significantly, promoting their own interests and those of big business generally (Curran, 1991: 95).
Since many of these conglomerates are already making inroads into Internet publishing, this is extremely likely to apply to their influence on the Internet.
Unequal power and resources
While entry to the Internet is certainly much cheaper than entry to any other mass medium, the costs are still high enough for some types of web site to create a significant barrier.
There is already an unequal relationship between web publishers, for example those with the backing of large companies (like CNN) or universities, as against individuals or small community groups with limited funds. This has become more marked as large companies spend big sums on web publishing.
The dimensions of social influence may be wider than in traditional mass media, but this does not necessarily alter the relative balance of power.
As Langdon Winner puts it,
Acting as part of a community
However, an Internet user is not necessarily acting as an individual, but as part of a virtual community. This group action or discussion could allow an individual to exert more influence than they could alone.
Traditional media structures audiences as a series of individuals or very small groups, whereas the Internet's potential for power is based on its ability to form larger groups who can organise politically.
In traditional media such as television and newspapers, the audience has become a product delivered to advertisers, and the programming a means to hold the right audiences' attention.
The number and type of people in the audience is paramount rather than the quality of the discourse created in the public sphere.
As web sites grow more graphically and technologically complex they require a heavier investment of capital to set up and maintain, making advertising support very attractive to web publishers.
Before the technology crash of 2000, large sums were changing hands for advertising on popular web sites. This meant that web publishers might have felt pressured to provide mass market appeal, leading to more conservative editorial choices.
However, Internet advertising revenues for the first half of 2001 were down 7.8 percent on the same period in 2000, according to a report conducted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. (NUA, September 2001).
This may indicate a return to reliance on subscription models and cross-selling strategies to support the business models of the sites, reducing their reliance on advertising.
Pressures arising from news values and professional routines are also likely to transfer to the Internet.
As journalists working on print and television news services begin to transfer to working on Internet news services, their routines will change, but there is little reason to suppose they will change significantly.
However, there are other professions entering the Internet arena besides journalists.
New organisations and Internet departments within existing organisations have sprung up in the last few years.
They combine people from desktop publishing, film production, information science, advertising, graphic arts, software, computing and print publishing.
Staff of these companies have had to create a new, combined professional ethic. It is too soon to comment on how these new work routines and professional norms will evolve.
It is fair to say they will be different from existing ones, and that they will affect the content of the Internet as profoundly as professional routines have affected traditional media.
On the other hand, if the Internet remains as accessible to individual publishing as it is now, this may not be as dominant a force.