Tuesday, September 14, 2010

American Prudishness

There's an article over at The Register asking whether American prudishness is ruining the internet. The author's thesis is, essentially, that most of the internet is dominated by American companies, American companies are beholden to American advertisers, and American advertisers are beholden to the American people, who are morons who hate naughty words and naked bodies.

I do not take a pessimistic perspective on this. In fact, my perspective is downright Pollyanna. Even though major corporations rule the web and, in many ways, force American cultural norms onto their users, this sort of restriction is almost always fleeting. The internet has shown that it is repulsed by censorship and restriction, and while a system or company that advocates and/or uses those two tools may succeed in the short term, in the long term it crumbles. I can think of no better example than AOL.

In comparison to AOL's sleek interface, the internet of the late 1990's and early 2000's was a no-man's-land, but it won out. Not only did it win out, but by the end of the conflict, one of the world's biggest corporations had been reduced to a website. Apple is a good example that is playing out right now. Apple won over users and got them to buy into Apple's ecosystem of products with sleek design, wonderful user interfaces, and great advertising.

This had s snowball effect, where users bought one or two Apple products, but eventually bought more and more, until a god chunk of their digital life revolved around Apple products and services. But see what is happening, now. The flagship of the closed Apple system, the iPhone, is seeing its market share and dominance give way to the inherently open Android OS. Whether Android is actually open or not is open for debate, but it's certainly far more open than Apple. Once people buy one or two products outside of the ecosystem, they're far less likely to buy back in (I actually have data to back that statement up... just wish I could find it).

We can also look at cultural movements over the course of the past ten years. Remember when the Paris Hilton sex tape came out? Remember the controversy? The news coverage? We now have sex tapes released almost every month... and no one cares anymore. Or for examples more quantifiable, look at acceptance of homosexuality in America. Five years ago, a majority of Americans did not support gay marriage. Now, less than half a decade later, even in the face of ceaseless attacks from the religious right, a majority do. Staggeringly, men also now outnumber women in their support of gay marriage. Cultural shifts of this speed and magnitude have never happened before. Why did it happen? The only variable I can see that didn't exist before is the internet.

It is perhaps the "wild west" nature of the web that has made the major companies act the way that they do. The internet at large is free and uninhibited. To differentiate themselves, they hew closely to the tactful ideal, with no naughty words, nudity, or raunchiness. While I understand this strategy, I think that it's dangerous. They risk damaging their brand when cultural norms begin to accept the very activities that the big companies now censor. When that shift happens, people won't want to be associated with the companies that now represent the censorship they are escaping. Why do you think that CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and every other old-world news service have demographics with an average age in their 60's?

So while I think that major American companies are stupid to try and censor, because of the damage it can do to their brand, I don't think that it's a problem for the rest of the world. The internet is free and freedom is better than no freedom --people like the ability to do things-- so any shift towards censorship will be isolated both in time and digital space. It is this seemingly inherent mechanism to the internet, perhaps because it's as direct an extension of the human psyche as is technologically possible, that will keep it free and will continue to have an increasingly large effect on society at large. I think that the greatest decades of cultural change are in front of us.

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