A Mythic Perspective of Commodification on the World Wide Web
First Monday

A Mythic Perspective of Commodification on the World Wide Web by Glendal P. Robinson

The Internet, initially established by scholars and scientists to freely share information, is being transformed into a source of profit for entrepreneurs and corporations. Commodification, the process of developing things and concepts and even people into saleable products, calls for a representation of the foundational mythology on the Web and its manifestation as symbolic language. This study posits a textual analysis of Wired for the purpose of measuring this transformation on a mythic continuum (connectivity-location-being).


A Review of the Literature
Further Study




In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx told of the ongoing war between the proletariat working class and the bourgeoisie, and predicted the inevitable downfall of capitalism and the rise of a communist world order. That has not yet happened. According to Marx and Engels (1963), the survival of capitalism today is due to the corporate exploitation of the masses through cultural imperialism in a variety of forms.

Cultural imperialism is generally defined as the use of one nation's political and economic power to enforce its culture on another country at the expense of that nation's indigenous culture (Weckert and Adeney, 1977). It encourages increasing demand for foreign goods, and fosters a consumerist mentality where the need to save is overcome by the desire to emulate the rich.

Habermas (Schindler, 1996) states that corporate manipulation of the marketplace has led to "commodity fetishism," that is, a redirection of class antagonism into a desire for material goods. As cultural imperialism and consumerism spreads throughout the world market, corporations continually are involved in the search for goods, ideas, and even individuals that can be bought and sold, a process termed "commodification."

Hassan (1999) states that today's shrinking material world has led corporations to take commodification into "identity spaces" of culture and society. As the World Wide Web grows at incredible speed, it promises greater facility for promoting cultural imperialism than ever before without physical conquest (Weckert and Adeney, 1997). If corporations are successful in transforming this medium - which was originally conceived as a source of freely shared information for scholars and scientists - into another profit center, the Internet will most likely be dominated by "the usual corporate suspects" (Mosco, 2000). Mosco predicts that a few new commercial content players may emerge, but for the most part the Web will become an extension and reflection of existing media corporations.

The progressive commodification of the Web has elicited the concern of others, including some scholarly organizations. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced at a press conference on 4 April 2001, that it would make the materials from virtually all its courses freely available on the World Wide Web for non-commercial use. Paul Brest, president of the Hewlett Foundation, called for other educational organizations "to reinforce the concept that ideas are best viewed as the common property of all of us, not as proprietary products intended to generate profits" (OpenCourseWare, 2001).

MIT has taken on this massive enterprise with the help of $11 million of grants because they see commodification of the World Wide Web as a real problem, especially in the area of education. They seek to challenge the perception that all things of worth should have a price tag. "Open CourseWare looks counterintuitive in a market-driven world. It goes against the grain of current material values," explains to MIT president Charles M. Vest (OpenCourseWare, 2001).

To be successful in its efforts to capture the Web, the corporate world will need to literally transform the free-based culture of the Web into a culture based on pay-as-you-go consumerism. This proposed representation of cyberculture is directly related to the mythology that represents and serves as the perceptual foundation of the Web itself.

Can symbolism in cyberculture give us evidence of the cultural war going on within the World Wide Web? Or more specifically: Is there mythic evidence of change to support the premise of commodification on the Web?


A Review of the Literature

Weckert and Adeney (1977) define cultural imperialism as "the use of political and economic power to exalt and spread the values and habits of a foreign culture at the expense of a native culture."

Schiller (1976) explains that cultural imperialism develops in a world economic system, with the terms and nature of production determined at one location and fostered elsewhere. Those who purchase goods in a world market are also buying into the ideology of the world capitalist economy. The world market effectively promotes and develops support for the values and artifacts of the system.

From a Marxist perspective, Habermas (Schindler, 1996) states that the issue of promoting consumerism starts due to the continuous accumulation of capital without adequate consumption of goods, as well as the strategic use of capital to augment the value of surplus goods. Manipulation of the marketplace leads to "commodity fetishism," which is a redirection of class antagonism into a desire for material goods.

Cultural imperialism is used to (1) increase demand for foreign goods; (2) depress growth within local industry; and, (3) foster a consumerist mentality where the need to save is overcome by the desire to emulate the foreign rich. Once such a desire is instilled in this market, corporations (4) widen and consolidate their market by investing in merchandising facilities and sales promotion. Their goal of establishing of preference for their goods in the local economy means that they are involved in the international transmission of values.

McChesney (2000) states that the concept of a fair market is based on competition, but the truth is that the key to success in our market is eliminating competition. Successful capitalists learn to avoid competition, because the less competition there is, the less risk a firm faces and the more profitable it tends to be.

The flow of communication that once made public discussion and self-understanding possible for citizens has been taken over by the mass media (Habermas, 1987). The dominance of images and sounds allow electronic media to completely dominate the language of everyday communication. It sterilizes the authentic content of modern culture into a mass culture stereotype that enforces the status quo and replicates what already exists.

Just as in the late 1800s the rapidly vanishing wilderness led Americans to shift their concept from a geographic frontier to an economic one (Procter, 1992), corporations have altered their approach toward commodification. Hassan (1999) states that finite geographic space has led them to take commodification into "identity spaces" of culture and society.

According to Schiller (1976), technology has been highly successful as a tool of cultural imperialism because is it viewed as simply hardware and software - neutral, value free, and employable under any social order. Along with that technology comes the concept of the free flow of information, which promises benefits for anyone in that flow, but in reality exercises domination of the weak by the strong.

Webster (2000) purports that the information age is not the beginning of a new type of society, but the continuation, consolidation and extension of capitalism. The more it develops, the deeper it invades the private realms of everyday life. It continues to institute its basic, defining principles: (1) status based on ability to pay; (2) commodification of relationships; (3) production for profit; and, (4) private ownership of property.

In a sense, capitalism and the market have assumed mythological status (McChesney, 2000), bringing with it not only material gain but elements of truth. It has come to the top because it best serves the interest of the dominant elements of our society, while harming few if any powerful interests. Because of these factors, the mythology of the free market goes unchallenged, even as it is adopted into new spheres of influence - such as the World Wide Web - without any public debate on the subject.

According to McChesney (2000), the view of a future Internet utopia is based not only upon the magic of technology, but on the assumption that capitalism is a fair, rational, and democratic mechanism.

The Internet promises greater facility for promoting cultural imperialism than ever before without physical conquest (Weckert and Adeney, 1997). There are four reasons: (1) dominance of English on the Internet; (2) cultures are being swamped by foreign ideas; (3) societies having difficulty controlling what comes into their countries; and, (4) education, a heavy user of the Internet, can be a strong facilitator of cultural imperialism.

Guirdham (1999) defines culture as a historically transmitted system of symbols, meanings and norms. The essential core of culture consists of traditional ideas and their attached values. Worldview is how culture sees abstract, universal ideas such as God, humanity, nature and the concept of being. According to Guirdham, national tastes are disappearing from Tokyo to London, due to a steady diet of satellite-fed television, movies and music that promote a consumerist culture and worldview.

Based on current trends, Mosco (2000) states that the Internet will likely be dominated by "the usual corporate suspects." He predicts that a few new commercial content players will emerge, but evidence supports the postulate that digital content will appear quite similar to that of the pre-digital commercial world. In many ways, the Web is an extension of existing media and an opportunity for the unprecedented growth of advertising.

Turkle (1984) states that individual meanings of computation are shaped by the group as they emphasize certain modes of relating to the computer, and in effect, mythologizing them. Turkle concludes that social setting, rites of initiation, economic niche and how they relate to artifacts all contribute to the expression of the group's mythology.

Examining myths in a field as vast as the World Wide Web is a daunting task, and predictably a plethora of mythic perspectives will appear. Markham's (1998) ethnographic study of life online suggested several ways the Web could be viewed: as a lifeline to the world, the nexus of human consciousness, a way to "meld the machine with the mind," or cyborg, and the image of wearing masks online.

Markham states that myths dealing with life online tend to fall into a continuum. At the entry level is the pragmatic view as the World Wide Web as a tool for interconnectivity, such as when using e-mail. The next level of myth perceives the Web as a physical location, a place, such as cyberspace. The final stage of the continuum perceives the Web as a way of being, with reference to alternate identities online.

In her research, an earlier draft by Markham conceptualized online communication as a convenient and necessary set of tools to do research and keep in touch. Mosco (2000) acknowledges the myth that computer communication forever ends spatial constraints, observing that converging technology simply allows any two people - or any multinational conglomerate - to meet anywhere at any time.

References to cyberspace recognize the myth of place, although in a pragmatic moment, Markham clarifies the obvious. Cyberspace is not a place, going online is not going anywhere; it is being connected.

References to "real life" make a distinction between identities; real life is different than online conversational context. The distinction of "being" becomes most apparent in the online dialogue as subjects differentiate between their online self and the real-life self.

Herman and Swiss (2000) help us understand the "being" perspective of the Web by reference to Martin Heidegger's concept of techné, a technology that is simultaneously an instrument and an activity through which self and the world are cast into sensečthereby transforming 'being' in the world. Heidegger argues that the transformative nature of technologies mythically reveals and frames being-in-the-world through poiesis, that is, the poetic introduction and representation of self and the world.

Schindler (1996) posits that interaction or communicative action - which includes mass media - is mediated by language and governed by social rules. Symbolic interaction equips people with internalized norms and personality structures, and thus build consensus within unconstrained social harmony.

Definition of Myth

The first challenge that lies before this study is in defining terms. Myths and mythology, and other concepts tied to symbolism, often lack a general consensus on definition.

Myths have been defined as a collection of stories telling human beliefs and history (O'Connell, 1995), "manufactured" objects (Said, 1986), "actual presentations in terms of the ideal" (Gaster, 1984), and an "articulated body of images that give philosophical meaning to the facts of ordinary life" (Doty, 1986). Malinowski (1984) posits that myths should be studied as living phenomena.

Doty (1986) states that a simple myth seldom represents the entire worldview. That requires a collection of many interlocked stories rather than just one.

Doty further defines a mythological corpus as a complex network of myths that are culturally important, imaginal stories conveyed through metaphors and symbolic diction, graphic imagery with emotional conviction and participation. These primal, foundational accounts describe aspects of the real, experienced world and humanity's role and relative statuses within it. Doty states that the term "culturally important" is significant in differentiating myths from private fictions, and to identify them as stories that represent society.

Dundes (1984) delineates four criteria of myth: form, content, function and context. With form, myth is narrative, such as a verbal account of what is known of sacred origins. An example of content is when myths contain information about the decisive, creative events in the beginning of time. Myths function as models, with no changes and no developments. Finally, an example of context is ritual, where patterns of behavior have been sanctioned by usage.

In Mythologies (1972), Barthes defines myth not as a form of narrative, but as a phenomenon of everyday life. He sees them as a second-order semiotic system built upon the principle of connotative meaning "engrafted onto a denotational level of meaning." As such, myth pervades advertising, films, business life, and objects of daily culture.

There are parallels between the concept of myth, and the concept of root metaphors, which is tied to organizational communication. While metaphors tie an organization or an experience into a general object ("the Web as a family") on a surface level, root metaphors are images of underlying themes at the foundation of shared experience.

Webster's defines myth as "a story that is usually of unknown origin and at least partially traditional, that ostensibly relates historical events usually of such character as to serve to explain some practice, belief, institution or natural phenomenon." (Gove, 1976) Etymology traces the roots of the word back to the Greek word mythos, which means "tale".

Doty (1986) defines myth as an articulated body of images that give philosophical meaning to the facts of ordinary life. According to Doty, a mythological corpus is a complex network of myths that are culturally important, imaginal stories conveyed through metaphors and symbolic diction, graphic imagery with emotional conviction and participation. These primal, foundational accounts describe aspects of the real, experienced world and humanity's role and relative statuses within it. Doty states that the term "culturally important" is significant in differentiating myths from private fictions, and to identify them as stories that represent society.

According to Storey (1999), social emulation plays a major part in establishing consumerism in a society. As an extension of this, Roland Barthes states that myths have a role in promoting consumption. As the stories societies live by, myths help people conceptualize and understand the world, and they help society construct and maintain a sense of self-identity.

Purpose of myths

As mentioned earlier, in the late 19th century, the mythic narrative "Acres of Diamonds" helped shift America's focus from a geographic frontier to an economic one, thus demonstrating how the same myth can be transplanted from one cultural context to another. Procter (1992) states that symbolism in myths can be adjusted to meet changes in society, especially in times of crisis and chaos. Termed "mythic regeneration," the phenomenon allows national myths to sustain the ethos of a nation, yet evolve to encompass the changing social conditions.

Myths offer stability for a society (O'Connell, 1995; Doty, 1986). They convey the political and moral values of a culture and provide systems or interpreting individual experience within a universal perspective.

Myths codify belief and safeguard morality (Campbell, 1968; Doty, 1986; Dundes, 1984). In supplying root metaphors as the ruling images of a society, they provide a coding mechanism that stabilizes the otherwise randomness of the cosmos. They express and confirm society religious values and norms, providing patterns of behavior to be imitated and establishing the sanctity of cult.

Myths offer role models (O'Connell, 1995). Media and corporations enlarge certain people to mythic proportions. We create our own deities.

Myths give overall interpretation (O'Connell, 1995). They help establish community (Hoff and Dunsky, 1996) by giving a sense of hierarchy, of authority, and of the eternal.

Myths are a sophisticated way of labeling and studying psychological dynamics (O'Connell, 1995). They are easy to remember in an illiterate society, approachable and understandable by people of any level of intelligence, and stimulating to the imagination and feelings.

Levi-Strauss used a process of decomposition and recomposition to study myths. Mythic narratives are decomposed by identifying and charting their most elemental constituent units, referred to as "mythemes." The structure of these bits and pieces reach back to cultural bedrock at many points. Ultimate values primarily have character of binary opposition or polar contrasts, such as life and death, good and bad, male and female, human and superhuman, and mortal and immortal. In some cases, an intermediate term is included, such as: hot, cold and warm (as asserted by Doty, 1986).

Barthes (Schindler, 1996) refers to "naturality," the process of using language, a "natural" medium, to transfigure culture into nature. It is a means of transmuting historicity into eternity, playing on the conditioned fear of aging and denying the irreversibility of time. Language is employed to instill and systematize a secondary meaning, as well as authenticate the narrative of the bourgeois society into an archetype of socially acceptable behavior. Proper names become a "natural" taxonomic system for the signified objects, and words become the referents to objectify the serialized levels of lived experience and reduce them to an alienated form.

In other study, Barthes (Rossi, 1983) focused on the surface structures of narrative myths, distinguishing between histoire, the sequence of events as they presumably occurred, and discours, the sequence of events as organized by the narrator. Barthes dealt with two types of functions: cardinal functions (metonymic plot events), and indexical (metaphoric) functions. These two types of functions combine in a hierarchy to produce the surface organization of the discourse.

Barthes has argued that myths and rituals in our society have taken the form of reasoning and speech. Language is not only a model for meaning but also the foundation of meaning. To understand the real meaning of messages, one must decipher the cultural codes governing the structure of messages and their mode of signifying systems. Any communication takes place within an ideological context; we cannot understand the messages without identifying the ideology.

In his work on classification theory, Lakoff (1987) draws attention to Dixon's myth-and-belief principle: that if myth or belief ties an object to a characteristic contradictory to other attributes, then generally the object will be classified according to the myth regardless of other characteristics. Based on this, Lakoff observes: (1) there are idealized models of the world (including myths) that can serve as categorical links; and, (2) specific knowledge (knowledge of mythology) overrides general knowledge.

Markham (1998) began research of life online by analyzing common metaphors people use to refer to online interaction, looking at the metaphors in conversations online, in pop magazines, and in TV and books, analyzing eight months of conversation listening to and archiving a chat room as to how they organized their boundaries and norms, and interviewing one hacker on how he made sense of his identity online. All those approaches were replaced by ethnography as she realized that cyberspace was not a collection of texts to organize, but an evolving cultural context of immense magnitude and complex scope.

An Operational Definition of Myths

For the purposes of this study, the concept of myth is defined in terms consistent with Barthes' view of them as everyday semiotic connotation, rather than narrative. As such, myths exist independent of the history of the culture or medium, and avoid questioning the present state of affairs by disguising specific statements as universal truth. This approach allows an innocent primary level of meaning (denotation) onto which the myth is grafted as a secondary system (connotation).

In addition, since the purpose of this study is to identify myths, continuing reference is made to root metaphors and established analysis used in their study, as well as Markham's (1998) proposed connectivity-place-being mythic continuum.




This study proposes that there is justification for the study of symbolic language describing the nature of the Internet. As an introductory approach to this premise, three articles from the magazine Wired were studied using thematic textual analysis. The magazine Wired was selected because of its well-known association with Web culture and communication technology development over the past decade. Articles were sampled at three-year intervals: one article was drawn from 1994, one from 1997 and one from 2000. The articles are:

John Batelle, 1994. "Pipeline," Wired, volume 2, number 11 (November);
Robert H. Reid, 1997. "Real Revolution," Wired, volume 5, number 10 (October);
Anonymous, 2000. "The Future Is Now," Wired, volume 8, number 10 (October);

Because Web culture is not the only topic discussed in this publication, articles were chosen based on their relevancy to the subject - the nature of the Web.

Once an article was chosen, it was studied for descriptors - words and phrases that specifically were used to help the reader visualize the World Wide Web and its nature. Words were often adjectives, but nouns, adverbs and verbs were also included.

Once a list of descriptors was developed, they were clustered into categories of myth. For example, "a larger space," "longer way to go" would be categorized as related to the location myth, while "linked" and "intertwined" would fall into the connectivity myth category. Sometimes an article included descriptors for more than one myth.




Wired's November 1994 article "Pipeline" was short and offered the following descriptors, which consistently fit into the Location category: serious cold shower, magnificent new world, horrifyingly raw, discovering the Internet, sense of its local roots, majestically global, places, noncentralized, anarchic quality, and superhighway dreams.

The Wired October, 1997 article entitled "Real Revolution" was lengthy and offered myriad descriptors falling into four categories. Examples of descriptors categorized under connectivity include: mass-market conduit, connectivity, convergence, pipes, plumbing, nexus, partnership and allegiances. Descriptors categorized as location included: exploding universe, collision course, no bounds, shelf space, and bombproof niche in Internet substrate. Descriptors categorized as being included: burst from the Internet womb, Net's cramped capillaries, processing muscle, and choke on its own bits. Other descriptors that didn't fit these three categories included: white hot, once mute, slices of the broadband pie, social revolution, forward march of bandwidth and global followings.

The Wired October, 2000 article "The Future Is Now" included the following descriptors, which for the most part fell within the connectivity category: Lightning-speed, havoc, the future, global phenomenon, numbers, massive community, wireless world, collective creativity, disruptive power, electronic networks and riotous growth. Here's how the descriptors fit into a grid that crosstabulates the specific article with the category:


Descriptor Matrix
"Pipeline" (Wired November 1994)
serious cold shower
magnificent new world
discovering the Internet
majestically global
superhighway dreams
local roots
"Real Revolution" (Wired October 1997)
mass-market conduit
exploding universe
burst from the Internet womb
collision course
Net's cramped capillaries
no bounds
processing muscle
shelf space
choke on its own bits
bombproof niche
"The Future Is Now" (Wired October 2000)
global phenomenon
wireless world
The future
Riotous growth
collective creativity
disruptive power
electronic networks




Further Study

Regardless, or perhaps because, of the transitional and not-quite polarized state of the descriptors symbolizing the state of the Web, this study begs for more research to be done in this area. Textual analysis is only the beginning, but a more in-depth review of Net-related literature could very likely result in more concrete results. Content analysis could continue examining publications such as Wired, or move on to consumer publications such as Time and Newsweek. The era from 1993 to the present would logically be the most relevant.

In addition, much could be gained from triangulation, examining interviews with Internet "movers and shakers," specifically balancing views of those with corporate interests and those in favor of "free-range" open shareware. The third part of a triangulation study would involve three months of ethnographic study online, exposing the researcher to symbolic, myth-based language in both synchronous and asynchronous formats. Despite the benefits of content analysis, its results can be strengthened by adding the dimensional struts of a triangulation approach. End of article


About the Author

Glendal P. Robinson is assistant professor of communication at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas. He is the author of six books and numerous general consumption articles and stories. He is an ABD doctoral student at the School of Information Science, University of North Texas. This paper is taken from his doctoral dissertation.
E-mail: robinson@swau.edu



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Editorial history

Paper received 11 February 2002; accepted 26 February 2002.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2002, First Monday

A Mythic Perspective of Commodification on the World Wide Web by Glendal P. Robinson
First Monday, volume 7, number 3 (March 2002),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_3/robinson/index.html

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