timone NetMarketing
disponibile anche in italiano

Marketing in the internet – as seen from Italy

No. 63 – May 21, 2002

Other articles on similar subjects
are published in English
in the monthly Offline column


loghino.gif (1071 byte) 1. Editorial:
The “carnivalization” of the internet

Umberto Eco is one of the few internationally known contemporary Italian writers. He is also a careful analyst and critic of the media environment and he writes frequently on that subject. In the May 22 issue of L’Espresso his comments were about the mixture of information and show business that he calls “carnivalization” of society, culture and media.

Humor and satire, of course, have always been used to address serious problems. As Shakespeare said, many a true word is spoke in jest. But something has changed.

There are two venerable institutions – Eco says – the court jester and carnival. The court jester could say the most atrocious things, in his role at the resident critic, and be immune from punishment. And during carnival all was permitted, as in those carnivalesque events that were the triumphs Roman legionaries could call Julius Caesar “queen” openly playing on his alleged occasional homosexuality. The difference, however, is that the jester could say whatever he wanted only at court, but would have been hanged if he had done so in the town square. Carnival “licentiousness” lasted only a few days – and for the rest of the year such behavior was not allowed.

Freedom of opinion and satire in all places and all year round is, of course, a good thing. But if it’s an everyday reality it doesn’t need to be in carnival disguise or bear the jester’s uniform. What happens today, says Umberto Eco, is «a typical phenomenon of our time, the constant carnivalization of life».

It’s carnivalization of life to be able to watch a comic movie or show on television every day, several times a day, to the point of losing track of what is news and what is supposed to be funny. It’s carnivalization of life when in a political convention everyone, including the candidate, is dressed and behaves as in a Broadway show. It’s carnivalization when in a talk show a politician says presumably serious things sitting beside a starlet with e deep cleavage talking about her latest nude calendar. It’s carnivalization when comedians fool around with senior politicians, our prime minister indulges publicly in silly pranks , the head of opposition talks about his sailboat and his shoes, the mayor of Milan appears in a fashion show in underpants. It’s carnivalization when a venerable old pope attends a rock concert where the spotlights focus on the singer’s belly button – and she is (un)dressed in a way that would not be allowed in a Vatican reception. Carnivalization of life is the loss of a distinction between what is “serious” and what is show business.

There may be less of it in other countries, but Italy isn’t the only place where almost everything (manly on television, but also in other media) has turned into vaudeville or burlesque. The deluge of female (also male) déshabillé, in which we are submerged in all contexts... is not, per se, immoral or shocking. As there is nothing wrong with having fun or a good laugh. But when the display of sex is everywhere and all the time it becomes boring and meaningless. When everything is a show, people who are supposed to be “serious”, or should do so, can easily get away with a play on words. Showmanship replaces meaning, appearance prevails on reality. «If it isn’t in television or in the news – many say or think – it hasn’t happened.»  To make things worse, lots of thing that are on tv or in the news haven’t happened, or are irrelevant, or are distorted. Where everything is supposed to be funny, hardly anything is amusing or interesting. When everything is mixed and muddled, nothing is relevant. Everything becomes vague, confused and meaningless.

A few weeks ago I was interviewed on television. It was a late show with a small audience, but several people I meet say that they saw me. When I ask them for their opinion on what was being discussed, in most cases I find that they don’t know or they can’t remember. «I’m not sure what it was all about – they say – but I noticed that you were there,»  This is only one of countless examples. Is “being there” what matters, regardless of what one (if anything) has to say?

This “condition of a massmedia society”, as Umberto Eco calls it, is getting more and more boring, artificial and uninteresting. We are getting lost in a messy molasses where everything becomes contused and indistinct.

When Michael Crichton wrote Mediasaurus in 1993, it was quite obvious that mainstream media were in trouble, that there was a need for the evolution of new species to replace the dinosaurs – and that the internet was one of the most interesting resources in the new evolution.

The situation hasn’t changed much in the last ten or twenty years. The internet is, indeed, doing part of what was expected. But the prevailing culture is unable (or unwilling) to understand – and it’s trying to “carnivalize” the net like the rest of the environment.

They tell us every day, as often as they can, on television (and also in the newspapers) that the net can be used to find more pictures of the same undressed starlet – or something else that has been already repeated ad nauseam in mainstream media. Of course that can be done – though it’s hard to understand why anyone should go online to look for the same pictures, or the same gossip, that are overcrowding broadcast and print. If that’s what some people want to do, of course they are (and must be) free to do as they wish. But there are much more interesting things to be found in the internet.

Carnival was invented a long time ago, when people spent most of their lives in a restricted environment, in poverty and oppression, there were few opportunities to get together and have fun. A week of freedom and festivity, once a year, was an exceptional opportunity to break habits, change the rules, reverse the hierarchies. But if it’s carnival all year long, where is the fun?  Perennial, compulsory entertainment isn’t amusing. When reality is treated as fiction, and vice versa, perceptions are confused. If everything and everyone is in disguise all the time, the mockery becomes deception. Jesters can say wise things, but that isn’t a good reason to turn everything into a joke.

The internet, of course, can also be fun. That’s a jolly good thing. But to have fun with the net we don’t need to turn it into an amusement park. A sense of humor is vitally important, online and off. But that doesn’t mean that everything must become a show. The net isn’t television. Its roots are in substance, not appearance.

The net isn’t a masquerade. It’s made of people, not puppets. It’s dialogue, not acting. Content, not decoration.

I am reading, here and there, articles that talk about a “new and surprising trend”. Simple, practical, plain websites with no frills, easy access and well organized content. It’s no surprise that they are the winners. That’s the way the net (or the best part of it) has always been.

There seems to be no way out of the “carnivalization” of mainstream media. Or, if there is, nobody knows how to find it. There was an intense, but hopeless, debate on this matter, in October, 1999, between Umberto Eco and Eugenio Scalfari (a well known journalist, editor and publisher). They were aware of the problem, but couldn’t find a solution. And they still don’t have a clue.

But that is not what’s happening with the internet. In spite of the glitch and the clutter, the net is alive with content, dialogue, human relationships. So let’s concentrate on its vitality – and let the jurassic media worry about their crumbling mausoleums.

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loghino.gif (1071 byte) 2. Who wants to kill the free internet?

I guess I should find the time, some day, to do more work on Cassandra, a little paper that I wrote in 1996 and updated in 1997. As I said then, Cassandra wasn’t a sorceress or a bearer of bad omen. She was a bright girl who spoke the truth – but nobody wanted to listen. People (like me) who speak about dangers of repression on the internet don’t gain much attention. Most people ignore the issue. If and when they consider it, they say «Why should we worry? Can’t you see that we are free to say and write what we want?». They are equally unconcerned about the constant (and growing) centralization and trivialization of mainstream media – until they bump into a misrepresentation of something that touches them closely, or some ridiculous reporting on a subject they know well, and suddenly they get worried or angry. But of course it’s too late to do anything about it.

Some people think that, while the distorted media environment may be bad for society, it’s good for business. They are wrong – as I have explained several times. See Development means freedom.

This relates also to another subject. I don’t want to repeat here what I wrote in a recent article, The “free or pay” nonsense. The grim, near-sighted threats about “the death of the free internet” have caused a further deterioration in the “commercial” part of the net, while the“free internet” continues to grow and expand. But there is more.

Those people who would like to see the end of the “free of pay” internet are also the enemies of net freedom (though they rarely admit it). While power systems tighten their control of mainstream media, of course they are uncomfortable about a non-centralized environment where their influence is weaker.

Will they be able to “tame” the internet? No. Or not all of it. But they are very busy trying to capture at least part of the people – to keep them in the same “homogenized” environment that dominates broadcast media. There is a cultural divide (not “digital”) even in those countries where there is widespread use of the internet. The difference between “followers” and people who want to (or are allowed to) think more independently is as old as humanity. The net is a vital tool to break barriers, open dialogue, understand diversity. There is no end in sight of the perennial contrast between freedom and information control. An open and free internet is a crucial resource. In a large part of the world access is denied or severely limited. Those barriers need to be broken. And even where connection is available to all, there are and there will be countless attempts to limit individual freedom. It’s unlikely that they will ever be totally successful, but that’s no reason to relax. Freedom and privacy are constantly threatened. They need to be re-asserted, and practiced, every day.


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loghino.gif (1071 byte) 3. The key role of content (two books)

There were interesting discussions about form and content, shape and substance, “what” and “how”, even before Aristotle. But we don’t need great philosophical depth to face a basic issue in the case of the internet. What is more important, the container or the content?  The dominant (and silly) practice is to concentrate on packaging regardless of what is inside. Supported by vendors of containers disguised as magic wands – and by the fact that it’s much easier to mass-produce frills and gimmicks than to develop valuable content.

book cover           book cover

Two new books address this problem clearly and explain precise, practical solutions. The main author is Gerry McGovern, well known for the book he published in 1999, The Caring Economy, and for many interesting articles on how the net works and how to use it effectively.

Content Critical explains why content is key – and how to produce it and organize it effectively. Don’t call people users, says Gerry McGovern. «The primary thing people do on the net is read. That’s why this book calls people who visit your website “readers” instead of that ugly, generic, drug-associated, catch-all, mean-nothing term “users”.»  What people seek on the net is content. And that comes mostly as text. The fact that the internet can also use pictures, sound and animation does not mean that its primary use is “multimedia”.

Content Critical is a clear and effective handbook of what we know from thousands of years of experience about writing (and five centuries if publishing) combined with the specific needs of online communication. It’s not predominantly about website “usability” but about the basic things that come before any other consideration – the production, organization and management of content. The book is conceptually clear and thorough in detail. It defines neat basic criteria and offers precise practical advice.

A further analysis of specific “how to” criteria is in The Web Content Style Guide. Most of this book is an alphabetical list of relevant terminology (An A to Z of Web Content Style) with an explanation of what each word means and how that applies to effective content.

Content Critical deserves wide readership. It’s about “gaining competitive advantage through high-quality web content.”  It’s a “must” for all people who are, directly or indirectly, involved in web activities – or, for any other reason, want to understand how the internet works. The Web Content Style Guide is “a reference for online writers, editors and managers.”  Both bring a breath of fresh air on a subject that is often confused and muddled. With a sound understanding of basic values and well organized practical criteria.



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