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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 8 Number 2 1998

The Internet and the Forces of "Massification"

Philip M. Napoli
Rutgers University

Although the rhetoric surrounding the growth of the Internet has emphasized its potential as a revolutionary interactive communications medium, we must also consider the forces contributing to a traditional "mass" media orientation for this new technology.  The three primary forces of "massification" are:  (a) audience behavior, (b) media economics, and (c) institutional behavior. Analyzing these forces within the context of recent research and developments regarding the Internet indicates that the process of "massification" of the Internet has already begun.


The Internet is finally passing through the period of hype and unrealistic expectations that always accompanies the introduction of a new communications technology (Napoli, 1997a; Noll, 1997; Samoriski, 1996).  The rhetoric during this early stage typically embraces the technology's revolutionary potential (Kim & Robinson, 1994; Esrock, 1997; Streeter, 1987).  Forecasters often proclaim that the new technology "will overcome historical forces and political obstacles that prevented previous utopias" (Carey, 1989, p. 115).

In the case of the Internet, its most frequently discussed "revolutionary" characteristics are its ability to foster communication within small, specialized interest groups; to provide greater choice and flexibility in content consumption; and to move us further away from the mass society paradigm (Dizard, 1994; Negroponte, 1995).  The Internet frequently has been hailed as a release from the restrictions imposed by the conventional one-to-many format of existing mass media (Esrock, 1997; Noll, 1997; Samoriski, 1996).

Though the Internet certainly has begun to realize some of this revolutionary potential, these forecasts typically fail to account for the behavioral, economic, and institutional forces that can constrain a new technology within existing parameters.  A number of these forces are working to maintain the mass audience paradigm within the Internet environment.  These forces need to be considered when forecasting the future of the Internet.

Neuman (1991) has provided the most thorough analysis of the forces maintaining the mass audience paradigm.  The analysis presented here builds upon many of Neuman's conclusions and updates them with Internet-specific examples.  This article also specifies additional forces of "massification" not addressed in Neuman's analysis.  The first objective of this paper is to demonstrate that, regardless of the revolutionary potential offered by the Internet, potent behavioral, economic, and institutional factors will exert a powerful "massifying" force on how the Internet is structured and utilized.  The second objective is to present preliminary evidence that this process of "massification" already has begun.

The Characteristics of a Mass Medium

Before addressing these issues, it is important to discuss what is meant by a "mass" medium.  Precise and stable definitions of the term are difficult in an era of rapidly evolving media technologies (Morris & Ogan, 1996, p. 42); however, some fundamental components need to be established.  An early definition of mass communication included the following characteristics:  (a) It is directed toward large, heterogeneous, and anonymous audiences; (b) Messages are transmitted publicly, often timed to reach most audience members simultaneously; and (c) The communicator tends to be, or operate within, a complex organization that may involve great expense (Wright, 1960).  A mass medium would be categorized as any medium containing these three characteristics (Blake & Haroldsen, 1975, pp. 38-39).

More recent discussions of the concept have advocated a less rigid definition.  This is due to the potential for new media technologies to essentially eliminate the process of mass communication as it has been traditionally defined (Maisel, 1973; Neuman, 1991).  The potential abolition of the term "mass communication" has even been the topic of academic panel discussions (Turow, 1990, p. 9).

However, in contrast to those who claim that the term has lost its utility, Webster and Phalen (1997) argue that the concept of mass media remains useful, even in the age of "narrowcast" media.  They argue that the simultaneous delivery component of the traditional definition is not inherent in the mass audience/mass media concept.  Mass audiences can be aggregated over time (Webster & Phalen, 1997) or across various media through "windowing" (Blumler, 1996; Turow, 1990, p. 17).  Webster and Phalen (1997) also argue that the undifferentiated audience concept is more ideal-typical than it is a valid representation of mass media audiences through the years, since practitioners have always recognized the possibility that mass audiences could be differentiated.

Turow (1992) argues that the definition of mass communication should be reduced simply to "the industrialized production, reproduction, and multiple distribution of messages through technological devices" (p. 10).  This definition clearly avoids setting requirements on the number and nature of people attending the messages (Turow, 1991, p. 224).  Instead, the phenomenon of institutional creation and distribution of messages is the central defining concept; that is, the definition focuses on the nature of the process as opposed to the nature of the audience (Turow, 1990, p. 16).

This analysis will retain within the definition of mass communication the centrality of the institutional communicator.  It will also retain the idea that the communicator is fundamentally concerned with some degree of audience maximization, whether it is a specialized channel attempting to maximize its audience of golf aficionados or a broadcast network concerned primarily with gross ratings points.  In addition, the working definition for this analysis will also retain, though to a lesser degree, the traditional definition's emphasis on media content having a relatively broad appeal.  Interviews with media industry executives conducted by Blumler (1996) revealed that, even within organizations engaged in the type of narrowcasting that new technologies have made possible, there is still a strong motivation to attract more diverse audiences (p. 105).  Similarly, interviews conducted by Turow (1997) revealed that niche service providers typically target two overlapping audiences--one encompassing a wide demographic and one commonly described as the "super core," which is much more demographically specific (pp. 103-104).

This analysis argues that forces affecting the development of the Internet will make the institutional production and distribution of content--with the intention of maximizing particular audiences--and the widespread consumption of mass appeal content, central characteristics of this emerging medium.

Audience Behavior

Audience Activity

Researchers have long recognized a certain degree of audience passivity in media consumption (Barwise & Ehrenberg, 1988).  This observation has been used to explain in part the shift in media consumption from print to broadcast media.  It has also been used to explain the failure of many forms of "demanding" or interactive media content or services (Arterton, 1989; Noll, 1997).  Neuman (1991) argues that this passive tendency is a preserving force for traditional mass media:  "People are passive and only partially attentive to what they see and hear from the media.  . . . Searching through obscure and unpopular titles and genres is the obsession of a tiny avant-garde elite, not the great bulk of the populace" (p. 146).  To what degree are these conclusions, which were primarily derived from research on new cable technologies, transferable to the Internet?  Given that cable technology has similar interactive, high-bandwidth, and channel diversity capabilities that are said to distinguish the Internet from existing media, we should expect these findings to have substantial relevance.

As evidence, consider the recent emphasis Internet service providers have placed on "push" technology (Levy, 1997).  Push technology automates the delivery of content, thereby "blurring the distinction between the Internet and broadcast media like television" (Fisher, 1997, p. D2). Many within the Internet services industry consider the current manual search model unsustainable over the long term.  According to one industry source, "People want their computers to be as easy as their television.  . . . They want just a few channels that they can turn to" (Cortese, 1997, p. 95).  Whether or not this assessment is entirely accurate, it is still affecting content and service decisions.  This evolutionary regression away from interactive searching and toward passive reception is largely a response to limitations in how audiences will consume media content.  Audiences consuming "just a few channels" certainly suggests the presence of the mass audience paradigm within the Internet.

Passive audience consumption tendencies also favor the institutional communicator.  The institutional communicator provides valuable gatekeeping services as content provider, selector, and scheduler (see Entman & Wildman, 1992).  Once the institutional communicator is placed in this position of prominence, the provision and consumption of broad appeal content is much more likely, given the economic realities of the media content industry and the nature of audience preferences (see below).

Evolution of Media Use

Neuman's point regarding the "avant-garde elite" component of the audience brings us to the issue of the demographic characteristics of Internet users and how they are likely to change as diffusion levels increase.  Recent statistics indicate that 23 percent of people over the age of 16 are using the Internet (though only 17 percent are using the World Wide Web).  These users tend to have higher than average levels of income and education (CommerceNet/Nielsen, 1997).

Given that less than a quarter of the population uses the Internet, and given the characteristics of this group, we can safely say that the Internet is reaching the end of the "elite" stage of the three-stage process of media evolution (Merrill & Lowenstein, 1979, pp. 29-31).  As a new medium moves into the second stage--the "popular stage"--it becomes accessible to the masses, and content shifts in order to appeal to a larger segment of the population. Consequently, as the Internet moves from an elite to a popular medium, there will be an inevitable shift as content changes in order to appeal to a less sophisticated audience. Thus, increased Internet penetration itself becomes a force of "massification."  Recent demographic shifts in Internet users indicate that the Internet is becoming more "mainstream" in its demographic make-up.  This trend should continue as the Internet moves toward critical mass as a commercial medium (Hoffman, Kalsbeek & Novak, 1996).

In order to facilitate broader appeal, Internet content providers will need to alter their content.  In fact, many content providers have recently begun to do this.  Their strategy involves duplicating the television viewing experience as closely as possible (Clark, 1996, p. B9; Cortese, 1997; Fisher, 1997; Levy, 1997).  Internet content providers are turning to such television-based mass appeal formats as talk shows, comedy programs, soap operas, and science fiction series in order to boost subscribership (Tedesco, 1996a, 1996b).  America Online recently announced a complete overhaul of its format in an effort to attract another two to three million subscribers (Lohr, 1997).  This overhaul involves establishing "channels" based on subjects of interest, as well as daily content changes revolving around television-style programming categories such as "good morning," "prime time," and "late night" (Lohr, 1997, p. D6).  According to one industry analyst, "The company has to go after the real mass- market, couch-potato crowd... So [AOL CEO] Pittman is making America Online more like a TV network" (Lohr, 1997, p. D6).  Such a strategy certainly makes sense given the preliminary indications that new World Wide Web users are likely to conceive of the Web within the context of traditional mass media, such as the newspaper and television (McQuivey, 1996).

It is important to note that this new audience segment is less sophisticated not only in terms of its content tastes, but also in terms of computer literacy.  This too works as a force of "massification."  Personal computers have still only penetrated about 40 percent of U.S. households.  For Internet use to truly explode, this percentage must increase substantially, or, at the very least, users will require a less complex, less expensive tool for accessing the Internet.

The introduction of WebTV (which allows Internet use via a television set) is just such a development, and its introduction provides an indication of the degree to which the Internet may need to be integrated into the traditional mass media in order to achieve high levels of penetration. Recently, Microsoft, as well as a number of competitors, have announced the introduction of "second generation" WebTV technology (Bank, 1997; Brinkley, 1997).  This technology provides access to the television and the Internet simultaneously.  This new development allows the user to "watch a TV show and be alerted if the programmer has prepared special Web pages that offer more information about the show" (Brinkley, 1997, p. D9).  With this approach, the Internet literally becomes supplementary to traditional television.  If this is indeed the process by which the masses will integrate the Internet into their existing media use, then we can certainly expect the Internet to follow historical precedent and bear a very close resemblance to traditional mass media in terms of the type of content consumed by the audience.

User Adoption

The issue of critical mass mentioned above is another force compelling the Internet to function as a mass medium. Critical mass refers to the point in a new technology's diffusion at which adoption becomes self-sustaining (Markus, 1987, p. 496).  However, for communications technologies, achieving this critical mass often depends heavily upon users receiving "network externalities" from the new technology.  Thus, purchasing a video telephone becomes increasingly appealing as the number of other video telephone users increases.  If few other people own a video telephone, then purchasing one makes less sense.

This dependence upon others is a force that can work against the adoption of new technologies.  Markus (1987) argues that there are enormous difficulties in attracting users to an interactive medium, due to the degree to which its value lies in its network externalities.  Consequently, "interactive media are extremely vulnerable to start-up problems and discontinuance" (p. 491).  This situation helps explain why the telephone diffused at a slower rate than radio, television, cable, pay TV, or the VCR (Carey & Moss, 1985, p. 147).  The appeal of these mass communication technologies depended less upon their network externalities. The diffusion of radio didn't skyrocket until Westinghouse Vice President Harry P. Davis realized the medium's potential for mass communication and began broadcasting concerts from a newly upgraded transmitting station.  This conception of radio as more than a point-to-point medium was essential to its rapid growth (Streeter, 1996, pp. 84-85).

The fact that the one-to-many structure promotes faster diffusion than the purely interactive structure has important implications for the future of the Internet. Specifically, a traditional mass communication model is more likely to attract new users.  As a result, the one-to-many structure characteristic of mass communication will remain a viable and appealing model within the Internet environment.

The Economic Approach to Audience Behavior

The economic approach to audience behavior also provides important insights into the future form and content of the Internet.  In general, higher production budgets for media content generate larger audiences (Owen & Wildman, 1992, p. 43).  This has been demonstrated as a rational explanation for audience behavior in terms of the consumption of a variety of media products, including films, television programs, and newspapers (Wildman, 1994).

The implications of this phenomenon for the Internet should be clear.  First, minority appeal content is always at a competitive disadvantage versus mass appeal content due to its necessarily smaller production budget (a smaller potential audience equals a smaller profit maximizing budget; see Owen & Wildman, 1992).  What Barwise and Ehrenberg (1988) say about television should be equally applicable to the Internet:  "[Minority] programs would have to be attractive enough to woo audiences day after day from competitive channels carrying high quality entertainment shows . . .. Minority-taste audiences, and especially connoisseurs, cannot be expected to choose or tolerate programs with lower production values" (pp. 154-155).

Also, institutional producers of media content generally have greater financial resources than individuals and can therefore produce content with larger budgets. Consequently, the institutional communicator that is central to our working definition of mass media is likely to dominate a substantial portion of audience attention on the Internet.

Media Economics

This economic approach to audience behavior leads naturally into the second major factor compelling a mass media orientation for the Internet--the economics of the production of media content.  Media products are "public goods"; that is, a media product is not used up in consumption.  The fact that one audience member watches a television program or visits a Web site does not reduce what is available to other audience members (Owen & Wildman, 1992).  In some instances, it is necessary to package the public good in a private good (i.e. a videocassette or a paper) to facilitate distribution.  However, the content within the private good remains a public good.  Thus, media content production typically involves large, fixed "first copy" costs.  In this situation, any audience member willing to pay a non-zero amount for the product contributes to profits.  This fact, combined with the fact that audience members' valuations of a media product differ, has given rise to the phenomenon of "windowing," in which the same content is distributed sequentially through various media on the basis of the audience's willingness to pay (Wildman, 1994).  These fundamental characteristics of media economics provide a strong imperative to maximize audiences, thereby achieving economies of scale and distributing the fixed costs over the largest possible audience.  Christians (1973) has described this as the "production-standardization-popularization squeeze" (p. 228).

These attributes are perfectly translatable to the Internet, where the bulk of the costs are fixed (Hallgren & McAdams, 1995, p. 3).  In addition, Internet users certainly do not use up the content of a Web site or bulletin board in consumption, making Internet content very much a public good.  Consequently, the economies of scale in maximizing audience size are also present.

Thus the Internet meets all of the economics of production criteria that have traditionally compelled previous generations of media technologies to function primarily as mass media.  Evidence that the same economic forces are at work can be seen in America Online's decision to pattern its business strategy after those of the broadcast networks and the cable industry (Sandberg, 1997). Specifically, AOL is attempting to become both producer and distributor of entertainment content.  It is also trying to broaden the distribution of its properties beyond the Internet, essentially "windowing" its Internet content through other media technologies (Sandberg, 1997).  In a parallel development, start- up companies have begun licensing Hollywood films for distribution on-line (Pollack, 1998, p. D7).  Clearly, just as recent new media technologies such as cable, videocassette recorders, and pay-per-view systems have become important windows for mass appeal content, so too should we expect the Internet to fit into a niche in the windowing sequence.


Consider also the question of risk.  Entering the media content production business is inherently risky (Owen & Wildman, 1992), and is even more so when producing content for a new media technology whose long-term viability has yet to be determined.  Given the high fixed costs of media content production, the producer risks substantial losses if his or her product is rejected by the audience.  In an effort to mitigate this risk factor, Hollywood studios produce sequels, remakes, and adaptations of popular books and television programs.  This is also why many television series are derived from motion pictures.  Audience familiarity with content already proven popular acts as a risk reducer.  As profit-oriented firms move into the production of Internet content, they will logically behave in a similar manner, relying heavily on content that has demonstrated appeal in order to reduce risk.  Thus, we can expect Internet content not only to duplicate content from existing mass media, but to duplicate that content which has had the greatest popular appeal, thereby further reducing the risk involved.

Advertiser Demand for Mass Audiences

Another important economic consideration is that there will always remain a certain degree of advertiser demand for mass audiences (Webster & Phalen, 1997; Wildman, 1994, p. 91).  According to Turow (1997), mass audiences will continue to be desirable for two reasons:  (a) to reach consumers who would never be expected to buy the product (thereby enhancing the product's "badge value" for those who can afford it); and (b) because broad campaigns signal that products have wide appeal (p. 182).

Advertiser desire for large audiences has been a maintaining factor for mass appeal television (Neuman, 1991).  Witness, for instance, the discussion surrounding the enormous contracts that NFL football signed with a number of broadcast networks and cable stations.  Though audience numbers have declined in recent years, prices skyrocketed, since professional sports remains one of the few program types that can still generate enormous and extremely heterogeneous mass audiences (Fatsis & Pope, 1997).  Obviously, the increasing scarcity of such mass audiences has placed a premium on them.  We should expect this phenomenon to transfer to the Internet as well, thus motivating content providers to assemble mass audiences.

Institutional Forces

Finally, it is important to consider the role of institutional forces (i.e. media institutions, the government) in the development of new media technologies and the implications for the Internet's prospects as a mass medium.  As Hershey and Sachter (1976) point out, "Technologies do not develop in isolation.  The forms that new technologies take, as well as their impacts on society, are integrally related to the dynamics of social and organizational structures" (p. 53).

The Influx of Existing Media Organizations

Commercial media organizations are actively moving into the Internet.  A 1995 search found 123 different U.S. newspaper services and more than 1,300 magazine services with distinct Web sites (Morris & Ogan, 1996, p. 43).  In addition, over 200 television stations have Web pages (King, 1996, p. 5), as do a number of cable networks, production companies, and the broadcast networks ("Hot links to cool web sites," 1996).  Mammoth organizations such as AT&T, Microsoft, and NBC have invested substantial sums in the provision of Internet content (Mermigas, 1996).  Recently, Disney initiated efforts to purchase Starwave, a large World Wide Web content provider ("Disney is reported," 1997, p. B9).

This influx of existing media organizations into a new media technology follows historical precedent (Christians, 1973; McChesney, 1996; Napoli, 1998).  As Winston (1986) says, "The same authorities and institutions, the same capital, the same research effort which created today's world is trying also to create tomorrow's" (p. 23).  As a result, the new system becomes established in the image of the old system and becomes part of the existing institutional structure (Sawhney, 1995, pp. 7-8).  Thus it is not surprising that the motion picture studios dominate the videocassette industry, that the radio networks became the major forces in television, and that the broadcast networks have substantial ownership in cable channels.  As this pattern continues with the Internet, we will again see the predominance of institutionally produced content that is fundamental to the traditional definition of mass media.

In addition, given that we are witnessing the movement into this new technology of content producers who traditionally have engaged in the production of mass appeal content, and that these large organizations need to exploit the economic principles of media production discussed above in order to remain viable and maximize profits, we may reasonably expect the content they produce for the Internet to be designed to appeal to mass audiences.
Corporations generally view new technologies in terms of integrating them into the existing "system" (Streeter, 1996, pp. 70-71).  The development of television content was characterized by the migration of radio programs and performers to the new medium.  Similarly, the videocassette industry is dominated by Hollywood motion pictures, and cable programming generally bears a strong resemblance to traditional broadcast network programming (Krugman & Christians, 1981; Streeter, 1987; Waterman & Grant, 1991). Thus, regardless of the niche-appeal potential of a new medium such as the Internet, the established media organizations that move into the new medium "hold a vested interest in carrying people and ideas across various media forms and maintaining the 'mass ritual'" (Turow, 1984, p. 189).  As Turow (1992) states, "A counterforce to fragmentation has developed, and it is conglomeration" (p. 252).  This force helps impose upon the new medium the essential characteristics of a mass medium.

Early indications substantiate this perspective in terms of the Internet, as on-line magazines have tended to re-publish print material (King, 1996, p. 3), the motion picture studios have used their web sites primarily to promote current film releases, and television stations have primarily recycled their news broadcasts (Niekamp, 1996). Disney's venture into the World Wide Web is likely to include sites based on ABC News ("Disney is reported," 1997).  Sony's Web site provides users with the opportunity to play on-line versions of the Sony-owned TV game shows "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune."  The site also gives users the opportunity to listen to and purchase music from Sony recording artists, all "in an ambitious effort to popularize its vast entertainment properties on the Internet" ("Sony to unveil," 1997, p. B4).  Similarly, NBC has begun "intercasting" the Tonight Show in an effort to broaden the program's audience (Tedesco, 1998).  Thus, both the increasing prevalence of institutional communicators within the realm of the Internet, and the propensity of these communicators to rely on traditional mass appeal content, push the Internet in the direction of a mass medium.

Audience Measurement

The process of commercial media organizations moving into a new medium is always accompanied by the development of audience measurement technologies (Webster & Phalen, 1997).  The A.C.  Nielsen Company, the major provider of broadcast and cable industry ratings data, has begun developing an Internet measurement system, as have a number of other organizations, composed mainly of researchers with experience measuring television and radio audiences (Beatty, 1997; King, 1996, p. 2).

Currently, the process of measuring Internet audiences is fraught with technological challenges, including ambiguity about what a "hit" actually means and difficulties in determining the demographic characteristics of Web site visitors (McQuivey, 1996).  These difficulties, along with the absence of an agreed- upon measurement system, have made large advertisers hesitant to invest heavily in Internet advertising (Beatty, 1997; Tedesco, 1998).  The development of an audience measurement system that is perceived as reliable is therefore essential to the Internet's long-term commercial viability.

The development of such a system has important implications for the Internet's future as a mass medium. Research indicates that the accuracy with which a media audience can be measured affects the value of that audience. Given that advertisers buy a prospective audience, they are willing to pay a premium for an audience whose actual size is more likely to resemble its predicted size (Fournier & Martin, 1983).  In addition, research indicates that advertisers also value the quality (i.e. reliability) of ratings data (Webster & Phalen, 1997, pp. 48-66).

This is relevant to our discussion of the Internet's mass media prospects because the accuracy and reliability of audience measurement data increases with the size of the audience.  Narrowcast media traditionally have been poorly served by commercial audience measurement companies.  Cable channels with small viewerships have long criticized Nielsen for inaccurately measuring their audiences.  Television stations in small markets have been similarly unhappy. Consequently, the process of quantifying Internet audiences will, at least initially, benefit those content providers courting a larger audience, and increase their competitive advantage relative to niche appeal providers.  This competitive advantage increases given the nature of how Internet audiences are measured.  Currently, the CPM (cost per thousand of exposures) model dominates Internet advertising transactions.  Advertisers purchase a desired quantity of audience members, who are measured only in terms of exposure.  As Novak and Hoffman (1996) point out, "relying solely on exposure models means that interactive managers will be driven to scale their sites to larger, mass audiences . . . in order to attract more advertising revenue" (p. 6).

The refinement and improvement of audience measurement techniques can eventually increase the viability of niche media once the measurement techniques and technology have reached a certain level of sophistication (Barnes & Thomson, 1994).  However, at this early stage in the development of Internet audience measurement technology, mass appeal content providers will hold a distinct advantage.  Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that at this point two-thirds of all advertising revenues go to the ten most popular advertiser supported Web sites (Jupiter Communications, 1996).

Government Response to New Media

It is also essential to consider the government's role in the development of new media technologies.  The development of new technologies is inextricably intertwined with the political process (Goldin, 1970; Street, 1992). Research in this area indicates that government regulators and legislators consistently interpret new media technologies within the context of older media technologies. As Pool (1983) states, "judges and legislators have tried to fit technological innovations under conventional legal concepts" (p. 4).  The legal system's foundation on stare decisis shoehorns new technologies into preexisting models and conceptions (Turow, 1984, p. 19).  LeDuc (1973) demonstrates this situation in his analysis of the FCC's handling of the development of cable television.  According to Mosco (1975) the Federal Communications Commission applies a simplifying structure to new technological developments, causing them to respond to new media technologies within the frameworks established by older media technologies.  Consequently, some of the innovative potential of these new technologies goes unrealized.

Can we expect the Internet to be interpreted by policy makers within the context of traditional mass media? Mueller (in press) demonstrates how the ongoing controversy over the assignment of Internet domain names parallels the initial controversy surrounding the distribution of radio frequencies.  Once again issues of scarcity and property rights predominate, which, according to Mueller, will prompt a new system of Internet governance, just as these issues prompted government regulation of broadcasting.  The strength of this historical parallel between the Internet and broadcasting increases the likelihood of the new technology being regulated in a similar manner to the old.

The initial passage of the Communications Decency Act, which installed a distinctly broadcasting-based regulatory framework on the Internet, provides evidence that this tendency exists among policy makers (although the Communications Decency Act was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court; a modified version is in the works).  The Act's concern with the pervasive nature of adult content and children's ease of access are concepts distinctly related to the mass audience framework; specifically, the "audience as victim" approach that has dominated FCC regulation of broadcasting (Webster & Phalen, 1994, pp. 22-26).  It should also be noted that, regardless of the outcome of the decision, the Supreme Court's assessment of the Act relied heavily upon seeking analogies to older media technologies (Greenhouse, 1997; Werbach, 1997).

Thus, historical evidence as well as recent actions suggest that policy making institutions are likely to interpret the Internet within the context of existing mass media.  Consequently, they are likely to bias the development and evolution of the Internet in the direction of a mass medium.


This article has outlined a number of forces that, when taken together, compel the Internet toward functioning as a mass medium.  This discussion has shown that institutional communicators will establish and maintain a significant presence on the Internet, and that economic and audience factors compel the production and consumption of mass appeal content.  In addition, this article has provided preliminary evidence that the content and format of the Internet are beginning to resemble those of traditional mass media, and that policy makers are applying a mass media framework to the development of this new technology.

However, the arguments presented here are not meant to suggest that the Internet's potential as a highly specialized, interactive medium will go completely unrealized.  Potent behavioral, economic, and institutional forces work against the mass audience paradigm as well. These forces have been extensively analyzed elsewhere (see Dizard, 1994; Negroponte, 1995).  Rather, this article is intended as a reminder, in the face of utopian proclamations of a revolutionary new medium, that powerful forces work in favor of structuring any new media technology along traditional mass media lines and that we should expect the traditional mass media structure to maintain a place of prominence within the Internet environment.

In order to test these arguments, future research should assess the degree to which individuals' Internet use revolves around the consumption of "mass" communication content as it has been defined in this paper.  Research focusing on individuals' Internet use habits (i.e., time spent using e-mail vs.  Web; Web sites visited most frequently, etc.) could provide important insights in this regard.  It is also important to determine the degree to which audiences are taking advantage of the Internet's unique capacity by consuming a diversity of content. Methods for assessing "exposure diversity" within traditional mass media (e.g.  Napoli, 1997b) could be adapted to similar assessments within the Internet environment.

A statement frequently heard among television executives and academics these days is that "the future of television is radio," suggesting that television channels will more closely resemble the format-specific organization of radio stations in the years to come.  This is certainly already happening, with many cable channels providing a single, specific type of programming (i.e., the Golf Channel or the Food Channel), much as radio stations devote themselves only to classical music, or only to sports.

When assessing the future of the Internet, we can draw a similar analogy.  The forces outlined here, along with the preliminary evidence presented, suggest that, to some degree, the future of the Internet is television.  The mass audience paradigm has withstood the introduction of cable, the VCR, and satellite (Webster & Phalen, 1997).  It will endure and flourish on the Internet as well.


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