AOL's purchase of Huffington Post is not the beginning of a liberal new media monopoly, rather it's the prolonged death rattle of a company that has money, but no reason for existing. AOL started out as the country's biggest service provider, and is now nothing more than a third rate imitation of Yahoo, which is also struggling to survive.
AOL has tried to sell subscription services. It even tried to give away its services for free. People not only won't pay for AOL, they won't even take it for free. So now it's investing big in content, in paid blogging and content farm spam-- at exactly the time when social media is eclipsing search. But that fits with every stupid decision AOL has ever made. Right back to the AOL-Time Warner merger where AOL's CEO somehow convinced Time Warner's CEO that an ISP dependent on dial up customers in the age of broadband was the perfect company to take over a media empire. There wasn't a worse possible time to buy Huffington Post then during a downturn in liberal popularity and the rise of social media driven sharing.
The Huffington Post business model has worked out great for Arianna Huffington. AOL bought a company that was on track to becoming a white elephant left behind by a changing internet. But what worked for HuffPo isn't going to save AOL. The Huffington Post is a business disguised as political activism, which means that like Ralph Nader, it can rely on a lot of unpaid labor. AOL is still a business, just not a very good one. In the short term, AOL will pick up pageviews. In the long term, it makes Rupert Murdoch's purchase of MySpace look like sheer genius. A year from now, AOL will have new executives and will be frantically chasing after the latest already obsolete business model, whether it be micropayments or collective shopping. And the Huffington Post will either be rolled into whatever remains of AOL's content farms, or get sold off for a few million to some low end liberal outfit, maybe Current TV or the TV end of MSNBC.
Will this slant AOL's coverage to the left? No doubt. But most of the media is already slanting well to the left and leaning further and further by the day. Craziness from Democratic Underground, the Huffington Post and Daily Kos, melds together with talking points from Think Progress, the Atlantic and Media Matters into a goulash that the mainstream media eats up with a spoon. How much difference is there really between Time Magazine and the Huffington Post? The answer is surprisingly little. HuffPo just dispenses with the window dressing and cuts to the chase.
The Huffington Post is powered by three elements, self-promotion, spam and liberal rage. Arianna Huffington's genius was in channeling the former so well, in bringing on board so many famous people who wanted a chance to deliver their "important thoughts" to the world and aspiring famous people looking for a platform that would make them famous. And as a woman who went from conservative to liberal, from a gay republican's beard to an absurd icon for lefty mouthbreathers in pursuit of fame and fortune-- she had a perfect understanding of the mindset of her unpaid bloggers. And how to exploit it.
HuffPo is to politics what American Idol is to entertainment. It's not the product, but the process. The politics of politics. The entertainment of entertainment. It's how the sausage gets made behind the scenes. It's shameless and it's pointless. It doesn't exist to promote left wing ideas, so much as to feed off them at both ends. It gives you access to the vapid chatter of left wing celebs and the unhinged ravings of the nutroots in one single place.
For Arianna, this is the stepping stone to the next phase of her career. She has done everything possible to stay famous and to keep getting invited to all the right dinner parties, from working both sides of the aisle to jumping on everything from alternative energy to talk shows to playing the serious intellectual. Now she founded and sold a successful dot com, which means she's finally caught up to the late 90's. The future beckons. And whatever it holds will make her famous and rich, at the expense of liberals yet again. Every HuffPo blogger and commenter was another brick in the building that got her this far.
Arianna Huffington is really an older version of Paris Hilton, determined to be famous, for no reason than that she can't do or be anything else. And her Huffington Post was a slightly more upscale version of TMZ, for people equally interested in the military-industrial complex, cats doing cute things on YouTube and runway models. It was aimed squarely at a lefty base that might have liked to pretend it was smarter than conservatives, but was actually much dumber. For people who might have every essay Noam Chomsky has ever written on their Kindle, but would really rather read about celebrity scandals and then take people shouting angrily in print about the damned Republicans as dessert.
The Huffington Post is a mark of contempt for its liberal audience. It smirks and it panders to the lowest common denominator and yet has become the leading voice of a progressive movement that claims to be smarter and better than the rest of the country. Its success marks the intellectual failure and unseriousness of the progs. The AOL buyout isn't a mark of respect for the Huffington Post's ideas, no matter how much Armstrong might pretend that it is. The Huffington Post has only one tantalizing quality, traffic. And that traffic isn't made up of people coming to read and share ideas, but to see scandals and trending searches. For all that liberals have ridiculed the Drudge Report, HuffPo is a more comprehensive and more cynical version of the same thing.
There's something ironic about the company once best known for dumping its multicolored CD's on every person in America, pursuing a content farm strategy that looks a lot like it. AOL has always been relentless and so has Arianna. There is something fitting about a corporate marriage between the two of them. They are both unforgivably tacky, annoying, have nothing to offer and are impossible to get rid of. But while Arianna is on the way up, AOL is on the way down. For all her faults, Arianna Huffington has a cannier understanding of human nature than AOL does of business strategy. A few years from now AOL will be worse off, but Arianna will be better off. That is the difference between betting on human weaknesses over betting on an ephemeral digital strategy that doesn't stand up to the first market shift..
From No Labels, to the Coffee Party to Jon Stewart, there is the pretense of a Third Way movement that on closer examination turns out to be just liberals in disguise. And then there are the implosions. Keith Olbermann's split with MSNBC, Ted Rall pushing armed revolt and Alan Grayson's departure from congress. But this is more like the restructuring. The AOL buyout will enable Arianna Huffington to transition to a more mainstream role if she needs to. She can't go back to being on the right, but being on the left may be temporarily tapped out. Picking up some credibility by playing Silicon Valley executive may help recharge her image. Or she can always jump on some charitable cause. Haiti is always good.
Much like at HuffPo, the details don't really matter. Only the image does. Or the image of the image. The melange of emotion and outrage, titillation and talking down to, that exercise the reptile brain but leave nothing inside it. The Huffington Post's success marks the failure of the consumers of its content. Selling it to AOL does more than turn the former America Online into Anti-America Online, it puts a price tag on the prime commodity of the progressive movement, unpaid labor repaid in betrayal. It's a commodity that everyone from Ralph Nader to Obama has made great use of, harnessing the outrage and enthusiasm of the base for their own profit. For Arianna and AOL, the pricetag was a mere few hundred million. For Obama it was in the hundreds of billions.