Dissertation (PDF)

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Matthew Crain. The Revolution Will Be Commercialized: Finance, Public Policy, and the Construction of Internet Advertising. PhD Dissertation. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. 2013.

Abstract: This dissertation traces the internet’s assimilation into the marketing system during the 1990s. It analyzes the construction of the online advertising industry and clarifies its role in the reconfiguration of commercial media. The conceptual framework is that of critical political economy. Archival sources, government documents, and trade press accounts provide a foundation for an assessment of how online advertising evolved in relation to a changing capitalist political economy.

The “dotcom” period was characterized by broad market liberalization, a technology investment bubble, and accelerating disruption of established media business models. In this context advertising and media firms, major marketers, and a group of newly formed online advertising companies sought to fashion the world wide web into a marketing platform and secure their own position at the heart of the internet’s nascent media economy. Deeply integrated into speculative financial markets, these actors appropriated key digital technologies and influenced public policy in order to steer the development of the web toward a model of advertising based on pervasive and surreptitious consumer surveillance. This confluence of factors rapidly broadened the scale and scope of online advertising, altered the technical character and everyday experience of the web, and established a framework for the continued transformation of advertising and media in the 21st century.

This research situates online advertising’s development as an ongoing and contested process rooted in historical social relations. It emphasizes the interconnected roles of finance, technology, and politics in shaping the internet’s evolution and delimiting the boundaries of its acceptable use. At the same time, it sheds light on the dynamic nature of capitalism by charting its interaction with a powerful new interactive medium that was and remains simultaneously disruptive and catalytic.