It's the hottest new media meme since lolcats: The internet is a leech, a louse, a bloodsucker -- a parasite.
Wall Street Journal managing editor Robert Thomson recently described websites that use others' content to build their own traffic as "tech tapeworms as the intestines of the internet." David Simon, creator of The Wire, told Congress "the parasite is killing the host," referring to aggregators like Google News and Yahoo. And The New Republic last week pronounced "the blogosphere and the news aggregators that dominate cyberspace" to be "completely parasitic."
It's enough to make you crave a bath in flea dip.
But, on closer inspection, the internet-as-parasite meme is actually one of those metaphors that turns out to be more accurate than its creators ever intended. That's because, as anyone who knows a little bit about biology knows, parasites aren't merely pernicious -- they're inevitable and frequently beneficial, even necessary. The human body contains 10 times as many bacterial cells as human cells, and those bacteria play an important role, helping their hosts to, for instance, digest lactose. Without digestion, we wouldn't be able to draw nutrition from our food nearly as efficiently; think about how bad your stomach gets when you're on strong antibiotics.
The "parasites" of the internet play much the same role, helping to maximize the amount of traffic that news organizations derive from their original content, sending them millions of readers who would never stumble across those stories on their own. The Atlantic's Conor Clarke notes that traffic to nytimes.com increases in lockstep with visits to the Huffington Post -- evidence that the former isn't detracting from the latter. And Mathew Ingram of the Nieman Journalism Lab looked into claims that Google somehow hurts newspapers and declared them "almost too absurd to be taken seriously." If that were the case, said Ingram, publishers could easily prevent Google from indexing their content, something none of them would ever do.
Even those intestinal worms that Robert Thomson so deplores aren't so bad for you: researchers increasingly are finding that certain types of worms help to keep the human immune system in balance, preventing or even curing autoimmune disorders.
I'm not quite sure how that works within the larger metaphor -- what's the media equivalent of Crohn's disease? -- but it's something to think about next time you're tempted to blame Arianna Huffington for killing newspapers.
In defense of Google and other 'parasites'