In September of this year, the Internet briefly burbled with the news that Facebook, the market leader in workday-wastery, would soon debut several fundamental changes to its site. For some of the more excitable online pundits, this was akin to the discovery of a heretofore-unnoticed ocean, and as the date of the redesign drew closer, they devolved into hysterics. Ben Parr, a writer for the tech news site Mashable, embarrassed himself with the sort of full-throated hyperbole best suited for a monster-truck rally: “On Thursday, developers will be elated, users will be shellshocked, and the competition will look ancient. On Thursday, Facebook will be reborn. Prepare yourselves for the evolution of social networking.”
The changes that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced to a conference of developers in San Francisco that Thursday were, at base, all about control. Users would be better able to control their so-called social graph by sequencing their data into timelines. News organizations could exert more control over their Facebook presence by publishing Facebook-specific editions of their content. And, by turning the site into a more immersive experience, Facebook furthered its ambitions to control every segment of online activity, from commerce to conversation. The conference at which Zuckerberg made the announcement was called f8, as in “Fate,” and, by the end of the presentation, observant web users had caught a glimpse of theirs.
Once dispersed organically across the wilds of the Internet, news content and online discourse are consolidating onto platforms operated by a few tech companies—Google, the world’s most ambitious microscope; Twitter, the hyperkinetic modern version of the telephone party line; Facebook, Apple, Amazon, a few others. They are subsuming their competitors and adding users at a gluttonous rate. By controlling the social dissemination of data, they are poised to become the primary information sources of the digital age.
These companies have brought functionality and efficiency to a realm that is often confusing. They have reinvented the means by which ordinary people interact with and relate to the news and one another. They have made it easier for people to find stories and news sources of interest to them, and share that material with other interested parties. They have, in many ways, simplified their users’ lives.
But such convenience and efficiency comes at a cost. These digital gorgons now loom so large that content producers cannot avoid their shadow. The traffic they direct and attention they command is so great that, for publishers, to ignore them is to court obscurity and potential irrelevance. In a previous era, media properties were the primary points of access to information and opinion relevant to their respective communities, much to the dismay of certain interest groups and constituencies whose issues went unreported and voices went unheard. Now we have swapped one set of media gatekeepers for another—a handful of multi-billion dollar tech companies that aim to profit by hosting the digital commons.
The question is whether they’re up to the task. Some claim that Facebook and its cohort have crippled the open web—that unregulated bastion of independent thought and untrammeled communications—by encouraging people to become data sharecroppers on their vast digital plantations. The doomsayers are perhaps overstating their case. The open web continues to exist, after all, and is not hard to find, even if you don’t know what you’re looking for. But it is safe to say that the rise of the new digital behemoths portends the decline of the maker culture that once defined the Internet, as people are encouraged to become data consumers rather than creators. It means that a significant number of people will come to spend the bulk of their online time inside a circumscribed Internet characterized by limited functionality and bland ambition. And it likely spells an end to the idealistic notion that true disintermediation— the removal of the informational middleman—could play a relevant part in any given future for news.
This has real implications for journalism. The future of a well-informed public is tied to the future of the open web, and the future of journalism is tied to the future of a well-informed public. Publishers, feverishly grasping for anything that might palliate their ailing budgets, are jostling to join hands with Big Social. Yet as ostensible champions of free thought and expression, they should be guarding the health of the independent web as fiercely as they guard their own editorial prerogatives.