On Facebook and Freedom

Why journalists should not surrender to the Walmarts of the web

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.

In the nearly eight years since it was founded by Harvard undergraduates as a way for students at elite colleges to discreetly stalk each other under the guise of friendship, Facebook has grown at an enviable and perhaps unparalleled pace. The service claims 800 million active users, who spend more time on it than on Yahoo, Google, AOL, YouTube, and Twitter combined; its valuation has been estimated at one hundred billion dollars. When it finally goes public, its IPO will likely be the most successful in the history of Wall Street.

How did a frivolous website with few apparent practical applications come to so disproportionately overshadow the American digital economy? By tapping into the fundamental human need to communicate with other people; by allowing you to stay in touch with everyone you’ve ever known, all at the same time, without having to call them or send them Christmas cards or remember the names of their children. Facebook utilizes the power of networks to provide the most useful tool for easy sociability in generations. And, as it does so, it rejects the lessons of the living web.

The World Wide Web is and was an unregulated, unconfined space where anyone with a network connection can declare and discuss his passions and interests, no matter how esoteric. When first popularized in the 1990s, it fostered an independent culture of creation and collaboration; in it, some saw an opportunity to democratize the means of content production, to bring about an era of thick participation in news and knowledge transmission.

And yet, as time passed, for every person who joined the web eager to create content and share expertise, there were dozens who joined the web because it was on their work computers. Facebook’s great genius was in realizing that most people wanted less from the web; that they primarily wanted a place where they could chat and kill time without having to worry about downloading programs or chancing viruses. So Facebook offered people the cruise-ship version of the Internet—a slick, brightly colored destination for social activities and bonhomie, safely apart from the unfamiliar surrounding waters, a service-oriented environment where you can lean back and enjoy the attentions of your very own information valet. You could leave the ship, but there’s no need to—friends, information, activities, they’re all already there, and if they’re not they’ll be there soon.

A few caveats apply. You can’t steer the ship. You can’t see how it works. You can’t suggest destinations or routes, and you’re not likely to cruise beyond your comfort zone. You can’t easily meet people who aren’t already like you. If something goes wrong, you’re not allowed to fix it; if you’re displeased with the service, nobody will listen to your complaint.

Facebook succeeds by disempowering its users, most of whom did not realize they were ceding powers that they had never actually exercised. Daunted by and suspicious of a decentralized communications medium that gave them unlimited choices, these new web viewers found themselves willing to swap freedom for a more coherent online experience; more than willing to accept Facebook’s limitations and reductive emotional grammar, because the site is free, usable, and everyone else is already there.

Though the company might not define itself as such, its users have certainly come to think of Facebook as a news source—a place they come to get data and information of external and personal import. And so it’s worth examining how Facebook differs from the sorts of news outlets we already know.

For all of their flaws, and they are many, most substantial news organizations have always taken seriously the goal of fostering a better-informed public. The news they reported was deemed to be of some wider importance, and the way in which they presented it was a sign of its importance. This was stuff you needed to know if you wanted to accurately apprehend the world and become a better citizen. You can challenge the way that news organizations did that job; you can challenge their arrogance, their limitations, the viewpoints they excluded. The point is that the act of making that judgment was a civic function as important as reporting the news in the first place.

Facebook rejects this notion. It traffics in informational relativism. An update from a friend, an update from a newspaper, an update from a shoe store—they trickle down the same news feed, differentiated only by vague algorithmic alchemy, and it’s up to you to assess their relative levels of importance.

Facebook exemplifies the much-touted “platform” model for social news—platform in the Bughouse Square sense, a raised stage on which stand millions of people, tightly clustered, shouting to one another about everything and nothing in particular. And just as a soapbox does not critique the speeches delivered by its standees, Facebook refrains from judging its data, instead letting its users decide to whom they should listen.

The open web is also a platform. But the web is also a decentralized, non-commercial entity; Facebook, analyzed and data-mined to exhaustion, only pretends to be such. The Internet itself cannot judge quality, though its users are free to invent filters that do so. Facebook does not judge quality.

The site gives its users crude tools—you can hide or unfollow an individual or an organization—which offer few levels of nuance. The platform itself provides no good way for its users to assess whether what they’re getting at any given time is relevant, intelligent, or accurate. You can rely on the reputation of the source providing the updates, of course, but you can’t assume that that source will remain on topic or provide relevant info. You can’t yourself assign a specific value to a source or to a piece of information, and you can’t consider the value that other users have assigned to a source or a piece of information, other than by the comments or “likes” that it has received. Facebook passes the buck on passing judgment.

The news media have long been criticized for the down-the-middle mentality of much of their reporting, which treats one source the same as another and leaves it up to the reader to decide who’s right. The “news feed” as a medium is similarly flawed.

There are real-world civic consequences to this sort of false equivalence, and new news structures need to understand this and account for it, rather than abdicating responsibility in favor of some pandering slogan about putting the media in the hands of the people. A great idea! But the necessary next step involves giving them the tools and education they need to shape and make sense of it. Without that next step, where’s the real improvement?

Over the past several weeks, a movement called Occupy Wall Street has garnered a lot of attention for its protests at the financial districts of cities across the United States. The protests are fueled by a general dissatisfaction with income inequality and the state of the American economy, and rage at the perceived greed of the financiers and corporations that accept bailouts and big salaries while extending no succor or mercy to the people whose jobs they eliminate and houses they foreclose on.

Occupy Wall Street, at least among the people in my circle, gets a lot of attention and support on Facebook. It coordinates many of its events using Facebook. And it is a metaphor for the flaws inherent in Facebook.

You can think of Occupy Wall Street as a platform for dissent. A lot of people have swarmed to its protests, which have become a means by which these people and others can express their anger with and opinions about the state of the nation. The movement has gotten a lot of people talking about issues. But, as of yet, it has done little to promote specific understanding of these issues—of how, exactly, the problems facing our country came to be, and how they might be fixed. Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless movement, and, as such, will have trouble honing its blunt emotion into specific, actionable points. It may inspire various higher-ups to take definite action, but those actions will not be devised by the people.

Facebook is raising awareness of news like Occupy Wall Street is raising awareness of issues, insofar as they’re both raising awareness that (some) news exists and (some) issues exist. The difference is that Facebook itself is in prime position to be an informational leader. It would not be impossible for Facebook to program a function that would let its users identify the most-trusted, most-verifiable updates on any given topic from any given source; it would not be difficult for Facebook to let interested users do this work for them. But Facebook has shown little interest in anything other than being all things to everyone; little interest in empowering its everyday users to participate in the news in any way other than “Like.” Link. Comment. Click.

It’s hard to see this vision of social news as any sort of informational evolution for which we should eagerly prepare ourselves. It’s not leading to greater precision or better data or more widespread understanding. And if specific understanding isn’t your goal, then, in the end, you’re just standing on the banks of the commons, spitting into the river of news. The social function of news is to give people things to talk about. The civic function of news is to make its users better citizens. Facebook excels at the first and fails, miserably, at the second. It will lead to a more informed public. But there’s no reason to think that it’ll lead to a better-informed public.

As attention continues to consolidate on these sites, we’re facing what can be termed the Walmartization of the web. For those foreign readers unfamiliar with the pride of Bentonville, Walmart is a discount chain retailer that builds its massive, ugly stores on the outskirts of towns, undercuts local merchants’ prices and drives them out of business, and leaves residents with one choice of where to shop and manufacturers with one choice of where to sell their goods. You can get a lot of big brand names at Walmart, but don’t look for anything of real quality. Still, the stores are so big, and there’s so much there, that once you’re inside it’s often difficult to leave.

The web is moving toward something similar, where there’ll be a handful of huge sites that draw big crowds and offer big brands but show no interest in working with or featuring material from smaller organizations.

And, like Walmart, these big sites will see the public primarily as consumers, not partners. The open web enables and encourages the prospect of collaboration between disparate parties—the powerful and the ordinary, the notorious and the obscure; it makes it easy for dispersed and heretofore-unlinked constituencies to learn from each other and evolve in different ways.

Facebook lets people collaborate, too, in a sense; on it, people make connections, organize events, and plot to resuscitate Betty White’s career. But those collaborations are technically bland and functionally limited, and there’s always the possibility that Facebook’s going to pull the plug on your poster party, for whatever reason. If you’re meeting in somebody else’s house, the homeowner will always have the power to tell you to leave, or to have you evicted for trespassing.

In this, the site is little different from the monopolistic legacy news sources whose role in the world it has come to assume; whose readers couldn’t easily improve papers or play a role in their operations, in making them better. This galls because the web had a chance to shake out differently, and it’s disappointing that we reverted so soon to the old, closed model.

In a very real sense, the web was a critique of the way that power and expertise tend to consolidate in the hands of profit-minded organizations. The web, at its best, was a medium without a middleman, one that let people substantively connect with one another without having to go through a profit-minded mediator. And even if ninety-nine percent of them wasted or ignored that power, the remaining one percent were helping to evolve news and communications into a fundamentally new format.

There are still people doing this out on the open web—adding meaning, context, and expertise to any given discussion; building things, innovating, learning from their mistakes. But the state of the web today is such that it is becoming very difficult for any individual or group of individuals to act without relying on big organizations.

In the end, the stronger Facebook grows, the weaker the rest of the web becomes. In a gloomy article for The Guardian published soon after Facebook announced its changes, Adrian Short mourned the demise of the open web: “We need to use social networks to get heard and this forces us into digital serfdom. We give more power to Big Web companies with every tweet and page we post to their networks while hoping to get a bit of traffic and attention back for ourselves. The open web of free and independent websites has never looked so weak.”

News organizations wasted a lot of time wringing their hands about the Internet and wishing it would disappear.

Unsure what could be done with it, and unwilling to consider any implications other than those involving the bottom line, they stood on tenterhooks, faced with the prospect of a communications revolution, and closed their eyes and pretended it wasn’t there.

Now, playing catch-up, they’re being told to embrace all forms of social media with the credulity and verve of a toddler hoping to curry favor with a mall Santa; that they must integrate their operations with Facebook if they are to maximize traffic and effectively engage and build an online community.

There are lots of reasons why extreme Facebook integration is a bad idea. Yes, it ultimately imperils your traffic by making your site too dependent on the social graph’s good graces, and yes, the way Facebook collects data about its users is creepy and invasive, and yes, if you think about it, it makes no sense to forgo building a strong community that’s engaged with your site and cares about and participates in your initiatives in favor of grasping after a weak community that can be induced to spend two seconds “liking” your organization and having its news updates buried among the hundreds of other updates that come across every single day.

But, primarily, Facebook and news organizations have few common values, and news organizations that become too integrated risk losing the very things that made them vital.

Facebook and its peers are the companies on top right now. They may or may not fall and be replaced with other companies. It’s the model they represent that’s the real concern; the model that says, in the end, power ought to consolidate; that accessibility trumps utility; that, like the phoenix, precision will magically rise out of indiscriminate flames.

The open web could use a champion, and news organizations should be the ones to brandish that sword. Online news sites should become beacons for experimentation, conveners of authority; they should become spaces that foster the kind of perspective and expertise that Facebook circumscribes, and the collaboration that Facebook disallows. Theoretically, this would fortify both parties, and would help news organizations remake themselves into powerful alternative platforms for community-driven news.

Practically, what might this mean?

1. Give your users prominent space to substantively interact, express themselves, and participate in the genesis and dissemination of news. Include people in your reporting projects, and facilitate connections between those who would like to collaborate among themselves.

2. Comb the web for people experimenting with news—building databases or analytical tools, writing programs that might have some news application, pursuing one-off projects designed to last for the lifespan of the event they were was created to analyze and record. Promote these efforts. Critique them with an eye toward improving them. Integrate them into your own site and encourage the experimenters to use your site to disseminate their work.

3. Devote sections of your site to training users in news and computer literacy, which is key if we are to grow a generation of responsible digital citizens. Make yourself into a place where people can go to learn how to read and evaluate a news story; offer tutorials on computer programming. Give engaged citizens the tools to become articulate participants in any given discussion.

4. Encourage and cultivate productive dissent. Make it easy for people to explain what you’re doing wrong and how it could be done better; consider and respond to these critiques. Illuminate your internal workings in a way that a hundred-billion-dollar company would never illuminate its own.

At base, at their best, news organizations have always wanted to responsibly inform and thereby empower individuals to become assets to their communities. By turning their websites into hubs for collaboration, experimentation, education, and dissent, news organizations can extend their pursuit of that goal and advance a true vision for the future of social news.

At the f8 conference this September, Mark Zuckerberg called the changes that he introduced “an important next step to help tell the story of your life.” Helping people tell stories is a laudable goal, certainly, but what does it actually mean?

News organizations, for all their flaws, have always held high the notion of the story as a useful, powerful, sacred thing. Stories told thoughtfully and disseminated widely can and have changed the world. Mark Zuckerberg also wants to change the world—and the evidence indicates that he wants to change it into a blander, more homogeneous place, where people express themselves within limits and are reduced to their affinities and preferences; where stories double as market-research reports; where everybody knows something about one another; and where Facebook knows everything about everyone and uses that knowledge to enrich itself in manifold uncomfortable ways.

The story of digital news, as told so far, seems to be leading to an equally bleak denouement. Yet there’s still time to write a better ending. News organizations must not allow slogans and corporate blandishments to take the place of true, collaborative innovation; they must find ways to use digital media to its best extent, rather than enabling its disfigurement for the sake of a few extra click-throughs. The open web and all it represents will wither if there is nobody to tend it; the news as a public good will not survive if its future rests in the hands of people who don’t actually care about the news. 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review. Tags: