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.