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.