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.