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.