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.