“I should tell you,” Kirkpatrick quickly put in, “I hate this Facebook revolution stuff.” Asked why, he said that “you can sit at your computer all day long and you’re never going to get anything done in terms of bringing down a government.” What caused the change in the Mideast, he said, was people going into the streets. While Facebook and Twitter are an advance over the old tools of putting up a flier or passing out a pamphlet, he said, “to put the technology in the forefront and not the individuals really misses the point.” Such labeling is unpopular in the Mideast, Kirkpatrick added, because it’s seen as an attempt to put a “Western brand name” on the event.

In the United States, meanwhile, the press, while writing endlessly about the Internet, has failed to examine some important questions about it. Much has been said about the democratizing effect of the Web, but how real is that effect? Has the Web delivered on its promise to empower ordinary citizens and give a voice to those who don’t own a printing press? It hardly seems so. It’s been roughly 20 years since the Web began to emerge as a significant presence in America, and over that period the country has grown much more unequal, with the top sliver growing vastly richer while the middle class has struggled. Is there a relationship between these phenomena? Has the Internet contributed to the increase in inequality? Perhaps it’s too early to make a definitive judgment, but at the very least the Internet has given birth to a new class of barons whose fortunes equal or exceed those of the traditional Wall Street variety. As the career of Steve Jobs showed, however, journalists tend to celebrate these moguls for their savvy and cool rather than examine the enormous wealth they’ve amassed and the political and economic ends to which they put it.

With the poor performance of Facebook’s IPO (the avalanche of coverage of which was another case of journalistic excess), a backlash against Web companies may be developing. If the bubble does burst, however, it seems likely, based on past performance, to produce a new round of personality-driven stories, like the 2,000-word profile The Washington Post recently ran about Facebook “fugitive” Katherine Losse, Mark Zuckerberg’s ghostwriter, who, gradually souring “on the revolution in human relations she witnessed from within,” fled the company for the hip artist colony of Marfa, TX. As one reader commented, “She had some co-workers/friends who were a bunch of jerks, so she quit her job and relocated to another part of the country. Why is this news?”

 

Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.