The world according to Facebook

Recently, I discovered to my dismay that my students in an undergraduate class in the University of the Philippines did not regularly read the newspapers, or listen to the news on radio, or watch the evening report on TV. These are students of the country’s premier state university; most of them are expected to be among the nation’s future leaders. “So, how do you keep yourselves informed about what’s happening in the country and the world?” I anxiously asked. “Facebook,” came their reply.

The world of Facebook is vast, multilayered, and multidimensional. It is both deeply personal and awesomely public. Its users casually post the most private communications and bare details of their most intimate selves—on a platform they share with a billion other people. The wonder of it all is that they think they are in control of what they reveal about themselves or who gets to see what they post.

If global society is the universe of communications, then Facebook is its closest approximation. It is the largest social network in cyberspace—nearly as big as China in membership, but, as a community, far more diverse, dispersed, and engaged than the constituents of the world’s most populous nation.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has made plans to deploy his company’s unique advantage in a bid to become the world’s principal purveyor of the news. Agence France-Presse reports: “Zuckerberg said that while a newspaper provides the same information to every reader, Facebook can tailor its feed to the interests of the individual, delivering a mix of world news, community events and updates about friends or family.”

There is, of course, nothing new in the idea of delivering individually customized information. Other companies like Google and Yahoo are already doing this to some extent. And so do countless Internet-based magazines, like Zite and Flipboard, which function like highly-focused search engines, picking articles from a broad range of sources and cobbling these together to deliver a personalized magazine unique to every reader. Every new version of these delightful apps represents a further sharpening of their selection engine.

These days, they no longer ask what kind of stories might interest their subscribers. They figure this out themselves by creating a profile of each one of them based on their past selections. Every “click” they make registers an input into a complex calculation process that determines what information to deliver to every single one of their subscribers. Amazon, the world’s largest bookstore, pioneered this form of smart service by generating book and product recommendations from the titles and goods one has bought or even merely shown the faintest interest in. All this is made possible by algorithms—those complex sequences of computer instructions by which vast amounts of data inputs are factored in and processed to produce an output.

So when Facebook begins delivering—in Zuckerberg’s words—”the perfect personalized newspaper for every person in the world,” it will also be capable of knowing in real time how the news is being received by a billion people. George Washington University professor of journalism Nikki Usher articulates what is probably in the mind of anyone who has studied the way the mass media work: “That’s a lot of power to put in a single organization.”

We are told that Facebook will not be hiring its own army of journalists. This means it will be sourcing information from existing newspapers and media networks all over the world, curating this in a personal way before it’s delivered to every one of its members.

The question is: How does one know when a piece of information has landed in one’s personalized news box because it is sponsored?

The fear implicit in this question is based on the classic suspicion that, given their power, the mass media are somehow engaged in manipulating the news. We have all heard of “sacred cows”—persons and institutions shielded from negative reports and commentary, or singled out for abundant praise for the most trivial achievements. Interestingly, such awareness rarely results in a comprehensive distrust for the mass media. In his book “The reality of the mass media,” Niklas Luhmann puts it thus: “[K]nowledge acquired from the mass media merges together as if of its own accord into a self-reinforcing structure. Even if all knowledge were to carry a warning that it was open to doubt, it would still have to be used as a foundation, as a starting point.” Conversely, the mass media themselves seem to have little choice but to abide by the autonomy that modern society has given them.

I can’t imagine Facebook squandering its massive subscriber base to promote a political ideology or a religion, or merely to serve as the mouthpiece of a business conglomerate. Its own staff will be the first to abandon it. Already, new Facebook-like networks are coming up in protest against excessive commercialization. “Ello,” for example, describes itself as “the social network you have been waiting for. Simple, beautiful & ad-free.”

Facebook’s entry into the world of journalism will surely change the way we view the world. It will break parochial horizons. I doubt it will kill traditional media. On the contrary, I think it will jack up their readership or viewership. But they will be faced with unprecedented pressures to change the way they report the news. And these will come from the one thing that’s triggering all these changes: the opening of the “interactive” space between sender and receiver that the Internet has made possible.

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