Facebook has won this round of the Internet.
Steadily, grindingly, it continues to take an ever greater share of our time and attention online. More than 800 million people use the site on an average day. Individuals are dependent on it to keep up not just with their friends but with their families. When a research company looked at how people use their phones, it found that they spend more time on Facebook than they do browsing the entire rest of the Web.
Digital-media companies have grown reliant on Facebook’s powerful distribution capabilities. They are piglets at the sow, squealing amongst their siblings for sustenance, by which I mean readers.
Think about how this weakens the basic idea of a publication. The media bundles known as magazines and newspapers were built around letting advertisers reach an audience. But now virtually all of the audiences are in the same place, and media entities and advertisers alike know how to target them: they go to Facebook, select some options from a drop-down menu—18-to-24-year-old men in Maryland who are college-football fans—and their ads materialize in the feeds of that demographic.
A decade after Facebook emerged from the Ivy League dorms in which it started, it is the most powerful information gatekeeper the world has ever known. It is only slightly hyperbolic to say that Facebook is like all the broadcast-television networks put together. But instead of programming executives choosing what Americans see, programmers are. And while, once upon a time, everyone with a TV and an antenna could see “what was on,” Facebook news feeds are personalized, so no one outside the company actually knows what anyone else is seeing. This opacity would have been impossible to imagine in previous eras.