Radio wasn’t just a local newspaper; it was also a national phonograph. Television wasn’t just radio with pictures; it was also living-room movies. It was difficult to see these analogies at the dawn of the technology, because they were not inevitable, but rather emerged in the chaotic interplay between businesses and consumers.
Zuckerberg's growing empire of digital attention represents a more profound shift than either radio or television. Returning to the twentieth century, one could roughly divide each communications technology into two categories: social and broadcast. Talking was social; radio was broadcast. Telephones were social; television was broadcast. These categories were leaky—people listened to the radio as families, and danced to rock-and-roll with friends in high school gyms—but never entirely overlapping.
Facebook is a departure from twentieth century technologies, because it is both a social media and a broadcast platform. It is a modern telephone network and television, a global mail system and a global newspaper. With more than 100 million hours of daily video watch time, millions of dollars for media companies to make live video, and even a new morning show, Facebook’s closest analogue isn’t one channel, but rather Comcast: a massive media-distribution company with an enormous share of its market.
The Comcast metaphor is not perfect—a cable provider charges subscriptions for infrastructure; a social media company charges ads for arbitraging user attention—but it’s apt for understanding the culture of skepticism toward Facebook among the media. Comcast is legally obligated to promote information from many sources, including local stations. Fox News can say basically whatever it wants about the president, but Comcast can’t conspire against ABC to promote the same agenda, because it cannot operate an explicitly partisan platform on public airwaves. (Just this afternoon, Sen. John Thune and the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee launched an inquiry into Facebook's news practices. The Senate’s jurisdiction here is highly questionable, but its eagerness to take on Facebook for allegedly suppressing conservative news suggests that even Washington equates Facebook’s scope with a cable provider.) Facebook’s algorithm already funnels conservative news to conservative users by design. But this is a reflection of user preferences and a part of Facebook’s creed to give people what they want. It’s not a centralized decision by the most powerful media disseminator in the world to punish some users for having opinions about taxes and social justice that Menlo Park doesn’t share.
The reason to address these questions now is that Facebook’s influence on media might not yet have peaked. If a company can connect every person in the world around any visual and auditory event, past and live, then there isn’t any existing media platform that it cannot distribute. Text, sounds, and moving images—both socially shared between individuals (SMS, phone calls, mail) and broadcast or distributed from media companies (news, books, radio, music, television, film, and video games)—comprise the entire history of media. That means Facebook’s potential encompasses the whole McKinsey mountain of media.