Facebook and Fear

Facebook’s potential is without precedent. But its public scrutiny will be unprecedented, too.

Eric Risberg / AP

In an April 27 conference call to discuss Facebook's extraordinary first quarter results this year, Mark Zuckerberg announced a high point in his company’s history. Advertising revenue grew by more than 50 percent since 2015, the company was hard at work on a future for artificial intelligence and virtual reality, and the average Facebook user is spending 50 minutes per day on Facebook and its other products, Instagram and Messenger. That means that each day, more than a billion people—more than 170 million of them in the U.S. and Canada, alone—spend an hour with one company. James Stewart, the New York Times columnist, noted that this is “more time than people spend reading (19 minutes); participating in sports or exercise (17 minutes); or social events (four minutes)." In short, Facebook is so dominant, it’s almost scary.

Two weeks later, on Monday, several former Facebook news “curators” who edited the Trending section beside the News Feed told Gizmodo that they were asked to suppress stories about Republicans and withhold news from predominantly conservative websites, like RedState.com. Twitter lit up with outrage, sadness, and I-saw-this-coming gloats. Several people, many of them journalists, saw their fears of Facebook’s influence validated. “Politics is downstream from culture, which is downstream from Mark Zuckerberg,” Ross Douthat wrote. In short, Facebook is so dominant that people are scared.

These two stories about Facebook—the extraordinary earnings and the unfortunate accusations—are part of a larger narrative. Facebook so dominates the market for mobile attention that it is projected to command almost 30 percent of total display advertising revenue in the world this year. (With Google and Alibaba, the top three display ad companies control half of the global market.) This is mastery that borders on monopoly, and it is for precisely this reason that Facebook is both revered on Wall Street and feared among publishers, whose business is more fragile each year. Even before Facebook’s takeoff, newspaper advertising revenue had fallen by 70 percent between 2000 and 2014.

Facebook is a media company, but more than that, it is a utility, an integral piece of information infrastructure upon which hundreds of publishers and media companies rely to reach their audience. A television channel like MSNBC can directly criticize Republicans all it wants and nobody really cares. But Facebook was roundly criticized for allegedly suppressing conservative news stories, because Facebook is not like a television channel. It is like something we’ve never really seen before: a super-powered cable operator for the mobile future.

Consider Facebook’s 50 minutes in its historical context. Several years ago, McKinsey published an estimate of time spent consuming messages since the start of the twentieth century—a historical mountain of media. In 1900, messages came through just a few channels. People read pulp—books and newspapers—but most communication was face-to-face.

In the next century, households fell in love with the radio set, the television set, their desktops, and their mobile phones. To appreciate Facebook’s potential (and the controversy of its historic promise), it helps to see it not as a media channel like WNYC or NBC, but rather as an entire technology platform, like radio or television, which distributes many media channels.

Radio, which entered 50 percent of households by the early 1930s, initially competed most obviously with print to distribute news and stories. But perhaps its most significant cultural role was to distribute something else entirely: popular music. When television became the most popular consumer technology product in history in the 1950s, it adopted the stars and the style of radio. (Television was so much “the new radio” that it even replaced radio sets in the corner of living rooms, a perfect one-to-one hardware swap.) But TV's most important cultural revolution in the second half of the century wasn’t to replace the radio, but rather to replace film as the world's chief visual medium. Between 1950 and 2000, television became a $100 billion industry, while the number of movie tickets purchased per American fell from about 25 to four.

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.

There’s too much competition in mobile attention for Facebook (or whatever competitor replaces it) to be the whole mountain. But the foreseeable future of digital media—both measured by attention and by ad dollars—belongs to Facebook. When a digital media network has one billion people connected to entertainment companies, news publications, brands, and each other, the right historical analogy isn’t television, or telephones, or radio, or newspapers. The right historical analogy doesn’t exist. Facebook’s power is unprecedented. It shouldn’t be surprised if its scrutiny is similarly historic.