Facebook & a new dark age for publishing

By Adam Westbrook 10 March 2016
The burning of the Library of Alexandria depicted in The Course of Empire series by Thomas Cole. Pic: public domain.

The burning of the Library of Alexandria nearly two millennia ago stands as a symbol for the loss of cultural knowledge. Perhaps it serves as a warning as well.

Some people seem to see Facebook’s growing monopoly as a huge opportunity. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Do you remember when everybody declared that the “homepage is dead”?

That was less than two years ago and it’s already revealing itself to be a dreadful mistake.

The perceived wisdom was that it was smarter to publish direct to established social platforms, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Snapchat, because that’s where audiences are. No point in owning your own platform any more!

The first to recognise the error of their ways are the YouTubers. In recent months, stories have begun emerging of hugely successful channels having features stripped away by the company – often without explanation or appeal.

Big creators and companies who rely on YouTube for their income, including Channel Awesome, Eli the Computer Guy and Alternate History Hub have reported losing their ability to monetize their videos after a complaint or copyright strike was made against them.

When they try to appeal or even seek a clarification YouTube does not respond, suddenly rendering their livelihoods rudderless. With all their subscribers and content inherently made for YouTube, they can’t simply move to a competitor.

“This is the third year in a row I’ve earned over $100,000 from [YouTube]” one creator told The Verge “and I’m getting tired of worrying about whether all my work is going to vanish.”

Perhaps you don’t have much sympathy for a vlogger making five figures from his bedroom. But stick with me: this is a symptom of something much more serious.

The Internet isn’t yours

It’s clear now that the Internet has changed hands.

Without any of the elements that create healthy diverse competition in the real world, four companies have emerged all powerful on the web: Google, Apple, Amazon and of course, Facebook. Competitors to these big-four exist, but one can’t imagine them ever being a threat.

Facebook in particular is expanding to control ever more aspects of ours lives – no more so than the information we consume.

When Facebook unveiled their Instant Articles deal last year the benefits to publishers were clearly spelled out: content published directly to Facebook (rather than being embedded from an external site) would be given priority in newsfeeds. Plus ad-blocking on Facebook is harder to do so revenue will increase.

Publishers big and small have seen it as virtually a no-brainer, arguing that they can’t afford to lose eyeballs in their high stakes battle of attrition.

This is – I think – is a dangerous mistake, rooted in short-term thinking. The consequences in the long-term could be devastating.

In a new article for the Columbia Journalism Review, Emily Bell sees cause for concern:

“We are seeing massive changes in control, and finance, putting the future of our publishing ecosystem into the hands of a few, who now control the destiny of many,” she writes.

An accident of history (let’s not pretend it’s anything else) has put this enormous power in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg: a 31-year-old computer science dropout from New York. I am sure he is nice enough and his intentions may be good; and no-one is doubting his ability as a programmer or entrepreneur. But he is as qualified to hold this power as Donald Trump is to be president.

(You can argue too that as CEO of Facebook he is more powerful than the president).

Facebook has convinced publishers – the free press, the fourth estate of our democratic society! – to surrender their autonomy for a quick buck.

How long before they start to feel the strong arm of their new bed mate, just as the YouTubers are feeling now? As The Memo has reported before, Facebook is not afraid to censor.

Read more: Facebook’s fear of nipples is outdated

“If Facebook decides, for instance, that video stories will do better than text stories,” argues Bell, “we cannot know that unless they tell us or unless we observe it. This is an unregulated field. There is no transparency into the internal working of these systems.”

The end of the golden age

The burning of the Library of Alexandria nearly two millennia ago stands as a symbol for the loss of cultural knowledge. And perhaps it serves as a warning as well.

We believe we live in a golden age of information. But in centralising it, putting more of it into the hands of a small, powerful, unaccountable elite, we are doing a dangerous dance.

As the playwright David Mamet once warned: “if ‘information’ is centralised in…computers, liable to power outage or any electronic mishap, might one not intuit that the culture is voting for/being impelled toward an eradication of knowledge?”

It won’t be as dramatic as a burning library – but it will be just as devastating.