The prospect of AT&T acquiring Time-Warner has triggered howls from both presidential campaigns, consumer-protection groups and free-press advocates, all of whom raised fears of media concentration, diminished competition and the threat to democracy posed by consolidation in the marketplace of ideas.
Well, right burning church. Wrong burning pew.
This is the case of one giant company with no other prospects for growth acquiring another giant company with no prospects for growth. It's as if the Titanic survivors took refuge on the Lusitania. The dangers to the rest of us are real, but they lie elsewhere.
If you are concerned about democracy and consumer choice, direct your attention to “social distribution” -- a shift in publishing, and a threat to publishing independence, that’s advancing at a breathtaking pace and scale. When you click on a Facebook Instant Article or an item from Google Amp, somewhere an important story is dying -- because social distribution, like high school and presidential campaigns, overwhelmingly benefits the popular. Whether a given story is served to a given reader is determined not by editors or curators but by algorithms, which do not measure substance, significance or potential impact on society. They measure only what users have looked at before, what they have commented on and what they have shared.
Needless to say, such algorithms do not favor statehouse coverage and investigative reporting.
If this were simply additional distribution for serious publishers, none of this would present a threat. However, Facebook, Google and Snapchat are becoming the primary channel for hundreds of publishers that value not only these platforms’ vast global reach and prowess at seamlessly loading content, but also their capacity to efficiently target advertising messages and to fetch higher ad prices in so doing.
The problem, once again, is that none of these platforms has anything resembling journalistic sensibilities. Their godhead is page views, and this does not bode well for coverage of gerrymandering in Michigan's 14th Congressional district. What it does augur is a troubling conflict of interest. Publishers -- especially publicly held publishers -- must now reckon the relative value of popular stories that generate audience and revenue, and journalistic bran that fulfills the editorial mission.
I'll leave you to ponder how that will play out.
The EdgeRank Effect is just the latest pernicious side effect of the digital revolution, which by enabling an endless glut of content supply in countless tiny fragments has devastated the mass-advertising business model that was so munificent for nearly three centuries. You are all too aware of The Incredible Shrinking Newsroom and the parallel heyday of dancing cats. But now that ruinous supply-and-demand imbalance, along with evolving ubiquitous technology, is propelling us into a new media epoch: the uncompetitive, undemocratic Mobile Age.
Smartphones change everything. And, between them, Facebook and YouTube account for more than a third of mobile traffic and half of its ad revenue. Every 90 days, that share grows as the two companies continue to scoop up 90 cents of every new dollar of mobile expenditure. As such, we become more dependent on the auto-pandering machine.
I'm no Trump. I allege no sinister conspiracy to pacify and dumb us down, along 1984 lines. But between human nature and machine learning, the system is indeed rigged and there may be no way back.
The implications are as terrifying as the irony is searing. You may recall the fears of the 1980s, when such authors as Ben Bagdikian sounded the alarms as the likes of Gannett, Disney, Time Inc. and News Corp gobbled up disproportionate amount of content and distribution. Media concentration! Democracy in jeopardy! Those fears subsided -- in fact, seemed positively quaint -- once the Internet came along and offered an unlimited democracy of thoughts and ideas. Through blogs and YouTube, everybody had the power to create and distribute at virtually no cost. It was a democratic utopia.
Until dystopia began setting in. We are now, as I’ve been screaming for the past year, on the cusp of Bagdikian's worst nightmare. And it will get much worse before it gets any better. Gradually we are living accidental Orwell, losing access to the most basic journalism we need to evaluate our institutions. We have become the United States of Facebook. And, speaking of cats on the Internet, the Fourth Estate is clinging tenuously to its ninth life.
At this particular moment in history, how prescient of Facebook to offer us -- in addition to its iconic “like” button -- an anger button, a tears button, a surprise button and a laughter button. Just in time, I say. Now all we need is a panic button.