“We are a tech company, not a media company,” said Mark Zuckerberg in Rome on August 29, shortly after presenting the Pope with a toy drone. And Zuckerberg — l never thought I’d write this sentence — was right.
Media companies saw it differently. They responded to the Facebook CEO’s remark with a collective, peeved guffaw. At best Zuckerberg was being disingenuous; at worst he was lying. “Yes, Facebook is a media company,” wrote Recode. “Sorry, Mark Zuckerberg, but Facebook is definitely a media company,” wrote Fortune. “Facebook is a media company even though it says it’s not,” wrote Business Insider. “Facebook is totally a media company,” wrote Mashable. “Dude,” tweeted Slate chief Jacob Weisberg, “Facebook is a media company.”
The message could not have been clearer: Dammit, Zuck, you’ve got your hands all over our precious goods — our words, our pictures, our thoughts, our ads — so you better come clean and admit that you’re a media company now. You’re one of us.
That’s like telling the fox that, now that he’s entered the henhouse, he’s a farmer. The fox may be part of the agriculture business — he may at times deal in chickens — but the fox’s business is not agriculture.
And so it is with Facebook. Facebook is an automated data processing company that manages — brilliantly, by any technical standard — an extraordinarily complex network graph, one with well over a billion nodes. To an outsider, the nodes may look like persons or readers or consumers, and the data may look like news stories or photographs or advertisements. But to Facebook they’re just numbers, just the mathematical abstractions of graph theory. Facebook uses software algorithms to optimize data flows among the nodes on its graph in a way that produces a pattern of network activity that maximizes the flow of a certain kind of data (dollars) to one particular node (the one labeled “Facebook”). That’s its business. Everything else — the lobbying, the PR, the meetings with Popes — is window-dressing.
“The fox may at times deal in chickens,
but the fox’s business is not agriculture.”
Facebook’s goal, and its ideal, is a thoroughly technical one: total automation. It wants to operate its social network entirely with computers. (If you want to know where Zuckerberg is coming from, remember that he has said he believes “there is a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships.”) But the technology is not quite there yet. The abstract network has a real-life manifestation, and in real life there are still some subtle qualities of human common sense and judgment that lie beyond the ability of programmers to replicate in code. And so Facebook still has to rely on people to perform a small number of network-management functions, such as negotiating the terms of its relationships with certain important nodes (a prominent newspaper, say, or a big advertiser) or interpreting the real-world meaning of ambiguous data objects (is the headline on that news story serious or a joke? is the nudity in that photograph intended to titillate or to inform?).
The handoffs between humans and computers inevitably cause confusion, both within the company and outside it, as they introduce the haltingness and messiness of personal judgment into an unimaginably fast, standardized data-processing routine. But it’s important to recognize that, to Facebook, these occasional reversions to the human eye and mind, which at times entail the making of editorial judgments, are matters of exception management — and necessarily, due to the size of the network, peripheral and even contrary to the company’s real business.
Facebook’s software will get better at making distinctions — and we humans will, for better or worse, continue to adapt ourselves to the limitations of the software — but it’s naive to think that the company will, or even could, take on the editorial responsibilities of a media company. When there’s an outcry over some filtering or labeling miscue, whether it stems from a software error or a human bias, Facebook will make a show of fixing the problem and tweaking “the process” (as we’ve just seen with the imbroglio over the deletion of a harrowing Vietnam War photograph). But that’s still just exception management. Facebook’s scale precludes the kind of day-to-day editorial decision-making that characterizes media companies.
Does that mean that Facebook bears no responsibility for the workings of its software, or that its operations lie beyond public scrutiny? Absolutely not, on both counts. It means that both corporate responsibility and public scrutiny are going to take different forms for Facebook than they do for media businesses. The Court of Justice of the European Union, in its trenchant 2014 ruling on what’s come to be known, misleadingly, as the Right to Be Forgotten case, observed that companies like Facebook and Google — companies that “control” online information flows on a grand scale — are new kinds of businesses and need to be treated as such by the public and its institutions. The data-processing giants play a different role from that of tradional media companies like newspapers, but it’s a role that extends well beyond mere information distribution. They are not, as they like to pretend, just data pipelines. In filtering, sorting, and arranging information produced by others, whether media companies or individuals, a business like Facebook transforms that information into a new product. It manipulates the information to serve its own interests, and it does so on a scale far greater than anything we’ve seen before. Because the company doesn’t fit old molds, and because it keeps its data-processing protocols secret, it deserves particularly close and thoughtful scrutiny by the public. Labeling Facebook a media company does not illuminate what Facebook does; it obscures it.
“The pressing challenge for media companies
is to define what they are, not what Facebook is.”
As for media outfits, their demand that Facebook assume the identity and responsibility of a media company may feel good, but it’s going to accomplish nothing. As we’ve already seen, pointing out that Facebook still occasionally relies on people to make editorial judgments is not going to inspire Facebook to hire more editors; it’s going to inspire Facebook to redouble its efforts to automate those judgments, even if the price in the immediate term is more foul-ups. (The company has a lot of experience dealing with self-inflicted embarrassments; it has learned that the press and the public lose interest quickly.) Facebook, in short, will continue to be true to its calling as a technology company, a company in the lucrative business of large-scale data processing.
The pressing challenge for media companies is to define what they are, not what Facebook is. Together and individually, they’re going to have to decide precisely what kinds of nodes they want to be — or whether they want to be nodes at all. That’s not going to be easy. But if you hand the fox your chickens and tell him he must take proper care of them, you have only yourself to blame if you come round the next day and find a pile of feathers.