About 10 years after TVs began to be ubiquitous in American homes, television broadcasting was a staggering financial success. As the head of the Federal Communications Commission observed in a 1961 speech to broadcast executives, the industry’s revenue, more than $1 billion a year, was rising 9 percent annually, even in a recession. The problem, the FCC chairman told the group, was the way the business was making money: not by serving the public interest above all but by airing a lot of dumb shows and “cajoling and offending” commercials. “When television is bad, nothing is worse,” he said.
That speech would become known for the pejorative that the FCC chairman, Newton Minow, used to describe TV: he called it “a vast wasteland.” It’s a great line, but there are other reasons to revisit the speech now, about 10 years after the emergence of another communications service—Facebook—that has become ubiquitous in American homes, a staggering financial success, and a transmitter of a lot of pernicious schlock. What’s striking today is why Minow said the vast-wasteland problem mattered—and what he wanted to do about it.
Personal note: Unfortunately, pop culture is characterized by dumb shows and other meaningless stuff. No exception.
As for why it mattered, Minow told the TV executives:
“Your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America. It has an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership. In a few years, this exciting industry has grown from a novelty to an instrument of overwhelming impact on the American people. It should be making ready for the kind of leadership that newspapers and magazines assumed years ago, to make our people aware of their world.”
On that point in particular, Mark Zuckerberg apparently would agree. “Are we building the world we all want?” he wrote in February, in a 5,700-word manifesto that reflected on the sometimes dubious role Facebook has been playing in civic life. Referring to its propensity to turbocharge hoaxes and to the way it tends to make news feel sensational, he wrote that Facebook’s goal “must be to help people see a more complete picture” of the world.
But how to make a mass communication medium better for us? In 1961, Minow had a clear answer: “I believe that most of television’s problems stem from lack of competition.” He said he looked forward to seeing more channels becoming available through new technologies, such as UHF frequencies, pay TV, and international broadcasts. And he said he would look for ways to strengthen local stations that could best serve local communities. “I am deeply concerned with concentration of power in the hands of the networks,” Minow said.
That’s where Mark Zuckerberg would probably get a little uncomfortable. Because Facebook is all about concentrating power in one network—his, which he calls “a global community.” If in reality Facebook tends to promote polarization and tribalism, Zuckerberg seems to believe that can be fixed with a few tweaks. In his February letter he said Facebook would try to reduce sensationalism on the site and take other steps to help make people better informed and more engaged in democracy.
Zuckerberg doubtless means well, but the problem is not that we need a slightly better Facebook. It’s that Facebook—a company worth $400 billion because it vacuums up information about our tastes, our shopping habits, our political beliefs, and just about anything else you might think of—is too powerful in the first place. What we need is to spend less time on Facebook.
In his February letter, Zuckerberg essentially acknowledged what was obvious to anyone who had a Facebook account during the 2016 election: the social network has not exactly enhanced our democracy. The News Feed, the main scroll of posts that you see when you open Facebook, fueled hoaxes (which were overwhelmingly “tilted in favor” of Donald Trump, according to an analysis by Hunt Allcott of New York University and Matthew Gentzkow at Stanford), and it overfed people stories and memes that fit preconceived notions. On social media, “resonant messages get amplified many times,” Zuckerberg wrote. “This rewards simplicity and discourages nuance. At its best, this focuses messages and exposes people to different ideas. At its worst, it oversimplifies important topics and pushes us towards extremes.”
To try to counteract the fake-news problem, Facebook is now flagging hoax stories that are shared on the site with a warning that third-party fact checkers have declared them to be false. And in hopes of promulgating fewer stories that are apparently true but nonetheless uninformative, the company has adjusted the News Feed to give more weight to stories that people share after reading (or at least opening) them, rather than the ones they share after only seeing the headlines. The thinking is that a story shared largely based on the headline alone is less likely to be what Zuckerberg calls “good in-depth content.”
Good for Facebook for trying these strategies. They fit with other civic-minded steps the company has taken in the past, such as encouraging people to vote and urging them to donate to the victims of floods and earthquakes. But the latest efforts probably won’t do much to help create what Zuckerberg calls a more “informed community.” The structure of Facebook works against that.
Facebook is fundamentally not a network of ideas. It’s a network of people. And though it has two billion active users every month, you can’t just start trading insights with all of them. As Facebook advises, your Facebook friends are generally people you already know in real life. That makes it more likely, not less, to stimulate homogeneity of thought. You can encounter strangers if you join groups that interest you, but those people’s posts are not necessarily going to get much airtime in your News Feed. The News Feed is engineered to show you things you probably will want to click on. It exists to keep you happy to be on Facebook and coming back many times a day, which by its nature means it is going to favor emotional and sensational stories.
Why else would Facebook be increasing the prominence of video? In fact, one of its executives has suggested that within a few years the News Feed could be “all video.” Surely some of the videos you’ll see on Facebook will be in-depth documentaries, live feeds from news events, and other substantive material. But in general, showing us much more video from around the Internet does not feel like a way to promote more reasoned discourse.
As Zuckerberg himself noted in his February letter, most of what people come to Facebook for is ultimately social—“friends sharing jokes and families staying in touch across cities,” or people finding support groups for everything from parenting to coping with a disease. For Facebook to be all that as well as a modern-day agora, a place of enlightened civic and political engagement, seems like a mismatch.
If you need a reminder that Facebook’s primary reason for existence is not to enlighten you, consider the fact that the company catalogues a huge amount of information about you.
The behavior is not surprising—Zuckerberg claimed years ago that privacy was no longer a social norm—but the scale still astonishes. Last summer the Washington Post listed 98 of the data points that Facebook captures about its users. For example, by cross-referencing your behavior on Facebook with files maintained by third-party data brokers, the company gathers data on your income, your net worth, your home’s value, your lines of credit, whether you have donated to charity, whether you listen to the radio, and whether you buy over-the-counter allergy medicine. It does this so that it can give companies an unprecedented ability to post ads that are presumably likelier to appeal to you. (I asked Facebook whether anything has changed to make the Post’s report no longer accurate; the company had no comment.)
This system may or may not work for advertisers, but it works very well for Facebook, which chalked up a net income of $10 billion on $28 billion in revenue last year. Does it work well for us? As Sue Halpern wrote in the New York Review of Books, the services that we get from Facebook are requiring us to give up something that is very hard to ever get back:
Many of us have been concerned about digital overreach by our governments, especially after the Snowden revelations. But the consumerist impulse that feeds the promiscuous divulgence of personal information similarly threatens our rights as individuals and our collective welfare. Indeed, it may be more threatening, as we mindlessly trade ninety-eight degrees of freedom for a bunch of stuff we have been mesmerized into thinking costs us nothing.
When you look at Facebook that way, it’s hard to root for the company to find ways to be a platform for more civic engagement. In fact, unless we think people should be required to shoulder whatever privacy costs Facebook decides to impose, it probably should not be the main place we go to find groups that, in Zuckerberg’s words, “support our personal, emotional, and spiritual needs.” Ideally, people would be able to form robust online communities and engage in the public square without letting any single company build a comprehensive dossier on them.
Lots of niches
What if we followed Minow’s reasoning with TV in 1961 and decided that we ought to have many more powerful networks for disseminating ideas and shaping public discussions?
The first step would be to acknowledge that even with the seemingly limitless competition that already exists on the Internet, Facebook has an outsize role in our society. Sixty-eight percent of all American adults use it, according to the Pew Research Center. That compares with 28 percent for Instagram (also owned by Facebook), 26 percent for Pinterest, 25 percent for LinkedIn, and 21 percent for Twitter. And none of these other sites aspire to be as many things to as many people as Facebook does.
One of the interesting things about Minow’s “vast wasteland” speech is that his encouragement of more competition helped inspire the expansion of public broadcasting in the United States. And perhaps it’s time for similar efforts today, to support more varieties of social media.
These noncommercial alternatives would not have to be funded by the government (which is fortunate, given that government funding for public media such as PBS is in doubt these days). Ralph Engelman, a media historian at Long Island University who wrote Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History, points out that the creation of public broadcasting was led by—and partially funded by—prominent nonprofit groups such as the Ford and Carnegie Foundations. In the past few years, several nonprofit journalism outlets such as ProPublica have sprung up; perhaps now their backers and other foundations could do more to ensure the existence of more avenues for such work to be read and shared.
High-minded alternatives to Facebook have been introduced before. A now-defunct discussion site called Gather once got investment from American Public Media, a producer of public-radio programs. Among the platforms that still exist, Diaspora gives people ways to socialize without relinquishing control of their data. Parlio, now owned by Quora, was cofounded by a leading figure from the Arab Spring in Egypt to promote online discussions with “thoughtfulness, civility, and diversity.” But we still could use more options that collectively counteract Facebook’s enormous reach and influence and bring out more of social media’s most constructive qualities—the way it connects us to far-flung people, information, and ideas.
Because noncommercial alternatives would be free of the imperative to capture as much information about your interests as possible, they’d be likelier to experiment with new ways of stimulating interactions between people. Maybe they would do away with the News Feed model that rewards virality more than importance. Perhaps some would be more reliant on algorithms to serve up stories and ideas, while others would rely on human curators to elevate discussion and eliminate abuse by booting trolls or deleting hoaxes.
Competitors to Facebook that harnessed the powers of social media only in an effort to make us wiser would probably be niche services, like National Public Radio and PBS. “Most people aren’t that fussy,” says Jack Mitchell, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin and the author of Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio. “PBS’s market share is not that high. Public radio is a little higher. It’s a minority taste.”
But having many more niche alternatives to Facebook could be exactly what we need. Even if none stole a significant chunk of Facebook’s users, it might be enough to remind people that even as Facebook becomes more powerful than ever—rolling up massive profits and preparing to beam down Internet access to offline corners of the globe—other options are possible, and vital.
Why are we finally now in what’s often called a golden age of television, with culturally influential, sophisticated shows that don’t insult our intelligence? It’s not because broadcasters stopped airing schlock. It’s because the audience is more fragmented than ever—thanks to the rise of public broadcasting and cable TV and streaming services and many other challenges to big networks. It required a flourishing of choices rather than a reliance on those huge networks to become better versions of themselves. As Zuckerberg wrote in February, “History has had many moments like today.”