“There really is a place in the world for a personalized newspaper,” Mark Zuckerberg said at the unveiling of the new Facebook newsfeed.
It’s true that if you gave everyone on earth a publication exactly tailored to them, newspapers wouldn’t be in so much trouble. And in many ways the internet has done this; our Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of articles our friends post.
While this is fun, exciting and a great part of the internet, it should not be mistaken for a sign of newspaper’s obsolescence.
That’s because newspaper’s inherent lack of personalization—they have to serve large communities with diverse interests—plays a vital role in their service in society.
In the early 1980s Benedict Anderson coined the term “Imagined Communities.” These were communities larger than your family, social circle, company, etc. Intended to be applied to nationalism, imagined communities include cities, states and countries—communities too large for you to know everyone personally.
Anderson viewed things like language and communal publications (read: newspapers) as the unifying factors that allowed people to consider themselves part of the French, British or German “nation.”
Because newspapers must serve entire communities, they are forced to choose issues they think the entire community will care about. This means they cover local sports teams, local government, local schools—things that impact everyone.
While newspapers may do this to ensure wide readership, the effect is that reading your city or country’s newspaper will expose you to the issues touching all your fellow citizens.
That Facebook wants to become your new newspaper, a source for seeing the events your friends are attending, the music they’re listening to or the article they’re reading, is great. It’s fun and interesting.
But it has two downsides:
1. While you may pick up the paper for the sports or fashion section, you still see the articles about rising college tuition, or corruption in city hall. Once you “personalize” your news intake, you stop seeing these things. It may only be 1/30 news stories that interests you, but missing that one story is a problem.
2. In order to attract the widest audience, newspapers try to strike an objective tone and cover stories in a balanced way. Ideally this means you’re exposed to the truth, including information that challenges your world view. On Facebook, you’re friends just promote what they find interesting or agreeable and have no goal of giving you a balanced diet of news. This echo chamber is dangerous.
It was so strange to hear Zuckerberg reference newspapers in his presentation precisely because the product he is pushing is meant primarily to make money off of us, not inform us or build meaningful communities.
It’s true that we’re becoming increasingly global citizens. But our cities still have to balance their budgets, our country has to have a foreign policy, the economy needs to be regulated and so on. Social media can connect us to larger communities, but despite the illusion it can’t actually take us out of our local communities. And real newspapers—not Facebook—are an essential part of keeping those communities together.