Mass Media’s Old, Glass House

Oh, the irony of Franklin Foer, creature of mass media, elite of elite media, complaining that “Silicon Valley is erasing your individuality.” Mass media — by definition — never granted you your individuality. It treated you like everyone else, all the same. That was its business model. Now that business model is dead and mass media’s beneficiaries are miserable.

What a model of #technopanic is this extract of Foer’s new book. Everything Foer complains about the platforms doing media could have done if media had not clung to their legacy ways. Media could have served us as individuals and members of communities with relevance and value. Instead, media sold a commodity called content. Media sold a commodity called audience. Media sold editors’ egos. The value of those egos is perishable and Foer hates that. He complains:

Until recently, it was easy to define our most widely known corporations. Any third-grader could describe their essence. Exxon sells gas; McDonald’s makes hamburgers; Walmart is a place to buy stuff.

And what does media sell? What has it always sold? The audience. You and your eyeballs, your attention, your demographics, your anonymous and interchangeable self.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google with the mission of organizing all knowledge, but that proved too narrow. They now aim to build driverless cars, manufacture phones and conquer death.

Google indeed makes good on its promise to organize all knowledge. Google could save lives in driverless cars. Google makes good phones. Google wants to conquer death. And that’s so awful? What has a magazine done for you lately? Pontificated. Just like this.

More than any previous coterie of corporations, the tech monopolies aspire to mold humanity into their desired image of it.

No, I’d say that media companies and editors tried very hard to mold humanity to their desired image but, like the false gods they were, they failed. Humanity revolted. Humanity said: ‘We don’t trust you, media. We hate you media. You never listened to us, media. Fuck you, media. We’ll show you, media.’ Thus, the internet.

The big tech companies think we’re fundamentally social beings, born to collective existence. They invest their faith in the network, the wisdom of crowds, collaboration…. The big tech companies (the Europeans have lumped them together as GAFA: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) are shredding the principles that protect individuality. Their devices and sites have collapsed privacy; they disrespect the value of authorship, with their hostility toward intellectual property.

Ah, there it is: the value of authorship and intellectual property, of writers, editors, magazines, newspapers: content. The net and its people dare to challenge media’s hegemony now that everyone can make content. Content isn’t special anymore. How dare they?!?

It’s their algorithms that suggest the news we read, the goods we buy, the paths we travel, the friends we invite into our circles.

Mass media begat mass manufacturing begat mass marketing. Editors were so much better at making decisions for us, one size fits all? Retailers, manufacturer, and marketers were better? The market begs to disagree.

The time has arrived to consider the consequences of these monopolies, to reassert our role in determining the human path. Once we cross certain thresholds — once we remake institutions such as media and publishing, once we abandon privacy — there’s no turning back, no restoring our lost individuality.

Poor desperate soul. The internet is precisely what enables us to claim our individuality back from the institutions that ignored us, the institutions we are remaking because of that.

Foer goes on to compare the internet to “TV dinners and the other newfangled foods that suddenly filled our kitchens: slices of cheese encased in plastic, oozing pizzas that emerged from a crust of ice, bags of crunchy tater tots.” Popular crap, cries the elite. Fuck internet oozing cheese. Processed food is as bad as processed information. Bad for us. Shame on us. Return to the days of premium, spoonfed media, please. Please!

As with the food giants, the big tech companies have given rise to a new science that aims to construct products that pander to their consumers.

How dare the companies listen to customers and serve them what they need and want?

In the realm of knowledge, monopoly and conformism are inseparable perils. The danger is that these firms will inadvertently use their dominance to squash diversity of opinion and taste. Concentration is followed by homogenization.

Good Lord, man, what do you think mass media did? Mass media pushed conformism über alles. Diversity of opinion? Only if you, the editor, chose some lowly letter to the editor. Concentration? Try having one newspaper in a market. Homogenization? Read any such newspaper. Try to find the true diversity of a community in it. I dare you.

As news media outlets have come to depend heavily on Facebook and Google for traffic — and therefore revenue — they have rushed to produce articles that will flourish on those platforms. This leads to a duplication of the news like never before, with scores of sites across the Internet piling onto the same daily outrage.

True enough. But that, sir, is the fault of the old, mass-media business model and old companies’ desperate desire to preserve it in a new reality. That — the hunt for eyeballs, commodified audience — is what leads every damned publication on earth to rewrite the same damned BuzzFeed story about that fucking two-colored dress you cite, so every media outlet can have its own page filled with its own content to earn its own pageview with its own ad to net its own pennies. It’s the mass-media business model you hate. So do I.

Old media had a pack mentality, too, but the Internet promised something much different.

And old media refused to learn the lesson of the new. Old media’s own damned fault.

This is true of politics. Our era is defined by polarization, warring ideological gangs that yield no ground.

And who pokes at that scab? Who fosters polarization? Who eggs on the fight? Big, old media — cable news networks and punditocracies, that’s who. Because that is their damned business model.

Facebook represents a dangerous deviation in media history. Once upon a time, elites proudly viewed themselves as gatekeepers. They could be sycophantic to power and snobbish, but they also felt duty-bound to elevate the standards of society and readers.

Ah, this is all about power and privilege and your loss of it. Syncophantic and snobbish, you thought it was your role to elevate society. You failed.

We’re drifting toward monopoly, conformism, their machines. Perhaps it’s time we steer our course.

We are doing just that, sir. Problem is, it’s not your course anymore. It’s the public’s.

Foer’s screed may really be a cry of disappointment, mourning that a technologist — Chris Hughes — was no messiah to him and his magazine. So he writes a book about it decrying the technologists. That’s what we in new media call clickbait.

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