[Adam Curtis voice][i] Did we already see this coming? This is the story of neofeudalism, a plot that was laid out before the narrative even began. When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook, Inc. in 2003, he meant it to be a website named ‘Facemash’, where a user could rate fellow Ivy League students based on their looks. But the joke slowly grew, building on a lie where the corporation saw in it a chance to create a new world, one that saw the nodes of human interconnectivity taken to their furthest limits. We saw greed, desire, apathy and outrage; suddenly we could express these reactions whenever we wanted, anywhere in the world. Some were more scripturient, while others watched, read and consumed. And now, the blackout. What could that mean for arts, culture and media as a whole?
The flurry of op-eds and tweet threads pertaining to the news blackout Facebook instituted across so-called Australia has come and gone. ‘Unfriended’, according to the Prime Minister. This could be a Simpsons episode, except we’ve been given the boot IRL[ii]. Rather than collating a list of news sites, Facebook used its machine learning systems to identify what the AI considered news publishers. Literary publications such as Peril, Archer Magazine, Going Down Swinging and Meanjin, not to mention emergency and health services pages and satirical websites such as The Betoota Advocate and The Hard Times, saw their content vanish overnight[iii]. No thanks to what was laid down[iv] in the federal government’s news media code.
Is this news? The ‘news media bargaining code’ has been in development since 2018, but the argument is much older. In the same year Facebook stated in a US court that it considers itself a ‘publisher’, even if they haven’t declared it as a public fact. Despite how it likes to describe itself, as a conduit for ‘community’ and ‘connection’, then-VP of Product Chris Cox and Zuckerberg himself had campaigned for what they thought was an ‘ideal’ News Feed as far back as 2013, with the latter proclaiming that Facebook aimed to be the ‘best personalised newspaper in the world’. Just as we’ve seen with Amazon, which started out ostensibly as a bookseller that then built on its empire through cloud computing, AI and surveillance systems, Facebook’s main business is in media and advertising. In an interview about his book Subprime Attention Crisis[v], Tim Hwang notes that ‘the result of that commodification of attention is that media becomes a commodity as well. One piece of content is the same as any other piece of content as long as it gets you the eyeballs you need. And because of consolidation, Facebook and Google benefit in the end—the casino always wins, and the players always lose.’
Another day, another slice of the pie; other precedents have been set before. Google is currently battling a series of antitrust lawsuits in the United States which are working to determine if it is indeed trying to establish a monopoly. This harkens back to Microsoft’s[vi] own antitrust proceedings at the tail-end of the ‘90s which saw the multinational tech company accused of abusing its monopoly power on Intel-based PCs, and whether it was allowed to bundle its flagship web browser[vii] into the PCs’ Windows operating systems. To cut a long story short, the court ruled that Microsoft constituted a monopoly and had to be broken up. Microsoft appealed the decision, and it concluded with a lesser penalty. Today, it continues to stand tall alongside Alphabet/Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple in the Big Five.
Why am I revisiting old news? It serves as a reminder that these corporations often act with impunity. They belong in an industry whose inner workings are still regarded as niche and opaque to the layperson. This is a boon to their inscrutability. Double standards and contradictions permeate their actions: last year, Facebook said it would pay mainstream UK media outlets an undisclosed amount in the millions; in 2019, a roll-out of a curated news section called Facebook News was announced even though Facebook de-emphasised news delivery (instead focusing on ‘meaningful content’) the year before. A chameleon morphs according to the tides of power[viii].
Monopoly, schmonopoly. Acquisitions, schmacquisitions. The logic of the platform that was borne out of the free market is its desire for more, or as Nick Srnicek observes in his book Platform Capitalism, ‘the more numerous the users who use a platform, the more valuable it becomes for everyone else … Users beget more users, which leads to platforms having a natural tendency towards monopolisation.’ Despite their decades-long existence and the all-encompassing ways they have assimilated themselves into our day-to-day lives, new media and tech platforms still exist in a somewhat tautological position where their actions are misunderstood to not take on real-world effects. Notwithstanding, the pseudo-meritocracy the industry engenders through its winner (takes-all) origin stories continue to fan the flames of their personal brand: you too can change the world. Why question it? Everyone has a shot.
Inside the trap that tech built, the scenery looks changed but the rules remain the same; we could go back to the story of Ray Kroc and the eventual dominance of McDonald’s, or how Nestlé is now a household brand and owns various subsidiaries across the world. Closer to recent times we see this playing out in the book publishing world, with the acquisition of Simon & Schuster by Penguin Random House[ix] (which must be noted is a merger in itself). Big Five, Big Four, Big Six – the fact remains that neoliberalism is old news.
Within these contexts, the main losers, of course, will be small media organisations and publishing houses. While edgelords can say ‘fuck Facebook and other mega-corps, only plebs use it anyway’, it is a mainstream platform: more people and content are on Facebook than any other social media network in the world. Divesting appears simple on the surface, but the new thread in this old story is not entirely about whether people are able to access the internet, but rather their knowledge of tech behaviours, which is determined by socioeconomic status, age group, education level and English-language proficiency. This is not unlike the highly-classed distinction between choosing to consume mass-produced versus organic food; fast fashion versus locally-made items.
What could these patterns portend for the arts and literary ecosystem(s)? It may mean more paywalls, which will further exclude those without the means, even if it helps to boost a small publisher’s bottom line. Information could become a luxury while misinformation thrives on ‘free’ platforms.
Indeed, the illusion of convenience sold to us is alluring; social media platforms exist to manipulate cultural memory in order to concretise their apparent usefulness. As I’ve explored in a longform essay on surveillance capitalism and the increasing ties between governments and the tech sector (amongst other internet behaviours) last December, there are tools available for us to be able to exit this quagmire. Already, Casey Newton tweeted last week that the ABC news app saw downloads skyrocket following news of the blackout. Publishers can also follow the footsteps of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s Stuff, which embarked on a trial experiment to stop sharing its content on Facebook mid-last year.
These are, however, short-term solutions: news from one or two sources in an already-weakening media landscape is not ideal. More public education surrounding digital rights are needed. This blackout could prompt a ramping up of RSS feed usage (essentially, using an external app to access updates to bookmarked websites in a standardised format; Feedly and Inoreader are two examples) and subscriptions to journalist Substacks[x] such as Amy McQuire’s Presence, James Hennessy’s The Terminal, or Below The Fold, which attempt to aggregate underreported news and break the news filter bubble so many of us see ourselves in. If ‘data is the new oil’, per researcher Joana Varon Ferraz, then it is crucial to understand that Big Tech power moves have been quietly brewing in the background for at least the past two decades, coming to a head post-2008 and increasingly so in an austerity-centric Covid era, where atomisation and the emphasis on viral visibility (‘eyeball harvesting’) has become the status quo.
It is bleak. The portal to the world did come at a price. As Byung-Chul Han writes in his latest book Capitalism and the Death Drive, ‘We live under a digital feudalism. The digital feudal lords, like Facebook, give us some land and say: ‘You can have it for free. Cultivate it.’ And we cultivate it exhaustively. At the end of it all, our feudal lords return for the harvest.’ Just as money is believed to be both valuable and completely worthless, the same ironic distance is established within society’s conception of Big Tech: all-encompassing and ephemeral. A radical idea for some, but we’ve been connected all along.
[i] I’m not exactly an Adam Curtis-head; I just thought it was funny.
[ii] Explainers abound. This article does not serve to regurgitate them.
[iii] Voiceworks and Kill Your Darlings were also caught in the fray, but are now back up. It must also be noted that, at the time of writing, non-English language newspapers Neo Kosmos, Il Globo and the Viet Times stand unscathed.
[iv] This code mentions that ‘core news content’ ‘means content that reports, investigates or explains: a) issues or events that are relevant in engaging Australians in public debate and in informing democratic decision-making or b) current issues or events of public signifcance for Australians at a local, regional or national level.’
[v] A crucial (and short, for the time-constrained) read if one wants to understand the digital advertising landscape, which Hwang himself has written ‘is in short, bunk.’ In the book, he predicts an imminent collapse which would be comparable to the 2008 housing crisis.
[vii] Internet Explorer, for those who remember.
[viii] “Mark personally didn’t like the punishment, so he changed the rules,” said one former Facebook policy employee regarding a loophole that saw alt-right figure Alex Jones banned from the platform, but which continued platforming praise and support for Jones.
[ix] Sound familiar? Bertelsmann CEO stated that they ‘are building their position as one of the world’s leading creative content companies…’
[x] Substack comes with its own content moderation problems, but that’s another essay for another day.
Image: The Gleaners The Gleaners (Des glaneuses) by Jean-François Millet, 1857.