Facebook at 10, and Internet Time Revisited

Robinson Meyer has a nice piece at TheAtlantic, discussing Facebook’s web publishing surge.  Websites within the Buzzfeed Partner Network now get nearly 4x more traffic through Facebook than through Google.  That’s… a pretty big deal.  Google used to be synonymous with the “attention backbone” of the internet*.  Now, it appears as though the Facebook “wall” is overtaking the Google search.

It’s a particularly timely piece, because Facebook just turned 10.  And Facebook’s digital publishing surge is not a natural outgrowth of its ten years of success.  As Meyer puts it:

“The kind of traffic surge from Facebook—so vertiginous to be almost hockey-stick-ish—wasn’t an accident. Facebook didn’t grow at that rate in 2013, especially among U.S. users, and “naturally” eclipse Google. As I’ve written before, Facebook’s directing that kind of traffic because it wants to direct that traffic—it wants to be a digital publishing kingmaker.”

I remember learning about Facebook in 2005.  I was in grad school, and a teaching assistant for a large undergraduate intro-to-politics class.  All of my students had created Facebook accounts to go along with their Myspace accounts.  Since I had a university email address, I created one too.  But I didn’t see much point to the site.  It was an exclusive, barebones version of Myspace.  No one I wanted to socialize with was on the thing, and “poking” seemed innately stupid.

Facebook-as-digital-publishing-kingmaker was not foreseeable in Facebook’s initial years.  Hell, it wasn’t even foreseeable two years ago.  Facebook changed as it grew, and as other parts of the World Wide Web grew around it.  That change doesn’t occur along a single vector, or in response to a stable five year strategic plan.  I’ve written on this subject before.  It’s a concept that I call “Internet Time.”

In secular time (normal human being time) a decade isn’t really that long.  Ten years ago, everyone was watching J.J. Abrams shows on television (and Lost hadn’t disappointed us yet), and watching Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien on the big screen.  Hollywood was being awful about copyright, and environmentalists were warning that it was long-past-time that we got serious about addressing climate change.

By comparison, 10 years is an eon in Internet Time.  Blogs were still in their nascent stage ten years ago.  The iPhone wasn’t invented until 2007.  The iPad was science fiction. Hell, YouTube didn’t even exist in 2004.

This is a pretty important distinction.  It means, when we study Facebook use over time, the object of analysis is unstable.  Facebook in 2014 performs a different function than Facebook in 2009.  And this isn’t simply because people have started to use it in different ways.  It’s because Facebook’s engineers have modified the system itself.  In its first few years, the Facebook Wall didn’t exist.  Then it provided you with status updates from your friends.  Now it provides you with news and opinion pieces, and steers you away from low-quality content farms, and charges companies to boost their wall content.  All of these engineering decisions and policy decisions matter.  They make Facebook at 10 something different than Facebook at 7 or 5 or 1.

When we study Facebook’s role in politics, or news, or entertainment, our empirical research has a relatively short half-life.  By the time an article makes it through peer-review and publishing, the object of analysis may have changed in ways that invalidate  many of the findings.  (Example: if someone conducted a solid study of Facebook and digital publishing traffic in 2011, it likely wouldn’t be published until this year.  Those findings would be robust for Facebook circa 2011, but inaccurate for Facebook circa 2014.)

This all reminds me of a passage from Kurt and Gladys Langs’ classic 1968 book, Television and Politics. (further discussed at QualPoliComm).  the Langs discuss how television does not reflect reality, it refracts reality.  The introduction of the tv camera alters and helps to create the scene.  The Langs write “Refraction inheres in the technology, but the particular angle of vision rests on the decisions and choices within news organizations and how an event is to be reported.”

Facebook is also a refracting media technology.  And the angle of vision rests on the decisions of engineers and A/B testers.  But that angle of vision is also constantly changing, constantly evolving.

We can be confident that social media refracts, rather than reflects.  But Internet Time means we constantly have to revisit just what is being magnified or obscured.

 

*”Attention Backbone” is Yochai Benkler’s term.  I love it and am borrowing it for a slightly different context here.  You should read his recent paper about the SOPA mobilization, though.