Noah J Nelson on Wednesday, Jan. 20th
The platform wars are over, long live the platform wars.
If you are like most Internet users you will never read this message. It will be conveniently filtered from your version of consensus reality by the helpful algorithms that tailor your experience to an ever tightening checklist of your previous interests. Your ability to discover this post will be entirely dependent on a machine’s interpretation of your emotional distance from me. How many degrees of separation divide my mind from yours through friends, family, and coworkers.
Those of you who make your living negotiating with the priests of these New Gods—you social media managers who take afternoon-long Skype meetings with the bad sellers–already know what this is about. No amount of obfuscation on my part can conceal the keyword at the haunt of this lament: Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg’s network dominates all.
This is not news, but it damn well appears to be the inescapable singularity of our time. Facebook is a trap that none of us can escape. The high school reunion that never ends, the Thanksgiving dinner table political argument that won’t stop until we are all dead and the cats have devoured our remains. We live in constant dread of the next emotional hit to greet us on our News Feed, and yet, like a perfectly orchestrated car crash, we cannot look away.
I’m going to give you a very selfish example of how I was reminded of this not long ago… and how it may be even worse than I previously believed.
Over the holiday break I became obsessed with Star Wars— okay, re-obsessed, but that’s beside the point— I found myself particularly chafed by a pair of Huffington Post published articles by Seth Abramson which pointed out “plot holes” in the new film. I disagreed and though I wanted to write other things about the movie I found myself in capable of doing so until I cleared the deck.
Which I did. On Medium.
The post did okay for my Medium traffic— not that traffic was the point. I wrote so that my friends and colleagues could see it. Which is why I shared on Facebook, because few of them will come meet me out on Twitter. A handful of them saw it.
Into a few days later when I saw another point-by-point response to the “Plot Holes” article making the rounds on Facebook. This one was being spread by friends and allies who had paid no mind to mine. Including some big Star Wars fan friends I hoped I would have reached.
Now to be fair it had a different angle of attack then my article did. While it only responded to the first 40 of the plot holes in the original Huffington Post article—and I slogged through the entire 60 points found in the pair of articles—it was prefaced with a screed against what you might call “lazy millennial hater journals.”
My post didn’t have that fuel, which the writer used as a white-hot fiery assault on everything people hate about Internet cultural journalism.
In part I didn’t go that way because I knew that the author of the “plot holes” articles wasn’t a journalist. He’s a professor of English with a focus on experimental writing at a college on in New Hampshire. I also know a thing or two about the way the Huffington Post works. This article came from the Medium-like open forum that many authors and academics have been invited to participate in and not the Buzzfeed leading editorial section.
So even thought I mostly agree with the sentiments that there is too much “let’s tear everything down around us” cultural criticism, or what passes for criticism, on the Internet these days the “plot holes” articles were not coming from that place. They were coming from an entirely different kind, or at least a purer strain, of overthinking.
Nevertheless, my piece was outgunned by the other one. The screed was the heart of that reason, but the vector of the spread was another. You see the response that went viral–making it all the way to John Gruber’s Daring Fireball and beyond–was hosted on Facebook as a “Note.”
These Notes have been redesigned to look, ironically, like Medium posts. Only they open up in Facebook without any resistance, that is, you don’t have to go to another site. It just pops up. Notes work in the same way, now, that articles from publishers with “most favored nation” status with Facebook work. The idea is to keep all the content within the walled garden and deliver the smoothest consumption experience possible. So why wouldn’t Facebook favor articles published with in their ecosystem?
Now I do not want to detract from what Matt Granger, the filmmaker who wrote the article, accomplished. His article spread because people liked it. He tapped into a real cultural current with in the prologue, even if the target didn’t fit the profile. If given a side by side challenge I bet people would like his more than mine for that reason alone. I certainly don’t expect anyone to do a comparison, and I would question the sanity of anyone who did whose names were not Granger, Nelson, or Abramson. What gets to me is that by publishing on Medium, my post seems to have never had a chance within Facebook’s ecosystem.
In fact, the thing I find most ironic is seeing Granger’s post make it to Daring Fireball. Not because of the content, as the tone is very Gruber, but because last I checked John Gruber doesn’t like Facebook. He doesn’t like Medium either, but the last thing I heard was that he was one of the rare Facebook holdouts. Maybe that’s changed, but it was still weird to see a piece of writing hosted on Facebook linked directly from the Daring Fireball page.
And it was that exact moment that I realized, again, that Facebook has was the platform war.
Twitter is chasing the native content model. That’s what the whole “longer tweets” thing was about: building a walled garden of their own. And while walled gardens with hundreds of millions of people within them, billions even, are incredibly difficult to police I have no doubt in my mind that the filters will only get tighter. That what we are allowed to perceive will only increasingly be a product of an ad network’s desire to appeal to our confirmation biases. To a need to keep us emotionally engaged the way TV news does with the axiom “if it bleeds it leads.”
To have us panicky, breathless, and reflexively checking our feeds morning, noon, and night.
What’s worse is that if we search or feelings we know this to be true: there is almost no point anymore in communicating outside of the Facebook platform. If you want to be heard that is where the audience is.
And yet, here is a point, a patch of virtual land, that I cannot concede. I may make compromises. from time to time I’ll repost a long form piece as a Facebook note— but only after I’ve allowed it to have its run. Whether that is on Turnstyle, the public media site that I work for, or on Medium: the platform that I enjoy using more than any other. Soon it will likely be just a symbolic gesture. More and more publishers fold up and bow to the Facebook order. With Notes, even individual writers are beholden to the platform of platforms. Yet I cannot go quietly.
But to write is to confess the desire to be heard, and more and more each day the rest of the Internet feels like an empty room.