The most irrelevant question to ask about a technology company is whether it’s a media company.
The great anxiety motivating these questions is the concern that technology companies are not supplementing, but rather substituting for media companies; that Twitter, Facebook, and Google are not improving content generation and distribution, but edging out conventional content in favor of a nasty user-generated slurry.
This line of inquiry puts much needed pressure on the definition of media itself. Insofar as “media” has become an anti-democratic term—a signifier of privilege and elitism—social media platforms seem antithetical to the media ethos. Twitter and Facebook have branded themselves as open and free spaces for the exchange of social information and ideas. That’s the party line, at least. Asking whether Twitter and Facebook are media companies—a question invariably advanced by the representative of a media company—expresses a fear that social media will “democratize” old media. But—but but but—the question is also an act of aggression, a weapon to weaken the heavily qualified “democracy” of social media. By suggesting that Twitter and Facebook are media companies, old media competitors suggest that Twitter and Facebook aren’t democratic at all. The questioner imposes his own weakness on his enemy: the assumption that a media company is an instrument of exclusion. Like accusations that a media company is “liberal” or “conservative,” the accusation that a social media company is a media company implies an ulterior and malfeasant motivation. The forthcoming launch of app.net, which will remove advertisers from the social media equation, will provide a testing ground for these complex issues: because app.net will require users to pay, it occupies a more overtly anti-democratic position, but it promises to eliminate the “hidden” agenda that inform the relationships between media companies and their advertisers.
Although there are aberrant instances of democratic behavior on Twitter and Facebook, the democratic production of content happens within the confines of anti-democratic institutions. Social media platforms, particularly Twitter, are populated by elite tastemakers, influencers, and media professionals. So-called “social media rockstars,” like the corrupt capitalists of the Gilded Age, control most of the available capital, in the form of followers. The high concentration of followers around a small number of individuals means that the redistribution of user-generated content depends on a system of “gatekeepers” who monitor, arbitrate, and filter content. The “democracy” that seems to describe a utopian social media ideal would be closer to anarchy or communism, wherein the power of content production and distribution would be randomly or equally distributed across the user base. In reality, content production and distribution is controlled by a privileged class of elites. The democratic promise of social media is, I am afraid, a lie; and worse, a lie being told to the supposedly democratized masses by the very class of elites that regulates the flow of information. The new partnership of Twitter with corporations and media companies continues to shift power in favor of institutions instead of individuals. While in its earliest moments Twitter may have been close to that utopian ideal, now, it has been converted into a mirage of old media. The main distinction is that consumers are brought into closer proximity with producers. What’s the difference between a celebrity occasionally retweeting a nobody and old-skool letters to the editor?
Therefore, asking whether Twitter and Facebook are media companies is as far from provocative as one can get.
Google, though, is another matter.
Commenters have been asking whether Google is a media company since at least 2001. Fast Company, GigaOM, Advertising Age, the New York Times, and now Forbes have gotten in on the action. The question has been revived recently because of Google’s purchases of Zagat and Frommer’s. The Forbes article, linked to above, ends with an inherently flawed variation on its title question: “How long can Google be a fair arbiter of all the world’s information when it increasingly has information of its own that it wants to promote?” Since when has Google been a “fair arbiter of all the world’s information?” Last I checked, Google employs a complex—and game-able—algorithm to surface search content. It’s not necessarily a failure on Google’s part that it is not a “fair arbiter”—such a burden would be unfair and unrealistic. What is disturbing to me, however, is that anyone has been deluded into believing that Google is such an arbiter.
Google’s acquisition of Zagat and Frommer’s included the acquisition of their original content. Zagat’s brand is grounded in a “user-generated” ethos, whereas Frommer’s brand is slanted in a professional direction. With Zagat, Google repackaged that content into promoted search content. Google’s intent with Frommer’s remains unknown. Suffice to say that acquiring original content does not make a media company . Google is resistant to the tag, “media company,” because Google doesn’t come close to doing any of the things we think a media company ought to do.
More than Twitter or Facebook, Google might have the potential to reinvent “democratized” media. But we should stop asking whether Google’s a media company, before it’s too late. Imposing an artificial label like “media company” could tilt public opinion against Google for no good reason. Calling Google a “media company” forecloses the possibility of real democratic activity. Ironically, it is not irrelevant to ask whether Google is a media company. Nevertheless, we need to refrain from pursuing that point.