Facebook, Robber Barons, and the (Non)Fragmentation of Modern Culture

As most of you have probably noticed, Facebook is undergoing some radical redesigns this week with more to follow. The details are not important to the argument here, but rather the fact they have generated a lot of mixed reactions from so many people. In the press conference announcing the changes, founder Mark Zuckerberg noted that 500 million people logged into Facebook on a single day, and the site has more than 750 million total users. The world population is estimated at about 7 billion people right now, meaning that one in every nine people across the entire world (approximately) have a Facebook account, and one in 14 log onto Facebook on a given day.*

There’s something amazing and crazy about that, and it speaks to old debates about the internet/new media and the fragmentation of culture. The argument, as I recall it, went something like this: given the proliferation of media (websites, cable channels, and so on), people have stopped reading/watching/listening to the same things and now listen to many different things. Conservatives listen to conservative talk radio and liberals listen to NPR, and I surf on my favorite science fiction blogs while my old roommate keeps up with the tech/gadget scene and so on. There’s obviously something to that argument, though sociology of culture is about as far from my area as anything, so I don’t know what the data look like.** But what’s interesting to me about those arguments (as I understood them) is that they focused on the content, and not on the platform. But as we all know, the medium (the platform) shapes the user as much as the content.

If we think back to the robber barons of the last gilded age, they made their money on infrastructure. Railroads, steel, oil and banks, followed by cars in the early 20th century – transportation, widely used materials, and capital itself (the universal business input). The modern tycoons, the business celebrities of the 21st century, are technology gurus.*** But not just that, they are gurus who built the modern infrastructure: Google, Facebook, iPods and iPads, Windows, and so on. We may all surf to different sites, but we use one of three web browsers and two OSes to do it, for the most part. Beyond that, we use one or two search engines once we hit the web, and we share our findings on two or three different social media sites.

All this to say, we are in some ways a very united culture because our cultural infrastructure has grown (remained?) monolithic. There are still digital divides, especially on a global scale, but access is fairly widespread (see the 1 in 9 number above). To the extent that these sites format us as users, we are being formatted the same way****. What exactly that means for us as a culture remains to be seen – or perhaps, to be spotted by someone a bit more savvy and forward-thinking – but I would argue that it’s as important as the divergence in content consumed. Or, put another way, conservative bloggers and liberal bloggers alike can bemoan the hideousness of the new Facebook profile scheme, while simultaneously relying more and more on its ubiquity for commonplace interactions.

* I don’t know if business and organization accounts are separate, in which case the number of active individual users would be somewhat lower, so 1/9 is an upper-bound estimate.
** For example, you could compare the popularity of the most popular TV shows now vs. 10, 20, 50, etc. years ago to see if we are watching different things. The web would be a bit harder, but you could imagine the logic – what proportion of my time am I spending on smaller niche sites vs. larger, mainstream (whatever that means) sites. Anyone who actually knows about these studies, please chime in!
*** And the finance guys, too. See all the work on the financialization of the economy and the ridiculous growth in pay in the finance sector. But these folks have captured our anger and disgust along with our money, and don’t have the kind of rags (or at least, not old money)-to-riches entrepreneurial narratives of the tech gurus.
**** See for example this study on how Google is reshaping our memory, also reported here.

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1 Comment

  1. ** For example, you could compare the popularity of the most popular TV shows now vs. 10, 20, 50, etc.

    I think I read somewhere that an episode of Dallas (or maybe it was Dynasty) was the highest rating show ever, and that it would never be eclipsed now because the audience is fractured over so many channels.

    On the other hand, the number of hours each person spends watching TV now has increased dramatically since then.