The Guardian has some interesting observations by Emily Bell on how social networks process the content they distribute and what their responsibilities are or should be. (Actually, that post was published a week ago, but the question still stands — this issue obviously can’t be resolved in a couple of days).
Basically, here is the question: are social media really media? And should we apply same criteria to the way they work as we apply to more ‘traditional’ media? And should they have same responsibilities and transparent policies as other journalistic organizations?
Facebook and Twitter are often referred to as “platforms” or “services”, which probably means that they have no editorial responsibilities or judgements whatsoever and they abide only the law and the rules they set for the users. But is that really so? Ms. Bell has a very good example that makes me doubt it: two weeks ago Twitter’s chief executive publicly stated (on Twitter, of course) that the network’s administration would suspend the users that would try to post images or videos of James Foley’s execution. Ms. Bell thinks that can be considered an editorial judgment. And I agree. As far as I know, there’s nothing illegal about those images. Surely, they are horrific and dreadful; I, for one, never saw them and don’t intend to. And I think it’s all right for an editor of a newspaper, or a website, or a magazine to make a decision not to show these pictures to the audience. But is it all right for the provider of the “service” to decide that I can’t look at pictures or read statements that aren’t technically illegal? I am not sure. This actually sounds like censorship, even though I wouldn’t go that far and say that it really was censorship.
Things are even more complicated with Facebook. Anyone who has a certain amount of friends and subscriptions knows perfectly well that his feed doesn’t show him everything. What’s worse, we actually don’t know what the rules are, why it shows different things to different people. It’s fair to say, I think, that for many people Facebook now is their personal newspaper that updates itself any given second — but we don’t have any idea of editorial principles of this newspaper. They are determined by some algorithm, and no one actually knows how this algorithm works. The editor of our News feed is an adaptive robot who constantly changes its behaviour. Again, I’m not totally against the idea that robot may know better what I might be interested in — at least it probably has much less confused personality than I do. But I would like this Facebook algorithm to be transparent. I think a user — who might as well be called a reader for that matter — has the right to know who and how decides what content he should be delivered.
And yet again, I am still unsure whether we should call Facebook or Twitter a proper media and apply to them the same rules we apply to news publications. Maybe not. Maybe we should come up with new criteria to measure the responsibilities of social media and their executives. What I am sure of, though, is that we should have this discussion and ask such questions. As long as the robots don’t take us over.