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Just a few years ago, many people warned that the world of traditional publishing was in trouble. And, now in 2021, it looks like many of the most dire predictions are coming true. Technology companies, not traditional media companies, are writing the future of news. What Facebook or Twitter does now has much importance than anything a newspaper or TV network does. A slight tweak to a news feed algorithm, for example, has the ability to change the national debate on any topic.
Technology trends coming home to roost
In 2018, we pointed out that there were at least 75 technology trends – ranging from speech recognition to augmented reality to artificial intelligence – that had the potential to disrupt the traditional media space. And guess which companies are taking full advantage of these technologies? It’s companies like Facebook and Google, not traditional media companies. In short, tech companies are disrupting the traditional media ecosystem because they are in the best position to leverage any new emerging technology.
Take artificial intelligence, for example. A decade ago, the prospect that a social media company would harness the power of AI seemed a bit futuristic. Sure, companies like Facebook and Google were hiring AI researchers by the dozen, but a lot of projects seemed to be in perpetual test mode. But then came the ability to recognize people and images in photographs, and then came the ability to transcribe videos using AI and speech recognition. News algorithms, all powered by AI, machine learning and sophisticated data analysis, are now the way that people get their news. In short, AI now has the ability to determine what you see, when you see it, and even how it will make you feel and react.
Most notably, technology companies now control distribution of media content. A CNN story, for example, can’t go “viral” without a big push from the social media companies. Any media narrative can’t go “mainstream” without first trending on social media. What this means in practical terms is that the big social media companies now control distribution. In the old days, newspapers had their own physical, real-world distribution networks (i.e. the local paperboy delivering your morning newspaper). Now that everything has gone digital, distribution must happen via social media. The way distribution works now is via likes, shares, comments and reactions.
This has enormous implications. As we’ve seen during the Trump presidency, the ability to control distribution can be enormously powerful if you decide to take sides on an issue. You can literally cut off the message before it ever has a chance to gain widespread distribution. You do this by tweaking the algorithms. And if that doesn’t work, then you do this by shadow banning, censoring or just plain out de-platforming. If you can’t get your message heard on the big social media platforms, then you can’t get your message heard. It’s just that simple. We live in an era when people consume their news via social media, and so you need to get your content onto those social media platforms at all costs.
The medium is the message
One of the most famous sayings in the digital media world is that, “The medium is the message.” This saying, first popularized by Marshall McLuhan nearly 60 years ago, has never been more true. In short, what matters most is not the message but, rather, the communication medium by which that message gets distributed. The choice of communication medium determines how you react to the content of the message. In practical terms, it means that a medium has the ability to shape our perceptions of any message flowing to us from across the ether. A trending story on Facebook, for example, is powerful not because of the message but because of the medium.
And this is the way that social media companies are able to control the narrative. Once Facebook says a message is important, than the message becomes important. This was once the job of traditional media, but the embrace of technological tools by social media companies and the ensuing ability to control the means of distribution has changed everything. As other technological trends continue to take off, it’s easy to see how this power is going to become more and more consolidated over time, with tremendous implications for society as a result.