For an old guy, I guess I’m reasonably well-adapted to the Digital Era, spending, after all, most of every workday online and being pretty comfortable with Twitter. But I’ve drawn the line at participation on Facebook, partly because I just don’t have the time for a new social media addiction, and partly because Facebook makes blogging seem like a zone of privacy in terms of discouraging any limits on self-exposure. So I was not happy to read Ben Smith’s blare-of-trumpets piece on BuzzFeed with the headline: “The Facebook Election” announcing not only a BuzzFeed/Facebook/ABC “partnership,” but that Facebook is about to replace, well, everything that matters in politics:
Facebook is on the cusp — and I suspect 2016 will be the year this becomes clear — of replacing television advertising as the place where American elections are fought and won.
Not just “digital advertising” or “social media,” mind you; Facebook, on its own, will replace the multi-billion-dollar political ad biz in the current electoral cycle.
Smith goes on to make a slightly less totalitarian claim for Facebook: that its “sentiment analysis” of its own users is on the brink of replacing traditional polling as a “window” on public opinion. Now I’m a big believer in more data always being welcome, but it also concerns me when a media giant that both collects and disseminates such data has such powerful tools to seek to convince the rest of us to treat it as definitive. I look forward with both skepticism and fear to reading reactions from other precincts or the media, public opinion, and political consulting worlds about Smith’s claims.
I guess personally I’ve been burned by excessive subscription to the grander pretensions of the New Economy. Dating back to the mid-1990s, I bought into the idea that digital technologies were going to transform economic life. Nobody was more credulous than I was to Mark Warner’s claims in 2001 that such technologies might all but abolish geography as a factor in many types of work, most especially “verbal manipulation.” Now here I am in the most verbal profession of them all, journalism, and most employers (not, thankfully, the Washington Monthly) are more likely to insist on geographic co-location of their employees in a central office than they were twenty years ago–because they can. I’ve learned that sheer power still matters a lot more than technology in economic life. So I’m more likely to fear Facebook’s power than to marvel at its transformative features.
Look, I’m always willing to mosey along in the great cattle drive of life to where I’m driven by big impersonal forces. But I’ll hold out on joining Facebook, thank you very much, until it’s demonstrably indispensable.