Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is rolling out another new design. The T-shirted CEO claims his Web site will soon act as a “personalized” and “customized” news source for individual users. The revamping comes as the most recent iteration in a nearly constant effort over its nine-year history to make the social networking site more “relevant.”
Status updates now ask, “How’s it going?” instead of encouraging users to share what they’re feeling. “Poking” and “throwing sheep” have given way to “graph searches.” Your “wall” is now a “timeline,” and the aggregated posts and updates of your collected “friends,” is called a “newsfeed.”
Zuckerberg is free to call his updated content stream whatever he wants, but in the interest of accuracy he ought to disclose that the Facebook “newsfeed” is hardly “news.” Surrounded and punctuated by paid commercials and “sponsored” content, his product offers a user-generated selection of music, cat videos and status updates appearing on a digitized page — a high-tech assortment of entertainment, shopping and the occasional re-posted news link. (Personally, I see the site as my ubiquitous over-sharing Rolodex for the 21st century.)
It’s no secret that Facebook users don’t pay for the service and the company and its stockholders depend on advertisers to make a profit. The magic comes from keeping users engaged while providing promoters access to customers.
In less than a decade, Mark Zuckerberg has blossomed from a Harvard sophomore with a talent for pranks to head of an $82 billion-a-year company. His project to connect fellow students has been cleverly commoditized, cosmeticized and commercialized.
Though “free” to its 1,000,000,000 users – Facebook is a long way from “freedom of the press.” In fairness, the 29-year-old social networking publisher may be too young to remember actual newspapers, but 20th century publishers of uncomfortable truths, from William Randolph Hearst to Katharine Graham, knew that “news is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising.”
Graham’s son, Washington Post Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Donald E. Graham, is a member of Facebook’s board. I expect and hope he will remind the young chairman of that essential quality of a free press. Facebook is both useful to users and profitable to investors, but the uncomfortable truth remains that his Web site is not, and will never be, “a newspaper.”
Bonnie Goldstein has been a Facebook user since 2006. Follow her on Twitter at @KickedByAnAngel.