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Rethinking Media

I was going to write about the Facebook/Google duopoly, but I got sidetracked by this question, “If Google and Facebook are a duopoly, what is the market they are controlling?” The market, in this case, is online marketing, of which they carve out a whopping 61% of all revenue. That’s advertising revenue. And yet, we have Mark Zuckerberg testifying this spring in front of Congress that he is not a media company…

“I consider us to be a technology company because the primary thing that we do is have engineers who write code and build product and services for other people”

That may be an interesting position to take, but his adoption of a media-based revenue model doesn’t pass the smell test. Facebook makes revenue from advertising and you can only sell advertising if you are a medium. The definition of media literally means an intervening agency that provides a means of communication. The trade-off for providing that means is that you get to monetize it by allowing advertisers to piggyback on that communication flow. There is nothing in the definition of “media” about content creation.

Google has also used this defense. The common thread seems to be that they are exempt from the legal checks and balances normally associated with media because they don’t produce content. But they do accept content, they do have an audience and they do profit from connecting these two through advertising. It is disingenuous to try to split legal hairs in order to avoid the responsibility that comes from their position as a mediator.

But this all brings up the question:  what is “media”? We use the term a lot. It’s in the masthead of this website. It’s on the title slug of this daily column. We have extended our working definition of media, which was formed in an entirely different world, as a guide to what it might be in the future. It’s not working. We should stop.

First of all, definitions depend on stability, and the worlds of media and advertising are definitely not stable. We are in the middle of a massive upheaval. Secondly, definitions are mental labels. Labels are short cuts we use so we don’t have to think about what something really is. And I’m arguing that we should be thinking long and hard about what media is now and what it might become in the future.

I can accept that technology companies want to disintermediate, democratize and eliminate transactional friction. That’s what technology companies do. They embrace elegance –  in the scientific sense – as the simplest possible solution to something. What Facebook and Google have done is simplified the concept of media back to its original definition: the plural of medium, which is something that sits in the middle. In fact – by this definition – Google and Facebook are truer media than CNN, the New York Times or Breitbart. They sit in between content creators and content consumers. They have disintermediated the distribution of content. They are trying to reap all the benefits of a stripped down and more profitable working model of media while trying to downplay the responsibility that comes with the position they now hold. In Facebook’s case, this is particularly worrisome because they are also aggregating and distributing that content in a way that leads to false assumptions and dangerous network effects.

Media as we used to know it gradually evolved a check and balance process of editorial oversight and journalistic integrity that sat between the content they created and the audience that would consume it. Facebook and Google consider those things transactional friction. They were part of an inelegant system. These “technology companies” did their best to eliminate those human dependent checks and balances while retaining the revenue models that used to subsidize them.

We are still going to need media in a technological future. Whether they be platforms or publishers, we are going to depend on and trust certain destinations for our information. We will become their audience and in exchange they will have the opportunity to monetize this audience. All this should not come cheaply. If they are to be our chosen mediators, they have to live up to their end of the bargain.