Back to the Coffee House: Has Journalism Gone Full Circle?

First, let’s consider two facts about Facebook that ran in Mediapost in the last two weeks. The first:

“A full 65% of people find their next destination through friends and family on Facebook.”

Let’s take this out of the context of just looking for your next travel destination. Let’s think about it in terms of a risky decision. Choosing somewhere to go on a vacation is a big decision. There’s a lot riding on it. Other than the expense, there’s also your personal experience. The fact that 2 out of 3 people chose Facebook as the platform upon which to make that decision is rather amazing when you think about it. It shows just how pervasive and influential Facebook as become.

Now, the next fact:

“Facebook users are two-and-a-half times more likely to read fake news fed through the social network than news from reputable news publishers.”

There’s really no reason to elaborate on the above – ‘nuff said. It’s pretty clear that Facebook has emerged at the dominant public space in our lives. It is perhaps the most important platform in our culture today for forming beliefs and opinions.

Sorry Mark Zuckerberg, but not matter what you may have said in the past about not being a media outlet, you can’t duck this responsibility. If our public opinions are formed on your private property that is a unimaginably powerful platform then – as Spidey’s Uncle Ben said (or the French National Convention of 1793; depending on whom you’re prefer to quote as a source) – “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you provide a platform and an audience to news providers – fake or real, you are, ipso facto, a media outlet.

But Facebook is more than just an outlet. It is also the forum where news is digested and shared. It is both a gristmill and a cauldron where beliefs are formed and opinions expressed. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, although the previous occurrence was in a different time and a very different place. It actually contributed directly to the birth of modern journalism – which is, ironically – under threat from this latest evolution of news.

If you were an average citizen London in 1700 your sources for news were limited. First of all, there was a very good chance that you were illiterate, so reading the news wasn’t an option. The official channel for the news of the realm was royal proclamations read out by town criers. Unfortunately, this wasn’t so much news as whatever the ruling monarch felt like proclaiming.

There was another reality of life in London – if you drank the water it could possibly kill you. You could drink beer in a pub – which most did – or if you preferred to stay sober you could drink coffee. Starting in the mid 1600’s coffee houses started to pop up all over London. It wasn’t the quality of the coffee that made these public spaces all the rage. It was the forum they provided for the sharing of news. Each new arrival was greeted with, “Your servant, sir. What news have you?” Pamphlets, journals, broadsheets and newsletters from independent (a.k.a “non-royal”) publishers were read aloud, digested and debated. Given the class-bound society of London, coffee houses were remarkably democratic. “Pre-eminence of place none here should mind,” proclaimed the Rules and Orders of the Coffee-House (1674), “but take the next fit seat he can find.” Lords, fishmongers, baronets, barristers, butchers and shoe-blacks could and did all share the same table. The coffee houses of London made a huge contribution to our current notion of media as a public trust, with all that entails.

In a 2011 article the Economist made the same parallel between coffee houses and digitally mediated news. In it, they foreshadowed a dramatic shift in our concept of news:

“The internet is making news more participatory, social, diverse and partisan, reviving the discursive ethos of the era before mass media. That will have profound effects on society and politics.”

The last line was prescient. Seismic disruption has fundamentally torn the political and societal landscape asunder. But I have a different take on the “discursive ethos” of news consumption. I assume the Economist used this phrase to mean a verbal interchange of thought related to the news. But that doesn’t happen on Facebook. There is no thought and there is little discourse. The share button is hit before there is any chance to digest the news, let alone vet it for accuracy. This is a much different atmosphere of the coffee house. There is a dynamic that happens when our beliefs are called on the mat in a public forum. It is here where beliefs may be altered but they can never change in a vacuum. The coffee house provided the ideal forum for the challenging of beliefs. As mentioned, it was perhaps the most heterogeneous forum in all of England at the time. Most of all it was an atmosphere infused with physicality and human interaction – a melting pot of somatic feedback. Debate was civil but passionate. There was a dynamic totally missing from it’s online equivalent. The rules and realities of the 18th century coffee house forced thoughtfulness and diverse perspectives upon the discourse. Facebook allows you to do an end run around it as you hit your share button.

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