Put aside for one moment the recent headlines. Forget about Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg facing politicians in Washington. And park everything you’ve heard about Cambridge Analytica.
There are problems with the way most media organisations report Facebook. It’s something no-one ever talks about.
The first problem is that media organisations are not disinterested external observers.
You could argue that Facebook is the world’s most powerful media company. You could make a case that it is more powerful than any other media company in history.
Sure, Facebook insists it is not a media company. But that idea is ridiculous. It publishes material and extracts revenue from advertising. That’s a classic description of how the media world has operated for over a century.
Even if you don’t accept Facebook is a media company, it is not separate from the media industry.
The site can channel huge numbers of readers to, say, an online news site. The fact that it doesn’t do a good job of this is neither here or there.
What’s important is that editors and publishers are wary of making an enemy of someone with that power. This doesn’t have to be conscious or cynical. Unconscious influences are as effective as deliberate kowtowing.
That said, some media organisations and their employees feel so desperate that they may put aside traditional media ethics when it comes to scrutinising the hand that they hope will feed them.
Never mind that Facebook is responsible for the mess those media companies are in.
The second problem with the way the media covers Facebook is that most media organisations see it as a technology company. They usually assign specialist technology writers to cover it. A lot of the time, they relegate coverage to their technology ghetto pages.
While Facebook uses technology, so does everyone else. It’s no more a technology company than, say, the newspaper publisher in your city. Sure, there are apps. But most newspapers also have apps. It uses a customer database. So does almost every other business.
There’s very little that is unique, clever or inherently technical about Facebook. The one thing it has going is a powerful algorithm for connecting people to each other, figuring out their preferences and then packaging them so advertisers can target them with, what the company would claim is, pin-point accuracy. It’s big, but in technical terms it is trivial.
Compared to Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon, Facebook is not a technology company. You could describe it as a technology-enabled business. Now go and find any global enterprise that isn’t.
The problem with this is that media organisations frame Facebook as a technology story. They categorise it in a technology ghetto. They assign the story to journalists who might be skilled at decrypting an annual report from, say, Apple or interpreting the latest software from Google.
And, let’s be honest here, most of the time they do not give reporters the time or resources needed to unpick the story behind the story. After all most stories about Facebook don’t seem worth much more than the once-over-lightly treatment.
All of this explains why the media, indeed most of the world, was blindsided by revelations about what goes on behind the scenes at Facebook. It’s not so much the company was operating in stealth mode, at least no more than any other large corporation, it’s that there’s not enough outside scrutiny.