John Hayward puts this well:
Blogs shattered the Old Media monopoly during the 2004 election. Social media became an instrument to restore the power of the guild. As websites grew dependent on a few big social platforms for clicks, a leash that could tame the seemingly uncontrollable blogs was forged.
The clicks weren’t the only loss. People who used to write posts of a few hundred words (or, really, a few dozen words plus a blockquote) found that a 140-character tweet or slightly longer Facebook post scratched the itch for that self expression.
Comments were another disruption. When the comments were appended to subject matter, whether because people frequented blogs that were generally of topical or regional interest or because they followed a link, thoughtful people on multiple sides expressed their thoughts there, and they were easy to find again in order to continue the discussion. Now, social media doesn’t rely on a reader’s own list of regular visits but keeps up a (manipulated) flow of hundreds of random posts from “friends,” and conversations are more easily lost in the amorphous stream.
Blogs had a mild inconvenience of relying on the happenstance of hearing about a site or the gate-keeping of another blog. (I found Hayward’s post, for example, via Instapundit.) Social media, while giving the impression of opening up that inconvenience to bring new content to the reader’s attention, has become a guild of powerful gatekeepers.
This has developed to the extent that, as Adam Candeub puts it in the Wall Street Journal, the social media giants are arguably common carriers:
… To this day, mail service, telephones and airlines operate under “common carriage” law and must serve all customers regardless of their political, religious or social views.
These protections have a long history. Precedents from the 17th century outlawed discrimination by docks, ferries and bailors. Common-law courts extended the idea, as technology developed, to railroads and telegraphs, and then eventually to telephones and air travel. Administrative agencies later codified the protections into regulation.
As Candeub notes, this raises prickly questions around free speech and censorship. Could it be that a social media platform or search engine could reach such a level of success that it has become the “public square” and must be forced under the rules of even-handedness that (should) guide our government? If we go in that direction, let’s hope for very clear lines so that successful private Web sites don’t lose their ability to build like-minded audiences.
Much better would be for those who are inclined to create quality content to return to something more like the culture of blogs, both in the location of their offerings and in the willingness to engage with those with whom they disagree. Stop giving your audience (your “friends”) reason to enter the fetid swamp, and our society will be healthier.