Facebook is taking over from Google as gatekeeper of the internet

Facebook is taking over from Google as gatekeeper of the internet

Google is widely regarded as being one of the controllers of the internet. It is by far the most popular search engine and if a site does not appear in the first few pages of results, it may as well not exist. But Google is far from being the only gatekeeper to the internet; Facebook is increasingly vying for that crown, whilst making efforts to make access more secure through Tor. But what does this mean?

Facebook accounts for a terrifying percentage of web traffic -- it is the second most visited website in the world according to Alexa. This means that it has a huge influence online, giving the social network the opportunity to shape the web and holds great sway in determining which sites, services, and stories rise to popularity. To many people, this influence is all but invisible, and this is perhaps the most concerning part of the story. So how does Facebook's influence present itself?

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There have been several high-profile stories in recent times, such as the real name scandal, the on-going battle over whether photos of breastfeeding mothers can be published, as well as the time that Facebook admitted to tinkering with users' timelines in a 'social experiment'. But Facebook is a free service and its business model is at the heart of the way it operates -- it exists to make money. Much of this money comes from ads and Facebook needs to tread a careful line between keeping advertisers happy and avoiding annoying users.

There used to be a time when your Facebook timeline filled up in quite a logical way: it comprises a simple chronological list of status updates from your friends. But factor in shares, pages, sponsored posts, ads, Facebook's own content, and those pesky algorithms that try to promote content that is either of greater interest or likely to be the best money-maker, and things get rather more complicated. Facebook is no longer just a social network, it is a platform. Or, as Felix Salmon puts in in the Guardian, "it is growing into a kind of parallel internet".

Part of the reason for this thinking stems from changes that have been made to the mobile app -- and phone and tablets remain one of the most common ways to access Facebook. You may have noticed that when you click (or tap) a link in the app, that it’s not your default web browser that springs into action, but that the page is rendered within the Facebook app. On the face of it, this is not a problem -- if anything, it should help to improve performance. But there is a more sinister side; it places Facebook in control of the appearance of sites.

Facebook is free to change the layout of stories, strip out any content it doesn't like, even remove ads. The removal of ads from websites might seem like a good idea at first glance, but from the point of view of third-party websites, it's terrible news. Ads exist to generate revenue, and if this is curtailed, smaller websites run the risk of being priced out of the market. Facebook needs to keep its own advertisers sweet, and this is easily done by reducing the chances of stumbling across rival ads.

Keeping people within the Facebook app rather than defaulting to a 'proper' web browser, stops people from being distracted by other sites, making them more likely to see more ads and sponsored content. Already it should be clear that there is scope for abuse here, but there is further cause for concern.

As mentioned before, it would be reasonable to expect that one's timeline would be made up of a chronological list of posts from friends and companies you follow. But, ever fearful that you might miss important content, companies and individuals are given the opportunity to promote their content to ensure that it reaches a wider audience. Left to its own devices, a post might 'organically' only be seen by a couple of dozen people, but for those willing to stump up some cash, the net is cast wider. In many ways this goes against the ideology of the internet. It is supposed to be a democratising tool where everyone is placed on as equal a footing as possible, but in reality it is those with the money who are granted the larger audiences.

With the exception of content which 'accidentally' goes viral, the content promoted by Facebook is limited to that which has been paid for -- smaller companies and individuals without available finances are priced out of the market. This is bad news not only for anyone looking to gain an audience, but it's also bad news for Facebook users who invariably find their newsfeeds clogged with crap such as listicles from Buzzfeed, nonsense health and wellbeing posts, and endless inane videos from the latest viral site.

I may be peering into a bleak and hypothetical future, but the level of control Facebook is starting to gain over what people see online is concerning. Facebook has, thankfully, showed itself to be largely free from a political agenda, but this may not always be the case. If an advertiser is willing to pay for posts with an anti-Obama slant, would the cash talk loudly enough to compel Facebook to promote biased articles? If users start to share content en masse that goes against Facebook's agenda, could it be stifled?

Perhaps referring to Facebook as a 'platform' was incorrect. Maybe it's more like a modern-day broadcaster, What's worrying is that this is a self-governing broadcaster that wields great power, and power without responsibility is a dangerous thing.

Photo credit: Dave Clark Digital Photo / Shutterstock

12 Responses to Facebook is taking over from Google as gatekeeper of the internet

  1. Larry Johnson says:

    I can gladly say I don't have any Facebook, Twitter or Google accounts. When the product is free....you are the product.

    I run add block on my browsers, none of which are Chrome. I even route google analytics both on 80 and 443 to my local host via a host file.

    • Michael Hammond says:

      Paranoid much?

      • Larry Johnson says:

        Lol.

        First I find that Facebook and Twitter are giant waste of time. I think they are nothing but digital diarrhea of the mouth to be honest. I am honest enough to know that hardly anyone really cares about what I do or say. Those that do I am in close contact with and I don't need a social app to be in contact with them.

        I believe that there are two kinds of people that interact with social media. Those that suffer from narcissism and those that watch other people because they feel their own lives are empty. Not sure what is worse?

        They are not 100% evil. There is some good in them, like connecting to people you might have lost contact with. Then again if you lost contact with them......there was probably a reason. Any good is far outweighed by their negative aspects.

        All three are in business for one reason. Collect data from/about you and sell it in some form to others. Unless they are willing to pay me for my info (not that I would give it to them) I will do what I can to stop them from having it with in reason.

        I left out in my first post that DuckDuckGo is my search engine of choice.

      • Bob Grant says:

        I do very similar, except I just block everything, and use encrypted Google as the default search. (I don't see the point of crippling my experience when I can block all methods of tracking me specifically)

      • Larry Johnson says:

        It took me a while to get used to DuckDuck but it works just as well IMHO. I mean its pulling results from Google and others, just anonymously.

      • Bob Grant says:

        Yeah, but it's how it's displayed... I tried DDG, but it frequently put some first-page results from Google on the third page. (I only search for truly obscure things, and for some reason Google knows what I'm wanting despite me never having searched anything even remotely similar previously, and Google being unable to see who's requesting the search)

  2. Claudinho85 says:

    facebook is feeding the haters very well, nice.

  3. Good for them, I don't even have a start page, Firefox starts with an empty thing and my bookmarks in a side panel, thanks to an extension. Opera allows me to set Smart RSS Reader as default page, and new tab opens Speed Dial. Chrome is a curiosity I installed once to test from time to time, almost never touch it.

    The few times I need to search something I use google, but that's it. The least of it the better. Life is perfectly possible (almost) without google, I haven't switched to Bing because results are usually outdated, otherwise it would've become my default long ago.

    Needless to say I don't use gmail either.

  4. Blackholesun says:

    None of them can be trusted with your Data. No matter how much they deny, these guys do track the user activity one way or another.

    I have a facebook account just because some stupid sites force you to post your comments by login through facebook account only !

  5. Freak Power says:

    F. Facebook

  6. nilst2011 says:

    Facebook is the most ridicilous place on the Internet. Just shut it down - now !

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