In an insightful recent essay, Julián Gallo — a digital media expert who was in charge of the content and strategy for social media and the web for the newly elected Argentine President Mauricio Macri — noted that social media have become the critical nexus of communication, politics, and society. Gallo’s thesis is simple: Macri became the first Facebook president through a digital strategy that turned him into one of the largest players in the country’s media ecosystem and allowed him to communicate with the electorate by often bypassing traditional journalistic structures. For example, the day after the first round of voting, a “thank you” post on Macri’s Facebook page garnered over 700,000 likes. That none of the mainstream news players in the country can reach that level of engagement is obvious. What is less obvious is what this means for the future of journalism.
Six years ago, digital media consultant and author Clay Shirky published another defining text to think about the contemporary condition of news. Shirky argued that we were in the middle of transition in which the old institutions and practices no longer applied, but it was not clear what was going to emerge in their place. I argue that Gallo’s observation points to a first certainty about the direction in which journalism will evolve: Solid and self-contained legacy news media institutions and practices are melting, and are being replaced by more fluid and intertwined ones.
This does not mean that Facebook is not a solid organization — after all, its market capitalization is over a hundred times larger than that of The New York Times Company. It means that 20th-century journalistic stalwarts like the Times, with their elaborate protocols and dense storytelling, are melting into the air of meaning we breathe as social beings. And they are being replaced by algorithmic enterprises that turn our everyday communication routines into the news we talk about. We have become the media, although not in the way Dan Gillmor originally envisioned. The top-down news infrastructure of the previous century has not been replaced by a grassroots, bottom-up alternative. What has emerged instead is a matrix that combines the concentration of ownership and attention of the legacy media system with the distribution of communication flows of daily life.
As the United States gears into a presidential election year, we can expect that during 2016, leading news organizations will spend considerable effort and resources covering the political process. They will hope that their solid coverage will matter greatly, and therefore will act accordingly with their usual fanfare. But this coverage will likely play a derivative role to the more central, mundane communication practices that will connect political leaders with the citizenry in social media. Borrowing Karl Marx’s famous dictum, “all that is solid melts into the air.”
Pablo Boczkowski is AT&T Research Professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University.