Emily Bell: How Facebook Swallowed Journalism

"This is the full text of a lecture delivered by Emily Bell last week at the University of Cambridge, where she is the Humanitas Visiting Professor in Media 2015–16 at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. It was first posted to Medium.

Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for coming.

It is a great pleasure and honour to be in Cambridge this week as part of the Humanitas CRASSH visiting lecture programme. I must thank my former Observer colleague Professor John Naughton for proposing that I do this, and to the Humanitas committee for bringing me here. I would also like to thank St. John’s College, and in particular the Master, Chris Dobson, for their wonderful hospitality.

The first talk in this series has a rather apocalyptic title — ‘The End of News As We Know It: How Facebook Swallowed Journalism’. An American colleague at Columbia took one look at the promotional flier, complete with what appears to be a smoking cross, and said, ‘is it a religious talk?’, to which I could happily answer ‘no’. I guess I have committed an internet original sin by introducing the dreaded ‘reality gap’ headline, in that this is not intended as a Biblical warning or prophecy about the evils of Facebook or any other platform.

However, something really dramatic is happening to our media landscape, the public sphere, and our journalism industry, almost without us noticing and certainly without the level of public examination and debate it deserves. Our news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years, than perhaps at any time in the past five hundred. We are seeing huge leaps in technical capability — virtual reality, live video, artificially intelligent news bots, instant messaging and chat apps — and massive changes in control, and finance, putting the future of our publishing ecosystem into the hands of a few, who now control the destiny of many.

Social media hasn’t just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security. The phone in our pocket is our portal to the world. I think in many ways this heralds enormously exciting opportunities for education, information and connection, but it brings with it a host of contingent existential risks.

Should we be accepting of those risks? Do we adequately understand what they are? Are we working hard enough to interrogate new systems of power which have the scale to challenge governments, but are unaccountable except to the markets, and intentionally opaque.

What I want to talk about today is a small subsidiary activity of the main business of social platforms, but one of central interest to many of us. I want to examine how journalism is changed by the power of the Internet and specifically social networks.

Let’s start with a topical story which does in fact involve a Church."

The entire speech is here.