terest, 25 percent for LinkedIn, and 21
percent for Twitter. And none of these
other sites aspire to be as many things to
as many people as Facebook does.
One of the interesting things about
Minow’s “vast wasteland” speech is that
his encouragement of more competition
helped inspire the expansion of public
broadcasting in the United States. And
perhaps it’s time for similar e;orts today,
to support more varieties of social media.
These noncommercial alternatives
would not have to be funded by the government (which is fortunate, given that
government funding for public media
such as PBS is in doubt these days).
Ralph Engelman, a media historian at
Long Island University who wrote
Public Radio and Television in America:
A Political History, points out that the
creation of public broadcasting was led
by—and partially funded by—
prominent nonprofit groups such as the Ford
and Carnegie Foundations. In the past
few years, several nonprofit journalism
outlets such as ProPublica have sprung
up; perhaps now their backers and other
foundations could do more to ensure the
existence of more avenues for such work
to be read and shared.
High-minded alternatives to Facebook have been introduced before.
But having many more niche alternatives to Facebook could be exactly what
we need. Even if none stole a significant
chunk of Facebook’s users, it might be
enough to remind people that even as
Facebook becomes more powerful than
ever—rolling up massive profits and
preparing to beam down Internet access
to offline corners of the globe—other
options are possible, and vital.
Why are we finally now in what’s
often called a golden age of television,
with culturally influential, sophisticated
shows that don’t insult our intelligence?
It’s not because broadcasters stopped airing schlock. It’s because the audience is
more fragmented than ever—thanks to
the rise of public broadcasting and cable TV
and streaming services
and many other challenges to big networks.
It required a flourishing of choices rather than a reliance on
those huge networks to become better
versions of themselves. As Zuckerberg
wrote in February, “History has had
many moments like today.”
Brian Bergstein is editor at large for MIT
A now-defunct discussion site called
Gather once got investment from American Public Media, a producer of public-radio programs. Among the platforms
that still exist, Diaspora gives people ways
to socialize without relinquishing control of their data. Parlio, now owned by
Quora, was cofounded by a leading figure
from the Arab Spring in Egypt to promote
online discussions with “thoughtfulness,
civility, and diversity.” But we still could
use more options that collectively counteract Facebook’s enormous reach and
influence and bring out more of social
media’s most constructive qualities—the
way it connects us to far-flung people,
information, and ideas.
Because noncommercial alternatives
would be free of the imperative to capture as much information about your
interests as possible, they’d be likelier to
experiment with new ways of stimulating interactions between people. Maybe
they would do away with the News Feed
model that rewards virality more than
importance. Perhaps some would be
more reliant on algorithms to serve up
stories and ideas, while others would rely
on human curators to elevate discussion
and eliminate abuse by booting trolls or
Competitors to Facebook that harnessed the powers of social media only
in an e;ort to make us wiser would probably be niche services, like National Public Radio and PBS. “Most people aren’t
that fussy,” says Jack Mitchell, a journalism professor at the University of
Wisconsin and the author of Listener
Supported: The Culture and History of
Public Radio. “PBS’s market share is not
that high. Public radio is a little higher.
It’s a minority taste.”
As Facebook becomes more
powerful than ever, other options are
possible, and vital.