Editorial and photo by Jon Thompson
We’re really on our own now.
When Meta blocked news on Facebook in Canada this summer in response to the new Online News Act, the media companies that shaped our conversations were banished from the lawless plane that replaced them in the public square. The de-platforming treatment tech companies had previously reserved for conspiracists was applied to the mediums that have defined how we know what we think we know about what’s going on, for as long as anyone alive can remember. How concerned we once were about misinformation, radicalization, and disengagement suddenly feels very quaint.
The bludgeoned media business model is struggling in exile, but we should seek solace in what we know for sure: storytelling is invincible. Every culture, everywhere, for all time, has defined itself through story. As writer Thomas King said in his 2003 Massey Lecture: “Stories are all we are.” Like many of our favourite quotes, context disintegrates with age. What King said next was “you have to be careful with the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories that you are told.”
Meta’s news ban won’t help Canadians do that, but it will help usher in the reckoning that’s coming for storytelling, itself. Facebook’s best days are behind us. The stories we’ve told and the stories we’ve been told became one story over the years while social media influenced storytelling as much as newspapers, radio, or television did in their golden ages.That story is about each of us being entitled to a truth that’s grounded in self-interest. The medium’s message is manifesting one’s best self, for applause. It was bound to collide with edited and fact-checked journalism because it’s inspired by the nemesis of news: public relations.
Facebook’s ethic reflects its time. There are now 17 public relations officers in Canada for every journalist. It’s like one player staring down an entire football team. We could forgive the audience for not getting what game we’re playing anymore, never mind getting behind it. This spectre of public relations might kill the news industry, but public relations will never win, because it can’t tell compelling stories. Compelling stories have flawed characters who encounter obstacles and their choices reveal honest, relatable moments that call for growth. Public relations promotes unimpeachable heroes. It needs its audience to believe the client’s private success is in everyone’s interest. The only way to do that without controversy is to obscure their true aims and what they actually do to achieve their goals.
It’s fun to applaud success from the sidelines. Facebook got complicated as mistrust set in over not being privy to the process of powerful actors and acquaintances alike, along the scrolling parade route these platforms grotesquely call “feed.” Cynicism becoming fashionable was inevitable. With journalism in retreat, our awareness of the disinformation threat hasn’t prompted another consensus model to trust. We can’t be careful with the stories we tell or watch out for the stories we’re told on our own, or by submitting to the passive role literally known as “followers.” This is cult mentality. It’s dark ages stuff.
It’s unsustainable how we can’t talk about our time because our self-interested truths don’t add up to a respectfully agreeable shared reality. What we share is a paralyzing fear of change. Fear has made popular culture so dependent on romantic visions of the past that it’s juicing nostalgia through every pore, from endless cinematic reboots through modernized moral lenses, to historical fiction dominating literature prizes for explaining the present through reimagining yesteryear. Our attention is lingering on artists and musicians who defined bygone cultural moments. We’re clinging to the old stories, while agreeing that those stories no longer reflect the world we experience, or inspire us to make the changes we need. It’s the kind of pressure under which diamonds are formed.
The better story will begin when we accept that we can’t stay where we are and we can’t go back. We’ll need to be honest about our process, because stories need trust. We’ll need to be brave, because stories need our perspectives. We’ll also need to be humble, because none of us has the whole story and context makes some stories matter more. We all know good stories don’t inspire hero worship or brand loyalty, they inspire the fleeting feeling that we aren’t alone in the world; that someone else witnesses what we suspect is real; that we’re always one puzzle piece short of seeing a new picture. Good stories bring out the best in us. Because story is what we are, together.
We aren’t really on our own. We have each other, and better stories to come.