In September 2005, a fun film editor named Robert Ryan took The Shining and cut together a new trailer for it, making the axe-driven horror flick seem like a sweetheart family movie. YouTube hadn’t broken out of beta yet, so Ryang posted his humor gem to a private quarter of his employer’s website and gave some friends a dotmov link. One of them posted the link to his blog, and Ryang was an overnight sensation.
The New York Times took notice, observing with awe: “His secret site got 12,000 hits.” Ryang also achieved the highest goal of 20th-century mankind: He started getting calls from Hollywood. HELLO, IT’S HOLLYWOOD.
I was a TV critic in those days, and when I first saw Ryang’s masterwork—buffering, buffering—I wasn’t sure if I was eligible to review it. Was this digital item a show, a movie, an ad, maybe a web page? While I pondered the question, I created a folder called “Internet Television.”
Months went by, and YouTube officially launched. Could it be? The near-erotic fantasy of “convergence”—the moment when the internet and television finally fused in a kind of mundane Singularity—had arrived. In June 2006, I wrote on my own blog that people finally seemed “ready to accept video on computers.” Four months later, Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion. The original World Wide Web, a static, low-bandwidth, verbal system of hyperlinks, was over.
since then, “internet television,” a phrase I tried in vain to make happen, has pitched its tent everywhere. Video defined so-called Web 2.0, the only internet many of us have ever known. And it now accounts for some 82 percent of online traffic. It’s not just YouTube, Instagram, and Snap; even verbal apps, where the stock-in-trade is still words—from quips (Twitter) to marketing palaver (LinkedIn)—are ablaze with video.
But one app has never quite managed moving pictures: Facebook. The company acquired Instagram in 2012, the same year it went public, and it seemed to believe that its image-and-video bases were covered.
From the start, Facebook had differentiated itself from MySpace and then Tumblr—emo, image-heavy sites that could tilt into porn—by catering to the lower-bandwidth, more earnest consumers of words. Its users were heavily incentivized to keep things clean and disclose real names, real bios, real birthplaces, real jobs.
Facebook’s bedrock commitment to text helped it spread its monster empire to populations underserved by broadband. (People without big data plans still have trouble seeing pictures on Facebook’s mobile app.) The app’s texty interface also sealed its reputation as a site for plain facts and grandma-friendly content.
These rule-the-world strategies had a devastating, if unintended, consequence: They left a population of hundreds of millions, and ultimately 2.9 billion, vulnerable to deception. People whose first and main contact with the internet was Facebook were just not ready when the platform got seized with especially consequential disinformation in 2015. They were easily tricked. They’d come to accept what they saw there as facts—as empirical as a name and number in an employee directory, or a college… facebook.
The same users were also sitting ducks for editing mischief when Facebook did start pushing video with Facebook Watch and other streaming products and partnerships. (If I’d first seen Ryang’s trailer posted by an aunt on Facebook, I swear I might have taken it straight, decided I’d always misunderstood The Shiningand teared up at “Solsbury Hill.”)