In Mark Zuckerberg’s World, “Provenance” Means Nothing

The tech entrepreneur’s use of the word provenance serves to erase its weighty history as an art historical term — and Facebook’s complicity in spreading “fake news.”

Mark Zuckerberg (via Wikimedia Commons)

To the supreme ruler of Facebook, nothing is sacred. Especially not language.

During a summit at the Paley Center last week, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg gave a 40-minute address on his company’s latest innovation: Facebook News.

Seated next to Zuckerberg was another media giant, Robert Thomson, the chief executive of News Corp — Rupert Murdoch’s conglomerate-empire that owns the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and the Daily Telegraph, among other major outlets.

About 10 minutes through his sermon, Zuckerberg arrived at a thesis — and a word of interest: “Provenance has been one of the key things I think we’ve talked about for years, the importance for people to know where the information is coming from … so that they establish that base of trust,” he said, nodding at Thomson, whom Zuckerberg praised for “pushing him” in this area.

In the art world, provenance is a crucial term — and a perennial conversation.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, provenance denotes “the place of origin or earliest known history of something.” It derives from the french verb provenir, or “to come from.” To dealers, collectors, and historians, provenance is largely a matter of authenticity — who painted the work, when, and under what circumstances. In museums, it’s also a question of how, exactly, a work might have been acquired — and whether its collector handled the work ethically.

Certainly, language (its meaning, scope, and impact) is fluid. But in Zuckerberg’s case, word choice may betray a certain arrogance.

Since its emergence, Facebook has changed the way we communicate — and that includes the way we speak. To “like” something is to click a button on-screen; a “wall” signifies that endless Facebook scroll. And now, provenance may come to imply one question — is it fake news or misinformation? Gone are the implications about art, origin, ethics, and quality. Since Facebook arguably was an incubator for the fake news phenomenon, Zuckerberg may be explaining away his company’s unfortunate record with one word.

That is not to imply Zuckerberg has done anything remarkable with word choice. Individuals in power often borrow words and concepts from other industries. But given Zuckerberg’s callous approach to public interest, his vocabulary may be worth a second listen.

During Friday’s event, Zuckerberg unveiled his site’s forthcoming “news tab,” what he referred to as a “dedicated space” for journalism to exist in the Facebook universe. Up until this point, journalism has competed directly with the musings of friends, memes, and baby photos. Once the news tab launches in earnest, articles will leave the busy, chaotic main feed for their own depot.

In exchange for access to this content, Facebook will pay select publishers — presumably the New York Times, the Washington Post, et al. (Commentators have already noted that local, less profitable outlets may unjustly lose out on the cushy arrangement.)

Social media has infiltrated every corner of modern life, but does it have the authority to redefine language as it pleases? The ultimate test is, of course: will the vernacular change? Will our sense of provenance change according to Zuckerberg’s definition? Let’s hope not.

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