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.

Kate Gill is a writer, editor, and filmmaker based in Brooklyn.

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

  1. In the world of social media manipulation as it passes through the internet, Mark Zuckerberg’s definition of provenance leaves me with a vacuous and uncomfortable feeling. His need to control the world of information as well as profit by it greatly disturbs me. His instrument like other ubernational companies wish to eliminate traditional national borders and regulation in a very libertarian sense promoting themselves as a populace movement we should love . Common sense tells me this is bad. Why do I need to go through a middle “man” to read the news when I can go straight to the “source”.
    This whole movement and ignored caution reminds me of the play, Rhinoceros, a play by Eugène Ionesco. I feel much like the character Bérenger.

    1. Yes Zuckerberg’s manipulations are profoundly disturbing. I also see Zuckerberg’s attempt to define provenance as damage control as a result of the various scandals and fiascos of fake news , the failure of Libra and the destruction of Facebook’s credibility . The damage to Facebook itself can’t be undone and I can take some cold comfort in that Facebook is failing as are Uber ,WeWork and other self proclaimed ubernationals.(Good term and an apt description)

      Technically I’m a Facebook user however , I lost faith and developed intense resentments after the election and my use of it has been very sporadic since, this is also true of many of my actual friends. When I first joined I expected it to be similar to MySpace, not even being able to imagine the leviathan it’s become.

  2. Well, it appears “provenance” will also be subsumed in branding speak, just as “curate” and “curator” have been thoroughly and completely debased, which is to say, disconnected from their original meanings–as in “to keep, study, and protect” artifacts of historical interest and value.

  3. Is anyone else concerned that the bulk of this “news” seems like it will be coming from one-sided sources? I closed my Facebook account when the Cambridge Analytica story first broke.

  4. ‘Provenance’ (sometimes ‘provenience’) means where something comes from, as noted in the article here; thus, it can be applied to art, wine, or anything else. I can’t fault the abominable Zuckerberg for this particular usage. But as for Facebook in general, it hasn’t changed the way I communicate, because I don’t communicate through or with Facebook except in rare instances where the only information available on the Net about some person or thing is unfortunately available nowhere else — the choice of the poster, usually. If you don’t like it, just get off it. No one is holding a gun to your head as far as I know. If you keep using it, I’d rather not hear about it.

  5. Wait, sorry, the argument here is that Mark Zuckerberg can’t use the word “provenance” (meaning, literally, “origin”) because he’s not an art critic talking about art? That word is yours and yours only? Nobody else is allowed to use it in any other context, even when it makes perfect sense?

    Really? Guys…. the word existed before it was an art historical term, and it can exist as both an art historical term and, well, a synonym of “origin.” More, it can exist as the latter without (as the author so self-importantly and so awkwardly put it) “serv[ing] to erase its weighty history as an art historical term.”

    I rolled my eyes so far into the back of my head that I could watch my brain cells atrophy as I read this. Prime example of art world snobbishness in a publication I wouldn’t usually expect it from. Get a grip, guys. Y’all are nuts.

  6. Linguists describe language semantic change over time is the norm, though the phenomenon is clustering around universes of discourses that are dislocated from usual means of communication in a historical anthropological sense.

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