Facebook’s motto ‘move fast and break things’ captures the ‘disruptive’ spirit of Silicon Valley technologists. In the past decade our public culture and media system has been dramatically disrupted by the emergence of major media platforms. Investors call them the FANGs. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google.
From Standard Oil at the turn of the 20th century to IBM and General Motors in the 1970s and General Electric in the 1990s, the US has always produced behemoth corporations that bestride the world. But this is the era of the Fangs, the “big four” of technology, and they are currently growing at breakneck speed.
Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google have been roaring away since the turn of this year. Their share prices have climbed so far, so fast, that together they are now worth an extraordinary $250bn more than just four months ago.
To put that sum into perspective, compare it to the value of all the gold mined in the world in a year , which is worth about $115bn. Or look at it another way - $250bn is about the same as the annual GDP of countries such as Venezuela, Pakistan and Ireland.
Together the four firms are now valued on Wall Street at more than $1.5tn, about the same as the Russian economy.
Think of the list of social institutions and practices that have been irrevocably changed, and in some cases, destroyed by the emergence of the FANGs: journalism, television, advertising, shopping, finding your way around the city, politics, elections, dating, and fitness. For a start.
Alongside the behemoths are an array of platforms that each in their own way are the site of major cultural disruption and innovation. Twitter is remaking the speed and quality of public speech. Instagram is reinventing photography, and along with it how we portray and imagine our lives and bodies. Snapchat is collapsing the boundary between the public and intimate. And, along with it, inventing an immersive augmented reality where we see our bodies and world overlaid with digital simulations. Tinder is changing the rituals of sex, love and dating. Fitbit is remodelling how we understand our bodies.
What do these corporations make?
The simple answer is that they engineer platforms.
If the media institutions of the twentieth century were highly efficient factories for producing content, the FANGs make platforms. Of course, some of them, like Amazon and Netflix also produce content, but their value proposition and their disruption comes from the platform.
So, what is a platform?
A platform is a computational infrastructure that shapes social acts.
Computational and architectural concepts, but can also be understood figuratively, in a sociocultural and a political sense, as political stages and performative infrastructures.
A platform is a mediator rather than an intermediary: it shapes the performance of social acts instead of merely facilitating them.
Technologically speaking platforms are the providers of software, (sometimes) hardware, and services that help code social activities into a computational architecture; they process (meta)data through algorithms and formatted protocols before presenting their interpreted logic in the form of user-friendly interfaces with default settings that reflect the platform owner’s strategic choices.
In this definition van Dijck sets out five technical components of a media platform: data, algorithms, protocols, interfaces and defaults.
These components offer a schema for analysing how platforms work and conceptualising how they orchestrate the interplay between humans and computational processes.
Data are any information converted to a digital form for computer processing. The categories of data expand. Numbers, text, images, sounds, movements.
Metadata is data about data. Metadata are ‘structure information’ that describes, explains and locates ‘information resources…’ to make it ‘easier to retrieve, use, or manage’ data.
When you like or tag an image on Instagram you are adding metadata to it.
When you upload an image the platform attached metadata to it: a time stamp, location coordinates, faces recognised in the image.
An algorithm is a programmed decision-making sequence. A list of ‘well-defined instructions’ or ‘a step-by step directive’ for undertaking a procedure.
Facebook’s News Feed algorithm is a decision-making sequence drawing on thousands of data-points to decide what content to put at the top of your feed.
Algorithms learn. They are not stable sequences, but rather constantly remodel based on feedback they get about the effectiveness of their previous predictions and decisions.
Protocols are the platform rules. Users must obey the protocols to use a platform.
The first protocol of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter is that to use it you must create a user profile.
Interfaces are the touchpoint between a user and the computational infrastructure. When your finger touches down on the screen of your smartphone to like a piece of content, scroll through a feed, or flick away a potential date your lived experience is interfacing with the platform.
Interfaces contain buttons, scroll bars, and icons. Interfaces emerge, and are customised, based on the decisions of algorithms.
Defaults are the pre-loaded settings of a media platform, designed to nudge user behaviour in certain directions.
Your Instagram profile defaults to public unless you set it to private. Defaults make platforms user-friendly by cutting down the decisions a user needs to make, but they also establish preferred ways of using the platform that align with the commercial strategies of platform owners and investors.
Where the media institutions of the twentieth century mostly employed professionals who produced content, the media platforms of the present employ a range of people whose job is to engineer connectivity between platforms and human users. They work to construct new applications of data, to expand the capacity of algorithms to make contextual predictions about users, and to design interfaces that more seamlessly capture and direct human attention.
Platforms expand the range of things that media technologies ‘do’ in our society. They no longer just convey symbolic meaning, they increasingly function as the logistical infrastructure of everyday life. In the past decade media platforms have made media mobile and logistical. Via the smartphone our bodies are continuously tethered to media platforms.
Media are logistical in the sense that they organise flows of information, bodies and ideas.
Google maps locate us in space and then offer us directions or suggestions depending on what we are searching for. Google intends to go beyond maps to also providing the driverless car for us to sit in. Think about that, a media company may bring the most disruptive innovation to transport since the invention of the car. Tindr or Grindr organises potential hook ups and dates based on proximity. The FitBit monitors and visualises our bodily rhythms like movement or heartbeat. Amazon is a global logistics networks organising the production and consumption of nearly all the material objects in our homes. Amazon images their platform integrated into our homes, listening and sensing, predicting what we need and delivering it to our homes in real-time.
At present, our point of engagement with media platforms is mostly via a touchscreen.
This won’t be the case for long. Google, Facebook and Amazon are all major investors in augmented reality and artificial intelligence engineering projects that will transform the interface between humans and media.
Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg explained at Recode in 2016 that while the current business plan focussed on monetisation and optimisation of the existing platform. Their ten year strategic plan is focussed on ‘core technology investments’ that will transform the platform infrastructure.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos imagines we will soon live in homes surrounded by ‘voice first’ devices that listen and respond to our conversations.
Asked about the where the Amazon platform is headed next Bezos pointed to artificial intelligence and machine learning and said it is
quite hard to state how big of an impact it is going to have on society over the next twenty years… new and better algorithms, vastly superior computing power and the ability to harness huge amounts of training data. Those three things are coming together to solve some huge problems.
Media platforms are media engineering projects.
These projects are approaching perhaps the end of their first wave: weaving themselves into everyday lives, attaching them to our bodies, building the infrastructural underlay of everyday relationships, communication and market activity.
They are now pressing into their next stage driven by machine learning, artificial intelligence and augmented reality. Their disruption of media is just beginning.