Conceptualising media platforms: from a culture of connectivity to a platform society

Let’s get conceptual. I’m going to go through here Jose van Dijck’s conceptual framework for social media platforms from her book The Culture of Connectivity. van Dijck offers us one of the most useful tools for thinking about media platforms as socio-technical engineering projects.

Van Dijck is a leading public intellectual in debate and understanding about the culture of social media platforms and the impact they have on public life. In addition to reading her book, check out van Dijck's public lectures, many of which are available online. I've posted below two. The first is a public lecture at the London School of Economics 'From a Culture of Connectivity to a Platform Society' and the other is a Keynote address 'The Platform Society' to the Association of Internet Researchers in Berlin. Both these lectures are from 2016, and they extend and develop van Dijck's way of thinking about media platforms that she sets out in her book in 2013.

From a Culture of Connectivity to a Platform Society

The Platform Society

Jose van Dijck's framework for social media platforms

This is Jose van Dijck’s definition of a platform:

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.

Van Dijck argues that platforms are not only computational but must also be understood culturally and politically, they can be seen as a metaphor for 'political stages and performative infrastructures'.  Platforms should not be seen as mere facilitators.  As well as hosting human interactions they also shape the form of those interactions. Social media platforms are defined by their use of a number of components including: data, metadata, algorithms, protocols, interfaces, defaults. These generic components offer a useful schema for identifying the significant elements of social media platforms and conceptualising the interplay between these elements at the technical level and with users at the socio-technical level.

Data, metadata, algorithms, protocols, interfaces, defaults. Let’s go through each of these.

Data. At its simplest level data is simply information coded for use in computer based communications.  It is bits and bytes, pixels, code etc.  Data can be seen as the base material that is needed by a social media platform in order for it to work.  It is the material that is provided to the platform by the user.  It is made up of both the information that the user knows they are providing and the information that the platform can collect.  It is profile information like name and date of birth as well as anything else uploaded by a user such as pictures and video.  It is also, eventually, information created by the user when they undertake connectivity – who they connect with and how they describe those connections.  

Metadata is data about data.  It is in one sense information that can be used to manage other piece of information.  Examples include tags provided by users that include keywords.  It is also information about where and when the data was created.  So the information about when a person posted to Facebook and from what location is metadata.  Again metadata can be collected by platforms and treated as further valuable data.  

Algorithm. An algorithm is 'a finite list of well-defined instructions for calculating a function, a step-by-step directive for processing or automatic reasoning that orders the machine to produce a certain output from a given input'.  In other words it is the mathematics or code by which the vast amount of data and metadata provided to and created by social networking platforms is organised.  The algorithm makes raw data into something that can be used.  For example the way that information is ordered on an individual’s Facebook newsfeed is calculated by an algorithm that takes into account data about the individuals taste, their connections, when and how they access Facebook, what other individuals in their network are looking at and how what Facebook knows about them fits with the commercial interests of Facebook’s advertisers.  Or the Netflix algorithm that attempts to anticipate and recommend films and TV a user will like based on the past preferences.  

Protocol. Protocols are the rules of the social media platform.  However they are not a set of laws that people may choose to obey – rather they are way that a social media platform is set up so that, in order to use it, a user must follow the protocols.  For example in order for anything to happen on Facebook one must set up a profile.  In order to gain any benefit from Facebook one must ‘friend’ people and like pages.  In undertaking these activities the user generates data that can be utilised by Facebook.  Not all protocols are compulsory but they are strongly suggested.  Protocols on other platforms might include following people on Twitter or creating wish lists on Amazon or Netflix.  Protocols govern how users can use platforms, they “guide users through its preferred pathways; they impose a hegemonic logic onto a mediated social practice”.

Interface. There are two kinds of interfaces in social media platforms the internal and the external.  The external is the interface seen by users – basically just what the platform looks like.  So Facebook has scrollable columns and various types of featured information, Netflix sorts film and TV into somewhat idiosyncratic genres etc.  These interfaces are designed to improve connectivity.  The internal interface is seen only by the platform owner.  In these the visibility and availability of aspects of the external interface are controlled.  

Defaults. Defaults are settings automatically assigned to a software application to channel user behaviour in a certain way. Defaults are not just technical but also ideological manoeuvrings: if changing a default takes effort, users are more likely to conform to the site’ decision architecture. A notorious default is Facebook’s setting to distribute a message to everyone, rather than to friends only. These platform elements are designed in order to construct or imagine a particular kind of user and to direct them in particular ways. Decisions about how to imagine and direct users are often shaped by the commercial imperatives of platform owners.

Within the microsystem of a particular platform the imperative toward generating value leads to the construction of a particular kind of user – often one who is engaged frequently and extensively, is expressive and integrates the platform into their everyday routines. The objective of platform designers is to ‘create’ this kind of user. The platform designer aims to orchestrate the interplay between the human user and the machinery of the platform. Within the larger social media eco-system relationships form between platforms as they aim to make their databases ‘mutually profitable. For example, Facebook and Spotify integrate their databases in various mutually beneficial ways. Over time, this interdependence leads to a certain level of platform interoperability as data formats and protocols become standardised. Van Dijck’s account prompts us to consider how social media platforms ‘engineers’ sociality. Connectivity is the process of ‘doing’ this engineering.

Van Dijck argues that 'social media are inevitably automated systems that engineer and manipulate connections.' Social media identify what people want by using algorithms to establish how people interact.  Given this the word ‘social’ can be seen to mean both connectedness, which is how humans interact with one another, and connectivity – which, as I have established, is how humans interact with one another in a manner facilitated by the logic of machines such as platforms.

Connectedness and connectivity are publically treated as the same thing by the creators of social media platforms because it serves their economic interests.  In fact they focus on connectedness and try and distract users from the connectivity.  They try to hide the fact that social media platforms make money by engineering connectivity, that is developing platforms that can sense, process and modulate the interplay between humans and humans, and humans and machines.

A final work from van Dijck:

Zuckerberg deploys a sort of newspeak when claiming that technology merely enables or facilitates social activity however, ‘making the web social’ in reality means ‘making sociality technical.