The power of platforms
Platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram structure public discussion and news perception. As their user numbers grow steadily their influence grows mutually. José van Dijck, professor at the department of Media Studies at University of Amsterdam argues that we are more and more living in a platform society, which is shaped by changing power structures in favor of these new platforms. In an interview with HIIG researcher Kirsten Gollatz she discusses the challenges and opportunities of this development.
Kirsten Gollatz: José, in the mid 1990s ideas about the network society elucidated the many ways society transforms because of the innovation of information technology. In your opening keynote at this year’s AoIR conference you presented the foundations of what you call the platform society. Why do you think we should focus more on platforms?
José van Dijck: We have used a couple of terms over the years: information and knowledge society, and later network society. All those ideas basically focus on neutral terms, like the network, which mostly meant a network of users. The early concepts were very much centered on users, including promises of online spaces to which everyone has equal access, of building communities and networks. In the 1990s and early 2000s this was what the internet was still all about. It was very utopian.
This sort of utopian space we can no longer believe in, I think. When Facebook started in 2004, you could already see the first signs of this utopia disintegrating because of a shift in power relations. The whole idea that some players are more equal than others manifested itself when Facebook started to grow really quickly. A handful of platforms grew very quickly and took over the power structure. I think 2008 was a switching point from networks to platforms. Ever since platforms have become more powerful. That is why I started to use the concept of platforms – introduced by Tarleton Gillespie – and later the platform society. I hesitated to do so before because it also ascribes power by giving something a name. But platforms have so overwhelmingly become the centre of power that it is hard to believe it is going to change over the next years. The network society has not disappeared, but the power of platforms is now so evident that you simply have to study its effects.
Where can we see these power plays of platforms happening? Where do you find it most concerning?
I think news is a very important area. Here we see automated selection mechanisms defining what news we get to see and read. In the United States, for example, almost half of the news people read they receive through their Facebook newsfeed. That is an incredible number. Of course newspapers and television channels still exist and are important, but the distributing agency has now seriously gravitated towards one specific node: Facebook. This is astounding and disconcerting. Of course, people still have a choice in what news to consume. But the automated mechanisms that are behind the platforms and the way they are interconnected should make us think about how this ecosystem works. The choices underlying these platform mechanisms are implicit, and furthermore they are interrelated: the algorithms that personalise your news stream are connected to the friends you have, and the friends you have are involved in selecting what your newsfeed looks like. The complexity of the platform system makes it very difficult for us to discern where the locus of selective power actually is.
Do the users of platforms have a role left to play? How is the user configured in a platform society?
In my last book, The Culture of Connectivity, which came out in 2013, I still ascribe a positive and active role to the user. I think in a platform society this is less the case. Back in the early days users still complained when Facebook did something that was against their desire or expectation. Of course there are still protest from Facebook users. But with 1.7 billion of them, this is a drop in a bucket That is neither a group nor a community; that is simply everyone.
The user has become an abstract concept, which is decreasingly connected to a reality that he or she is able to understand. That is why I think the power agency of a user has decreased since platforms have taken over. The user has given up its agency partly to automated selection mechanisms. Those are personalising any kind of data stream that are somehow connected. Credit scores, for instance, are defined by at least 200 data points. I have heard of other data companies in the US that own more than 1500 data points of over 500 million people of the world. A user is no longer a real user, but a set of assembled and structured data points, a machine-readable user.
The algorithmic configuration of users on platforms is one side. In your keynote you also indicated that platforms shape the negotiation of public concerns and thereby bypass institutions that are in charge of protecting public values.
In health care this is worrying. The institutions that defend public values like privacy and anti-discrimination are subject to certain laws. Moreover, hospitals and doctors’ offices had public value regulations written into their professional code. Any doctor you go to is prohibited from giving data away to third parties, for example. Well, today this is bypassed by any type of e-health app that transmits your health scores directly from you using an app to a company that gathers the data. And the regulators don’t know what to do about it.
We talk a lot about the big five companies, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. In addition thousands of tech startups constitute a platform ecosystem. Complexity again appears as a factor that makes it harder to grasp the scope and type of businesses we see emerging in a platform society.
Perhaps, and I am not an expert in economics or law, we need to think differently about companies. There are now big five companies who call themselves online platforms or tech companies. But what are they? These companies operate in many different sectors and are not calling themselves a health company or a transportation company. Even Uber says, “We are not a transportation company. We don’t have cars, we don’t have drivers.” Philips no longer promotes itself as a healthcare electronics company but communicates, “We are into data”.
Identifying what companies are and what they do is a very significant concept. What can we reasonably expect from companies, especially in terms of the responsibilities they have, and to what extent can they be held accountable? As long as companies are just accountable to their shareholders, and not to citizens, or voters or democracies, who is ruling the platform society? That’s one of my main questions that is not easy to answer. This is also a very fundamental question in anti-trust legislation, which is still based on defining the percentage of ownership a company has in one specific sector.
In your opinion, will the platform society be capable of questioning the policies and practices that govern the digital spheres? And will we have the possibility of voicing alternative ways?
I am a very optimistic person. My intention is to make people aware of how it works, of the forces that are currently governing our platforms and our societies. Over the past years, we have seen clashes between local governing bodies and Airbnb and Uber, just as we saw backlashes of users in the beginning of social media. Now we observe similar things with the sharing economy, which I prefer to call the platform society. In our attempt to push back we have to be critical, but also realistic. You can’t stop the growth of platforms. In fact, we have to negotiate between companies, citizens and consumers for the best possible democratic governance of platforms in a society that is governed by platforms. Of course we will face more clashes. But eventually another system will emerge, and you better be right at the heart of this negotiation system. It is important to be part of this emerging system. That’s simply my perhaps naive, idealistic stance.
Photo: CC0 Public Domain
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