Social media and the culture of connectivity
By José van Dijck
In 2006, there appeared to be a remarkable consensus among Internet gurus, activists, bloggers, and academics about the promise of Web 2.0 that users would attain more power than they ever had in the era of mass media. Rapidly growing platforms like Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2006) facilitated users’ desire to make connections and exchange self-generated content. The belief in social media as technologies of a new “participatory” culture was echoed by habitual tools-turned-into-verbs: buttons for liking, trending, following, sharing, trending, et cetera. They articulated a feeling of connectedness and collectivity, strongly resonating the belief that social media enhanced the democratic input of individuals and communities. According to some, Web 2.0 and its ensuing range of platforms formed a unique chance to return the “public sphere” — a sphere that had come to be polluted by commercial media conglomerates — back in the hands of ordinary citizens.
Eight years after the apex of techno-utopian celebration, a number of large platforms have come to dominate a social media ecosystem vastly different from when the platforms just started to evolve. It’s time for a reality check. What did social media do for the public — users like you — and for the ideal of a more democratic public space? Do they indeed promote connectedness and participation in community-driven activities or are they rather engines of connectivity, driven by automated algorithms and invisible business models? Online socializing, as it now seems, is inimically mediated by a techno-economic logic anchored in the principles of popularity and winner-takes-all principles that enhance the pervasive logic of mass media instead of offering alternatives.
Most contemporary social media giants once started out as informal platforms for networking or “friending” (Facebook), for exchanging user-generated content (YouTube), or for participating in opinionated discussions (Twitter). It was generally assumed that in the new social media space, all users were equal. However, platforms’ algorithms measured relevance and importance in terms of popularity rankings, which subsequently formed the quantifiable basis of data-driven interactivity wrapped in “social” rhetoric such as following, trending, or sharing. In this platform-mediated ecosystem, sponsored and professionally generated content soon received a lot more attention than user-generated content. Platforms like YouTube and Facebook gradually changed their interfaces to yield business models that were staked in two basic variables: attention and user data. By 2012, once informal social traffic between users had become fully formalized, automated, and commoditized by platforms owned and exploited by fast growing corporate giants. Although each of these platforms nurses its own proprietary mechanisms, they are staked in the same values or principles: popularity, hierarchical ranking, quick growth, large traffic volumes, fast turnovers, and personalized recommendations. A like is not a retweet, but most algorithms are underpinned by the norms of popularity and fast-trending topics.
The cultivation of online sociality is increasingly dominated by four major chains of platforms: Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. These chains share some operational principles even if they differ on some ideological premises (open versus closed systems). Some consider social media platforms as alternatives to the old mass media, praising their potential to empower individual users who can contribute their own opinions or content to a media universe that was before pretty much closed to amateurs. Although we should not underestimate this newly acquired power of the web as a publishing medium for all, it is hard to keep up the tenet that social media are alternatives to mass media. Over the past few years, it has become increasingly obvious that the logics of mass media and social media are intimately intertwined. Not just on the level of platforms mechanics and content (tweets have become the equivalent of soundbites) but also on the level of user dynamics and business models; YouTube-Google now collaborates with many former foes from Hollywood to turn their platform into the gateway to the entertainment universe. Newspapers and television stations are inevitably integrated in the ecosystem of connective media where the mechanisms of data-driven user traffic determines who and what gets most attention, hence drawing customers and eyeballs.
This new connective media system has reshaped the power relationships between platform owners and users, not only in terms of who may steer information but also who controls the vast amount of user data that rushes through the combined platforms every day. What are the larger political and social concerns behind deceptively simple interfaces and celebrated user-convenient tools? Where in 2006 the notion of user power still seemed unproblematic, the relationship between users and owners of social media platforms is now contentious and embattled. In the wake of the growing monopolization of niches (Facebook for social networking, Google for search, Twitter for microblogging) it is important to redefine and reappraise the meaning of “social,” “public,” “community,” and “nonprofit.” The ecosystem of connective media has no separate spaces for the “public”; it is a nirvana of interoperability which major players argue for deregulation and which imposes American neoliberal conditions on a global space where boundaries are considered disruptions of user convenience. Common public values, such as independence, trust, or equal opportunities, are ready for reassessment if they need to survive in an environment that is defined by social media logic.
José van Dijck is a professor of Comparative Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam; her latest book, The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media has just been published by Oxford University Press (2013).
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Image credit: 3D little human character X9 in a Network, holding Tablet Computer. People series. Image by jojje9999, iStockphoto.