Reclaiming the social from the platforms that are eviscerating it

My notes on Couldry, N., & Van Dijck, J. (2015). Researching social media as if the social mattered. Social Media+ Society, 1(2), 2056305115604174.

Researching social media as if the social mattered. Who could disagree with this statement of intention? A surprising number of people, leading Nick Couldry and José van Dijck to take issue with the devaluation of the social in contemporary social thought, from Latour’s methodological diminishment (clearing ‘the social’ as a disciplinary project in order to better trace the associations blackboxes within it) to the turn to neurosciences in Castells. They stress that highlighting the importance of the social doesn’t necessitate reification, as much as ensure we remain attuned to the contested representations of what binds human interaction together in the broadest sense and the role of prior resources in shaping this contestation. It is made even more important when “the social has become a site of new economic value and intense redefinition—when the term ‘social media’ is not a description but an appropriation of the social” (pg 1). What makes this novel is not the role of interests in shaping the representation of social life – older forms of counting and official statistics brought conceptions of social life into being – but rather the mechanisms (e.g. counting and aggregation) involved and he intensity with which the operate.

By retaining a focus on the social, they seek to investigate how platforms propose a certain vision of it then encourage users to enact it. They make the crucial point that the the space of social appearances constituted by them “are being built, at the
level of micro-adjustments of practice, into the habits of individual actors, with direct benefits for the accumulation strategies of collective actors” (pg 2). In Couldry’s terms, the myth of the mediated centre (the same content being broadcast outwards from the centre of social life to everyone) has bene replaced with the myth of the platform (an online space which allows anyone to interact with anyone else). It involves a shift in where the locus of collective action is imagined to be, where people gather and come together to exercise an influence over their shared world. They argue that online interaction increasingly functions as a proxy for social interaction, whereas it is in fact an effect of a prior socio-economic complex which is being built in part through this exercise in substitution. They argue on pg 3 that “this materiality makes itself virtually invisible and thus intractable to those analytical modes of interpretation conventionally used in the humanities and social sciences to interpret social interaction”. I’m unsure whether they are saying this is a consequence of the aforementioned substitution (platform interaction standing in for social interaction) or merely reflects the inadequacy of these analytical modes for the power relationships of contemporary social life. Nonetheless, I think both are clearly true. The social project of these firms is simple: “to move social traffic onto a networked infrastructure where it becomes traceable, calculable, and so manipulable for profit” (pg 3). These firms install themselves as gatekeepers of the digital economy, operating vertically integrated chains of platforms that extend beyond their own figurative walls through the use of their services to authenticate identity on other sites. While seeking to avoid dismissing the meaning found by so many in online interaction, they offer a stark warning on pg 4:

“Our point, rather, is that the coextension between so many everyday domains of social exchange and interaction and the managed continuities from which economic value is today being extracted poses unprecedented dangers for collective life”

They stress the importance of researching the consequences of this enactment of the ‘social’: creating a dominant representation of social life that equates it with online interaction. They talk about health, education and government as three examples of sectors undergoing profound transformation because of the operation of social media dynamics. A critic might argue too much is being subsumed into one argument here but if we take their account at the highest level of generality, (the affordances of digital technology being used to produce representations of social life which narrowly service commercial interests) the case they’re making seems clear. Platforms provide a new infrastructure through which social life is transacted, obscuring the organisations and interests involved by producing dominant accounts of social life which obscure their own origins through the thinness of what they represent. Intriguingly, they suggest this should involve recovering older platforms for social life that have been pushed aside by the ‘platform’. From pg 6:

“The only way of opening up those costs to negotiation is to hold on to other “platforms” for social life: indeed to de-reify the very discourse of “platform” that, as Gillespie (2010) has powerfully argued, has done such important work in generating the present moment.”

This is difficult because attempts to challenge the emergence of these platforms will often rely on their affordances. This necessitates “holding on to languages of political contention and orientation that are not easily reducible to metrics” (pg 6) in retain the evaluative diversity which gets eviscerated by the evaluative monism of platforms. But this made harder by the absence of a meta-language, one which the authors argue must encompass theory and observation, able to draw together our points of contention and give form to the widespread sense that something profound is being lost in contemporary enactments of the ‘social’.

One response to “Reclaiming the social from the platforms that are eviscerating it”

  1. That is interesting in how their proposal implicitly retains the ideal of freedom. Where there is a supposed as essential “exception” that is being impinged upon.

    I think what the internet is exposing (what Latour and others are involved with. I think). Is that indeed that exception will collapse into the controlling structures which are themselves supporting the very ideal of exception, such that control will arise in the very activity of continual assertion of essential exception;

    thus we need to focus out attention on what is occurring there as opposed to constantly refocusing, pulling back into the exception which is, at root, merely deconstruction for the sake of ideal freedom. That this perpetual pulling back merely places control in the hands of “others”. That we should “take control” of our own situation by understanding how the control indeed controls. But not to thereby aliviate the control or to “free ourselves” from it, but to “own it” as an inevitable act of the construction of our freedom.

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