The place of ontological reasoning in platform studies

In The Platform Society Jose Van Dijck, Thomas Poell and Martijn De Waal develop “a comprehensive view of a connective world where platforms have penetrated to the heart of societies – affecting institutions, economic transactions, and social and cultural practices – hence forcing governments and states to adjust their legal and democratic structures”. This penetration means that “platforms are an integral part of society, where conflicts of interest are currently played out at various levels” (pg 2). Within the ensuing platform society “social and economic traffic is increasingly channeled by an (overwhelmingly corporate) global online platform ecosystem that is driven by algorithms and fuelled by data” (pg 4). It is one in which, to use the terms I adopted here, the insertion of distant and opaque – yet at once familiar and approachable – intermediaries into everyday life has approached a tipping point such that we can need to recognise the intermediated relationships as fundamentally having changed their character due to the aforementioned insertion of the platform. It’s a much more specific claim than comparable accounts of digitalization or mediatization tend to produce because it concerns specific platforms, business models and firms in relation to social institutions, organisations and sectors. But it also has a capacity to look macroscopically beyond the specific changes being brought about through platformisation.

This is why the existing categories of sociological thoughts (micro/meso/macro, structure/agency, objectivity/subjectivity etc) seem so important to me because we can’t grasp the comprehensiveness of this transformation without the cognitive coordinates these categories provide us with. Though conversely we will fail to grasp the specificity and novelty of it if we insist on mindlessly restaging past theoretical debates as if there is nothing new at stake in them. This is why I was so interested by how Van Dijck, Poell and De Waal describe the micro, meso and macro in terms of platform society. In essence they consider the individual platform as the micro level, the meso level as the platform ecosystem and the macro level as the geopolitics of platform societies. The last move is particularly crucial given we can see a rapidly emerging arms race surrounding machine learning, linking the shifting business models of big tech firms to the deep questions of social organisation posed by capitalist crisis in a way that remains bafflingly complex to think through simply because we don’t yet have the theoretical resources to map out the contours of what is happening here, left alone study it in an adequate way.

However I’m also cautious about their move in a number of ways. I should add the caveat that I’ve seen nothing which suggests they believe their use of these categories should exclude other uses. In practice though I think this is inevitable and I’m keen to insist we don’t lose sight of a more traditional conception of the meso-social as the space of organisations and communities. Consider for instance the interaction between a platformised media and a platformised academy which has fascinated me for years. There is a rich micro-sociology of interactions which take place between academics and journalists, ranging from the cooperative through to the conflictual, enacted through social media platforms but which also reflect the influence of those platforms in changing what it is professionals do within those sectors. It takes place at more than the micro-level in the sense meant by these authors but also at a sub-ecosystem level in their sense of meso.

I’m concerned that defining levels of analysis in this way leaves out important tracts of social life in which second-order platformisation effects take place i.e. the effects of platformisation in two sectors contribute, through their interaction, to a deeper level of platformisation which leaves both transformed. What they describe slightly loosely above as ‘channeling’ in reality isn’t a singular or linear phenomenon. I have no doubt these authors get this empirically and theoretically. In fact their work as been one of the primary inspirations for my own. But I’m concerned that they’ve begun to setup their conceptual framework in a way which makes it difficult to keep hold of this recognition. In many ways that’s what I think ontological reasoning is for. Not just being systematic about what we take the objects of our research to be but rather using this to inform our conceptual frameworks in a way which trends towards epistemic gain, in the sense of opening up more than we shut down and enabling us to identify and explain things which we wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

Though perhaps this shouldn’t be read as critique but rather as an expression of how thought provoking I’m finding this book. This is the level on which I think the study of platforms needs to operate and this is one of the few texts I’ve encountered which I feel truly manages it.