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The institutional users of platforms and their intra-organisational dynamics

This section from The Platform Society provides a useful vocabulary for an issue that I’m preoccupied by. From pg 47:

We also need to consider institutional users: governments, corporations, news organisations, universities, and medical institutions that try to build on the platform ecosystem and integrate their activities in an online world. These kinds of legacy organisations and institutions have historically anchored selection procedures and criteria of relevance in professional routines, formal standards, or ethical criteria. For example, the medical institutions we will encounter in chapter 6 conventionally operate by means of strict protocols when handling patient data about symptoms or treatment; they carefully select appropriate testing and evaluation methods. If platforms bypass institutional users and their professional standards and procedures, this inevitably raises a number of issues – from privacy concerns to scientific integrity.

This category of institutional users needs to be disaggregated. Consider a ‘university’ as an entity which contains all manner of units which use social media in purposive ways (libraries, retail, student experience, departments, centres, teams etc) without being a matter of individual use. They have their own purposes, standards and procedures which are embedded within the organisational life of the university, operating in conflictual or consensual relationships with each other.

This raises the question of how platformisation, the insertion of the platform as an intermediary into an existing relationship, leads to a change in the agent of platformisation (e.g. the library team which adopts social media as a way of deepening a relationship with the student body) and its relationship with other agents within the organisation (e.g. the student association which uses social media to articulate a collective identity, including needs and demands).

The purposes, standards and procedures are part of this change but there’s a relational aspect to it which is not exhausted by these features. The predominant question is how the logic of value on the platform, framed by the authors of the Platform Society in terms of commensurability, supports or conflicts with their existing standards and procedures. To what extent do platform categories lead to a normative change in the orientation of the agent i.e. what they value and how they value it? I can see why The Platform Society focuses on the institution itself, as they write powerfully on pg 47-48:

In each specific case, the question is what the confrontation between established institutional procedures and the selection methods and commodification strategies of platforms means for the realisation of key public values. What criteria are used to determine what is news, and can this selection process be outsourced to algorithms, platform operators, and users? To what extent do ideals of socioeconomic equality inform the organisation of transport? If education gets primarily approached as a data-driven process of personalized learning, what are the effects on institutional  values defining education as a common good?

But the intra-organiational dimension of platformisation are not just detail which can be ignored as a matter of focus. I think any account of the institutional users of platforms which lacks this internal differentiation is liable to be severely lacking. Furthermore, this follows from how the authors of The Platform Society characterise the meso-social.

This matters because I think these intra-organisational agents, whose activities jointly (re)produce the institutional user of the platform, can be focal points for resistance to platformisation. For example a scholarly journal can use social media to promote the research it publishes but it can do so in a way which aims to exploit the affordances of social media platforms without institutionalising the associated logic e.g. by only sharing papers which have a significant social research and thus have a strong altmetrics score.

If we leave these intra- agents of our account, it can make platformisation seem like a rampaging juggernaut, not unlike how Giddens described modernity. The reality I think is more nuanced and we have more agency than we realise, with the important caveat that ‘we’ is not a collective actor but rather the ensemble of human agents with the impossibility of coordination which such a totality entails.

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