One of the most pressing issues we confront when analysing the digital economy is a pronounced tendency towards oligopoly which makes a lie of an earlier generation’s utopian embrace of the Internet as a sphere of free competition and a driver of disintermediation. There are important lessons we can learn from platform studies about the reasons for this, concerning the architecture of platforms and the logic of their growth. But it’s important we don’t lose sight of how these dynamics are reliant upon existing legal and economic processes which predate the ‘digital revolution’. As Jonathan Taplin points out in Move Fast and Break Things, their competitive advantage was reliant upon a specific regulatory environment that was far from inevitable. From pg 79:

The economist Dean Baker has estimated that Amazon’s tax-free status amounted to a $ 20 billion tax savings to Bezos’s business. Baker notes, “In a state like New York, where combined state and local sales taxes average over 8.0 percent, Amazon could charge a price that was 1.0 percent below its brick and mortar competition, and still have an additional profit of 7 percent on everything it sold. That is a huge deal in an industry where profits are often just 2–3 percent of revenue.” Bezos, eager to preserve this subsidy, went to work in Washington, DC, and got Republican congressman Christopher Cox and Democratic senator Ron Wyden to author the Internet Tax Freedom Act. The bill passed and was signed by President Bill Clinton on October 21, 1998. Although not barring states from imposing sales taxes on ecommerce, it does prevent any government body from imposing Internet-specific taxes.

This is only one example. An adequate understanding of the digital economy requires that we identify the regulatory environments within which each category of tech firm operates and how this has contributed to their thriving or  struggling. When we combine this institutional analysis with platform dynamics, we can begin to account for the level of market concentration which Taplin summarises on pg 119-120:

In antitrust law, an HHI score —according to the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, a commonly accepted measure of market concentration —is calculated by squaring the market share of each firm competing in a given market and then adding the resulting numbers. The antitrust agencies generally consider markets in which the HHI is between 1,500 and 2,500 to be moderately concentrated; markets in which the HHI is in excess of 2,500 are highly concentrated. The HHI in the Internet search market is 7,402. Off the charts.

He goes on to argue on pg 121-122 that this situation helps generate a cash glut with serious systemic consequences:

The problem is that the enormous productivity of these companies, coupled with their oligopolistic pricing, generates a huge and growing surplus of cash that goes beyond the capacity of the economy to absorb through the normal channels of consumption and investment. This is why Apple has $ 150 billion in cash on its balance sheet and Google has $ 75 billion. These enterprises cannot find sufficient opportunities to reinvest their cash because there is already overcapacity in many areas and because they are so productive that they are not creating new jobs and finding new consumers who might buy their products. As former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers has put it, “Lack of demand creates lack of supply.” Instead of making investments that could create new jobs, firms are now using their cash to buy back stock, which only increases economic inequality.

In other words: the inequality which digital capitalism generates is only contingently a function of technology.

Over the next few years, I’ll be working on a collaborative project on trans- and post-humanism, building on the Centre for Social Ontology’s previous Social Morphogenesis series. My main contribution to this will be co-editing a volume, Strangers in a Familiar Land, with Doug Porpora and Colin Wight as well as exploring digital technology and what it means for human agency. 

This project is giving me a reason to read more widely than I have in a while, with a particular focus likely to be Andy Clark’s work in the philosophy of mind, speculative realism and continental philosophy of technology. There’s a lot of value to be found in the latter but one persistent point which frustrates me is what appears, to me at least, to be a fundamental confusion about the category of the human. This issue became clear to me when reading a thought provoking blog on Social Ecologies

Why must everything revolve back to a human relation – for-us? This human exceptionalism resides throughout the gamut of philosophical reflection from Plato to Derrida. One will ask as Bradley does: Why, in other words, can something that believes itself to be a critique of anthropologism still be seen as essentially anthropocentric? Can we step outside this temple of man and create a non-anthropocentric discourse that doesn’t find itself reduced to this human relation by some backdoor slippage of conceptuality? Are we condemned to remain human? What or who is this creature that for so long has created a utopian world against its inhuman core? If we were to be released from this prison of the human who or what would emerge? How alien and alienated am I to what I am? How monstrous am I?

Unless I’ve entirely misunderstood a literature I’m still relatively new to, ‘technicity’ is an abstraction from material culture. It’s an abstraction which serves a purpose, allowing us to isolate the technical so as to inquire into its character, but the empirical referents of the term are technological artefacts i.e. a domain of material culture. In which case, it should not surprise us that the human constantly resurfaces, nor should we impure this tendency to a mysterious stickiness which ‘humanism’ as a doctrine possesses.

Material culture will always imply questions of the human because we are talking about artefacts built by, for, with and against human beings in social contexts which are similarly human saturated. The value in considering ‘technicity’ lies in opening out a space in which we can inquire into the emergent characteristics of the technical as a domain of material culture, considering the logic that guides it and how it can act back upon creators and the social contexts in which they create. But explaining material culture necessarily entails human-centred accounts, even if these have tended to problematically exclude or marginalise non-human elements. 

To suggest otherwise strikes me as straight-forward mystification, circumscribing large domains of social life as outside analysis, rather than offering a meaningful competing ‘inhuman’ explanation. It seems like a clear example of what Andrew Sayer calls a ‘PoMo flip’: responding to a problematic dichotomy by inverting it, rather than seeking to transcend the conceptual structure that creates the problem. In this case responding to an exclusion of non-human elements by seeking to exclude the human elements instead.

In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself using the term ‘playbook’ in a number of contexts. It’s typically defined as “a book containing a sports team’s strategies and plays, especially in American football” but I’m not quite sure where I picked up the phrase from as someone who hasn’t had much interest in sport for a long time. 

It’s been on my mind since reading Merchants of Doubt, an incisive historical exploration of a dangerous corporate tendency towards the deliberate cultivation of doubt in relation to pressing issues such as nuclear winter, acid rain, DDT and climate change. As I suggested in a post a couple of weeks ago, we can talk meaningfully of a ‘playbook for merchandising doubt’. In fact something akin to this was once explicitly published, as the authors of Merchants of Doubt summarise on pg 144-145:

Bad Science: A Resource Book was a how-to handbook for fact fighters. It contained over two hundred pages of snappy quotes and reprinted editorials, articles, and op-ed pieces that challenged the authority and integrity of science, building to a crescendo in the attack on the EPA’s work on secondhand smoke. It also included a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite. 42 Bad Science was a virtual self-help book for regulated industries, and it began with a set of emphatic sound-bite-sized “MESSAGES”:

1. Too often science is manipulated to fulfill a political agenda.

 2. Government agencies … betray the public trust by violating principles of good science in a desire to achieve a political goal. 

3. No agency is more guilty of adjusting science to support preconceived public policy prescriptions than the Environmental Protection Agency. 

4. Public policy decisions that are based on bad science impose enormous economic costs on all aspects of society. 

5. Like many studies before it, EPA’s recent report concerning environmental tobacco smoke allows political objectives to guide scientific research. 

6. Proposals that seek to improve indoor air quality by singling out tobacco smoke only enable bad science to become a poor excuse for enacting new laws and jeopardizing individual liberties.

Has anyone encountered comparable documents to this? The scale and organisation of doubt merchandising surely means they have been produced. But perhaps there’s a broader category to be explored here: the explicit articulation of surreptitious tactics

It highlights how coordination presupposes communication, suggesting that even the most duplicitous strategies of the powerful will tend to leave a paper trail. Where we see what appears to be organisation, even if the actors involved deny this, do we have reason to believe there may somewhere exist a ‘playbook’ or something akin to it? I would  tentatively define this as the formal articulation of a tactical repertoire that can be drawn upon in informal contests, even if the definition of these elements may be obscured behind a thick veneer of technocratic distance. By ‘informal contests’ I mean those where rules are not defined or a contest actually declared. The existence of a playbook reveals how advantages in organisational capacity might translate to a practical advantage in competition.

I’d be intrigued to know if these ruminations resonate with anyone, particularly those who might be able to furnish further examples 

The self as painting: we become who we are through repetition and representation. Encumbered only by our imagination and the culture in which we find ourselves, we craft ourselves through iterated projects of self-representation. We might find the materials available to us limiting, in which case we might seek out a more diverse palette of cultural ideas through which to express that which we are and wish to be. We might also seek to refine our technique, extending the range of our potential selves by expanding our capacities to represent them. But the process is fundamentally repetitive. We begin within constraints but once we start painting, it’s up to us what we do. The freedom exercised through this is one of redescription, in Richard Rorty’s sense, something which Roy Bhaskar once critiqued as relying on a ‘free-wheeling’ conception of freedom: it doesn’t hook on to the world, to the definitive ways in which things are at any given point in time, with all the constraints and limitations which this entails. 

Its appeal rests on the prospect of everlasting freedom. We can dispense with any one painting once we grow dissatisfied, throwing it away to restart in pursuit of ever richer and more vivid representations of our self. But there is an element of fantasy in this, refining our representation of self potentially at the cost of losing touch with the reality of who we are and where we are at any given moment. To craft the self as painting represents a private project of self-creation. It approaches the challenges of existence in an aesthetic register, one which cuts us off from our selves and from others in an ever-so subtle way, while holding out the (always retreating) promise of endless freedom in inner life, whatever the world out there holds for us and what we care about. 

The self as sculpting: through a sustained engagement with the material we find in our selves and our lives, we gradually produce the person we aim to be through our crafting of self. The process is subtractive, rather than additive. We select, refine and remove in a way that is path-dependent, often finding unexpected limitations which follow from the whole sequence of past choices we have made. The further we go in this process, the less room for manoeuvre we have because our form becomes progressively more concrete with time. To become who we are depends on what was latent with us, but how this comes to take the form it does depends on the world we have found ourselves in and how we have chose to make our way through it. 

We shape the clay but we do not choose it and our understanding of the range of possibilities latent within it will always be constrained by circumstance and experience. When the promise of the protean self is ubiquitous, tempting us with the idea that the only limit on who we can be is our imagination, the limitations of the clay can seem suffocating. But there is a freedom within these constraints. A profound, challenging and subtle freedom which refuses the reduction of existence to aesthetics. 

One of the most interesting issues raised by the rise of data science in party politics is how to untangle corporate rhetoric from social reality. I have much time for the argument that we risk taking the claims of a company like Cambridge Analytica too seriously, accepting at face value what are simply marketing exercises. But the parallel risk is that we fail to take them seriously enough, dismissing important changes in how elections are fought as marketing hype propounded by digital charlatans.

Perhaps we need to focus more on the data scientists themselves. As much as there is something of the Bond villain about Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, it’s important that we don’t become preoccupied with corporate leaders. Who are the rank-and-file data scientists working on campaigns? What motivates them? How do they conceive of the work they do? There were interesting hints about this in the recent book Shattered, looking at Hilary Clinton’s failed election campaign. Much as was the case with Jeb Bush’s near entirely stalled campaign, there had been much investment in data analytics, with buy-in right from the top of the campaign. From pg 228-229:

These young data warriors, most of whom had grown up in politics during the Obama era, behaved as though the Democratic Party had come up with an inviolable formula for winning presidential elections. It started with the “blue wall”—eighteen states, plus the District of Columbia, that had voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in every election since 1992. They accounted for 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. From there, you expanded the playing field of battleground states to provide as many “paths” as possible to get the remaining 28 electoral votes. Adding to their perceived advantage, Democrats believed they’d demonstrated in Obama’s two elections that they were much more sophisticated in bringing data to bear to get their voters to the polls. For all the talk of models and algorithms, the basic thrust of campaign analytics was pretty straightforward when it came to figuring out how to move voters to the polls. The data team would collect as much information as possible about potential voters, including age, race, ethnicity, voting history, and magazine subscriptions, among other things. Each person was given a score, ranging from zero to one hundred, in each of three categories: probability of voting, probability of voting for Hillary, and probability, if they were undecided, that they could be persuaded to vote for her. These scores determined which voters got contacted by the campaign and in which manner—a television spot, an ad on their favorite website, a knock on their door, or a piece of direct mail. “It’s a grayscale,” said a campaign aide familiar with the operation. “You start with the people who are the best targets and go down until you run out of resources.”

Understanding these ‘data warriors’ and the data practices they engage in is crucial to understanding how data science  is changing party politics. Perhaps it’s even more important than understanding high profile consultancies and the presentations of their corporate leaders.

How has social media contributed to the growing success of Corbynism? In asking this question, we risk falling into the trap of determinism by constructing ‘social media’ as an independent force bringing about effects in an otherwise unchanged world. This often goes hand-in-hand with what Nick Couldry calls ‘the myth of us’, framing social media in terms of the spontaneous sociality it allegedly liberates as previously isolated people are able to come together through the affordances of these platforms. It’s easy to see how one could slip into seeing digital Corbynism in these terms: the power of social media allowed ordinary labour members to come together and take their party back from the Blairite bureaucrats. Such a view would be profoundly misleading. But social media has been crucial to events of the last few years in the Labour party. The challenge is how we can analyse this influence without allowing ‘social media’ to take centre stage.

It’s useful to see these issue in terms of institutional changes within the Labour party. Membership had declined from 405,000 in 1997 to 156,000 in 2009. The election of Ed Miliband in 2010, with his union-backing and soft-left presentation, led to a surge of 46,000 new members. This stabilised throughout the parliament, with continued new members replacing those who left or lapsed, before another small surge took membership past 200,000 in the run up to the 2015 election (loc 377). The fact this influx of new members took place while social media was on the ascendancy in the UK implies no relationship between the two trends. But it’s interesting to note that substantial numbers of new (or returning) members were coming into the party at precisely the moment when new tools and techniques for interacting with each other and with the party itself were coming to be available.

It is convenient for some to blame social media for how events unfolded. We see this view reflected in the complaints of some on the Labour right that the nomination for Corbyn in the first place represented MPs crumbled under an orchestrated social media onslaught. However as Nunns ably documents, we can see a clear political calculus at work in many cases, with many feeling the need to keep the left onside, within their constituencies and beyond. In some cases, he speculates, such pressure provided an excuse to act on pre-existing concerns. There can be a cynical aspect to attributing causal power to social media, deflecting the assertion of incoming members and refusing to engage with developing trends that might threaten one’s political self-interest.

However what fascinates me is those for whom these events were inexplicable. In a way, it is a flip side of attributing power to social media, even if there might also be a cynical aspect to such a judgement. We account for events we don’t understanding by blaming a mysterious new element (‘social media’) which interrupted something that was previously harmonious. If these events are seen as inexplicable, what does it say about the person making the judgement? As Nunns observes, it was the subterranean nature of Corbyn’s early campaign which allowed later mass rallies and mass actions to appear as if they were the work of some malign outside agency. The processes through which he gathered support were largely invisible to party insiders and this rendered the eventual outcomes close to inexplicable.

Hence the preponderance of bewildered lashing out, vacuous psychologising and conspiratorial theorising about a planned influx of far-left activists. These tendencies are more pronounced when the activity in question is disorganised. As Corbyn’s press spokesperson described the leadership campaign, this central organisation which sought to direct national activity was often “at the reins of a runaway horse”. To a certain extent these incoming groups were disorganised, sometimes acting in ways which reflected that, striking fear in the heart of some MPs familiar with limited contact with ‘the public’ under strictly defined conditions. These ‘normal people’ might prove baffling to career politicians:

We can see a positive myth of us and a negative myth of us, defined by a shared belief that social media has facilitated a transformation of the Labour party. Where they differ is in whether that involves authentic members taking their party back or outside agitators invading the party with malign intent. If we want to understand the role of social media in bringing about Corbyn’s ascent, we need to reject both and look more deeply into how the new tools and techniques they offered were just one amongst many factors in bringing about a profound transformation in British politics.

The notion of relational authoriality, which consistency demands I acknowledge emerged in conversations with Jana Bacevic, conveys a relational realist perspective on the question of authorship. It rejects the notion of the liberal individual as the origin of a text while continuing to insist that there is a definite causal story to be told about the emergence of any text, encompassing individuals and the relations between them. Relational authoriality stresses how creative production happens through interaction, direct or mediated, between individuals who care about what they discuss. People debate, discuss and digress about things that matter to them. It’s this concern to enter into dialogue, sometimes with the parties involved changing as a result of the process, which provides the relational underpinning to creative production. It might be that a particular individual takes forward this raw material, running with it and placing their mark on it in a way which leads to it being recognised as theirs. But this simple wouldn’t be possible without these prior networks, acting as the creative ecology within which individual authorship becomes feasible. Every completed act of authorship has its own history of emergence and accurate accounts of it will lead back to individuals, interactions and relations.

I was led to think back to this line of thought when reading Shattered: Inside Hilary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. As is often the case, speeches and speech writing figure prominently in the book. I’ve read a lot of campaign books over the years and I’ve always been gripped by these details. In part this is because political speeches are such a crucial part of the politician’s craft, with their (perceived) success or failure being integral to the fluctuating fortunes of political careers. This isn’t simply an American phenomenon. Consider the acclaim which greeted David Cameron’s 2005 conference speech, delivered without a lectern or notes, widely seen to have tipped the leadership contest in his favour. We can see a parallel in Ed Milliband’s first conference speech as Labour leader. Much of the increasing ‘plausibility’ of Corbyn as a political leader, at least amongst the commentariat, rests on the increasingly polished way in which he delivers speeches.

Why does this matter so much? There are many reasons why accomplished delivery are valued in an age of media-saturated politics. But I wonder if a fetish of delivery reflects a denial of relational authoriality. In reality, all who have considered it must surely recognise that politicians do not straight-forwardly write their own speeches, allowing them to meaningfully claim ownership of them in an individualistic sense. These are team efforts, at best produced through careful collaboration between committed partners and at worst produced mechanically through committees. We can see the character of politicians, as well as the nature of the organisations they inhabit, reflected in how they approach these challenges. Contrast the dialogical collaboration between Obama and trusted aides with the byzantine, sometimes conflicting, structures which Clinton often established for speech writing. But these are subtle judgements, pointing to relational authoriality rather than individual authorship, which sit uneasily within the individualistic frame of ‘political leadership’. We fetishise delivery of speeches, as well as the perceived strength of the individuals who delivery them, as the spiralling complex of governance ever more outstrips the capacities of the ‘strong leaders’ we praise.

While many see the term ‘curation’ as modish and vague, I see it as an important concept to make sense of how we can orientate ourselves within a changing cultural landscape. However I can sympathise with the thrust of these objections, in so far as they take issue with a sense of curation tied in with the worship of the new. Such a use of the term is possibly dominant, framing the curatorial imperative (selecting from available variety through filtering, commentary and evaluation) as a specialisation which emerges to cope with the late modern world. If we frame curation in this way, we miss out on the opportunity to explore how it has changed over time. See for example Nick Couldry’s Media, Self, World loc 1732:

Some literary cultures have been distinguished by the richness of their practices of commentary: the Jewish tradition of cabbala is frequently cited, but the ancient world’s general scarcity of textual objects meant that written manuscripts often reached people with the commentary of previous readers’ (so-called ‘scholiasts’) embedded within them, a tradition which reaches us now via the comments written in medieval versions of Greek texts.
Now we are entering an age of commentary for the opposite reason: because of the almost infinite proliferation of things to read and look at, we need to send signals to help each other select from the flux. At the same time, and for related reasons, our ability to send comments and signals has been massively extended by digital media: we take it for granted that by emailing or uploading a link we can point at something interesting we have just read and so alert someone on the other side of the world. The scope of commentary as a practice has been massively enlarged.

It is important that we can address problems and opportunities created by specific technologies without circumscribing our accounts in a way that limits them to these technologies. If we do so, we fail to recognise the continuities and we are inevitably left with anaemic conceptions of the human and the social which tend to be exhausted by the social-technical. From loc 1534 of Couldry’s book:

From searching, other practices quickly develop: practices of exchanging information by forwarding weblinks to family, friends or work colleagues, warehousing sites that collect recommendations from users so other users can narrow down their search practice (Digg, etc.), and tools for pre-ordered searches (RSS feeds and other alerts). These various search-enabling practices are increasingly prominent in everyday life as people seek to optimize their access to the vastly expanded flow of potentially relevant information. Their dispersed agency (anyone can forward a link or signal that they ‘like’ a post) contrasts with earlier centuries’ ways of disseminating interesting material: for example, the ancient and medieval world’s florilegia produced by groups of scholars, often in monasteries, who collected interesting quotes from otherwise obscure books into new volumes. Now not only do individuals (from their computers or phones, wherever they are) make the recommendations, but system interfaces, such as Digg and reddit, enable them to recommend cumulatively. Some commentators hope that ‘collaborative filtering’ and other collective forms of information sorting can challenge the dominance of Google and even create new forms of social bond.

How do we ensure we recognise these contrasts? How can we explore them in a way which allows us to productively theorise continuities and differences? There’s a fascinating meta-theoretical challenge here which I’d like to engage with seriously in future.

In a recent editorial in Current Sociology, Michael Burawoy warns about what he describes as the ascent of the spiralists. He finds these figures throughout the UC Berekely administration, accusing them of being “people who spiral in from outside, develop signature projects and then hope to spiral upward and onward, leaving the university behind to spiral down”. There are naive spiralists and experienced spiralists but between them they are transforming the university system:

Spiralists enter the university from the outside with little knowledge of its inner workings. They don’t trust the local administration and instead cultivate, promote and protect each other through mutual recruitment, at the same time boosting their corporate-level incomes and contributing to administrative bloat. At UC Berkeley, senior managers have increased five-fold over the last 20 years, rising to 1,256 in 2014, almost equal to the number of faculty, which has barely increased over the same period (from 1,257 to 1,300). While the number of faculty has remained stagnant, student enrollment has increased by 20 percent.

Coming from the outside and concerned more about their future, spiralists are in the business of promoting their image — Dirks employed a firm to do just that at a cost of $200,000 to campus. Branding takes priority over ethics. This last year we have witnessed the cover up of sexual harassment by prominent faculty and administrators and the exoneration of punitive football coaching that led to the death of a football player and a $4.75 million civil suit — all designed to protect the Berkeley brand.

His analysis of the spiralists is heavily focused upon higher education:

Spiralism is not a function of pathological individuals but of an executive class who conceive of themselves as visionary innovators with new financial models, traversing the globe in search of  private investors while complaining about recalcitrant legislatures and conservative faculty. They  blame everyone but themselves for the plight of the university.

However I think the concept has a broader purchase than this. Reading the recent account of Hilary Clinton’s failed campaign, Shattered, I was struck by how many of the key figures could be seen as spiralists in this sense. In their concern for their own advancement, seeing the campaign in terms of opportunities to position themselves for their next job, the possibility for collective purpose  amongst the top operatives was fatally undermined.

It’s a descriptively rich concept but it’s also an explanatory one. How does the concentration of spiralists shape organisational outcomes? Under what conditions will spiralists be attracted to organisations? Can certain sorts of organisations ever redeem and transform spiralists? The editorial Burawoy offers doesn’t delve into these questions but the concept he offers is a potentially powerful one. 

It could be read superficially as an implied contrast between instrumental rationality and value rationality. But I think it’s more subtle than that. It points to particular intended and actual trajectories through organisations, opening up the relations between spiralists and their unintended consequences for the spiralists themselves and the organisations they work within.

Call for Papers – Edited Collection

Online Othering: Exploring the Dark Side of the Web

Editors: Dr Karen Lumsden (Loughborough University) and Dr Emily Harmer (University of Liverpool)

The Internet plays a vital role in many aspects of our social, political and cultural lives and in the early days of its expansion there was much enthusiasm for its potentially transformative role in providing a space for individuals to construct their identities, communicate with others and share ideas and concerns. A perhaps unanticipated consequence of these developments has been the extent to which some individuals and groups have used this freedom to engage in hateful or discriminatory communicative practices online in these loosely regulated spaces, often hiding behind the cloak of anonymity. For instance, women on Twitter and in the public eye have found themselves subject to online harassment, sexism and trolling, while the aftermath of the Brexit vote saw in a rise in reports of hate speech including racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism, in both online and offline contexts.

This edited collection explores the othering and discrimination propagated and encountered by individuals online and in social media contexts and cultures. It problematizes and analyses the dichotomy presented between real and virtual worlds (and spaces) by exploring the motivations behind certain offending and othering behaviours, and the impact this has on the targets of online abuse and hate speech. This includes the extent to which online othering constitutes a new phenomenon and how the motivations for committing forms of cyber-abuse, cyber-hate, and othering relate to the expression of these attitudes and behaviours in the offline context.

It explores the extent to which forms of information and communication technologies facilitate, exacerbate, and/or promote, the enactment of traditional offline offences (such as domestic abuse and stalking). Finally, the collection addresses the role of the police and other agencies in terms of their interventions, and the regulation and governance of virtual space(s).

The edited collection is an output from a one-day conference on Online Othering hosted at Loughborough University. We are seeking additional contributions to the volume from scholars and researchers working in disciplines such as sociology, communication and media studies, criminology, political studies and/or gender studies.

Contributions should address the ways in which various groups and identities are subjected to othering in online environments. This can include news websites, social media platforms (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc.), blogs, and forums. We are also interested in contributions which explore othering across multiple contexts. Potential topics can include, but are not limited to:

  • Trolling and gendered online abuse/harassment;
  • Cyber-bullying or cyber-stalking;
  • Hate crime/speech online;
  • Homophobia and/or transphobia;
  • Online representations of disability;
  • Class bigotry;
  • Racism, Islamophobia, or anti-Semitism;
  • Sexting and/or revenge pornography;
  • Brexit, Trumpism and the rise of the ‘alt-right’.

The edited collection proposal is to be submitted to Palgrave as part of their Cyber-Crime series by Autumn 2017. For accepted submissions, the finalised chapters will need to be received by the end of September 2018.


Interested contributors should email a title, abstract (250 words) and biography (100 words) to both Karen Lumsden and Emily Harmer by 31 August 2017. Authors will be informed of decisions by 30 September 2017.

In the last few years, I’ve been intrigued by how changes in student housing track a broader transformation of higher education. The obvious change in the UK has been in student numbers, with major implications for the demographics of cities with major universities:

Between 1994 and 2012 the number of undergraduates in Britain grew by 45%, to 1.8m. Until recently, the housing stock changed little to accommodate them. Students clustered in neighbourhoods near universities, typically filling up old terraced houses. In Leeds, they spent much of the 2000s gradually spreading from old back-to-back houses in Hyde Park, which is near the two main universities’ campuses, into Headingley, a more middle-class district farther from the centre.

However since 2007, the number of students living in private halls of residence has more than doubled to 102,000. It has been a sustained area of growth for investors since the financial crisis, at a time when comparable investment categories have decelerated, with private sector investment estimated to have grown from £350m in 2009 to £2.1 billion in 2013. The growth since then has been even more substantial:

The UK purpose-built student accommodation market is estimated by Knight Frank to be worth £46bn and new developments completed this year are expected to total a record £4.7bn.

Last year, £3.1bn worth of student halls were sold – more than double the amount traded in 2013 and 2014. All five of the biggest deals – worth a combined £1.5bn – were sold to overseas investors. The largest transaction was the purchase by the property arm of Temasek, the Singapore state investment fund, of a portfolio of 25 student buildings in several cities including London and Manchester.

There are many factors which seem to be at work here:

  • opening up a new category of luxury accomodation for students whose ‘needs’ were unmet by previous housing regimes
  • depending on specific factors of the student experience (possible atomisation, relative privilege, informational disadvantage etc) to extract higher rents than would be possible through the wider lettings market
  • student numbers increasing faster than universities can invest in infrastructure to house them
  • the ‘unbundling’ of the university and the opportunities created for private providers when they lessen their commitment to student services
  • the opportunity hoarding of the middle class under conditions of austerity & the transfer of parental resources into ensuring an effective student experience
  • the appeal of a relatively buoyant asset class in a wider context of declining returns

However the one which interests me most is what this suggests about the future of higher education. It is being evaluated as one of the most reliable institutional areas in which to invest, in the sense that student numbers are expected to grow. But what are the aggregate consequences of these changes likely to be for higher education? Could this emerging political economy of student housing generate unintended consequences which act back on the sector itself?

There’s an intriguing argument in The Mediated Construction of Social Reality, by Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp, concerning our dependence upon digital media and how we respond to its failure. From loc 5527:

We feel the costs viscerally: when ‘our’ media break down –we lose internet connection, our password stops working, we are unable to download the latest version of software required by the device or function we want to use –it is as if the social infrastructure were itself, in some respect, breaking down: recursivity has been interrupted, ontological security becomes threatened.

I take their point to be that our reliance upon digital media isn’t simply about specific purposes. For digital media to fail does not frustrate us because it impedes a particular purpose. In an important sense, our purposiveness as such, has come to rely upon digital media. For this reason, there is a latent trauma inherent in its breakdown. We experience its failure in terms of a impeded capacity to act within the world, as opposed to simply frustrating specific actions.

The argument is underdeveloped, as can be seen by the “in some respect” clause within it. It’s nonetheless an important and provocative one. It left me wondering if anyone has done qualitative research about experiences of wifi breaking down in terms of the affective fallout from such a failure? My experience of this has tended to be one of whole categories of action being foreclosed when this happens, as in a real sense I lose the ability to proceed with my work, rather  than it simply being a contingent impediment to particular tasks. I imagine there’s a great deal of variability in how people respond to such a situation but I nonetheless think Couldry and Hepp are pointing towards something very interesting.

An exercise in free-writing, undertaken at a writing workshop at the Becoming Academic conference at the University of Sussex.

I write to eliminate the clutter in my head, the accumulated debris which emerges within me as I make my way through the world, trying to understand my experiences as I go. If I am free to write, I am free to be within the world and my experience feels most full and most thick when I am externalising my internal reactions to the world. What C Wright mills called ‘the feel of an idea’ preoccupies me and my orientation to the world feels changed in those times when I seize upon that feeling, run with it it and make something new ‘out there’ from a reaction I had ‘in here’ to the world. But what can be difficult is when I can’t run with that feeling, when nascent ideas bubble up inside of me but circumstances preclude my running with them. Contingencies intervene and prevent my exploration of these things I feel moved to explore. If I don’t write, I feel in partial motion, stuck in the early stages of a range I cannot complete. If I can’t write, I feel somehow incomplete, as if my capacity to react to the world is subtly mutilated. I write to eliminate the clutter in my head and without writing I am inundated by mess.

I wonder if there is something performative about my writing, as if I bring myself into being through the process of doing it. I wonder why I feel so compelled to share my writing, as if it somehow isn’t real or can’t become real unless it is out there in the world. It’s a repeated exercise, conducted thousands of times, which has left me feeling extremely comfortable with the prospect of sharing my writing. But I’m still not entirely sure why I do it and at times it feels like a compulsion.

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself when reading through two books by Nick Couldry in which he develops a materialist phenomenological approach to understanding social reality. The first is The Mediated Construction of Social Reality (with Andreas Hepp) and the second is Media, Society, World. It’s in the latter book that he considers the representational power of media. From loc 683:

Media institutions, indeed all media producers, make representations: they re-present worlds (possible, imaginary, desirable, actual). Media make truth claims, explicit or implicit: the gaps and repetitions in media representations, if systematic enough, can distort people’s sense of what there is to see in the social and political domains.

There is a political economy underpinning this, in terms of the capacity to make such representations and the gains accruing from this capacity. The common reference points which accumulate as a consequence serve a broader economic purpose. From loc 701:

However, if basic consumer demand –for fashion, music, sport –is to be sustained at all, it requires ‘the media’ to provide common reference points towards which we turn to see what’s going on, what’s cool.

The interests and influence in play here have been crucial to the unfolding of late modernity. Media has been a site through which power has consolidated. What we are seeing with ‘post-truth’ is a deconsolidatiob of this apparatus, taking place at a number of different levels. From loc 886:

Representations matter. Representations are a material site for the exercise of, and struggle over, power. Put most simply, our sense of ‘what there is’ is always the result of social and political struggle, always a site where power has been at work. 150 But fully grasping this in relation to media is difficult: because the role of media institutions is to tell us ‘what there is’ –or at least what there is that is ‘new’ –media’s work involves covering over its daily entanglement in that site of power. Media aim to focus populations’ attention in a particular direction, on common sites of social and political knowledge. Media institutions’ embedding as the central focus of modern societies is the result of a history of institutional struggle that is becoming more, not less, intense in the digital media era. It is essential to deconstruct the apparently natural media ‘order’ of contemporary societies.


Do you want your research to produce more impact? Many researchers are excited about the potential social media offers for generating impact but with 500 million tweets per day, 3 million blog posts per day and over a billion websites they face an obvious challenge: how do you ensure you are heard above the din? How can you use social media effectively without spending all your time online? How can you use social media as part of a multi-faceted and cost-effective impact strategy?

This workshop offers a practical introduction to these challenges, exploring how to use social media to engage with groups beyond the academy and ensure the impact of research. The session will include an overview of key considerations and group discussion of practical problems. The focus throughout will be on practical and sustainable techniques to build ongoing relations with publics outside the academy.

At the end of the day, participants will have learnt about the opportunities and challenges posed by social media for researcher impact, as well as having designed a bespoke impact strategy relevant to their own projects. Participants also have the option of purchasing five hours of coaching via Skype to support the implementation of this strategy. This includes a free copy of Social Media for Academics.

Eventbrite - Making an Impact with Social Media

by Nick Fox and Marguerite Regan

For the past 18 months, the British Sociological Association (BSA) group Sociologists outside Academia (SOA) has been focusing on the potential for careers working as applied or practical sociologists, beyond the traditional remits of academia.  Sociology is essential not only for understanding the big problems that face society, but also the daily issues that need addressing at work, at home or in the community.  We believe sociologists have the concepts, the theories and detailed knowledge of organisations and human interactions that can address such everyday situations.  

In the US and elsewhere, sociology has already established a profile for solving these kinds of problems, but much less so in the UK.  That’s not to say there aren’t UK sociologists already using their skills and knowledge in applied settings.  Some call themselves ‘consulting sociologists’, others run businesses that provide sociological expertise to industry, local government and voluntary organisations.  There are also many sociologists working in areas where they bring to bear their knowledge and expertise, even if they don’t have the job title ‘sociologist’. But there is a lack of visibility around this application of sociology outside academia.

Last year an SOA workshop kick-started work on developing a field of applied and practical sociology here in the UK.  We considered the kinds of knowledge, skills and models needed to solve the problems that organisations, businesses and the public-sector face, and started to map out how careers as an applied sociologist could pan out. Doing this kind of applied sociological work required specific skills to explore how social and cultural factors link individual experience to everyday events. Generic skills were also needed, including reasoning, communication and collaborative working.  

SOA now wants to evolve this work further, by developing a curriculum in applied sociology for final year undergraduate students.  This curriculum can not only be offered to universities as an option they might develop for their students, but will also be a way to really clarify the knowledge, concepts, and subject-specific and generic skills that an applied sociologist will need to work effectively in non-academic organisations and settings.

We invite applications from sociologists who would like to join an SOA task and finish group to work on this development of an applied sociology curriculum.  We conceptualise a six-month programme, in which the group will meet virtually.  At the end, we will seek funding for a public launch of our curriculum for applied sociology.

If you are a sociologist who works predominantly in a non-academic setting, but use your sociological skills and knowledge to inform your work, we would like to hear from you.  We would also welcome one or two current undergraduate or master’s students to join the team, to provide input in terms of what is needed educationally in an undergraduate applied sociology curriculum.

Unfortunately, we cannot pay any fees for this work, and we do not have a budget for face-to-face meeting expenses.  This will be a labour of love, for those wanting to flex their sociological imaginations, and due credit will be given to all those involved.

Please contact Nick Fox, SOA co-convenor ( for more information about the project and details of how to apply.   Applications will close on 19 June 2017 and successful applicants will be notified shortly thereafter.  

Special Issue of Chinese Journal of Communication: The Platformization of
Chinese Society

Extended Abstract Submission Deadline: July 1, 2017
Full Paper Submission deadline: February 28, 2018

Guest Editors: Jeroen de Kloet, Thomas Poell, Zeng Guohua

Full text:

We are currently witnessing a fast process of platformization of Chinese
society. Social media, as well as platforms for collaborative consumption,
are emerging as new power players that challenge older institutions and
disrupt economic sectors like news, hospitality, and transport. Yet, in the
light of omnipresent government regulation and intervention,
platformization presents us with a very different set of problems and
questions than in the West. In the same way, we need to critically
interrogate the seemingly ‘natural’ connection between online platforms and
‘global capitalism’, which has been theorized through the notion of
‘platform capitalism’ (Smicek, 2016). Again China presents an odd case, as
it is hard to read China as a capitalist society (Nonini, 2008). Against
this background, the aim of this special issue is to critically engage with
the platformization of China, using China as a method (cf. Chen, 2010) to
interrogate, complicate, and complement current research on the global rise
of the platform society (van Dijck & Poell 2015). We thus ask in this
special issue: what does the platform society mean for China, but also,
what does China mean for our thinking about the platform society?

This special issue aims to empirically scrutinize different platforms that
are currently popular in China. The Chinese process of platformization
appears to differ on at least three crucial dimensions with developments in
the US and Europe. First, there are vital differences in the political
economy of platforms: the ownership structure and business models of
Chinese platforms are different from those in the US. This also has
implications for the ownership of data, raising issues of surveillance,
control and marketing of data (Couldry & Hepp, 2017; Dyer-Witheford, 2014).
Second, vital differences need to be taken into account in terms of the
architectures and affordances of platforms: user and programming interfaces
(and its semiotics), algorithms (what is made visible and invisible), and
infrastructures (how are third parties plugged into the platform ecosystem)
(Hookway, 2014; McVeigh-Schultz & Baym, 2015; Plantin et al., 2016).
Finally, Chinese online platforms appear to be characterized by particular
types of user practices and cultures, which differ from those in other
parts of the worlds (Poell, de Kloet & Zeng 2014; Qiu, 2016). Given that
the societal impact of new technologies is for an important part shaped by
how these technologies are integrated in social practice, these differences
greatly matter.

The contributions we solicit for this special issue will each focus on one
specific type of platform, following a typology based on a preliminary
inventory (see below). We envision contributions that analyze a particular
platform and its role in societal relations through the three dimensions
sketched above. These contributions are expected to build on the fields of
media and cultural studies, software studies and/or platform studies, in
their investigation of one of the following types of platforms:

1.     Public social media (e.g. weibo and douban)
2.     Private social media (e.g. weixin).
3.     News and search platforms (e.g. baidu)
4.     E-commerce services (e.g. taobao)
5.     Media sharing platforms (e.g. youku and tudou)
6.     Transport platforms (e.g. taxi didi and mobike)
7.     Food services (e.g. meituan and eleme)
8.     Dating platforms (e.g. tamtam and blue’d)

Evidently, we will welcome strong paper proposals, focused other types of
platforms as well.


1200-word extended abstracts should be submitted by mail to Jeroen de Kloet
( and Thomas Poell ( by July 1, 2017. The
abstract should articulate: 1) the issue or research question to be
discussed, 2) the methodological or critical framework used, and 3)
indicate the expected findings or conclusions. Decisions will be
communicated to the authors by July 15, 2017.

Full papers of the selected abstracts should be submitted by February 28,
2018. All submitted manuscripts will be subject to a rigorous blind
peer-review process. All accepted manuscripts will be published online
first. The planned printed publication date is an issue of CJC in 2019.

Submissions should conform to the editorial guidelines of the Chinese
Journal of Communication found at under
“Instructions for Authors.”

Many researchers are excited about the potential social media offers for making an impact with their work. However 500 million tweets per day, 3 million blog posts per day and over a billion websites poses an obvious challenge: how can you ensure you are heard above the din? How can social media be used by busy researchers in an effective and efficient way?

This workshop offers a practical introduction to these challenges, exploring how to use social media to engage with groups beyond the academy and ensure the impact of research. The session will include an overview of key considerations and group discussion of practical problems. The focus throughout will be on practical and sustainable techniques to build ongoing relations with publics outside the academy.

At the end of the day, participants will have learnt about the opportunities and challenges posed by social media for researcher impact, as well as having designed a bespoke impact strategy relevant to their own projects. Participants also have the option of purchasing five hours of coaching via Skype to support the implementation of this strategy. This includes a free copy of Social Media for Academics.

Eventbrite - Making an Impact with Social Media

Mark Carrigan is a Digital Sociologist and Social Media Consultant. He is Digital Fellow at The Sociological Review and recently completed three years as Research Fellow in the Centre for Social Ontology at the University of Warwick. He is the author of Social Media for Academics, published by Sage in early 2016. This is the first book length guide to the use of social media within higher education and has been widely praised across a diverse range of reviews.

Reluctantly cut from my digital sociology paper

Indeed, as Srnicek (2016) argues, this dynamics is integral to the nature of the platform itself, as a business model premised upon maximising opportunities for data extraction through situating itself as an intermediary between the interactions of existing actors. Each platform has an epistemic privilege in relation to the transactions taking place though it, the potential financial value of which encourages maximal data extraction from existing users and continued efforts to expand the user base. The more a platform grows, the more useful it is to its users and the greater the range and value of the data collected. The logic of platforms generates an ambition towards monopoly, which might manifest itself in a choice to pull out of areas where this seems impossible to achieve e.g. Uber in China (Stone 2017).

The explanatory challenge posed by platforms rests on the confluence of social, economic and technology factors within a rapidly changing environment, the intensification of which is being brought about in part by the platforms themselves. Srnicek’s (2016) work offers an account of how such an analysis could proceed, identifying the generic characteristics of platforms and the different forms they take. In the case of something like the ‘sharing economy’, we can see a clear business model: find a social interaction which already is or could be monetised, develop a digital platform which can be inserted as an intermediary within that interaction and rely on network develops to scale the new model in a way that will ultimately squeeze out any instances of the interaction which are unmediated or reliant on an older form of mediation. The precise character of these dynamics, as well as the changing situation of those caught up within them, is probably best pursued as a multi-disciplinary endeavour (Scholz 2016). But sociological thought offers powerful resources for making sense of the broader context within which this is taking place: how are the platforms scaling in this way? To what extent are they reliant upon declining social integration and to what extent are they contributing to it? How are social relations being transformed by increasingly large tracts of human activity being governed by the technical architecture and social imperative of large corporations based many thousands of mile away, whose local operations are concerned at most with recruiting new workers & safeguarding the platform against regulatory pushback? These questions are offered by way of example of the intellectual resources sociology offers for making sense of these changes.