My notes on Caplan, R., & Boyd, D. (2018). Isomorphism through algorithms: Institutional dependencies in the case of Facebook. Big Data & Society, 5(1), 2053951718757253.

Are data-driven technologies leading organisations to take on shared characteristics? This is the fascinating question addressed in this paper by Robyn Caplan and danah boyd which they begin with the example of news media. The popularity of social media platform as intermediaries has forced many news media producers to change their operations, increasingly producing with a view to popularity on these platforms. As they put it, “these platforms have upended the organizational practices of news-producing platforms, altering how both the newsroom and individual journalists operate” (2). They use the concept of isomorphism to understand how “algorithms structure disparate businesses and aims into an organizational field, leading them to change their goals and adopt new practices” (2). This is a process of homogenisation, as organisations reconstruct themselves into a field orientated around the assumptions embedded into the t mediating platform. The ensuing ambiguity has regulatory consequences, as social media platforms are not straight forward media actors but nor are they mere intermediaries. By theorising algorithmic mediation as akin to bureaucratisation, it become easier to identify the precise character of the role of platforms within it. It also makes clear the continuities with earlier isomorphic processes, for instance as corporate software platforms introduced common features to organisations.

The roots of this connection are deep. They argue that “algorithms that serve to pre- process, categorize, and classify individuals and organizations should be viewed as extensions of bureaucratic tools such as forms, that have been associated with the state in the past” (3). Software like Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Office restructured business activity through the affordances it offered to digitalise bureaucratic processes and algorithmic technologies should be seen as a further extension of this process. The neutrality which animated the promise of bureaucracy is also often expressed in the belief that algorithmic judgement will negate the role of subjectivity and bias in decision making processes. This is obscured by the familiar black box of the algorithm but also the mythology of its uniqueness, seeing it as something distinct from previous organisational processes. However if we see algorithms as organisational phenomena then the problem comes to look quite different, simultaneously more straight forward but also more challenging because the problems will likely spiral outwards across dependent organisations. 

They use DiMaggio and Powell’s concept of isomorphism which considers how a common environment can lead otherwise different units of a population facing that environment to come to resemble one another. For organisations this occurs through one organisation becoming dependent on another organisation, with the expected degree of resemblance tracking the degree of that dependence. For instance in the case of Facebook’s newsfeed, the concept of what is ‘relevant’ has been redefined by the vast size of the audience whose access is mediated through this mechanism. The dependence of the news media on that mechanism means they come to reproduce its characteristics, increasingly operating with a view towards metrics like clicks, likes and shares. The early winners in the Facebook ecosystem were those publishers like Buzzfeed and Upworthy who “subsumed their own organizational practices to the logic of Facebook’s algorithms” (5). But Facebook’s attempts to modulate this mechanism in order to produce what they deemed better quality results inevitably leads the actors dependent upon it to make adaptive changes in response to these modulations. Mimesis thrives in this environment as they explain on pg 6-7:

“Changes stemming from coercive forces, especially when frequent, lead to an environment of uncertainty that prompts dependent organizations to learn from other dependent organizations that have successfully conformed to the structuring mechanisms. This process of ‘‘mimesis,’’ or imitating models for success, is another process DiMaggio and Powell (1983: 151) argue will induce similarity across an organizational field. In this sense, the dominant organization’s incentives or goals become embedded across an industry through the borrowing of practices that lead to success over the network. In the case of Facebook, this was seen in the adoption of data-driven metrics and analytics into newsrooms, as well as the growth of a new set of intermediaries that were fed directly by the Facebook API, whose role it was to analyze and com- municate Facebook metrics back to publishers”

A further ecosystem of intermediaries thrives under these circumstances, as new players emerge who help the firms concerned address their common problems. These responses to uncertainty are driven by a concern to “demonstrate to others that they are working to change their practices to be in-line with those of the dominant organization“ (7) as well as increasing possibilities for success. The discussion of professionalisation is really important for my interests. The roles themselves changed as a result of isomorphism, with normative pressure to enact new functions and perform new skills which contrbute to the success of the organisation. This is my concern about the institutionalisation of social media within higher education. There’s a lot here which I’m going to need to go back to and I think it’s crucial for my developing project on the digital university.