Many theorists have argued that the “participatory turn” in media has opened new spaces for civic and political engagement (Benkler, Shirky, etc.). While these arguments have been criticized as “technological determinism,” they represent important perspectives within the ongoing scholarly efforts to grasp the true impacts of new technologies on social and political engagement, as technology continues to rapidly advance, often outpacing research. “Platforms” are an important part of this conversation. As Gillespie (2010) states, the term platform has been deployed by “content providers… in both their populist appeals and their marketing pitches – sometimes as technical platforms, sometimes as platforms from which to speak, sometimes as platforms of opportunity. Whatever tensions exist in serving all of these constituencies are carefully elided” (p. 1).
The term “platform” also serves to distance content intermediaries from responsibility for the content that users post there, be it content that is invasive of someone’s privacy, libelous, or an intellectual property infringement (Gillespie 2010; Solove 2011). The SOPA/PIPA laws were designed to hold platforms accountable for at least some of these items, online piracy and IP infringement, priorities of behemoth content producers such as Hollywood, but an outpouring of dissent turned the tide on the legislation. Opponents based their arguments on the argument that the legislation would have a “chilling effect” on free speech (McKinnon 2011), would have problematic technical ramifications, and the fact that many platforms would go out of business due to the threat of lawsuit. However, the fact that content intermediaries continue to be protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act means that while they enable participation in all its noble aspects, they can also be slow to act when user-generated content infringes on the civil liberties of others (Solove 2011).
Dr. Deen Freelon, a professor in American University’s School of Communication adds a valuable piece to the conversation on the way in which platforms afford particular types of social and political engagement. He argues that the literature on online democratic communication has privileged the concept of “deliberation” to the exclusion of other important forms of democratic engagement, thus remaining oblivious to their presence and impacts. Freelon instead proposes three models of democratic communication: liberal individualist, communitarian, and deliberative. Most pertinent to this discussion is the fact that he argues that these models map onto the affordances of online platforms in ways that allow many platforms to be characterized as falling predominantly into one of these three categories (2010). For example, he argues that online newspaper comment sections are the site of predominantly liberal individualist communication, as individuals value expression over reciprocal communication (2011). Twitter, on the other hand, is the site of primarily communitarian communication, he argues, since its affordances promote communities of like-minded individuals to converge and converse (2011). Last, Freelon uses the example of “Living Voters Guides” as an example of a deliberative communication space, as citizens are asked to support opinions, ask questions, and remain open to the possibility of agreement between adversaries (2011).
As Freelon aptly demonstrates, when it comes to the democratic potential of “convergence culture” (Deuze 2009), platforms do very much matter. I tend to agree with Winner in his argument that politics are embedded in technology. While the concept of technological determinism is a useful check on the extremes of this argument, like Freelon, I think it is worth excavating technologies like platforms in order to identify the social and political values upon which they are based. Ultimately, any conversation about the extent to which platforms matter should consider the particular affordances they offer, the extent to which they are held accountable by law and publics, as well as their sources of funding, which is implicated in the momentous quantities of salable data we share with platforms everyday…an important topic for another day.
Benkler, Yochai (2007). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press. http://www.benkler.org/Benkler_Wealth_Of_Networks.pdf.
Deuze, Mark (2009). “Convergence Culture in the Creative Industries” in International Communication: A Reader, Daya Kishan Thussu, ed. 1 edition. London ; New York: Routledge.
Freelon, Deen G. (2010). Analyzing online political discussion using three models of democratic communication. New Media Society 2010 12: 1172.
Freelon, Deen G. (2011). Dissertation Proposal. University of Washington.
MacKinnon, Rebecca (2011). “Stop the Great Firewall of America”. New York Times. November 15, 2011. Retrieved November 18, 2011.
Shirky, Clay (2009). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Books.
Solove, Daniel J. 2013. Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff between Privacy and Security. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press.
Gillespie, Tarleton (2010). “The Politics of Platforms,” New Media & Society, Vol. 12, No. 3, 2010.
Winner, Langdon (1986). “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” in The Whale and the Reactor: a Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, University of Chicago Press.