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The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media (José Van Dijck) — book review

The Culture of Connectivity is a few years old now (the acknowledgments are signed June 2012), but it caught my eye as an interesting endeavour to chart critically the origins of some of the companies and platforms dominating our online experiences today, and probably for the foreseeable future. 

Overall, the book is a firmly theorised version of the many critiques written about how social behaviours can be (and are) co-opted by capitalism under the guise of ‘the sharing economy’, ‘social networking’, etc. (see, most recently, yesterday’s Guardian long-read by William Davies).
Interestingly, as I was writing this review, I caught sight of Wired’s reporting of yesterday’s Science, which published a study into the impact of Facebook’s algorithms on interactions between users from different political backgrounds. However, as Wired and others note (e.g. Zeynep Tufekci on Medium), the study’s methodology is not robust enough to allow us to reach firm conclusions about how technological decisions impact social experiences, although the study suggests both that Facebook’s algorithms decrease the amount of ideologically challenging content users see and that users limit their own exposure to such content via their active choices between content.
A few brief comments on the individual chapters themselves:
I joined Facebook in 2005 and have paid attention to some of the dust-ups over Terms of Service, the introduction of Timeline, etc., but it was still interesting to read an overview of how Facebook has repeatedly pushed users to stretch the norms of data sharing. Van Dijck summarises well the various criticisms over the company’s asymmetrical attitude towards transparency (whereby it has few obligations and users many), and I think her analysis is persuasive.
The book next explores how Twitter’s filtering and weighting algorithms can produce, as well as reflect, trends, and can create a circular pattern of popularity. Twitter is the main SNS that I use currently, and the site whose future choices will most directly impact my online experience (at least in the short-term, while I’m still a loyal user!).
The latter chapters I found mainly of academic interest, as they analyse sites that haven’t attracted me as an active user. Van Dijck explores Flickr’s difficulties establishing itself as a leader through indecisive leadership and a fractious relationship with the core user base, and she identifies how YouTube, ostensibly a ‘democratic’ UGC site, has been on a convergence course with PGC (professionally generated content) producers, tracing users’ own conversations about the lines between self-expression and marketisation.
The chapter on Wikipedia was surprisingly fascinating. Van Dijck teases out the nuances of Wikipedia’s user levels, including the increasing bureaucratisation of the site behind the scenes, with strict control over the content of the site exercised in a veiled layer of interactions below the familiar layout of which page. I have previously dallied with editing Wikipedia, but doing so is not particular intuitive for a newbie, and I have been genuinely anxious about incurring the wrath of other users for ‘not doing it right’, so I’ve not bothered.
From a personal perspective, I find looking at the impact of embedded, often invisible structures — including language (“friending”, “sharing”, etc.), algorithms, and “logged-in experiences” — in forming our online experiences is an intuitive approach to exploring this new social ecosystem in which many of us live. Her Foucauldian exploration of the “power of norms”, and how social media has changed online norms around privacy and sharing information, seems productive. She finds (unsurprisingly, although nonetheless usefully) that platforms are “mediators rather than intermediaries: they shape the performance of social acts instead of merely facilitating them”.
What is most interesting in the book is how it clearly debunks some of the myths about the utopic potential of social media, which elide the technological and human choices involved in constituting social practices online. Only a few days ago, for example, Accenture’s “Pulse of Media” argued that “consumers are now both kings and kingmakers, fully in control of which bundles, which brands and which content succeeds”, naively suggesting that the bundles being offered, the brands “promoted” and advertised through personalised ads, the content encouraged to “trend”, have no impact on consumer choices. Van Dijck goes some way to shining a spotlight on software which, as DM Berry (@BerryDM) has argued, is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and yet “also withdraws”. The research on hard data that is being undertaken by researchers with access to data held by the big SNSs, such as the Science article mentioned above, is only the beginning of the work that needs to be done.

Van Dijck‘s book offers chapters on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and Wikipedia, as five of the major players in various digital niches (social networking sites (SNSs), user-generated-content (UGC) sites), although she steers clear of addressing either trading and marketing sites (TMSs) like Amazon or eBay, or play and games sites (PGSs) such as FarmVille or Angry Birds. Her individual analyses are interesting for anyone who hasn’t actively followed the development of these sites, but at times the chapters are dry. Organising the book this way makes sense, allowing Van Dijck to focus on chronological historical analysis, but I wondered several times whether a thematic structure (e.g. considering governance as a whole) might have been more productive. 

Around these five central chapters exploring the growth, development, governance and users of these platforms, Van Dijck offers a methodology for writing such histories, combining [academic nerd alert!] actor-network theory and political economy. The main aim is to draw together theories about the social and the technical in order to develop a theory of how they can be mutually constitutive. 

Despite finding the book informative and persuasive, I also found myself frustrated as a reader. In her search for a more objective historical narrative voice, Van Dijck doesn’t tackle the impact of the structures and strategies that she is charting. Although she offers the example of the Alvin family to describe different user reasons and strategies for engaging with social media, she tries to stay away from offering any value judgments. At various times, the book refers obliquely to privacy concerns as though the reader would be so thoroughly familiar with the arguments that they could be taken as read. This is probably true of her intended audience, but the book could benefit from a greater focus on the individual and the specificities of individual experiences, even if this might make the text more polemical.

At the risk of a hackneyed metaphor, there can be something Kafkaesque in the increasing technocracy of leading platforms, in the diminishing freedoms for the individual user who interacts online only through increasingly closely mediated channels. As platforms grow, commercialising or merely becoming more complicated, the rules for users interacting with them grow more detailed and more unfathomable. Wikipedia, for example, still open to (almost) all, is nevertheless more complex for a first-time user who wishes to modify it than it once was.

Student blogging

Jen Bloomfield (@jembloomfield) has started a fascinating new series of blog posts about undergraduates’ use and experience of blogs, which got me thinking about my own blogging history as a perpetual student. 

I got into Livejournal at what I always think of as ‘late in the day’: early 2006. This was my first engagement with blogging of any sort (Facebook obviously not counting, although statuses were more like Tweets in them days!).

I’m not embarrassed to say that my LJ was mostly fandom related, with some personal stuff tossed in. At no point did I ever—that I can remember—blog much about my course of study, though. If I had, I would have probably treated it in the same way as some of the students who replied to Jem: as a tool for processing thoughts that do not fit within the confines of the course curriculum or assessments. 

I also ran one of the undergraduate journal’s WordPresses too, a little later on, so put my knowledge of blogging to good use in that sense, but whilst that was the sort of thing I could put on a grad school application, my personal blog was not. To be fair, content-wise, it really wasn’t! But it never occurred to me to try to run a personal blog that was. I’m very impressed by those undergraduates—and prospective undergraduates—who do. I think this is a valuable tactic, and many blogging grad students/academics have a similar motivation, even if there is still resistance in some quarters to taking blogging seriously!

Since I graduated (2009), I’ve noticed a huge increase in the number of blogs being run by academics, grad students, educators, and even within/as part of academic courses. However, I’ve mostly not noticed blogging done by undergrads, which is why I think Jem’s series is a great thing.

Pick your paradigm

I have some habits of thought, originating in being a maths/stats geek a very long time ago, that I cannot shake, particularly the need to establish a theoretical paradigm before I can really feel comfortable structuring any literary analysis into a paper. I can know that I am interested in a certain element of a text, and I can start to play around with what other texts might be relevant and how, but until I have something resembling a framework, I can’t go anywhere with it. It is my version of first writing “Let x = …” (and, to be honest, if I could start all my papers that way, I probably would).

I know this is a habit of thought, rather than strictly necessary, as often I’m aware throughout a project that the framework I’ve set up has a shaky foundation, or glosses over too many nuances and fails to differentiate properly. However, I need something in order to get on with the analysis that, in turn, will tell me precisely what I need from the framework (and hopefully how to fix it). There is something of a circular logic to the writing process (although hopefully not to the written argument itself).

As my main romping fields are sex, gender, and identity, I have a relatively well-defined set of theorists with which to begin, but I’m always a little bit worried about both selection bias and my theoretical blindspots. My PhD proposal, if ever it happens and is completed, is going to have an equal, if not greater, focus on aestheticism than sex and gender, and right now I’m edging around the pool of unread texts, just getting up the courage to dive in. This is the scary bit. I’m pretty sure I’ll find something in there that I can mould into a workable framework for what I want to look at, but I do dread learning that either I’ve got things completely wrong or (worse) my thinking is completely obvious and cliche.

Twitter has been a great opportunity to remind myself about where my blind spots are and to learn from the hugely clever people who are tweeting about theory, either casually or purposefully, from the perspective of their own disciplines (e.g. @weboesel from a sociological perspective, and @willbrooker from a film and cultural studies one). In particular, I love @thelitcritguy (see also his tumblr) and his week-long explorations of individual theorists. He’s recently done a Zizek week, and an Eagleton one (storify here). I find it very comforting to have the opportunity to just catch a flavour of the clever thoughts being thought elsewhere!