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Van Dijk, Poell, and de Wall, The Platform Society: Public Values in a Connective World (2018)

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Markets, Globalization &
Development Review
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Van Dijk, Poell, and de Wall, &e Platform Society:
Public Values in a Connective World (2018)
Batuhan Keskin
Izmir University of Economics, Turkey
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Book Review
Van Dijck, Poell and de Waal, The Platform
Society: Public Values in a Connective World
(2018)
Today, we are slowly coming to terms with the fact that online platforms are
practically becoming more effective then public institutions in organizing
and structuring our public and private lives. Even though public institutions
and governments still formally represent the will of the people, civil lives,
and in some instances, even public policies are structured through everyday
operations and economic modalities of online platforms. José Van Dijck,
Thomas Poell and Martjin de Waal’s The Platform Society: Public Values in
a Connective World is one of these 'coming to terms’ efforts on the
academic front, it aims to analyze and contextualize the social
transformations brought about by online platforms at a larger scale, from a
global perspective. In the book, the term ‘Platform Society’ is used in
reference to a social life in which social and economic flows are increasingly
modulated by a globalized ecosystem of online platforms that is driven by
algorithms and fueled by data. In this sense, the term platform society does
not indicate a new kind of virtual public space that is separate and apart
from the actual world we live in. On the contrary, the authors state that
platforms are now situated at the heart of our lives and we are increasingly
feeling their impact on almost all forms of everyday practices.
At this point, it is necessary to explain why the authors make use of
Nick Srnicek’s critical diagnosis, albeit with their particular revisions, and
suggest to conceptualize the platforms as an ecosystem (Srnicek 2016).
They point to the fact that the platforms are not stand-alone ‘sites’ or simple
facilitators, but they are strongly connected to each other, and platform
capitalism can only be analyzed as a form as such by considering their
interactions and interdependency, just as in a biological ecosystem.
According to the authors: A platform ecosystem is the combination of
networked platforms, administrated by a particular set of mechanisms that
shapes everyday practices which transform the social order and the way
the societies are organized.
The authors claim that the platforms are technological, economic and
social cultural configurations, rather than being merely technical devices
that facilitate various kinds of user interactions. They describe the platform
as a programmable digital architecture designed to organize interactions
between users and suggest two categorical types: infrastructural and
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sectoral. According to them the majority of infrastructural platforms, are
owned and operated by the Big Five (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon,
Microsoft, which are altogether abbreviated as ‘GAFAM’), and provide the
structural backbone of the platform ecosystem upon which many platforms
and applications can be established. Infrastructural services include search
engines and browsers, data servers and cloud computing, email, ad
networks, social networks, app stores, payment systems, identification
services, geographical information and navigation services etc. Sectoral
platforms seamlessly integrate into this structural backbone, and cater to a
specific sector or niche, such as news, transportation, finance and
hospitality. These can be exemplified as Yahoo News, Uber, Coursera, and
Airbnb. Some of these platforms do not have tangible assets or sector-
specific employees, and do not provide concrete products, content or
services - such as Booking.com; they merely connect individual users to
single providers.
Despite operationally delineating these two forms, Van Dijck, Poell
and de Waal (2018) suggest that the difference between infrastructural and
sectoral platforms is not fixed or determined and there is a constant dynamic
between them that leads to integration’’ (p. 45). The authors present us with
the fact that the infrastructural platforms which are owned and operated by
the Big Five companies have also became major operators of sectoral
platforms through various kinds of alliances such as ownerships, relations,
partnerships and they penetrate every domain of social and economic life,
regardless of the nature of the domain (whether it is a commercial sector,
private sector, government sector, non-public or nonprofit sector) while
bypassing local and national institutions.
So how do these Big Five companies, their subsidiaries, their
symbionts and other interconnected devices in such an ecosystem govern
the society through their platforms? How do the platforms work? Van Dijck,
Poell and de Waal identify three main mechanisms that are shared by all
the platforms in this ecosystem, which represent crucial processes for their
operations; datafication, commodification and selection. According to the
authors, datafication refers to every activity that is translated into data and
that can be processed by algorithms into new kinds of social and economic
value - not only discretely quantifiable interactions (such as what you buy)
but also their semantic contexts and relations (what you like, or even, may
like). The authors deploy the concept of commodification to refer to the
platforms ability to transform “online and offline objects, activities,
emotions, and ideas into tradable commodities” (pp. 85-86), and it is the key
to the governance and business models of platforms. Selection is defined
in the book as the ability of platforms to trigger and filter user activity
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through interfaces and algorithms, while users, through their interaction with
these coded environments, influence the online visibility and availability of
particular content, services, and people’’ (p. 83). Platforms substitute expert
based selections (such as the places to stay while on vacation advised by
a travel guide) with user-driven or algorithmic selection processes, and
regulate the users activities by selecting or curating “most relevant topics,
terms, actors, objects, offers, services, etc.” (p. 83).
By analyzing these three processes, Van Dijck, Poell and de Waal
elaborate on four important sectors where public and private interests are
at play; news media, urban transport, health and education. Their analysis
reveal that the Big Five companies infiltrate and penetrate all of these
sectors and tend to act as gatekeepers to almost all social, economic, and
cultural activities - including our personal economic spheres. Thus, the
authors maintain that ‘platform society’ emerges as a global social form that
is dependent on these infrastructural platforms.
Van Dijck, Poell and de Waal argue that although large platforms,
particularly those wielded by the Big Five tech companies, may dominate
the ecosystem, they are not the only players. They emphasize that the
platform ecosystem is not only open to new formations - such as the
incorporation of traditional media outlets into platforms, or the exploitation
of the platforms’ datafication, commodification and selection capacities by
political interests (as the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed) - but it is
also composed of a multitude of agencies - such as individual
entrepreneurs, governments, incumbent enterprises, cooperatives, citizens
and consumers from various social classes. Yet, these actors’ inclinations
to protect their own interests instead of protecting civil values and public
interests at large cause conflicts among themselves, which ultimately hinder
these platforms’ potential for social, economic, and political influence.
The authors point out that the users are usually concerned with
safety, transparency, accuracy and privacy issues in their relation to the
platforms. They wish their connections to be secure, they desire to know
how the information they receive is being collected, they want that
information to be accurate, and in return, they demand the information they
disclose to the platforms to remain private. However, Van Dijck, Poell and
de Waal assert that there are other sets of values, such as public good,
fairness, social responsibility and democratic control, which become harder
to protect in the platform society, since such values are neither integral to
the economic logic of the platforms, nor can they be inscribed into the
algorithmic processes they operate through. This stands out as the
fundamental question the book intends to address: How can we protect
such collective interests and public values in the platform society? Who will
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Keskin: The Platform Society
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be responsible for a fair, democratic and responsible platform society, if the
platform remains as the governing socio-economic modality for the
foreseeable future?
Van Dijck, Poell and de Waal point to the traditional constituents of
liberal democracy when identifying the actors still responsible for
maintaining the public good and political order in the platform society: the
Market actors such as companies, micro-entrepreneurs, businesses, large
and small companies; State institutions such as local governments, national
government and supranational governments; and Civil society institutions
such as citizens, cooperatives, collectives, nongovernmental organizations.
According to the authors, a balanced platform society requires all these
actors to play their roles in its construction. Yet, they assign the
governments a further specific responsibility for being able to maintain their
regulatory power in this new social form. Van Dijck, Poell and de Waal argue
that the governments urgently need to upgrade regulatory institutions and
they need to protect public values by negotiating public interest with
platform owners.
Their argument reflect the common resentment that has become
apparent in public debate, fueled by the proliferation of media coverage on
such issues as Uber’s aggressive and highly exploitative business practices
or Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of users’ private data towards political
goals. A recent commentary in support of the authors’ argument, that the
governments should be able to exercise regulatory power over the
platforms, points to how things could be different, for example, if the
subsidiaries of Alphabet corporation could be legally forced to split into
different companies as a result of an anti-trust inquiry, or even, if Google
could be classified as a ‘utility’ in legal terms. The Guardian commentator
John Harris argues that, if Google had been legally defined as a ‘public
utility’, which would not be unreasonable considering its operational scale
and socio-economic functions, “it would be forced to allow open access to
both its key algorithms and data sets, just as the US telecoms giant
AT&T once gave up a range of its precious patents in return for its
monopoly” (Harris 2019).
Yet, so far, the platforms seem to have an upper hand in negotiating
with public authorities of local and national scale. They represent massive
information gathering capacities, which could be tapped into by government
agencies in continuous surveillance operations or at times of political crisis
and authoritarian interventions. Their global operational scale makes them
elusive for regulatory mechanisms of national scale. The economic
influence they represent provide them with bargaining power against the
local authorities seeking tax revenues and employment opportunities. An
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example might be Amazon’s recent manipulative campaign for choosing
itself a second headquarter outside of Seattle (Matsakis 2018; Streitfeld
2018). Moreover, the global reach of the platforms provide the countries
they originate from with cultural, economic and political advantages in the
international competition. For example, the Russian Facebook alternative
VKontakte is ranked 20th in Alexa's global Top 500 sites as of January 2019
(see Alexa Internet’s Vk.com Site Traffic Statistics 2019), and has over
500 million users globally (see Vk.com’s List of VK Users 2018) On a
similar note China’s Alibaba has become the worlds largest retailer with
online sales and profits having already surpassed all US retailers combined
since 2015 including Amazon and eBay(Cheng 2017).
While, due to their economic powers and influences, regulating the
platforms for the benefit of public good appears to be an uphill battle under
current conditions, it seems that this will be one undertaking that will shape
our foreseeable future.
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References
Cheng, Allen T. (2017), “Alibaba vs. The World’’, Instutional Investor, July
25, [available at https://goo.gl/9BDqEp ]
Harris, John (2019), “Together we can thwart the big-tech data grab. Here’s
how”, The Guardian, January 7, (accessed January 15, 2019)
[available at https://goo.gl/tVUrMM]
“List of Vk Users”, Vk.com, (accessed 8 March 2018), [available at
https://vk.com/catalog.php]
Matsakis, Louise (2018), “Amazon’s HQ2 Hunger Games Are Over, and
Jeff Bezos Won’’, Wired Magazine, November 13, (accessed
January 3, 2019) [available at https://goo.gl/AJq2bU]
Srnicek, Nick (2016), Platform Capitalism. Cambridge and Malden: Polity
Press.
Streitfeld, David (2018), “Was Amazon’s Headquarters Contest a Bait and
Switch? Critics Say Yes’’, The New York Times, November 6,
(accessed December 14, 2018) [available at https://goo.gl/8tKypU]
Van Dijck, José, Thomas Poell and Martjin de Waal (2018), The Platform
Society: Public Values in a Connective World. Oxford University
Press
“Vk.com Site Traffic Statistics”, Alexa Internet, (accessed January 7, 2019),
[available at https://goo.gl/5qE36y]
6
Markets, Globalization & Development Review, Vol. 3 [2018], No. 3, Art. 8
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DOI: 10.23860/MGDR-2018-03-03-08
... On the contrary, this is an economic modality that emerge as a consequence of decades-long political investments, economic conditions, and public policies. Although, as Keskin (2018) concludes, these technological, political and economic conditions, at the moment, make the platforms more advantaged in sustaining their domination in the face of growing public resentment in many fronts, we hope this small collection of articles will contribute to a bigger contestation and newer directions. ...
Article
Full-text available
Health promoters have been unable to reach and engage people on social media (SM) to the extent that food industry brands and lifestyle personalities have. The objective of this study was to identify the SM post strategies associated with higher engagement in nutrition and food-related posts using a retrospective content analysis. The six most engaging posts from both Facebook and Instagram's 10 most successful nutrition and food-related accounts were analysed across four fields. Subjective and objective post strategies were coded on 736 posts, and associations with engagement were explored using the Least Absolute Shrinkage and Selection Operator (LASSO). Lifestyle personalities recorded the highest absolute engagement, while health promoters recorded the highest engagement relative to follower count. Strategies associated with higher Facebook engagement included using hashtags and prompting engagement through announcements, while on Instagram, higher engagement was associated with higher caption counts, providing health information links, prompting engagement through strategies that require an action, and using humorous strategies. Strategies associated with lower Instagram engagement included reposted content, general encouragement to eat strategies, encouragement to exercise strategies, not inducing any emotion/hedonic sensations, and providing a negative tone. Health promoters should adapt SM posts to the different SM platforms and utilise strategies associated with higher engagement to engage with their audience on SM.
Alibaba vs. The World'', Instutional Investor
  • Allen T Cheng
Cheng, Allen T. (2017), "Alibaba vs. The World'', Instutional Investor, July 25, [available at https://goo.gl/9BDqEp ]
Together we can thwart the big-tech data grab
  • John Harris
Harris, John (2019), "Together we can thwart the big-tech data grab. Here's how", The Guardian, January 7, (accessed January 15, 2019) [available at https://goo.gl/tVUrMM] "List of Vk Users", Vk.com, (accessed 8 March 2018), [available at https://vk.com/catalog.php]
Amazon's HQ2 Hunger Games Are Over, and Jeff Bezos Won'', Wired Magazine
  • Louise Matsakis
Matsakis, Louise (2018), "Amazon's HQ2 Hunger Games Are Over, and Jeff Bezos Won'', Wired Magazine, November 13, (accessed January 3, 2019) [available at https://goo.gl/AJq2bU]
Platform Capitalism. Cambridge and Malden
  • Nick Srnicek
Srnicek, Nick (2016), Platform Capitalism. Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press.
Was Amazon's Headquarters Contest a Bait and Switch? Critics Say Yes'', The New York Times
  • David Streitfeld
Streitfeld, David (2018), "Was Amazon's Headquarters Contest a Bait and Switch? Critics Say Yes'', The New York Times, November 6, (accessed December 14, 2018) [available at https://goo.gl/8tKypU]
The Platform Society: Public Values in a Connective World
  • Van Dijck
  • Thomas José
  • Poell
  • Martjin De Waal
Van Dijck, José, Thomas Poell and Martjin de Waal (2018), The Platform Society: Public Values in a Connective World. Oxford University Press "Vk.com Site Traffic Statistics", Alexa Internet, (accessed January 7, 2019), [available at https://goo.gl/5qE36y]