We’re proud to announce the special issue of Social Media & Society, vol. 1 no. 2, curated by and drawing its contributions from Culture Digitally. Culture Digitally and Social Media & Society are, we like to think, cut from the same fabric. For five years now, we have endeavored to gather scholars and practitioners who explore the myriad ways in which societies, organizations, and individuals engage networked communication technologies, and the practices, cultures, and imaginaries that emerge around them. We see Social Media & Society as also seeking a new approach to these challenges, one complementary to the path we have taken with Culture Digitally. So we were honored when we were asked to help assemble a special issue in the journal’s formative moments. This post, and a handful of others this week, will point you to some of the amazing work available in this issue.
How should we study platforms on platforms that connect platforms? Anne Helmond [“The Platformization of the Web: Making Web Data Platform Ready”] makes a compelling case for why we must look much more deliberately at the features and functions of social media platforms – not the menu options users fiddle with, but the technical arrangements that define and redefine the workings of social media itself. She focuses on what she calls the “platformization” of the web: when large-scale social media sites developed APIs so that other sites and services could interact, not at the level of the interface that users see, but as tools that function astride each other, or allow one site to query another’s data and then incorporate that data into their service. From games and widgets that function on or in partnership with Facebook, to the circulation of “likes” and like counts between Facebook and other websites, Helmond classifies these technical intersections and makes a case that this material change has redesigned the web itself.
In addition to digging more deeply into the technical infrastructure of social media, Noortje Marres and David Moats [“Mapping Controversies with Social Media: The case for Symmetry”] suggest that we might benefit from tracking backwards from how they shape controversies to understand the cultural footprint of social media. They propose revisiting the “controversy analysis” approach familiar to the field of STS. By doing so, researchers could “pay equal attention to the ways in which a digital platform like Twitter mediates public issues, and to how controversies mediate “social media” as an object of public attention.”
While many of our Culture Digitally scholars examine social media in order to revisit fundamental ideas about and approaches to technology and sociality, others are teasing out the tensions between the sometimes progressive goals of social media users and the commercial imperatives of the platforms on which they depend. Robert Gehl [“The Case for Alternative Social Media”] calls on social media scholars to pay greater attention to “alternative social media,” platforms and tools designed deliberately to sidestep some of the commitments required of mainstream social media platforms: business models that depend on advertising and the exhaustive collection of data, platforms whose workings and governance are closed to users. These alternatives may more powerfully meet the ideals articulated by alternative media theory and decades-long efforts to expand public and local involvement in traditional media production – that the mainstream social media platforms meet to a much lesser degree.