Oct 052016

If you’ve been following my blog today you will know that I’m in Berlin for the Association of Internet Researchers AoIR 2016 (#aoir2016) Conference, at Humboldt University. As this first day has mainly been about workshops – and I’ve been in a full day long Digital Methods workshop – we do have our first conference keynote this evening. And as it looks a bit different to my workshop blog, I thought a new post was in order.

As usual, this is a live blog post so corrections, comments, etc. are all welcomed. This session is also being videoed so you will probably want to refer to that once it becomes available as the authoritative record of the session. 

Keynote: The Platform Society – José van Dijck (University of Amsterdam) with Session Chair: Jennifer Stromer-Galley

We are having an introduction from Wolfgang (?) from Humboldt University, welcoming us and noting that AoIR 2016 has made the front page of a Berlin newspaper today! He also notes the hunger for internet governance information, understanding, etc. from German government and from Europe.

Wolfgang: The theme of “Internet Rules!” provides lots of opportunities for keynotes, discussions, etc. and it allows us to connect the ideas of internet and society without deterministic structures. I will now hand over to the session chair Cornelius Puschmann.

Cornelius: It falls to me to do the logistical stuff… But first we have 570 people registered for AoIR 2016  so we have a really big conference. And now the boring details… which I won’t blog in detail here, other than to note the hashtag list:

  • Official: #aoir2016
  • Rebel: #aoir16
  • Retro: #ir17
  • Tim Highfield: #itisthesevebeenthassociationofinternetresearchersconferenceanditishappeningin2016

And with that, and a reminder of some of the more experimental parts of the programme to come.

Jennifer: Huge thanks to all of my colleagues here for turning this crazy idea into this huge event with a record number of attendees! Thank you to Cornelius, our programme chair.

Now to introduce our speaker… Jose van Dijck, professor at the University of Amsterdam as well as visiting work across the world. She is the first woman to hold the Presidency of the Royal Academy of Arts, Science and Research in The Netherlands. Her most recent book is the Culture of Connectivity: A History of Social Media. It takes a critical look back at social media and social networking, not only as social spaces but as business spaces. And her lecture tonight will give a preview of her forthcoming work on the Public Values in a Platform Society.

Jose: It is lovely to be here, particularly on this rather strange day…. I became President of the Royal Academy this year and today my colleague won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry – so instead of preparing for my keynote today I was dealing with press inquiries, so it is nice to focus back on my real job…

So a few years ago Thomas Poell wrote an article on the politics of social platforms. His work on platforms inspired my work on networked platforms being interwoven into an ecology economically and socially. Since I wrote that book, the last chapter is on platforms, many of which have now become the main players… I talked about Google (now Alphabet), Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, LinkedIn (now owned by Microsoft), Apple… And since then we’ve seen other players coming in and creating change – like Uber, AirBnB, Coursera. These platforms have become the gateways to our social life… And they have consolidated and expanded…

So a Platform is an online site that deploys automated technologies and business models to organise data streams, economic interactions, and social exchanges between users of the internet. That’s the core of the social theory I am using. Platforms ARE NOT simple facilitators, and they are not stand alone systems – they are interconnected.

And a Platform Ecosystem is an assemblage of networked platforms, governed by its own dynamics and operating on a set of mechanisms…

Now a couple of years ago Thomas and I wrote about platform mechanisms and the very important idea of “Datafication”. Commodification – a platform’s business model and governance defines the way in which datafied information is transformed into (economic, societal) value. There are many business models and many governance models – they vary but governance models are maybe more important than business models, and they can be hard to pin down. Selection are about data flows filtered by algorithms and bots, allowing for automated selection such as personalisation, rankings, reputation. Those mechanisms are not visible right now, and we need to make those explicit so that we can talk about them and their implications. Can we hold Facebook accountable for Newsfeed in the ways that traditional media are accountable? That’s an important question for us to consider…

The platform ecosystem is not a level playing field. They are gaining traction not through money but through the number of users. And network effects mean that user numbers are the way we understand the size of the network. There is Platformisation (thanks Anna?) across sectors… And that power is gained through cross ownership and cross platform, but also through true architecture and shared platforms. In our book we’ll give both private and public sectors and how they are penetrated by platform ecosystems. We used to have big oil companies, or big manufacturing companies… But now big companies operate across sectors.

So transport for instance… Uber is huge, partly financed by Google and also in competition with Google. If we look at News as a sector we have Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, etc. they are also used as content distribution and aggregators for Google, Facebook, etc.

In health – a second becoming most proliferated – we see fitness and health apps, with Google and Apple major players here. And in your neighbourhood there are apps available, some of these are global apps localised to your neighbourhoods, sitting alongside massive players.

In Education we’ve seen the rise of Massive Online Open Courses, with Microsoft and Google investing heavily alongside players like EdX, Coursera, Udacity, FutureLearn, etc.

All of the sectors are undergoing platformisation… And if you look across them all, all areas of private and public life the activity is revolving around the big five: Google, Facebook. Apple, Amazon, with LinkedIn and Twitter also important. And take, for example, AirBnB

Platform society is a society which social, economic and interpersonal traffic is largely channeled by an (overwhelmingly corporate) global online platform ecosystem that is driven by algorithms and fuelled by data. That’s not a revolution, it’s something we are part of and see every day.

Now we have promises of “participatory culture” and the euphoria of the idea of web 2.0, and of individuals contributing. More recently that idea has shifted to the idea of the “sharing economy”… But sharing has shifted in it’s meaning too. It is about sharing resources or services for some sort of fee, that’s a transaction based idea. And from 2015 we see awareness of the negative sides of the sharing economy. So a Feb 2015 Time cover read: “Strangers crashed my car, ate my food and wore my pants. Tales from the sharing economy” – about the personal discomfort of the downsides. And we see Technology Quarterly writing about “When it’s not so good to share” – from the perspective of securing the property we share here. But there is more at stake than personal discomfort…

We have started to see disruptive protest against private platforms, like posters against AirBnB. City Councils have to hire more inspectors to regulate AirBnB hosts for safety reasons – a huge debate in Amsterdam now, and the public values changing as a consequence of so many AirBnB hosts in this city. And there are more protests about changing values… Saying people are citizens not entrepreneurs, that the city is not for sale…

In another sector we see Uber protests, by various stakeholders. We see these from licenced taxi drivers, accusing them of safety issues and social values; but also protests by drivers. Uber do not call themselves a “transportation” company, instead calling themselves a connectivity company. Now Uber drivers have complained that Uber don’t pay insurance or pensions…

So, AirBnB and Uber are changing public values, they haven’t anchored existing values in their own design and development. There are platform promises and paradoxes here… They offer personalised services whilst contributing to the public good… The idea is that they are better at providing services than existing players. They promote community and connectedness whilst bypassing cumbersome institutions – based on the idea that we can do without big government or institutions, and without those values. These platforms also emphasize public values, whilst obscuring private gain. These are promises claiming that they are in the public interest… But that’s a paradox with hidden private gains.

And so how do we anchor collective, public values in a platform society and how do we govern this. ? has the idea of governance of platforms as opposed to governance by platforms. Our government is mainly concerned with governing platforms – regulations, privacy etc. and that is appropriate but there are public values like fairness, like accuracy, like safety, like privacy, like transparency, like democracy… Those values are increasingly being governed by platforms, and that governance is hidden from us in the algorithms and design decisions…

Who rules the platform society? Who are the stakeholders here? There are many platform societies of course, but who can be held accountable? Well it is an intense ideological battleground… With private stakeholders like (global) corporations, businesses, (micro-)entrepreneurs; consumer groups; consumers. And public stakeholders like citizens; co-ops and collectives, NGOs, public institutions, governments, supra-national bodies… And matching those needs up is never going to happen really…

Who uses health apps here? (many do) In 2015 there were 165,000 health apps in the Google Play store. Most of them promise personalised health and, whilst that is in the future, they track data… They take data right from individual to companies, bi-passing other actors and health providers… They manage a wide variety of data flows (patients, doctors, companies). There is a variety of business models, particularly unclear. There is a site called “Patients like me” which says that it is “not just for profit” – so it is for profit, but not just for profit… Data has become currency in our health economy. And that private gain is hiding behind the public good arguement. A few months ago in Holland we started to have insurance discounts (5%) if you send FitBit scores… But I thin the next step will be paying more if you do not send your scores… That’s how public values change…

Finally we have regulation – government should be regulating security, safety, accuracy, and privacy. It takes the Dutch FDA 6 months to check the safety and accuracy of one app – and if it is updated, you have to start again! In the US the US Dept of Health and Human Services, Office of National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a guide called “Developing a mobile health app?” providing guidance on which federal laws need to be followed. And we see not just insurance using apps, but insurance and healthcare providers having to buy data services from providers and that changing the impact of these apps. You have things like 23 and Me, and those are global – and raises global regulation issues – so hard to govern around that issue. But our platform ecosystem is transnational, and governments are national. We also see platforms coming from technology companies – Phillips was building physical kit, MRI machines, but it now models itself as a data company. What you see here is that the big five internet and technology players are also big players in this field – Google Health and 23 and Me (financed by Sergei Brin, run by his ex-wife), Apple HealthKit, etc. And even then you have small independent apps like mPower but they are distributed via the app stores, led by big players and again, hard to govern.


We used to build trust in society through institutions and institutional norms and codes, which were subject to democratic controls. But these are increasingly bi-passed… And that may be subtle but it is going uncontrolled. So, how can we build trust in a platformed world? Well, we have to understand who rules the platform ecosystem, and by understanding how it is governed. And when you look at this globally you see competing ideological hemispheres… You see the US model of commercial values, and those are literally imposed on others. And you have Yandex and the Chinese model, and that that’s an interesting model…

I think coming back to my main question: what do we do here to help? We can make visible how this platformised society works… So I did a presentation a few weeks ago and shared recommendations there for users:

  • Require transparency in platforms
  • Do not trade convenience for public values
  • Be vigilant, be informed

But can you expect individuals to understand how each app works and what its implications are? I think government have a key role to protect citizens rights here.

In terms of owners and developers my recommendations are:

  • Put long-term trust over short-term gain
  • Be transparent about data flows, business models, and governance structure
  • Help encode public values in platform architecture (e.g. privacy by design)

A few weeks back the New York Times ran an article on holding algorithms accountable, and I think that that is a useful idea.

I think my biggest recommendations are for governments, and they are:

  • Defend public values and common good; negotiate public interests with platforms. What it could also do is to, for instance, legislate to manage demands and needs in how platforms work.
  • Upgrade regulatory institutions to deal with the digital constellations we are facing.
  • Develop (inter)national blueprint for a democratic platform society.

And we, as researchers, we can help expose and share the platform society so that it is understaood and engaged with in a more knowledgeable way. Governments have a special responsibility to govern the networked society – right now it is a Wild West. We are struggling to resolve these issues, so how can we help govern the platforms to shape society, when the platforms themselves are so enormous and powerful. In Europe we see platforms that are mainly US-based private sector spaces, and they are threatening public sector organisations.. It is important to think about how we build trust in that platform society…


Q1) You talked about private interests being concealed by public values, but you didn’t talk about private interests of incumbents…

A1) That is important of course. Those protests that I mentioned do raise some of those issues – undercutting prices by not paying for insurance, pensions etc. of taxi drivers. In Europe those costs can be up to 50% of costs, so what do we do with those public values, how do we pay for this? We’ll pay for it one way or the other. The incumbents do have their own vested interests… But there are also social values there… If we want to retain those values though we need to find a model for that… European economic values have had collective values inscribed in… If that is outmoded, than fine, but how do we build those in in other ways…

Q2) I think in my context in Australia at least the Government is in cahoots with private companies, with public-private partnerships and security arms of government heavily benefitting from data collection and surveillance… I think that government regulating these platforms is possible, I’m not sure that they will.

A2) A lot of governments are heavily invested in private industries… I am not anti-companies or anti-government… My first goal is to make them aware of how this works… I am always surprised how little governments are aware of what runs underneath the promises and paradoxes… There is reluctance to work with companies from regulators but there is also exhaustion and a lack of understanding about how to update regulations and processes. How can you update health regulations with 165k health apps out there? I probably am an optimist… But I want to ensure governments are aware and understand how this is transforming society. There is so much ignorance in the field, and there is nievete about how this will play out. Yes, I’m an optimist. But no, there is something we can do to shape the direction that the platform society will develop.

Q3) You have great faith in regulation, but there are real challenges and issues… There are many cases where governments have colluded with industry to inflate the costs of delivery. There is the idea of regulatory capture. Why should we expect regulators to act in public interest when historically they act in the interest of private companies.

A3) It’s not that I put all my trust there… But I’m looking for a dialogue with whoever is involved in this space, in the contested play of where we start… It is one of many actors in this whole contested battlefield. I don’t think we have the answers, but it is our job to explain the underlying mechanisms… And I’m pretty shocked by how little they know about the platforms and the underlying mechanisms there. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start… But you have to make a start somewhere…

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