🇬🇧 Platform Logic: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Platform-Based Economy

In September 2016, I attended an excellent academic conference, The Platform Society, arranged by the great people at Oxford University’s Internet Institute. My paper, presented there, was later re-worked into this article.

The concept of platforms has emerged in recent years as one of the most important concepts of the digital economy. In brief, my article concludes that digital platforms enact different types of governance, by recourse to three levels of observation: micro, meso, and macro.

  • In the minute, discrete interactions between platforms and users, micro-level forms of technocratic control are enabled.
  • On the level of platform interoperability (the meso level), a range of generative outcomes are supported.
  • In global aggregate, a macro-level mode of geopolitical domination is enabled.

Over at Oxford University’s Policy and Internet blog, you can read an interview with me about the article.

What’s the background to this article?

Digital platforms are not just software-based media, they are governing systems that control, interact, and accumulate. As surfaces on which social action takes place, digital platforms mediate — and to a considerable extent, dictate — economic relationships and social action. By automating market exchanges they solidify relationships into material infrastructure, lend a degree of immutability and traceability to engagements, and render what previously would have been informal exchanges into much more formalized rules.

Platforms enable a great number of new, seemingly rational and efficacious ways of organising society; but they are also based on an element of control, since users’ latitude is circumscribed by the computer code, and users are in many ways forced to adapt their behaviour to the interactions allowed for and prescribed by the platform owners.

A few platform-based corporations (Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft) have gained massive global influence, since not only users but also a long list of other societal actors have become dependent on the services provided by these global companies, including many smaller, upcoming platform companies.

How does my concept of “platform logic” become useful?

If one chooses to look at the discrete, often highly technical inter-platform affordances and connections, one will see generativity and scope for innovation. This is what is often focused on in the business press, and similar outlets, despite the fact that many economists would argue that our present era of digital development is less innovative than past ones.

If one chooses, instead, to look at the emerging transnational, geopolitical formations under platform capitalism, one will make an entirely different set of observations. Theorists like Nick Srnicek and Frank Pasquale have argued that platform capitalism begets historically unprecedented forms of economic domination.

Lastly, if one chooses to observe the very minutiae of platform interaction — the ways in which individuals and organisations adapt to the technical imperatives that the platforms as infrastructures implement, one will see that there is a strong form of technocracy involved. Researchers like Robyn Caplan and danah boyd have recently shown how this takes place in institutions, as different organisations adapt their ways of doing things so that they become more compatible with the existing platforms, and in order to emulate the alleged efficacy and agility of tech companies. I, myself, have argued that the epistemological convictions that are at the root of behavioural data-gathering companies such as Facebook, and the technical prescription exerted by the resulting infrastructures, might be much more rigid than many would think, steering also the operatives inside the platform corporations to an extent that we should not underestimate.

The interplay between these different mechanics (each one observable by using the attendant optic) can be neatly summarized by my concept of “platform logic.”

I argue that platform logic is both conforming to and distinct from pre-existing capitalist structural logics (Taylorism perhaps being the one closest at hand, something that was recently seized upon by Evgeny Morozov in his long review of Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism). Due to the digital nature of platforms, many tendencies already latent in capitalism (monopolism, colonialism, generativity) are exacerbated, while some altogether new tendencies can also be observed.

Platform power can be summarised as ‘the power to link facially separate markets and/or to constrain participation in markets by using technical protocols’ (Cohen 2016: 374). Data is generated, almost automatically, the very moment the infrastructure is used, enabling surveillance and various designs that utilize such data. This has primarily been discussed in relation to the distribution of ads and editorial content in the media sector, but has huge importance also for other industries. Further, digital platforms directly benefit from so-called network effects that make the platform exponentially more valuable as more people use it.

We already know that digital systems have the quality of being possible to scale, virtually endlessly. We also know that code is control, in the sense that events aboard platforms can be governed in absolute, binary ways; users and possibilities can be turned on or off. However, this hard logic of infrastructural control stands in tension with the softer, more generative potentials that are often observed as inherent to digitization; programmability, interoperability and so on. In other words, platforms are charged with a ‘paradoxical tension between the logic of generative and democratic innovations and the logic of infrastructural control’ (Eaton et al. 2015: 218). My concept of “platform logic” refers to this quite specific and, at times, paradoxical interplay that platform power results in.

Andersson Schwarz, J. (2017). Platform Logic: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Platform-Based Economy. Policy & Internet, 9(4): 374–394. DOI: 10.1002/poi3.159

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🇬🇧 Developing Platform Economies

Data-driven digital platforms have become a key organisational form, with vast economic interest and impact in contemporary societies.

Digital platforms – and, arguably, the underlying data-driven platform logic that they make part of – are having considerable impact on most levels of our daily lives, addressing both public and private sectors and either disrupting or integrating with various markets.

This calls for more scrutiny of the consequences of digital platform economies and what we in this report call platformisation, in particular as a component of the conditions for innovation and economic welfare. One key example is the relationship between global, large-scale tech companies and more traditional incumbents on various markets – or, for that matter, the relationship between said platform corporations and smaller, emerging startups that partially rely on the platform-based infrastructures controlled by these gargantuan platform corporations. Moreover, geopolitical and jurisdictional dependencies abound – for example the different policy landscapes in USA and the EU.

This brief anthology was intended to complement the publication of the Swedish anthology on platformisation, Plattformssamhället, that I edited together with Stefan Larsson, during the same year.

Larsson, S. & J. Andersson Schwarz (2018). Developing Platform Economies: A European policy landscape. Brussels: European Liberal Forum. ISBN 978-91-87379-51-2.

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🇸🇪 Plattformssamhället

Digitala plattformar har under de senaste åren seglat upp som ett av de mest centrala begreppen i den digitala ekonomin. Plattformar möjliggör mängder av nya, effektiva sätt att organisera samhället – men de bygger också på ett element av styrning, då mänskligt handlande måste anpassa sig efter datorkoden. En handfull plattformsbaserade företag (Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft) har fått enormt stort globalt inflytande, där inte bara användarna utan rader av andra samhällsaktörer har blivit beroende av tjänster från dessa giganter.

Samtidigt har de senaste åren rader av mindre företag dykt upp (många av dem nyetablerade så kallade startups, finansierade av riskkapital), vars affärsmodeller är baserade på olika typer av plattformar. Även många av dessa mindre plattformsföretag är i många avseenden beroende av dem.

Tillsammans med Stefan Larsson satte jag under 2018 ihop en antologi med syfte att samla flera kloka svenska röster i frågor relaterade till plattformsproblematiken. Publiceringen av antologin Plattformssamhället (Fores) i början av 2019 sammanföll i tid med den internationellt inflytelserika boken The Platform Society (Oxford University Press) av de holländska ledande forskarna José van Dijck, Thomas Poell och Martijn de Waal, som i synnerhet lyfter fram plattformarnas snabba framträdande inom olika områden som i Europa länge har varit offentligfinansierad verksamhet medan i USA är utpräglat privatägda (urban transport, nyhetsproduktion och dissemination, hälsovård och utbildning). Under hösten 2018 stod jag som extern reviewer av holländarnas bok, och arbetet med den svenska plattformsboken gynnades av denna internationella utblick.

Digitala plattformar kan få progressiva och rentav livsavgörande (goda) effekter – men kan likaledes användas för att kontrollera, manipulera och övervaka människor. De stora plattformsföretagen har global räckvidd, men det finns skäl att förutsätta att jurisdiktioner och politiska system förblir nationella. Häri ligger en rad utmaningar. Flera av dem berörs i boken.

Andersson Schwarz, J. & S. Larsson (red., 2019). Plattformssamhället: Den digitala utvecklingens politik, innovation och reglering. Stockholm: Fores.

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🇸🇪 Journalistikens roll i den nya medieekologin

Internetanvändningen har på kort tid kommit att domineras av en rad privatägda och annonsfinansierade digitala plattformar med stort inflytande världen över: Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, och så vidare. Påfallande stor del av medieanvändningen äger rum på eller i anslutning till plattformar av detta slag.

Detta faktum innebär ett nytt sammanhang och skapar en bakgrund till studiet av massmedier och journalistik som är viktig både vad beträffar strukturell analys (ekonomiska flöden, materiella förutsättningar, maktrelationer osv) och analys av villkoren för kunskapsproduktion i detta medielandskap (sanningsanspråk, problemformuleringsprivilegier, skildringsmonopol osv). Även medieorganisationer som inte aktivt verkar på dessa internetplattformar har kommit att påverkas, då de konkurrerar med dessa plattformar och med de medieorganisationer som är direkt aktiva på dem.

Mot bakgrund av detta tar jag i detta lärobokskapitel ett medieekologiskt perspektiv på journalistikens villkor i det samtida digitala medielandskapet. Genom att betrakta den sociala mediecirkulationen och den redaktionella mediecirkulationen som två distinkta system, vilka dock inte är separata utan ständigt sammankopplade och på många sätt hopflätade med varandra, kan vi bättre förstå villkoren för vår tids internetmedierade journalistik.

Andersson, J. (2019) Journalistikens roll i den nya medieekologin. I: M. Karlsson & J. Strömbäck (red.) Handbok i journalistikforskning. Lund: Stidentlitteratur. 409-422.

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🇬🇧 Heuristics of the Algorithm

As the cultural and media industries have developed into 21st century forms, where large aggregates of personal information (behavioural data) is mined in order to find patterns of correlations so that individuals and target groups can be identified, me and my co-author Göran Bolin explore some of the foundational heuristics that businesses have to rely upon.

We begin by contrasting 20th century audience statistics with those of the 21st century. 20th century intelligence on mass media audiences was founded on representative statistical samples, analysed by statisticians at the market departments of media corporations.

In the 21st century, an age of pervasive and ubiquitous personal media (e.g. laptops, smartphones, credit cards/swipe cards and radio-frequency identification), techniques for aggregating user data build on large aggregates of information (Big Data) analysed by algorithms that transform data into commodities.

While the former technologies were built on socio-economic variables such as age, gender, ethnicity, education, media preferences (i.e. categories recognisable to media users and industry representatives alike), Big Data technologies register consumer choice, geographical position, web movement, and behavioural information in technologically complex ways that for most lay people are too abstract to appreciate the full consequences of.

The data mined for pattern recognition privileges relational rather than demographic qualities. We argue that the agency of interpretation at the bottom of market decisions within media companies nevertheless introduces a ‘heuristics of the algorithm’, where the data inevitably has to be translated into social categories.

In the paper we argue that although the promise of algorithmically generated data is often implemented in automated systems where human agency gets increasingly distanced from the data collected (it is our technological gadgets that are being surveyed, rather than us as social beings), one can observe a felt need among media users and among industry actors to ‘translate back’ the algorithmically produced relational statistics into ‘traditional’ social parameters. The tenacious social structures within the advertising industries work against the techno-economically driven tendencies within the Big Data economy.

Bolin, G. & J. Andersson Schwarz (2015). Heuristics of the Algorithm: Big Data, User Interpretation and Institutional Translation. Big Data & Society, 2(2): 1–12. DOI: 10.1177/2053951715608406

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