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The App Is Not The Territory | Karen ann Donnachie & andy simionato

Some of us may still remember the Internet before its upgrade cycle, before it needed the retronym ‘Web 1.0’. This was a period, beginning in the final years of the 1980’s and lasting around 2 decades, which was built on HTML and driven by the exchange of emails. A period in the history of the Internet which Castell described as a space of flows rather than a space of places.

The mid 00s marked the beginning of the end of this period, signalled by the arrival of a number of social media apps which acted with the same naïve destruction of any colonising force. Many of these social media platforms have succumbed, but each has been replaced with an endless scroll of promise of some new ‘connected’ community, which remained just beyond thumb's reach. The ‘surfers’ of the Internet were replaced by ‘influencers’ and their ‘followers’. These new platforms have altered the way we gather, share and communicate our stories. Web 2.0 was soon founded on the spoils of these social media users’ data. At its most insidious this version of the Web introduced what has been called surveillance capitalism (and its extractive strategies) while also allowing for the evolution of new complex ecosystems of intermingled relations.

As artists we began questioning if and how to engage with and through these platforms. We built a (virtual) geoCities ‘loft’ for our two (real) cats, called Fanny and Alexander. We started mySpace and later Facebook pages, with mixed feelings, and owned property in Secondlife.

We were negotiating new terms for how we could gather and relate with each other, which felt good. But we also sensed there was something else at play, which remained hidden from sight and yet influenced those interactions. If these platforms could offer such sophisticated outcomes for a fraction of the effort required to build our websites, why not embrace them for our creative activities?

Of course many of our friends did exactly that, the performances of Petra Cortright and Amalia Ulmann, the single-serve webworks of Raphaël Rozendaal and Angelo Plessas, the articulated projects of Oliver Laric and Harm Van den Dorpel, and the Internet surf clubs and art movements of artists like Miltos Manetas which brought these artists together and introduced them to wider audiences add details here

Yet from the perspective of digital publishing, we resisted publishing through the many social platforms of the time. Our reasons were varied, as we can outline below.

...

Departing from platform –ism

In order to present the thinking behind our resistance to publishing on or through the platform, and platformism in general, we need to consider these terms more closely.

The word ‘platform’ is derived from the same etymological origins as ‘plateau’. In a geographical context, a plateau is a contiguous plane with no other discerning topographical features, such as a mountain or valley. A plateau can be defined as a raised area or space where all of its constituent points form a homogenous plane which is equidistant from whatever lies outside, (or beyond?, or below?) the plateau itself.

Of course, the word ‘platform’ has since assumed additional meanings, from the space for boarding and descending from a train, to the political platform (both the physical stage itself, and the more abstract notion of an organisation of people and their guiding principles). Indeed, ‘platformism’ is a term associated with the anarcho-communist movements of the 1970s, which signifies the requirement of each member of an organisation to adhere strictly to the group’s manifesto. 

But what we are interested in here, is the use of the word ‘platform’ in the context of the Internet. Where it signifies both an electronic space designed to promote specific individual and social behaviours and activities of its ‘subscribers’ to each other. Together, these etymological roots of ‘platformism’ have become sufficiently entangled to allow a general usage which borrows from these earlier topographies while progressively adding to them.

Where is the Edge of the platform?

This has led to some misconceptions of the term platform, because the platform is not a unitary idea circumscribed by a single boundary (like a field surrounded by fences around its perimeter), but itself consists of a complex system of intersecting boundaries (like a field made up of fences).

Specifically, the platform functions as a field of boundaries through its use of the algorithm which defines every user by their relationship to every other user. This is sometimes referred to as the users’ ‘edge’.

Many platforms have developed some flavour of ‘Edge Ranking’, a complex descendent of Larry Page’s ‘Page Rank’ (a game-changing algorithm used in that early internet we were writing about in the introduction), which attempts to measure the ‘value’ of any given activity and promote it accordingly. There seems to be (at least) three significant common variables in the calculation, generally corresponding to notions of ‘affinity’, ‘weight’ and ‘decay’. 

Affinity measures the social proximity or connectedness of the User with any potential viewer or group thereof, weight gives value to authentic content and ‘creative labour’ over ‘reposts’ or second-hand activity, while decay factors in the time elapsed, giving precedence to the most recent actions within the platform. In this manner it is easy to see how so-called ‘bubbles’ quickly emerge at the hand of such algorithms, reinforcing smaller communities of like-minded users. These algorithms are supposedly for the Users, and their experience of the platform, as the resulting ‘feed’ is skewed toward recent significant posts from the heart of one’s social network, however this series of calculations is also gamed by social media marketeers, authors and artists exploiting these processes.

Together these intersecting boundaries define and reinforce a specific set of value systems, 

 at least three which may be of interest to our discussion:

Capital value | Social/political value | Cultural value

Capital value systems are most apparent in the exchange of goods and services made possible by either user-based initiatives, or as a direct result of monetization systems introduced by the platform which reward the clicking of advertisements or other behaviours desirable to the platform (Youtube, Facebook, Instagram all have a version of ‘adsales’).

Social and political value systems are embedded within the technological structures of each platform. Although varied in the methods of exchange and distribution of these values, each platform is driven by the exchange of human labour for social status (notably always within the platform, but we’ll return to this point later.)

Finally cultural value systems are at play, as the platform has been repeatedly called upon to function as a cultural archive. The use of Twitter by Mr. Trump in the years leading up to 2020 when his account was clamorously closed, with all the tweets published while he held tenure as the U.S.A president removed, is a useful example of the unwitting, and sometimes unwilling, role of the platform as a cultural archive, or cultural vacuum.

Certainly, each of these three methods of value distinction should be understood, as Groys tells us, as “an ideological fiction designed to justify the domination of certain institutions of power.” (Groys) Commodification of Rights - Discrimination - Disposability and Extraction - Dominance - Empathy - Incrementalism - Individualism - Myth of Objectivity- Surveillance - White Supremacy Culture. It is the edge which defines each of these (fictional) value systems.

The ‘edge’ is that invisible co-agentic hand which can tip the tables of our relationships on social media platforms. The promise of the platforms to publish users’ content, to broadcast their voice, to launch their images, to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” or “give power to create and share ideas and information instantly” is not as simple as the various platforms’ mission statements would suggest. The assumption that every user profile is made equal, and promoted with the same opportunities and affordances to reach their audience is a flimsy one. Social media platforms are swift to publish the number of users subscribed. However, the sorting algorithms within platforms are coded to produce uneven distribution of visibility in what has been called the marketplace of attention.

There is no password which will allow us to pass through or beyond the boundary of the platform, because it has no single boundary within which it is enclosed. There is no password which can act as a key to permit entry or exit, the platform has a zero dimensionality which contracts or expands according to the number of edges it holds. Or perhaps there are countless passwords, in the double-sense of a shibboleth; words which act as both key and lock to signify our belonging or exclusion from another’s “edge”. When we “sign” into our account we also authorise the platform to act on our behalf. The artist Constant Dullart has explored and problematised such notions of co-agentic authorship by publishing his Facebook password and inviting anyone to post on his behalf.

Is it possible to move beyond the internal logic and laws of a platform? How does signing onto social media’s platformism testify to our belonging? How can we write to this field of edges?

This is a magazine (about nothing)

When we first launched This is a magazine (about nothing) it was one of the first Flash-animated flip-books published on a rapidly growing Internet. It was read by artists, designers and creatives in diverse parts of the world, some of which would write to us and friendships were formed. To much of the community that formed around our little magazine, it seemed that the ‘old media’ represented by Conde Nast, and insert, but generally any publication on the newsstand, seemed ill-prepared to navigate the digital revolution playing out on the Internet in those years. After the first few issues, and several hundreds of thousands of unique downloads of the magazine, we also received offers for purchasing advertisements from a number of the fashion brands. Of course we were to young and proud to not see these offers as invitations to join those organisations we felt we were resisting. So naturally we declined. “This is a magazine about nothing”, we would write on our first page, “According to our marketing research you will probably not like it.” At the time, publishing in Italy was also a field of edges, made up of affinities, weights and decays. Indeed the project thrived for some 20 issues, and several printed volumes.

With the arrival of the social media platforms however we sensed that the time for experimental publications had passed. At least until now.1

So the platform prescribes a limit of meaning that cannot be exceeded, but these limits are not perimetric, but borders which we make up with our own presence, we prescribe and enforce the rules of conduct and behaviour through our actions. A panopticon where the inmates control each other.

The platform remains an aporia without passage. The platform has become an aporetic space which can "indicate a point of undecidability, which locates the site at which the text most obviously undermines its own rhetorical structure, dismantles, or deconstructs itself” (Derrida)


Notes

1. We are writing this short text for and within the ecosystem of “Platformism”— a collective term we use to refer to the mass adoption of apps and web apps, such as this shiny new platform of Art + Australia. This paper was first presented at the Electronic Literature Organisation, 2021. It has been updated and edited for Art+Australia 57.2.

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