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, when we were building in HTML and the exchange of emails was still a novelty. A period in the history of the Internet which Castell described as a space of flows rather than a space of places.2
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, always remaining just beyond thumb's reach, of course. The ‘surfers’ of the Internet were replaced by ‘influencers’ and their ‘followers’ as these new platforms altered the way we gather, share and communicate. Web 2.0 was soon founded on the spoils of social media users’ data, introducing what has been called surveillance capitalism (along with its various extractive strategies) while also allowing for the evolution of new complex ecosystems of intermingled relations.
From as early as the mid-1990s, we began questioning if and how to engage with and through these platforms. We purchased computers, and built a (virtual) geoCities ‘SoHo loft’, we started various mySpace and later Facebook pages, we staked out some property in SecondLife, all with that heady mixture of bemusement and excitement to be negotiating new ways to gather and commune. All the while sensing there was something else at play, which remained hidden from sight, and yet influenced those early interactions in virtual space. But this unease wasn’t sufficient to deter us from using these platforms to produce sophisticated outcomes for a fraction of the effort required to build our earlier websites. So why were we resisting embracing these templated utopias of Web 2.0?
Departing from platform –ism
So just what is it that makes today’s platforms so different, so appealing?
The word ‘platform’ is derived from the same etymological origins as ‘plateau’. Geographically speaking, a plateau is a contiguous plane with no other discerning topographical features.
The word ‘platform’ has assumed additional meanings of course; it can mean the space for boarding and descending from a train, or it can refer to a 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, and signifies the requirement of each member of an organisation to adhere strictly to the group’s manifesto.
Yet the specific use of the word ‘platform’ in the context of the Internet signifies an electronic space designed to promote specific individual and social behaviours and activities of its ‘subscribers’.
These etymological roots (the topological plateau, the political platform, the social platform) have become sufficiently entangled to allow a general usage which has led to some misconceptions around the term. To begin with, the platform (and its implied behaviour of platformism) is not a unitary idea. It should not be imagined as a single space circumscribed by a boundary (like a field surrounded by a fence), but rather is itself made up of a complex system of intersecting boundaries (like a field made up of intersecting fences).
Through the use of algorithms, the social media platform defines and monitors the relationships of every user to every other user. These relationships are collectively referred to as the users’ ‘edge’, a hierarchical and deterministic system which ‘ranks’ every transaction of data (images, texts, and their associated reactions) within the platform.
The grandfather of almost every form of contemporary ‘Edge Ranking’ used in social media today is Larry Page’s ‘Page Rank’. This game-changing algorithm contributed to the nascent Web 1.0 by attempting to assign a ‘value’ to any given web-page and promote it accordingly to the network.
Of course, the day-to-day manifestation of a user’s generated edge is ‘simply’ a steady ‘feed’ of posts algorithmically-curated from their network and occasionally beyond. Beneath the surface this algorithm also influences how an individual’s edge intersects the edges of all other users. It defines and reinforces specific value systems within the platform. These include, but are not limited to, systems of capital value, social/political value, and cultural value.
It has become fashionable to imagine our interactions on social media as forming ‘bubbles’ through the evolution of such ‘edge ranking’ algorithms. We’re aware of the very real-world effects of recursively reinforcing communities of like-minded online users. With the potential for both emancipatory and destructive outcomes.
The ‘edge’ is that invisible hand which can imperceptibly but surely tip the tables of our relationships in and through social media platforms. Platforms often promise to publish users’ words and images to the world, broadcasting the user’s unique voice in order to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” or “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers”.3 These hyperbolic mission statements elide the fact that not every user profile is made equal. Not all posts are published with the same opportunities and affordances to reach their intended audience. The sorting algorithms within platforms are coded to produce uneven distributions of visibility for their users in what has been called the marketplace of attention.4
The App is not the Territory
The social media platform is not so evenly distributed after all. The platform is not a plateau. It does not even have a clear boundary distinguishing it from the surrounding world, but instead is made up of a series of intersecting boundaries and edges which are more or less arbitrarily constructed to reinforce certain value systems and beliefs.
A map, like a social media platform, uses artificial reduction through its use of lines, shapes and colours to illustrate the relationship between regions considered of political or geographic importance. Like a social media platform, the map is often represented as a single cohesive body, originally a sheet of paper divided into a grid of cartesian coordinates.
We can project a neighbourhood, city, an entire region, even the world itself, onto the utopic rectangle of a map.5 Like our social media and its governing algorithms, a map is a kind of platform (made of paper, made of pixels) made up of countless intersecting edges which represent every relationship between every point it contains.
In an earlier version of this discussion, we shared our collection of found images of cars which had been inadvertently driven into lakes, rivers, and empty fields. These accidents are caused by the drivers’ blind trust in their automobile’s satellite navigation system. The comic outcomes also represent a real-world consequence of mistaking the map (on the navigation system’s computer window) for the territory (as seen through the automobile's window).
Just as it can be hazardous for us to confuse a map for the territory it represents, we must be wary not to confuse a social media platform for the human relationships from which it is constructed. Which is to say, let’s look up every now and then.