Posts Tagged ‘social media’

Critical Studies of Social Media

April 13, 2012

Here is an attempt to lay out  my research in social media (approach, methodology, philosophical assumptions), and formulate my framework –  “Critical Studies of Social Media.”

This approach is a meta-synthesis, critical-interpretive approach to the analysis of structures and discourses of social media. My research paradigm (Cresswell, 2009) is prescriptive and normative, meaning I often analyze how things are and how they should be, offering recommendations based on my research and analysis. My philosophical worldview is advocacy/participatory, which indicates that the research is driven by an “action agenda” to reform or change the world in which people are marginalized or disempowered (ibid).

My methodology is interdisciplinary; I pragmatically draw on a broad range of scholarship in critical theory (e.g., political economy of the digital culture industries), communication studies, computer mediated communication, linguistics, education studies, political science (political philosophy, democratic theory, Internet governance studies), applied ethics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and linguistics.

The framework that best describes my research is “Critical Studies of Social Media,” which includes: (1) critical theories, (2) actual uses, effects, and affordances, (3) the digital ecosystem, and (4) a values-based approach:

1) Critical studies is based on critical theories, especially political economy of ICT, and theories of hegemony, power, dominance, commodification, and exploitation, generally. Critical theories are used to evaluate the conflict of interest between industrial logic and user needs (e.g., prosumer commodification), and to help explain and identify underlying market forces of privatization, deregulation, and commercialization.

2) Theory is useful when combined with empirical studies of affordances, actual uses, and effects of technology by users/citizens/communities. Recognition of affordances supports the social shaping of technology perspective; designers and users shape the online world, who are in turn shaped via social media (e.g., identities, sociality, and relational patterns). Recognizing the cultural aspects of social media (norms, practices, values, and attitudes) helps identify the user’s role in shaping social media, as well as underscore potential benefits and limitations of social media use in daily life.

Potential benefits may include:

  • communication power for social and political change
  • a digital commons as a counterweight to the abuse of government and corporate power on the Internet (free and open source technologies, platforms, and services)
  • information literacy for self empowerment and civic engagement  (direct democracy)
  • open education
  • distributed citizen-focused news gathering and reporting
  • enhanced creative expression (peer production, user-generated, collaborative)
  • economic development and human welfare

Potential limitations (constraints on freedom of expression and user autonomy):

  • informational privacy and data mining
  • government surveillance of social media
  • Internet filtering and blocking
  • commodification of participation as labor
  • copyright extremism
  • market dominance (vendor lock-in, user dependency, rival exlusion)
  • information silos and walled gardens due to personalization services (closed internet)
  • harmful social impacts including: discrimination, social stratification, and inequality within social media spaces based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, nationality

3) The digital ecosystem is a conceptual and analytic framework for analyzing and describing potential and existing relationships and interactions between Internet technologies, platforms, and services. A multi-layered stratified view of the Internet (e.g., Benkler-Lessig model of physical layer, code layer, and content layer – among many other models) takes into account infrastructure, socio-technical designs of services and how they interact (e.g., interoperability), ownership, conglomeration, governance (ICANN), regulatory and legal contexts.

4) Guiding my study of social media are underlying values based on human rights and democratic principles including: privacy, right to assemble and associate, freedom of expression and opinion, digital equality and inclusion, freedom of speech and the press, government transparency, and a new media environment that encourages “uninhibited, robust, and wide open” (Sullivan, 376 U. S. at 256, 265) communication for civic engagement, information exchange, and creative self expression. Ultimately, a values-based approach theorizes emancipatory practices of social media design in support of a “people centered, inclusive and development-oriented information society for all” (WSIS, 2005).

This framework, “Critical Studies of Social Media” (1) critical theories, (2) actual uses, effects, and affordances, (3) the digital ecosystem, and (4) a values-based approach, can be seen in most of my writings available on my professional website and on my page.

A good example of applying the critical studies of social media framework is found in my recent article, “Regimes of Sharing: Open APIs, Interoperability, and Facebook” published in the fourth Association of Internet Researchers special issue of Information, Communication, and Society, and reprinted in the German critical reader on Facebook, Generation Facebook: Über das Leben im Social Net (Verlag, 2011). The article looks closely at the privacy implications of sharing among social media and third party websites, especially the attempts by Facebook to achieve interoperability at the cost of maintaining users’ fixed online identities.

Critical Theory – critical political economic analysis explains the market logic and incentives for asymmetrical interoperability among social networks and third party websites and applications. Additionally, political economy helps to identify the push and pull between market dominance and competition. Theories of user exploitation and commodification of social labor (prosumers) illuminate company values behind sharing that conflict with users’ needs, rights, and freedoms. Identifying discourses that support the cultural norms of sharing are also helpful in this analysis.

Uses, effects, affordances – empirical analysis of interoperability explains how data is shared between Facebook and its third-party vendors. The effects of interoperability on data integrity and informational privacy become evident with an analysis of the technical affordances of Open APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that enable sharing among sites and services online. Cultural practices of sharing and network effects are also taken into consideration.

Digital Ecosystem – the interrelation and interaction of the dominant social network Facebook and its third party ecosystem helps to identify how technologically enabled and regulated forms of interoperability create dependency among vendors (third party applications and websites). Mutual dependency and symbiosis are two features that characterize the ecosystemic relationships between the SNS and its online partners.

Values – the values of informational privacy, user autonomy, and freedom guide this analysis and critique, and indicate how users and designers can change the underlying conditions for sharing in emerging social networks sites.

[For a great introduction to the theories and methods of a critical communication scholar that influenced me a great deal is Herbert Schiller by Richard Maxwell.]

Social media revolution coverage overview

July 11, 2009

image2aRecent appraisals of using social media for social change have been on an accelerated track. Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, etc are claimed to be either aiding or hurting democratic participation and free speech. The pattern of appraisal seems to start with hype, refutation, following with reasoned reassessment. For example, the hype – Thomas Friedman’s “The Virtual Mosque” NYTimes op/ed (June 16), refutation – Jeremy Scahill’s blog post and Tweets taking to task  Friedman’s piece (June 16), and the reassessment – Teharani’s piece in GlobalVoices. Sometimes this pattern can be observed over one person’s responses – i.e. Shirky’s initial excitement over social media as a social force, and his support of Twitter’s use in Iran’s post election demonstrations, and his reversal based on new data (see: Will Heaven’s piece in UK Telegraph). Teharani points out, as do others (Evegeny Morozov and Patronus Analytical), that there could be important limitations to social media use, as well as opportunities. To sum/crib Teharani:

1-Communication tool for reformists leaders Twitter and Facebook along with reformist websites such as Ghlamnews help communicate the decisions of reformist leaders and pass on the message.

2-Closing the gap between Iran and the world Iranian tweets reached thousands around the world and by following and re-tweeting people get involved.

3-Twitter does not organize demonstrations: Reformist leaders and their supporters make decisions to organize protests and they communicate it through different means.

4-Tweets can misinform people: either through reflex/impulse retweets or through malicious infiltration and disinformation (see Patronus Analytical for more on this).

5-Tweeting is recycling news and tips Information pool -most people tweet what they read on websites, and have also shared useful tips and information to help Iranians circumvent internet filtering and censorship.

6-Misunderstanding the sender: Sometimes tweet information form online sources without checking the facts, or without mentioning any references.

7-Activism and agendas: Most Iranians who tweet are activists supporting the protest movement and promoting a cause. Their information should be double-checked and not be accepted at face value.

Another important reassessment is Ted Friedman’s Tweeting the Dialectic of Technological Determinsm , which recognizes and responds to the unmistakeable US hype over Twitter’s social media revolution, attributing it to technological determinism or “a familiar American narrative of technological utopianism, in which hopes for social and political transformation become attached to the promise of new technologies.” Friedman gives a balanced view first looking at the benefits of cyber utopianism, which “momentarily transcend immediate pragmatic concerns” helping imagine new possibilities and a “radically different future.” But he also looks at the dangers of technological utopianism, which can “simply replace military utopianism as a self-serving imperial fantasy;” that democratic change cannot simply happen through military or technological means. The dialectic, then, is to “distinguish cybertopian hopes from the messier reality, without giving short shrift to either.” Well stated.