Sequential lockdowns and the grinding threat of the pandemic amplifies the role of digital and social media in organizing, grounding, and framing our social and lived experiences, as well as the complexities of what digital social life means. To really interrogate this question means balancing a series of paradoxes. On one hand, big tech and social platforms from Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram) to Google lead the way in exploitative data mining reshaping not only digital infrastructures but also grossly capitalistic practices, as articulated in important work on data colonialism, surveillance capitalism and anti-social social media. Regulatory bodies and national socio-legal systems scramble to keep up and are often left behind by perpetual innovations and tech developments. On the other hand, social and connective media are at the heart of social connection. Small acts of engagement, such as sharing and liking on social media (Picone et al. 2019) make up new kinds of creative and civic expression. Meaningful social interaction are also centred in and through these sites.
Thus, social media are simultaneously deeply personal and public, emancipatory and exploitative, social and individual. While often positioned as oppositional, these aspects of social digital life must be understood together, not as polarities but as synchronous aspects of lived experience. I argue that we need to understand social media as the infrastructures of everyday life, recognizing that they often involve a kind of double-sided connection, both structural and agentic.
For example, the capacity for social media to reduce barriers to public and social participation work in both pro-social and anti-social ways. Anatoliy Gruzd and Philip Mai, for example, mapped the growth of a Twitter trend where people posted pictures of empty hospitals with ‘#FilmYourHospital’, intended to undermine the legitimacy of Coronavirus public health measures as part of a larger conspiracy to control populations (2020). Becca Lewis documents ultra-conservative and racist communities on YouTube, resulting in densely connective ‘alternative influencer networks’ (2018). Regardless of their pro or anti-social orientation, platforms monetize these kinds of participatory behaviours, and thus, have an economic incentive to take a hands-off approach to content.
Related to this, regulation of social media platforms is out of step with the contours of digital social life. Social media, for example, also enable interpersonal abuses like bullying, harassment and, trolling as well as market abuses like whitelisting preferred customers, strangling competition (e.g. DCMS 2019) and relentless datafication of users through persuasive design and platformization. Yet taking formal or legal action against perpetrators and platforms is often prevented by laws and policies designed for the 20th century.
Take for example ‘revenge porn’ or non-consensual image sharing of nude or explicit material of (mostly) women by (mostly) men. In the UK, sharing private or sexually graphic images of someone else, without their consent and to cause embarrassment or distress was legislated as a ‘new offence’ in 2015, Prior to this, it was difficult to prosecute such abuse and many victims found themselves without legal recourse. Although there is some progress, legislative change is slow and unsystematic illustrating the lag between online and offline norms and rules. Related to this, it is not just abuse of adults that is at stake. Regulations of online harms to children and of children’s online content is also out of step. For example, children’s content represents 26% of the most viewed videos on YouTube, yet there are virtually no effective systems in place for monitoring this content, (aside from reactive moderation which relies on user’s making complaints about specific content). Indeed, it is only in February of 2021 that children’s rights, for the first time, ‘must be respected, protected and fulfilled in the digital environment’ (United Nations 2021). This recognition is the result of coordinated effort by child rights advocates, lawyers and academics that has been years in the making. Finally, another major example is related to platforms themselves, particularly digital antitrust and monopolization. Despite the quickly expanding body of evidence that Facebook and Google aggressively target competitors (see Six4Three findings on data strangling and preferential data access, DCMS 2019), the UK has only just launched its first platform regulator on April 7 2021. This new watchdog, the Digital Markets Unit, aims to regulate platforms to ‘give consumers more choice and control over their data, promote online competition and crack down on unfair practices’ all of which lead to ‘broader social harms’ (DCMS 2021).
While each of these examples show how socio-legal and regulatory frameworks designed for the 20th century prevent the institution of rights and protections, they also demonstrate the power of platforms to directly and indirectly shape everyday life. It is also worth noting that although we can see important developments for dealing with big problems taking shape, these regulatory innovations are only in their infancy, so it is too soon to say how effectively these promising solutions will or can be implemented.
Finally, although platform business logics impact what and how we experience the digital, the pandemic and social distancing have amplified the role of social and digital media in the lives of many. Digital connection, as instantiated through memes, selfies, text and video chat, have all become central modes of self-expression and social interaction. Thus, while memes or likes or shares may seem to be just content, they also make up platforms and digital social life not only through the visible points of digital contact but also through their contributions to platform growth. Meme sharing, for example, can be funny and entertaining, yet also allows users to feel a sense of belonging as well as engaging in larger public conversations. Yet, as we know from ‘shadow profiles’, ‘people you may know’ and ‘discover’ features on social media, data about non-users is extracted from users’ address books, photo albums, emails and many other kinds of data. Thus, what feels like social sharing and self-expression to many users is also about data collection from both users and non-users. For shadow users, infrastructural datafication is coerced, without any of the pleasure users might experience through connective activities like meme sharing, liking, and/or linking.
All of these examples show how platforms shape our social experiences and not only how we connect to others, but also how those connections make up digital structures. These platforms also facilitate existing and new connections for both pro and anti-social purposes. Yet, when connection is the default operating principle of our digital lives, opting out does not always feel possible, and now, with aggressive platform data extraction practices and the pandemic’s strict offline limitations, it feels even more impossible. To leverage the full social potential of unsociable platforms, these conditions must be challenged and rewritten. We must recognize the social importance of social media not only as infrastructures of but also for everyday life.
Dr Zoetanya Sujon is a Senior Lecturer and the Programme Director for Communications and Media at London College of Communication (LCC), University of the Arts London. Before joining LCC in 2018, Zoetanya was a Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at Regent’s University London and lecturer/Fellow in Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she completed her PhD. Zoetanya is the author of ‘The Social Media Age’ (April 2021), which examines the cultural and political dimensions of social media in everyday life. Zoetanya has also published in leading media journals such as New Media and Society, Social Media + Society, and the International Journal of Communication.
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Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). 2021. New watchdog to boost online competition launches. Gov.UK, April 7, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-watchdog-to-boost-online-competition-launches–3
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