SOCIAL INTERMEDIARIES AND THE LOCATION OF AGENCY: A Conceptual Reconfiguration of Web 2.0 and Social Network Sites
#FAILThe submitted abstract evolved into two different papers(and today I will talk about one of them)
SOCIAL INTERMEDIARIES AND THELOCATION OF AGENCYA Conceptual Reconﬁguration of Web 2.0 and Social Network Sites
Who’s talking?Martin BergPhD in Sociology 2008, Lund University, SwedenSenior Lecturer in Sociology, Halmstad University, Sweden(Corporate) Senior Researcher at Good Old with ﬁnancialsupport from the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation (3year post-doc project)
What’s the problem here?During the last few years, the internet and its various applicationsand services have undergone dramatic changes in terms of theirsocial functions and positionsA vast array of attempts to interpret the social turn in the(contemporary) history of the internet: a mixture of web 2.0business manifestos (van Dijck & Nieborg 2009) and academicresearchDespite increasing interpretive efforts, there is spectre ofconceptual confusion haunting internet studies and an adjustednomenclature is clearly needed
Contemporary accounts of Web2.0/SNS simply love interactivityContemporary accounts of Web 2.0 and Social Network Sites (SNS)often depart from descriptions and analyses of front-endcharacteristics and their assumed functionalityIt is often argued that Web 2.0 and SNS allow for an increased levelof interactivity while simultaneously facilitating creative processes ofvarious kinds (user-generated content as the motor of Web 2.0)Web 2.0 can be regarded as ‘dynamic matrices of informationthrough which people observe others, expand the network, makenew ”friends”, edit and update content, blog, remix, post, respond,share ﬁles, exhibit, tag and so on’ (Beer and Burrows 2007: 2.1)
However, people tend to disagreewith each otherRoughly speaking, it is possible to discern two parallell streams ofresearch that provide radically different answers to the question ofhow Web 2.0 and SNS ought to be understood.Although contemporary accounts of Web 2.0 and SNS often taketheir point of departure in the assumed needs, desires and actionsof "users", some researchers have switched focus from a micro-leveltowards a macro-level of analysis where the question of individualutility appears as inferior to issues of power and institutionalexploitation.Crucially, these research streams tend to locate agency at differentlevels of analysis.
Currently, there are twocompeting streams of researchStream #1 (here labelled ’Egocentric networks and individual-oriented agency’) leans toward a micro-sociological perspective,focuses on individual experiences and perceived utility-value offront-end functions, thus emphasising an individual-orientedagencyStream #2 (here termed ’Labour under siege and system-orientedagency’) presents a certain affinity with a macro-sociologicalperspective and, mainly highlighting back-end functionalities,focuses on how Web 2.0/SNS act towards the individual user in anexploitive manner, thus assuming a system-oriented agency
Egocentric networks andindividual-oriented agencyWeb 2.0 and SNS provide a shift in social organisation: fromcommunities of interest to ‘egocentric‘ networks (and, to someextent, back again through FB Pages, hashtags and so forth), thusassuming processes of online individualisationSNS: ’web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct apublic or semi-public proﬁle within a bounded system, (2) articulatea list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) viewand traverse their list of connections and those made by otherswithin the system.’ (boyd and Ellison 2007)Similarly, questions of privacy, connectivity and so forth arefrequently discussed from the viewpoint of the user.
Labour under siege and system-oriented agency’[Web 2.0 is] the new media capitalist technique of relying uponusers to supply and rank online media content /.../ [Users] areexpected to process digital objects by sharing content, makingconnections, ranking cultural artifacts, and producing digitalcontent’ (Gehl 2011: 2)’[T]he architecture of participation sometimes turns into anarchitecture of exploitation’ (Petersen 2008)Web 2.0/SNS place ’users under an almost invisible gaze, resultingin a kind of anticipatory conformity, whereby the divulgence ofpersonal information become both routinized andinternalized’ (Zimmer 2008)
What’s the problem withconceptual asymmetries?These perspectives and their obvious asymmetry point at a numberof problems attached to the conceptual apparatus commonly used todescribe Web 2.0 phenomena in general and SNS in particularBesides of frequently neglecting fundamental insights in theirrespective arguments, these research streams tend to:1. Conceptualise Web 2.0/SNS at different levels of analysis, thusrendering the interrelationship between user and system unclear2. Avoid a thorough exploration of the position that Web 2.0/SNStake in the social realm from which they intervene by mediating,regulating and structuring social/symbolic content
In search for a new nomenclature:‘social intermediaries’Having institutional characteristics as well as allowing individuals touse them as a means for achieving certain tasks, Web 2.0 and SNSare always more than mere applicationsThere is a need for a different conceptual apparatus that accountsfor both the technology as an actor as well as its relative position inthe social realm and within the context of social interactionThis paper suggests that web applications such as Facebook andTwitter should be understood in terms of ’social intermediaries’since they are mechanisms that intervene in the social realm byoffering a means for exchange of social/symbolic content betweensocial actors while simultaneously acting upon that content
But what does the term ‘socialintermediaries’ stand for. Really?Social intermediaries are positioned between actors, tying themtogether while also providing an infrastructural condition for socialinteraction and the sustainment of social relationships. They act asstructuring links between actors by delivering as well as structuring(and exploiting) social/symbolic contentWeb applications such as Facebook and Twitter need to be ascribedsome sort of agency since they, in mediating conversations or otherforms of content, enter the social realm as actors on own behalfThe concept ‘social intermediaries’ takes its point of departure inindividual utility as well as the institutional arrangements in whichthese applications are embedded
Isn’t the term ‘socialintermediaries’ just a tautology?The term intermediary could be read both as a noun and adjective. Itis a question of ’the nature of action between two persons’ orsomething that is ’[s]ituated or occurring between two things’. Atthe same time, the term designates ’[o]ne who acts between others;an intermediate agent’ (OED 2011)Being situated ‘between others’ while at the same time acting onone’s own behalf as well as in relation to the involved ‘others’, anintermediary is by deﬁnition social to some extent.In this paper, a social intermediary is one that enters the socialrealm as such and thereby actively intervenes in social ﬂows andexchanges
Reaching to a conclusionThis paper suggests that social intermediaries facilitate theestablishment and sustainment of social ties between social actorsAt the same time, social intermediaries enter the social realm asagential mechanisms positioned between others wherefrom anexchange of social and symbolic content is facilitatedFurthermore, these mechanism partake, to various degrees, in suchexchanges by means of regulatory standards, network-basedsuggestions and other forms of actions possible to undertakethrough the processing of harvested personal data
Continuing to reach to aconclusionSocial intermediaries are always acting from a position betweenindividuals while at the same time rendering themselves and theirinterventions more or less invisible - social ﬂows should be assmooth as possible!Social intermediaries thus always consist of both front- and back-end characteristics that, acting in concert with and towards the user,gains momentum by taking up a position in the ﬁeld ofcommunication and social interactionSuch a conceptualisation facilitates a sociological understanding ofbasic social processes involved from a micro- as well as macro-sociological perspective