Digital Media Firms as Cultural Systems

Working with digital media producers for the past few years I’ve begun to confuse their language with my other professional nomenclature, that of an anthropologist. Is this indeed confusion or a result of finally doing my job of seeing broader cultural systems in those practices?

Here’s the deal. Digital media firms using experimental methods with emergent technologies in indeterminate market systems use words that can model the stuff anthropologists care about. I’ll compare terms platform to culture, application to subculture, beta to process, and privacy to power.

Is Platform to Culture as Application is to Subculture?

Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple’s iPhone are platforms on which whole networks or galaxies of different social and economic systems flourish. These companies’ platforms are becoming the broadest cultural ecosystems within which all other digital social activity exists.

Like culture there is constraint and agency on the platform. The constraint comes from the terms of service, the affordances of the online architecture, and the rights given by the platform holder. Platforms are almost universally proprietary—privately owned. The overall platform itself cannot be adjusted except by holy command from the CEO. Giving a cut to the CEO, developers can make applications on platforms. The ability to development on the platform is the agency, as is the ability to surf, scam, and surveil on the platform. Developers have the capacity to transform the mechanics of a proximal space of the platform via application programming interfaces (APIs). People come into contact with the app–be it a game, a badge of identity, or a little tool–and their digital social lives are slightly adjusted.

Humble scholars desiring to say something about the platform:culture should begin by studying the practices occurring on apps:subcultures. Zynga—the makers of apps:subcultures Farmville and Mafia Wars, two games on Facebook with millions of gamers, is a more manageable research project with discrete parameters, practices, and ideology, than studying the platform:culture of Facebook or Google head on, which like culture is always in flux.

Culture is Permanently Beta

It isn’t news that culture is not static. Sociologists Neff and Stark studied New York City digital media firms during the Web 1.0 bubble, claiming these companies were in a state of “permanent beta”—never finished and therefore responsive to the chaos of the market and the unforeseen on the technological horizon.

Gmail is an outrageously successful application designed by Google for the Google platform. It has been around for years and it is still in beta. In What Would Google Do? journalist Jeff Jarvis makes the point that Google takes the risk of releasing their products in beta and achieves corporate transparency and greater social activity by letting the user in on the preliminary R&D experience. Is Google a bellwether for larger cultural processes of which platforms and beta releases are quintessential qualities of this emergent cultural system?

“Permanent beta” is an apt anthropological description of historically situated cultural activity. I don’t need to remind anthropologists or SM readers that beta is a description of culture itself that is always in process, historically variable, emergent, etc.

Is Culture Open or Private?

Several overlapping ideologies from the historical development of the internet highlight the importance of collaboration, openness, and transparency as preemptive measures to check the centralization of information power. In all cultural formations, those good things must be vigilantly monitored and fought for. I’d argue that collaboration and openness as corporate principles is new and may suggest that the technological affordances of digital technologies make less openness in social technology less profitable. If richly communicative social practices require open systems, and these digital firms are in the business of digital sociality, it behooves these CEOs to create decentralized and open systems. We see some of this openness and collaborative spirit in Google and Facebook as platforms and beta systems—despite their indifference to corporate transparency and their antagonism against what they see as provincial notions of personal privacy.

So how do the trends towards more personal transparency and less privacy fit into this theory of culture as a digital system? Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg really thinks the world will be more communicative and therefore more peaceful and mutually forgiving if only more people were less secretive and more honest about who they are. Protecting and respecting individuals’ private rituals, sentiments, and remarks is a primary objective of anthropological methods. Much important cultural work is done opaquely through symbols, in the depths of kivas, and behind closed doors. Does this sense of culture as a beta platform that is historically agitating towards greater openness and individual transparency give credence to Zuck’s algocratic design for world peace?

One problem with the theory that culture is like a digital system is that this platform:culture is corporately designed. The API may provide developers agency akin to social contracts. The digital firm may be motivated less by profit making and more by mission motives. But doesn’t the fact that the entire ecosystem is proprietary trouble the notion of platform:culture? Nobody owns the protocols—the total realm of possibility within cultural systems—like Zuck does Facebook or Jobs does Apple. Platforms may be like culture but unlike culture you can pull the plug on the platform should it cease to be profitable or fun for the shareholders. And yet, aren’t firms, platforms, and applications populated by people constrained and enabled by the same processes that exist outside of their digital systems?

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

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