The next AoIR 2013 plenary starts with Tarleton Gillespie, whose interest is in the politics of platforms. His initial thought was that users would be unaware of the issues related to platform politics, because of the seductive apparent openness and permissiveness of platforms like Facebook and Twitter. But this is no longer true - there has been a shift from complaints about policies by aggrieved users towards a subversive use of platform rules as a way to highlight their problematic nature, by increasingly politicised users.
In 2010, for example, Apple purged some 5,000 apps from its App Store for "unacceptable" content. These removals were contentions because the distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable nudity, political expression, or transgression against societal norms were far from clear; Apple pulled some "gay conversion" apps following complaints, for example, but there was nothing explicitly in Apple's rules which prohibited their content - they did not contain strong hate speech, for example, but in articulating their perspectives were seen to promote it.
Facebook has had its issues with photos of breastfeeding - it has deleted photos and suspended users for posting such images, under its "no nudity" policy. In 2007, a petition against this policy was launched through Facebook itself; the women involved here were often already self-described "lactivists", but also drew in non-activists and thus politicised these users. Offline protests ("nurse-ins") we're also held, often near the company's events. Facebook has since allowed breastfeeding images as long as they don't show nipples. Who administers these policies is also crucial here - moderation is often outsourced to low-paid click workers, so how the stated policy operates in practice also depends on the practical processes in the company. And oddly, Facebook does allow post-mastectomy photos, with much less controversy.
Much of this has to do with the question of visibility - the companies often act only against transgressions of their rules if they become widely visible. This is exploited by activists who deliberately make these issues visible, as in the controversy about Google+'s anonymity rules.
Most recently, there have been significant concerns about Facebook's and Twitter's permissive approach towards hate speech. These have led to open letters, campaigns asking for an advertiser boycott, and direct questions to the platforms about what they're doing to police these issues. Some technological responses have been proposed (better reporting functionality, protected accounts which are more closely monitored), but these cannot be the only solutions.
The sites, their policies, and their roles in society are increasingly contested in this context. Questions about free speech have changed following the rise of Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter; these are now key spaces in the public sphere, but are they ready to assume such roles? What happens when the rule of a private site becomes so relevant as a contour of public discourse that people are ready to challenge them as a matter of importance? Can the sites handle such responsibility?
This is a form of social activism, and the proper tactics for such activism also need to be discussed further. There is a call for such sites to be more socially progressive, but this may also be a call for the sites to take a more interventionist approach; that may be problematic, not least also because it may lead to the emergence of a greater number of completely unpoliced alternative sites.
There is no an increasing attention to these sites as the keepers and curators of public discourse. Those who want to be visible in society seek to be on these sites, and in doing so are beginning to contend with the rules.