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Social Media as Public Spaces

After the excitements of our research collaborations in Germany I've made my way to Amsterdam for the Social Media and the Transformation of Public Space conference (ASMC14 for short). We begin with a keynote by José van Dijck and Thomas Poell, which sets the theme for the conference. José begins by noting the growth of user-generated content platforms and social media over the past decade, replacing some intermediary organisations (from commercial industries to state institutions).

While some of this has been received very positively, this also raises issues of privacy and publicness – is the social Web a public space, and are social media users a new kind of public(s)? What is the role of social media in transforming public institutions, and in transforming public space?

AirBNB is an example for this - New York State, for example, has brought court cases against airBNB hosts for bypassing traditional accommodation services and regulations, and a support group called Peers was formed, with financial support from Silicon Valley (and airBNB is now a major corporation in its own right). There is a clash here between social ethos and rhetoric, and commercial interests.

The social Web is itself the manifestation of a fierce struggle between corporate and collective interests, between public and private concerns. There is here a struggle over ownership of valuable new lands, which are claimed in the name of 'the public' – but who is this public? In whose name are initiatives 'public' or 'participatory'?

On the social Web there are continuous power struggles over what is public space and how it should be governed, and nation states are still attempting to assert their authority over these spaces. This is also still a struggle for defining publicness, and this struggle takes place at levels ranging from the global to the local. One question here is also "who profits?", especially as social Web technologies break down the boundaries between public (governmental) and corporate institutions, and challenge the legitimacy and efficacy of public institutions.

Police services have invited citizens to their Facebook and Twitter spaces to involve them in policing, for example, but the same spaces are also used subversively and for illegal purposes. The mass media – traditionally vital actors in the negotiation of public values – are being bypassed at times by public debate in the social Web, but this does not mean that such debate is egalitarian or free from corporate agendas. Buzzfeed (and more recently Upworthy) have built their publishing activities around creating viral news stories, and in doing so depend crucially on Facebook's underlying infrastructure and processes – an unequal relationship which has created problems for them at time.

This places Facebook and Twitter as virtual tool booths to public participation and debate; these platforms draw on the editorial power of human agents, but are anything than transparent in how they utilise such power. Mass media are now engaging with these platforms to generate 'social news' and 'social TV' – what looked like a disruptive new model is being tamed, and turned into a hybrid media model following social media logics. This process is especially crucial to public service media, of course.

How do platforms, users, and institutions mutually shape each other, then? How are they all involved in the struggle over what 'social' and 'public' means in this new public space?

Thomas Poell now takes over to explore further the question of social media logics. How do social media platforms directly take part in defining the social? Social media logics are the mechanisms and practices through which these platforms process information, news, and communication, and how they channel social traffic. This is extending Altheide and Snow's idea of (mass) media logic, which required mass media to present themselves as neutral platforms serving audience demands and representing public voices.

Social media, like mass media, have the ability to transport a logic beyond the platforms that generate it. Social media logic does not replace mass media logic but becomes entangled with it; two of its key elements are programmability (social platforms trigger and steer user interactivity, and users in turn channel activity); popularity (social media metrics reinforce mass media popularity tactics, but social media both measure and shape popularity – as in Twitter's trending topics).

Further, connectivity is the sociocultural and technocommercial mechanism through which users interact with each other. For example, social media enable connective action in the context of political protests – from the "99%" movements facilitating a sense of togetherness online as well as offline to the Arab Spring. But does this facilitate more durable connections which can engender political change in the long run?

From a technical perspective, social media algorithmically connect users to (often commercial) content, and introduce viral mechanisms that produce connection and togetherness. This can generate large publics in ways that alternative media have never been able to do, but such publics are also ephemeral as the algorithms move on to the next trending topic and lasting connections fail to eventuate. What results are loosely connected protest publics that fall apart just as quickly as they came together.

Another element is datafication. Social media have user activity rating, polling, and surveying mechanisms built right into their architecture, and such datafication can be seen as empowering users – who are able to detect and engage with emerging topics in the way that previously only institutions had been able to do –, but also enables social media corporations to track real-time user interests, and to offer such insights to commercial corporations, in the form of Facebook Insights or Twitter's Gnip.

The social media initiatives of major newspapers to date have a limited direct impact on editorial decision making, but already much more directly affect their content styles. Facebook comments are now immediately embedded, connecting these mastheads with personal networks, and Web-native news publications from the Huffington Post to Buzzfeed are much more directly chasing viral distribution for their stories; such social media logic is inherently built into their content management systems. This can be understood as a kind of algorithmic journalism, leaving little room for conventional editorial choices.

Social media, then, introduce sociocultural mechanisms that offer an active role for users while at the same time introducing technocommercial mechanisms that channel and monetise such activities. So, then, are social media new public spaces? How may we understand them in a more nuanced and critical way?