Human agency beyond platform structuralism and platform voluntarism

By Mark Carrigan

In the last year, I find myself obsessing ever more fequently about agency and platforms. Given I spent six years writing a PhD about human agency, it is inevitable that this would be the lens I bring to the analysis of platforms. But it also reflects a sustained weakness in how the role of agency in platforms is conceptualised, as well as the political implications which are seen to flow from this. It is one which we can make sense of using Margaret Archer’s notion of conflation, developed to make sense of how different theorists have sought to solve the problem of structure and agency.

I want to suggest we can find a fundamental ambiguity about platforms which plays out at both political and ontological levels. This ambiguity reflects a failure to make sense of how platforms exercise a causal influence over human beings and how human beings exercise a causal influence over platforms. Platform structuralism takes many forms but it fundamentally sees human behaviour as moulded by platforms, leveraging insights into the social, psychological and/or neuro constitution of human beings to condition their behaviour in predictable and explicable ways. It takes the platform as the horizon of human action, framing human beings as responding to the incentives and disincentives to be found within its architecture. It is often tied to a politics which sees platforms as generating pathological, even addictive, behaviours. It conflates downwards and takes agency as an epiphenomenon of (platform) structure.

Critiques informed by platform structuralism often seem to have put their finger on something important, while remaining overstated in a way that is hard to pin down specifically. My suggestion is this overstatement is a failure to come to terms with the fundamental relation between the platform and the user. How do platforms exercise a causal influence over their users? Their interventions are individualised in a statistical way, rather than a substantive one. These are instruments which are simultaneously precise yet blunt. While they might be cumulatively influential, particular instances are liable to be crude and ineffective, often passing unnoticed in the life of the user. For this reason we have to treat the causal powers of platforms over their users extremely careful. It is also something which varies immensely between platforms and the ontology of platforms designed for multi-sided markets is a more complex issue for another post.

Platform voluntarism is often a response to the overstatement of platform structuralism. Denying the capacity of platforms to mould their users, platforms are framed as simply providing incentives and disincentives, able to be ignored by users as readily as they are embraced. The platform is simply a stage upon which actors act, perhaps facilitating new categories of action but doing nothing to shape the characteristics of the agents themselves. It conflates upwards, treating platform (structure) as a straight forward expression of the aggregate intentions of their users. Both platform voluntarism and platform structuralism tend to reify platforms, cutting them off in different ways from both users and the wider social context in which they use. What gets lost is human agency and the ways in which these infrastructures shape and are shaped by human agents.

Another reason it is so crucial to retain agency as a category is because these platforms are designed in purposive ways. Unless we have an account of how they have the characteristics they do because people have sought to develop them in specific ways, we risk lapsing into a form of platform structuralism which we take platforms as an a priori horizon within which human beings act. They are simply given. We might inquire into the characteristics of platforms in other capacities, including as business models, but we won’t link this to our account of how platforms conditions the social action of users taking place within and through them. We will miss the immediate reactivity of platforms to their users, as well as the many human, rather than merely algorithmic, mechanisms at work. But more broadly, we will take the conditioning influences as a given rather than as something to be explained. In such a case, we treat user agency and engineering agency as unrelated to each other and fragment a phenomenon which we need to treat in a unified way.

If we want to draw out these connections, it becomes necessary to understand how engineers design platforms in ways encoding an understanding of users and seeking to influence their action. If we can provide thick descriptions of these projects, capturing the perspective of engineers as they go about their jobs, it becomes much easier to avoid the oscillation between platform structuralism and platform voluntarism. Central to this is the question of how platform engineers conceive of their users and how they act on these conceptions. What are the vocabularies through which they make sense of how their users act and how their actions can be influenced? Once we recover these considerations, it becomes harder to support the politics which often flows from platform structuralism. As Jaron Lanier writes on loc 282 of his Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now:

There is no evil genius seated in a cubicle in a social media company performing calculations and deciding that making people feel bad is more “engaging” and therefore more profitable than making them feel good. Or at least, I’ve never met or heard of such a person. The prime directive to be engaging reinforces itself, and no one even notices that negative emotions are being amplified more than positive ones. Engagement is not meant to serve any particular purpose other than its own enhancement, and yet the result is an unnatural global amplification of the “easy” emotions, which happen to be the negative ones.

He suggests we must replace terms like “engagement” with terms like “addiction” and “behavior modification”. Only then can we properly confront the political ramifications of this technology because our description of the problems will no longer be sanitised by the now familiar discourse of Silicon Valley. But this political vocabulary would be unhelpful for sociological analysis because it takes us further away from the lifeworld of big tech. It is only if we can establish a rich understanding of the agency underlying the reproduction and transformation of platforms that we can overcome the contrasting tendencies towards platform structuralism and platform voluntarism. But this political vocabulary would be unhelpful for sociological analysis because it takes us further away from the lifeworld of big tech. It is only if we can establish a rich understanding of the agency underlying the reproduction and transformation of platforms that we can overcome conflationism in our approach to platforms.

Social media habits and routines

By Tyler Shores

Over the past few weeks Mark Carrigan and I have been running a series of sessions on social media for academics at the Faculty of Education. One of the purposes of this series has been to try and develop a shared conversation amongst those in the Faculty who are interested in such topics: why to use social media in the first place; how to get the most out of social media; what social media practices mean for us as academics; and other related issues.

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Mark did an excellent post in advance of our May 1st session, talking about how he integrates his social media use into his everyday practices — using social media for teaching, for writing, and for thinking.

I started thinking along related lines, in terms of what our social media use means to us on a day to day basis. For example, the average adult is spending around two and a half hours to almost three hours on social media per day by some estimates. Those figures really don’t feel terribly surprising. That is a lot of time on social media, either in dedicated blocks of time or interstitial moments that we manage to fill in between other tasks and our other non-social media things. One point that I took away from our session as well as the lively discussion was that it could be quite helpful to think more about our everyday routines; in this case, are our social media habits working for us? If not, why not?

As busy academics, many of us also worry about how much of a time suck social media can be on our seemingly already quite overburdened lives. For me, I find myself occasionally prone to bad (or perhaps more accurately, less helpful) social media habits and then become very mindful about wanting to fix them. Habits and routines are incredibly useful for our daily productive. Except of course, when they aren’t.

Not to mention social media apps are very, very good at making us want to use them and creating those kinds of habit loops:

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Essentially, this formula breaks down to something like the following:

1) Cue = I am bored,

2) Routine = check Twitter, check Facebook, check email, repeat

3) Reward = sense of connection, sense of accomplishment getting rid of those notifications, positive reinforcement of getting likes!

There are a few quite useful apps that can help give you a distractions audit. A quicker and easier (but more approximate) way to get a more objective account on the most time-consuming apps is a quick check of the battery usage breakdown for iOS or for AndroidFor instance, I found myself checking social media out of sheer boredom more often than I would have liked (note: it was a lot). Therefore, I started to think about the kind of routine this was and what it meant for my day to day routine.

It’s not always easy to change those kinds of habits and routines that become so automatic. But I’ve found that taking even one initial moment to think about what and how you engage with social media can make a helpful difference. For me, time posting and engaging with others on social media felt purposeful, so I mentally have categories of social media use in mind whenever I pick up my phone:

  • Posting and engaging on both personal and professional accounts
  • Checking for news and/or information
  • When I’m bored and want to be distracted

I’m not anti-distraction by any means. I don’t even think it’s that realistic to try and do away with boredom and taking distraction breaks completely, but even the simple act of being aware of your different purposes is something I’ve found to be surprisingly liberating.

If you’d like to check out some of the things we touched upon, you can find a collection of links here.

The epistemic privilege of platforms

By Mark Carrigan

What is the relationship between platforms and their users? I’ve been thinking about this all morning while reading The Know‑It‑Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, by Noam Cohen. On loc 277 he writes:

In fact, tech companies believe that through artificial intelligence tools they understand their users’ state of mind in a way few other companies can, and far better than any regulator. They can track, measure, and analyze the billions of decisions their users make, and they can detect even the most minor feature that may be turning them off. And rather than wait for problems, these companies can compel their users to express a preference by staging so-called A/ B testing, which involves showing groups of users slightly different versions of the site and measuring which group stays longer and is thus happier with the experience. Google famously went so far as to prepare forty-one shades of blue to test which was the best color for displaying links in its Gmail service.

This epistemic privilege is inflated but it nonetheless has to be taken seriously. There are forms of knowledge about users which platforms have unique access to, discerning real-time behaviour (including responses to planned stimuli) with a degree of granularity that would be difficult to match in any other context. What matters is how this epistemic relation is raised into a political claim: if we know our users better than any external party, how could regulation be anything other than incompetent?

This relies on a reduction of the salient characteristics of the user to their actions which register within the confines of the platform, representing the core of what I’ve written about in an upcoming chapter as the evisceration of the human: the reduction of real agency to its empirical traces. Furthermore, it is bound up with the conviction of transcending the murky mess of self-interpretation, offering apparent insight into what OK Cupid data scientist Christian Rudder memorably described as Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) in the subtitle to his book Dataclysm. This is bound up in a political economy which Mark Andrejevic identifies on loc 870 of his InfoGlut:

In this regard the digital era opens up a new form of digital divide: that between those with access to the databases and those without. For those with access, the way in which data is understood and used will be fundamentally transformed. There will be no attempt to read and comprehend all of the available data – the task would be all but impossible. Correlations can be unearthed and acted upon, but only by those with access to the database and the processing power. Two different information cultures will come to exist side by side: on the one hand, the familiar, “old- fashioned” one in which people attempt to make sense of the world based on the information they can access: news reports, blog posts, the words of others and the evidence of their own experience. On the other hand, computers equipped with algorithms that can “teach” themselves will advance the instrumental pragmatics of the database: the ability to use tremendous amounts of data without understanding it.

Does anyone know of ethnographic work which looks at how this epistemic relation is talked about in everyday labour within these firms? It must presumably be invoked constantly, in an everyday manner, during user interface design and similar activities. This could help elucidate the micro-structure for the inflation of epistemic privilege which I suspect Cohen is correct to identify as one source of hostility to regulation.

#CIES2018: “Welcome everybody to the Wild Wild West” – On education in the age of platform capitalism

By Julia Erdelmann

Very early on the second full day of the CIES conference 2018, Susan L. Robertson (University of Cambridge), Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster University), and Eva Hartman (University of Cambridge) invite us to critically engage in the nascent discussion about ‘the jungle’ of digital platforms working around, with, and through us. Discussing familiar platforms, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, GoogleScholar, or Monster, the panellists equip us with a guide to negotiate various way in which to think about ‘platform capitalism’ as a new form of market making in education. Specifically, this session is focusing on the political economy of these platforms in the terms of a new firm; the implications of the dissociation of (academic) knowledge and its management from production; and the effects of platform capitalism on social mobility and stratification looking at the transition from education to the labour market.

Opening this enticing and stimulating debate, Susan provides us with an overview about the role education plays as a key element to kickstart a host of profound changes in the organisation of advanced capitalist and transnational economies, as key social structures have become organised by electronically processed information (algorithms). What is the platform, and what modes of governance are found in the platform economy we can observe in the digital spaces? To think about platforms in laymen terms provides us with a very accessible conceptualisation; that is, platforms are online-mediated digital infrastructures which enable geographically disperse users – or, in our case, economic agents – to interact with each other. The platform itself also operates as an intermediary, as well, as the platform owners often charge fees for their services.

Drawing on Nick Srnicek’s pivotal work ‘Platform Capitalism’, we find out that there is a considerable discrepancy between the promises made by the advocates and providers of the platform and the underlying market mechanisms Susan has analysed: Whereas terms like “sharing, gig economy and the fourth industrial revolution are tossed around, with enticing images of entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility bandied about” (p. 1), a closer look at the political economy uncovers a form of algorithmic governance, working on pop-cultural concepts, such as ‘clicks’, ‘likes’, ‘endorsements’, which is tied to creating new markets and anchored in established capitalist relations. Susan provides us with a differentiated typology of how to understand these platforms, the contemporary academy, and the different knowledge production purposes, encompassing different kinds of relations, worlds, and values made possible. A paper covering Susan’s investigations in more detail is online on the CPGJ web page. A pivotal aspect of this paper relates to knowledge production in the academy, dominated by Elsevier along with Springer, Taylor and Francis, Sage, and Wiley Blackwell (the big 5), who own 50% of the academic publishing market. This example not only demonstrates platform capitalism’s tendency to create monopolies, but calls to attention the labour behind the creation of these new market forms. Although platforms change the scale and scope of knowledge production, they remain experimental and unstable and ultimately have to ‘be made’. Just like established markets, this entails risk calculation, cost analysis, strategy building, and expertise.

To illustrate this point, Janja next walks us through academic digital platforms in more detail and investigates how they are affecting the research process and the social relations among academics. By uncovering the workings of popular academic platforms, such as Google Scholar Citations,, and ResearchGate, we find out that platforms have opened up to incorporate all parts of the conventional research process, from identifying research opportunities, forming collaborations, sharing drafts, discussing ideas, to disseminating results. More than merely providing a digital space, however, these platforms have developed numerical signifiers, which are attached to researchers engaging in these infrastructures. Through providing numerical feedback, platforms urge researchers to participate in a form of competition going beyond fostering academic knowledge production. Setting out new metrics, such as the RGscore, academics are now urged to stay engaged with the platforms, succeeding only if they make continuous use of them. Thereby, these platforms not only aim at generating big data, but also to increase their market value catalysing the so-called ‘network effect’: the more numerous the users the more valuable the platform. Janja maps out three processes she identifies to render the research process ‘platform-ready’: quantification and individualisation; enhancing competition; and re-structuring academic social relations. Ultimately, platform capitalism forms new academic social relations, resulting in a restructuring of social relations outside the platform.

Finally, Eva picks up on this topic of platforms and social mobility to deepen the discussion of how platform capitalism bears the potential of reforming social relations. Drawing on Bourdieu’s capital theory, Eva explores the possibility of platforms to generate as yet unknown information and make it available to employers seeking to fill open positions sustainably with the proper candidate. According to labour market studies, the transition process between formal education and employment acts as a bottleneck for recruitment: We learn that a major challenge to identifying adequate candidates from the position of the employers is the absence of relevant information about the candidate’s social and cultural capital; that is, their ‘soft skills’, communication and linguistic skills, as well as weaknesses. Acting as ‘match-makers’, job boards like Monster, Indeed, CareerBuilder and social networks like LinkedIn and facebook uncover and marketise this ‘hidden’ data, using new evaluative infrastructure with interactive devices such as reviews, ratings, and rankings. These infrastructures bear potentials, as they open up local and regional market spaces to transnational competition and provide candidates with the opportunity to include relevant information to their profile, however, the validation of these profiles remain as problematic as the impact which these infrastructures have in enabling a range of new actors to get a say in the evaluation of the worth of qualifications. Does it really enable a window to re-arrange social stratification according to abilities or does it foster a form of capitalist reproduction according to experienced or otherwise passively assumed social and cultural capital?

Enabled by discussant Tore Sorensen, a dialogue between the panellists and the audience highlighted the problematic of state relations with these newly emerging economic agents and prompts suggestions for further research. How do these platforms play ‘cat and mouse’ with the state and bypass regulation, hence creating a ‘wild west’-kind of market sphere? How do academic platforms foster the establishment of what Fourcade (2017) has termed the ‘ordinal society’, highlighting the individual’s relative position? In which ways can investigating platforms beyond the logics anchored in the political West and linguistic limits of the English language contribute to a variegated and contoured taxonomy of this emerging market sphere? And, how applicable are consequences of the meddling of platforms in the labour market to informal economies?

Taken together, the presenters put the case for a new research programme on platforms in education and what the rise of the platform economy means for knowledge production, circulation, management and consumption.