Analysing social interaction
The real content the platform providers are interested in are not birthday videos but the data users generate through simply using the platform's services. As Tim O'Reilly has put it most aptly, the intelligence of social media is located in their back-end, where 'back-end politics channel user behaviour and appropriate application programming interfaces employ the user generated data for all kinds of analysis. From the social graph of user relations to their communication, companies specialized in so-called social media analysis monitor what users do and say online. Companies such as Meltwater, Radian6, Collective Intellect, Sysomos, or the Dutch enterprise Coosto sieve through a massive amount of data and provide their clients -sometimes even in realtime- with specific information on a company's reputation in users communication. Several of these companies scrape massively data from social media platforms for further analysis. This ought to raise questions not only about privacy aspects but also about the extent to which third parties are allowed to employ users communication and interaction.
Some companies like Gatorade and Dell are explicitly proud of listening into the communication of users and consider the establishment of fashionably titled 'Social Media Command' Center (YouTube: Dell Social Media Command Center) or 'Mission Control' (YouTube: Gatorade Mission Control) as timely marketing stunts. It remains unclear to what extent they actually use the gathered data for market research or product development but they certainly nourish the myth of social media as a form of 'conversation between consumers and brands.' I doubt that companies can be considered rational participants of a public sphere, since their interest is not discourse but commerce; too often companies have been bending free speech, manipulating opinion and lobbying for suitable laws in order to defend their market shares. While the analysis of user generated data on first sight appears like a marketeers wet dream, on second view the technology seems to be even more promising for repressive governments. For Western democracies it remains therefore an important task to investigate whether such tools are not used to stifle democratic activism in Middle East and Asian countries. The questionable titles of presentations given by Western corporations at this IT security conference (ISS World) in Dubai is quite telling and shows that at least the sector of IT Security is heavily thriving on repression of democracy.
Analysing private life
Other companies specialize in digging through users' online past in order to conduct background checks for prospective employees. As Social Intelligence, a company recently covered by the NYT, points out the majority of the information for background checks is not retrieved from social networking sites but from comments on blogs, photo's where people are tagged in, or comments users post to video and photo sites. The question here goes beyond a notion of privacy but addresses to aspects, context and memory. User live out parts of their private life in pseudo-private environments online. Retrieving this publicly available information easily takes them out of context, out of the context of a conversation, out of the social context inherently contributing to the nature and status of a photo, a blog post or a comment and places it in a new context that might lead to an inaccurate and irreparable representation. The virtue of forgetting, as Mayer-Schönfelder emphasized, is not an inherent aspect of online media. However, people change and develop and human memory fades and provides space and opportunities for new beginnings and even many felonies become time-barred. The memory of information technology does not fade but fails to present things in a context of time and actual situation and will therefore increasingly distort views on the past and present of individuals.
Revisiting social media platforms
The critical look behind the glossy user interfaces of the so-called social media forces us to revisit critically the notion of 'user generated content'. What has been praised as the creative labour of users is not only channelled through software design but it is also always subject to corporate monitoring and editing. Furthermore, the user generated data, that appear in criticism as a potentially harmfully exploited by-product of user interaction on and with social media platforms, has to be considered as their core aspect. Business models of commercial social media services revolve around the software's back-end where data are harvested and monetized.
Beyond this obvious correction of the too optimistic framing of user activities other issues need to be addresses as well. Important criticism towards social media platforms has already contributed to the discussion on how integrate those services into our daily lives. Those criticisms focus on the threats to privacy and the aspects of free labour. Those issues are absolutely important, and the work research produced on this topic is very valuable. However, the channelling of user activities through software design (unpaid labour) and the abuse of user generated data (privacy) relate to another, still undertheorized issue, namely the role of social media platforms as public space. While an increasing number of activities from a pseudo-private communication to socio-political debate is unfolding, it becomes increasingly urgent to discuss to what extent companies regulate and shape the very nature of this social interaction and cultural production.
Date August 2011