“Our children are perfectly at home on YouTube, but they have no idea how a vacuum cleaner works”
José van Dijck is an academic, researcher, author and university professor with a special interest in the digital media. She was formerly the dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Amsterdam and president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her book The Culture of Connectivity. A Critical History of Social Media (2013) is a seminal work in the field of social media studies. She is now publishing The Platform Society (2018), a reflection on the way that the major online platforms are changing every sector of society.
One of the central issues of your research is the paradigm shift consisting of the move from the ‘culture of connectivity’ to what you call the ‘platform society’. What does that mean?
The argument we try to put forward in my latest book – The Platform Society (2018), which I wrote together with Thomas Poell and Martijn de Waal – is that the platforms employed by the five internet giants (Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple) are building a kind of online infrastructure of our lives.
Over a period of more than 15 years, but especially in the last five, these platforms have come to play a crucial role in our lives. They have totally infiltrated the private domain, to the extent that they determine how we communicate, what we buy and even how we behave.
Facebook in particular is penetrating every aspect of the life of our communities from both the public and the private viewpoint.
We have focused our research on four aspects: education, urban transport, information (the news) and health. And the conclusion is that our society has been completely taken over in these four areas. That is why we speak of the ‘platform society’.
You emphasise the way these platforms have changed the way we communicate. How do you think they affect the realm of education and particularly digital natives and the way they relate to each other?
Look at any school playground and you will see that children continue to communicate with each other in person. However, they have now extended a large part of their relationships with their friends into the digital world. Many of their informal relationships come about through networks that they use all the time, such as Instagram and Snapchat, which are already more popular than Facebook among youngsters. The architecture of these platforms determines the modes of children and teenagers’ communication and behaviour.
Many children now have a digital identity. Their own personality is to a large extent based on the way they communicate via social media. Some have a YouTube vlog that they use to communicate every day with their followers, many of whom they do not know. They behave as if they were on a stage in keeping with this digital identity they themselves have created.
I am constantly amazed that children aged 12 to 14 should have such a prominent digital presence. It’s something we didn’t have. We communicated by phone or by letter. That is why it is essential that we adults endeavour to understand how our children relate to others in this new digital context. What do they do online? How do they present themselves in public? How do they behave?
So, what do you think parents and teachers can do to educate children in how to handle these new platforms?
The problem is that many parents know less than their offspring about how social media work, even very small children aged eight to ten. Many children are perfectly at home on YouTube, but they have no idea how the family vacuum cleaner works.
They are technically highly skilled, but even so they don’t know about the mechanisms hiding behind social media, what their infrastructure is and what lies behind these tools. The task of parents and teachers is to explain all this to them.
I believe it is very important that we don’t try to ban them from using technology but that we instead make an effort to understand what it is that attracts our children to social media. And particularly that we make them understand that there is a backdrop to their online activities; that there is a price to be paid for the use of these tools that entertain them so much and make their lives easier.
What forms does this price to be paid take?
Firstly, there’s the matter of privacy, something children are not mindful of. It’s the role of parents and teachers to explain who might be lurking in their conversations or watching their videos on YouTube. Children need to acquire greater digital literacy to understand what these platforms get from them in exchange for opening the window onto this global world, the internet.
Another issue to bear in mind is safety, which has various aspects. Firstly, there are numerous hackers on the Web. Plus, we have to keep an eye on the way children communicate and interact with each other on the internet to prevent cyberbullying. Children can be very cruel in their comments on Facebook and Twitter.
Lastly, there’s the risk of addiction. And not just on game platforms but on sites like YouTube as well, which has a highly addictive element to it.
In short, it makes no sense to ban the use of social media, but parents need to educate their children to make them aware of the context surrounding the use of these platforms. Our children also need to know about their drawbacks, given the amount of time they spend online, which obviously we need to limit. We also need to explain to them how these platforms use their identity and how they operate commercially. In other words, how they make money, because they are all profit-driven.
Another key aspect is the way these platforms have altered the structure of our communities and how they affect social cohesion. An example of this is Airbnb and the way it has had an impact on changing the neighbourhoods in some cities in Europe, among them Barcelona.
Yes, it is crazy how these platforms have completely transformed the dynamics of tourism. In my home city, Amsterdam, Airbnb now accounts for a quarter of all the accommodation options available to tourists. We have a population of around 800,000 people and we get nearly 21 million tourists a year. Airbnb is responsible for 20-21% of this influx of tourists, so it has become an incredibly powerful force.
In recent years, the city has had to deal with this sudden development, which is dreadfully difficult to regulate. And that is a key concept in our research: platforms that spring up out of the blue but which attempt to penetrate a society constructed by conventional sectors and which is regulated to deal with situations typical of traditional commerce.
In Barcelona, the rise of these platforms is associated by some residents with a sharp increase in rents, which has led some to begin to mobilise to defend themselves against the changes in their neighbourhoods. In addition, the city council has halted the granting of licences for tourist apartments. Is this something we will see in other countries?
I believe these movements make sense in a society because cities are losing their ability to control where people live. This power is beginning to transfer into the hands of big companies based in Silicon Valley, which are barely regulated and do not belong to any country or city even though they operate there. Consequently, they don’t abide by the same laws or share the same interests that you might have as a resident of Barcelona. I believe we need to be much more mindful of the public space that we are ceding to these platforms.
We need to reconnect with public values. And that is something that has started to happen in recent years. Amsterdam City Council has already implemented a number of measures: for instance, it has reduced the time that an owner can rent out their apartment through online platforms from 60 to 30 days. And it wants to cut that to ten days in areas in the city centre, where almost all the available accommodation belongs to Airbnb. And, in contrast, to extend it to 60 days or more on the outskirts, where the density is lower.
So, there is a need to negotiate with these platforms to defend the public space and all the people that use it. But before that, we need to stipulate what our public values are and what rights we as citizens want to defend.
Yet this attempt to regulate the sector is not without criticism, especially in countries like Spain, where tourism is a very important industry.
Yes, tourism is a major source of revenue. There are citizens who make a living renting out their home on Airbnb. But it’s a source of problems for others, who have to put up with the consequences of mass tourism or watch as rent levels in their neighbourhood spiral. We need to address all these consequences as a community.
With all due respect, Airbnb is an excellent platform in what it does, but it is not regulated. It has no interest in communities. It’s only interested in profit, just like all the other platforms. And it is precisely this negotiation of public values that most interests me. How have we allowed these platforms to take root in our society without considering what it is that we as citizens need to protect in terms of the public values of a democratic society?
The negotiation tables will have to include representatives of every group of stakeholders, without which these companies cannot operate…
Each situation is different. There are various levels of negotiation and they are all important. Let’s look first at bodies like schools, for example. Schools need to negotiate on the way they will allow platforms to enter the education system. At an institutional level, we need to decide whether or not we will allow Google into classrooms. Do we want pupils to use services like Google Docs? That’s an important decision because issues such as privacy come into play.
Then there’s the local level: cities like Barcelona or Amsterdam need to negotiate directly with platforms like Uber and Airbnb.
After that comes the national level. Countries are forced to negotiate all the time with these platforms because they act as suppliers of part of the national infrastructure. Let’s look at national broadcasting systems, for example. Public television channels used to be limited to the national or regional sphere, but now Google, Facebook, YouTube and other platforms have also been gradually appropriating this public space.
And at an international or supranational level, Europe has a very important role to play, as it ought to create a counterforce to square up to this global power emerging from Silicon Valley.
Something like this has already been done with the European General Data Protection Regulation. Firstly, attempts were made to regulate data protection from a solely national standpoint, but we then found ourselves with an amalgam of national privacy policies, as a result of which it made more sense to have a common European regulation like the one that came into force this year.
So, we need to understand how we can negotiate at each of these levels with these platforms.
Do you think that political leaders and lawmakers take into account the recommendations made by academic bodies and universities like yours?
Yes, increasingly so. No-one really thought about the issue prior to 2016. But 2017 was the year everything changed, particularly as a result of the scandal regarding Facebook’s responsibility in leaking information that supposedly affected the outcome of the elections in the United States. I fear that at that point our political masters began to panic a bit. They have come to realise that these platforms are changing the very fabric of our democracy.
In recent months, the heads of various government departments have begun to ask for my help and advice. How can we negotiate with platforms? How can we make public values the priority? How can we offer different solutions? These questions are coming up more and more often. So, I’m optimistic and I believe that governments and regulators are grasping the need to negotiate with these platforms.
Lastly, do you think that this evolution towards the ‘platform society’ has contributed to widening or narrowing the digital divide, in particular in relation to people at risk of social exclusion, who often have no access to new technologies or don’t know how to use them?
The digital divide is growing because of the rising power of the five big companies. Plus, it’s a divide that is increasing at various levels. Firstly, the inequalities between people who use the new technologies and those who have no access to them are becoming more pronounced.
But a technological divide is also developing. These platforms are growing ever more sophisticated. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to understand how they work because technologies like artificial intelligence, complex algorithms and the like are being introduced. They’re extremely complicated systems. Only a few very well informed people with special technological skills know how they operate.
Understanding Facebook or Google algorithms, which basically determine which news you get to see, has become a kind of privilege in our society. This huge knowledge divide between the people who have the power to distribute content – and to determine what we see first and what we never see under any circumstances – and everyone else, who is merely in the position of accepting what they see, seems very worrying to me.
That’s how they get us to swallow so much fake news…
The debate about ‘hate speech’ and ‘fake news’ is extremely important. Fake news isn’t something simply made up somewhere that we see by chance. There’s a whole targeted distribution network that decides what we get and what we don’t. And that power is controlled by a handful of major platforms whose operations are increasingly difficult to understand.
In short, there is a knowledge divide that has led to a power divide. And that is something that we absolutely must address.
The Platform Society. Public Values in a Connective World
José van Dijck, Thomas Poell, and Martijn de Waal
Oxford University Press (2018)
Interview by Manuel García Campos