The Digital and the Social

Phone and Instagram

2.7 billion monthly active Facebook users (Clement, 2020a), 3.5 billion smartphone users worldwide (O’Dea, 2020), and 1.5 billion monthly WhatsApp users (Clement, 2020b). The numbers indicate that digital technologies play an important role in the everyday lives of people around the globe. The authors Tim Jordan and Noortje Marres engage in an academic debate on (some of) these digital social technologies, on digitalization, and on the question of how they have an impact on our lives, economy, and politics. I’ll start by illustrating arguments both authors agree on. After that, I will show where the texts differ and conclude with how they complement each other.
First of all, both authors equally outline that social technologies shape the society positively as the technologies enable users to share their thoughts, create their identity, connect, and build social bonds (Jordan, 2020, pp. 35, 41; Marres, 2017, p. 62).
However, they also agree that this comes with disadvantages: The consequence of the user’s digital activities is the closure of personal information and data (Jordan, 2020, p. 35). User’s data are available to platforms but can also be used by third parties. These involve governments that use data to control and monitor people (Jordan, 2020, p. 44; Marres, 2017, p. 67) and digital industries that use this information for monetization (Jordan, 2020, p. 35). Data are valuable to industries because they reveal key information about users. The data facilitate the creation of tailored advertisements that attract users which results in increased sales for the advertiser (Jordan, 2020, p. 36). In relation to Marres, Jordan explains the process of monetization very thoroughly and specifically – drawing on the economic practices of the user, advertiser, and platform. Marres however gives it only a brief account which is enough as it does not contribute to a better understanding of the debate.
Secondly, both authors observe that digital technologies and digitalization evoke a blurring of contexts. Whereas Jordan shows this at the example of the blending of family, work, and sports identities and the private and the public (Jordan, 2020, pp. 40, 34), Marres (2017) describes it as a blending of registers. For one person social media is a hobby, for another, it is a job, others use it to learn – all on the same platform (p. 83). The arguments of both authors are valid and can be
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seen in relation to each other: The boundaries between the private and public social life, economy, and politics are not clear cut anymore.
Next, Jordan and Marres reflect on the notion of whether social technologies might be antisocial: Marres argues that some industries only enable users to create communities within their application to retrieve data (Marres, 2017, pp. 62, 64). Jordan strengthens this argument by explaining that our engagement on social media is interconnected with the platform gathering information about us which eventually is used to make a profit from (Jordan, 2020, p. 35). In addition, Jordan and Marres observe that also the “like” and the “share” button contribute to an unnaturalness of social platforms. Jordan (2020) points out that by giving those options the platform dismisses users to start real online conversations and creating social bonds (p. 40). Marres (2017) similarly observed this on Twitter (p. 78). The use of these “pre-fab actions” (Marres, 2017, p. 70) results in decreasing sociality (Marres, 2017, p. 79). However, in the end, these activities enable the platform as well as advertisers to track the actions of users easily and precisely. Therefore, they are valuable for platforms (Marres, 2017, p. 75).
Marres makes clear that this datafication does not only apply to social media platforms. By referring to Knorr-Cetina she underlines that through the transfer from the analog to the digital world, not only our social media data but our phone, purchase, traffic data, etc. are collected – and society and sociality have become controllable in almost any area of life (Marres, 2017, pp. 70, 71, 75). Even though this is an important point and especially interesting in the debate on the impact of social technologies, it is missed in Jordan’s argumentation.
Despite several similarities, Jordan and Marres elaborate on the topic from two different angles: Jordan (2020) structures his text by thoroughly explaining the set-up and monetization processes of three social media networks: Facebook, WeChat, and Snapchat. (pp. 35, 42, 45). He investigates social technologies only from a data-driven, economic perspective with a brief digression to the political influence of data (Jordan, 2020, pp. 35, 44). Jordan focuses on platforms and data. Advertisers need to match the guidelines of platforms (Jordan, 2020, p. 38), the platform retrieves data (p.39) and the platform’s design must not be alienating for the user’s social experience as it will disturb the monetization process (p.37). It is the platform and the data that are in the center – not the sociality of the human being. Marres however approaches the debate from a sociological point of view. She criticizes the “platform-centric” and “data-centric” perspectives (Marres, 2017, pp. 66, 70). To solve this device-driven perspective she introduces the “practice-centered” view on social technologies. It suggests that to understand sociality on social platforms we must look beyond them and explore the (untrackable) social practices and
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contexts that spread to other channels and networks (Marres, 2017, pp. 72, 74, 88). She concludes that none of the formerly mentioned approaches are enough to understand the impact of social technologies. Rather it is the composition of the three approaches – and maybe even more (Marres, 2017, p. 88). To sum up, whereas Jordan engages in the debate one-sided, Marres takes a holistic approach. However, combined both texts could make a whole: Jordan text could be a helpful addition to Marres’ chapter about data.
To conclude, Jordan and Marres investigate the effects of digitalization from different points of view. They agree on the main arguments that social technologies are ambiguous: They enable everyday people to be express their thoughts and create communities even though this results in a disclosure of data that can be abused by industries and governments. Marres shows effectively that social technologies do not only affect our social lives but almost any area we engage in and gives information about their, problems, dangers but also chances and approaches for the future – facts that are missed in Jordan’s text. An interesting question which both authors ignore is the question if social technologies have changed the way people community in face to face situations – and if so, how these changes are visible.


References:
Clement, J. (2020a, August 10). Facebook: Active users worldwide. Retrieved September 09, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/
Clement, J. (2020b, January 08). WhatsApp Status daily active users 2019. Retrieved September 09, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/730306/whatsapp-status-dau/
Jordan, T. (2020). The Digital Economy. Polity Press, pp. 34-50.
Marres, N. (2017). Digital Sociology. Polity Press, pp. 62-95.
O’Dea, P. (2020, August 20). Smartphone users worldwide 2020. Retrieved September 09, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/330695/number-of-smartphone-users-worldwide/

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