The Digital Public Space - the era of platforms
In recent years, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the digitalisation of society and in what ways the digital places we find ourselves in affect the way we live our lives and shape our societies. My thoughts with this text are to briefly describe the last decade's platform society and how it has developed to today. The goal is to make a shorter time travel, which ends in our present. In a later text, my intention is to iterate out of this story to describe a possible way forward after the age of platforms. A path that focuses more on the needs of the individual and society, than on algorithms and business models.
Just some years ago, Facebook was the dominant platform for most of society's digital conversations. It was on Facebook that we wrote on each other's walls, posted pictures and shared news with each other. Today it is almost difficult to remember the web before the time of Facebook and the platforms. Back then there were phenomena like the blogosphere. LiveJournal, Friendser and Myspace. But that was a long time ago. And before that ICQ, MSN, and AOL. But all that is awfully hard to remember today. Facebook came to sweep the decks and it came to be so successful that it felt impossible to imagine how it could lose its position. I was one of those who could think that the platform had become "[To big to fail](https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/aug/11/facebook-too-big-to-fail-says-oxford -university-research-paper)", and that network effects and size have become self-evident protection against potential competitors. But then after a while things started to happen. A younger generation of users initially came to prefer services like Snap and Instagram over Facebook, and although Meta (formerly Facebook) bought Instagram and tried to integrate the two in different ways, Facebook as a platform was gradually challenged in its dominant position . This pattern, where a new service emerges with new innovations and business models, has become a recurring pattern in social media. Features that catch the eye of the audience are quickly copied and brought into the existing services. And so it has continued. As soon as a new service attracts a wider global audience, former social media platforms are quick to either buy the startup or copy its features. Whether it is Clubhouse or [Be Real](https:// observer.com/2022/10/bereal-a-french-social-media-startup-is-being-copied-by-big-tech-and-theres-not-much-it-can-do-about-it/ ) that enters the scene, you can expect the function to appear in Twitter, Facebook or Instagram some time later. Because what makes these companies make profits is our use of them. Without attention and without use, they do not provide returns to their owners. The development is driven by technological development, by new business models and by commercial interests.
But at the same time, these platforms have come to play an important role for society and its development. Their wide use have come to mean that society - companies, organizations, authorities, politics and the media - have come to regard the digital platforms as a kind of digital infrastructure, on top of which the actor then conducts its business, communicates and informs. When the digital platforms changes its features or services, the change becomes something that the rest of society just has to relate to to varying degrees.
The last big change happened when TikTok hit like a whirlwind just a few years ago. The service only gained traction outside of China after TikTok bought the startup Musically and with its short videos and fingertip-sensitive algorithms created a new kind of entertainment. A format that proved to far exceed previous attention-economy models. At first a younger audience, but later other groups, came to be captivated by the accessible format, which made one stay long in the app, thus generating more revenue for TikTok. And just like before, competitors were quick to [imitate](https://www.inc.com/jason-aten/instagram-reels-is-a-copy-of-tiktok-an-example-of-everything-wrong -with-facebook.html). Youtube Shorts, Reels and several services have struggled to compete with TikTok. And while the copycats have gained large audiences, TikTok has withstood the competition and grown ever stronger. For the first time, a Chinese social media service has out-competed those from the US in a new market. What seems to threaten TikTok's dominance is not the market but instead the geopolitical order of our time, which finds it difficult to accept a Chinese service gaining so much influence. The uncertainties surrounding TikTok and its handling of data, combined with the potential influence the Chinese state can exert through the platform, have led lawmakers around the world to question whether [allowing the app](https://www. theguardian.com/technology/2022/dec/28/tiktok-banned-on-devices-issued-by-us-house-of-representatives) at all. India, as one of the world's largest countries, has chosen to completely block TikTok, primarily from a security policy perspective.
For the larger social media platforms, and perhaps above all Meta's services such as Facebook and Instagram, the conditions have thus changed considerably. In their eagerness to capture the new business models, the new audiences and the new ad revenue, the former platform companies have come to lose something of what they once were. They adapt and change to meet new competition, new technology and new needs. As Facebook became exposed to competition, and a younger generation ditched them for new greener digital pastures, and some of the function Facebook once had in a wider context also disappeared. When Facebook was no longer the place where everyone was, Facebook also lost its role as society's digital meeting point. Although Meta still has a very large user base on Facebook, and in combination with other services such as Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, they are not alone in the market anymore. Today, there are several digital places, financed with advertising revenue, to choose from, for those who want ti digest the digital entertainment of our time. Another shift is that the boundaries of what might be thought of as social media has shifted. The borders between what is a game, social media or digital entertainment have been loosened. The youngest generations are on Youtube and Roblox, which is mostly described as a gaming platform but in many ways [is the most Metaverse](https://www.techradar.com/features/roblox-is-using-the-metaverse-and-ai -to-make-creating-games-accessible) thing the world has seen so far, a three-dimensional social arena for mainly young people. A slightly older target group is increasingly on TikTok, which can be described more as social entertainment than media. The social aspects are not equally in focus, but instead the flow of the algorithm is what gives the user a new kick every thirty seconds and keeps them using the app. And for the somewhat older generation, they tend to stay on to Facebook, a platform whose design has changed in many ways over time to capture the new, while retaining something of the old.
Another site that has matured over time and has come to take over parts of the conversations that could previously be seen on Facebook, is LinkedIn. In many ways, you can see similarities between LinkedIn and other social media. Many of the opportunities to publish text, images, videos and other things are there, it is possible to create groups, follow people and conduct dialogue. At the same time, the vision of the platform to "create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce" is clearly something that defines the platform. So even if much of the interaction that takes place on LinkedIn looks similar on the surface to that which can be seen elsewhere, its starting points and conditions are different because the connection to the labor market affects and colors how users use the platform. A consequence of Linkedin's strengthened position in relation to other social media is that the development has increased in terms of fragmentation, that is to say that it is even less possible to find all users on one and the same platform. LinkedIn has come to develop and consolidate itself in a very clear labor market-oriented niche among social media.
At the same time, Twitter is probably the social media of the bunch that until today has had a genuinely special position. Neither in Sweden nor internationally has Twitter been a large social media in terms of the number of users. But as an arena, its social function and power has been significantly greater than its size indicates. Over time, Twitter evolved into the digital space perhaps most valued by the media, politicians, decision makers and others in what has sometimes been called "[the chattering class](https://www.nytimes.com/2006/04 /02/weekinreview/the-peculiar-power-of-the-chattering-class.html)". Those who in one way or another have come to make their living on access to current information. Twitter's network effect is not only defined through number of users, but also in quality. With a sufficient amount of journalists, politicians, business leaders, researchers, diplomats, dissidents, activists and others with a great interest and need for current social information, it forms a truly [unique global digital environment](https://theconversation.com/elon-musks- bid-spotlights-twitters-unique-role-in-public-discourse-and-what-changes-might-be-in-store-181374). A place for a kind of global conversation about the present, with many unique features. Twitter became the place to go to find out what happened in the moment. A natural disaster, an election on the other side of the globe, a murder or a football match. For a long time, Twitter was unrivaled for sharing real-time information. But there were also many other valuable features of Twitter. As a platform, Twitter also became the arena for in-depth conversations in various more or less nerdy or important areas. With the development of hashtags on the platform, the possibility arose to follow an area, concept or phenomenon. #skoltwitter for the school debate in Sweden, #svpol for Swedish politics or #gbgftw for us with a heart in Gothenburg. Hashtags became an important tool for activism, such as with #metoo, #BlackLivesMatter or #IceBucketChallenge. On Twitter, there are parallel conversations about most things, and plenty of opportunities to find others with similar geeks as yourself.
An example of how Twitter evolved to become a global actor and came to play an important role is through its ability to weave together fragmented global communities in a common conversation, even on issues where there is deep disagreement. An example of such an area is the development of digital diplomacy, which I myself have had a small part in developing. In 2012 and 2013, during the time Carl Bildt was Minister of Foreign Affairs for Sweden, I had the privilege of leading an event in Stockholm during [SIDD](https:/ /en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockholm_Initiative_for_Digital_Diplomacy) - Swedish Initiative on Digital Diplomacy. For a few days, high-ranking diplomats from all corners of the world met in Stockholm to develop and improve the conditions for digital diplomacy together in a workshop that I had the opportunity to design and facilitate. This was at a time where Twitter was perhaps the most central digital arena for publkic diplomacy and when the possibilities and the future seemed bright. While there have been countless problems and challenges with services such as Twitter over the years, the underlying sentiment was at the time positive.
Eventually, the image of social media gradually began to change. Perhaps it was in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica affair, where it became clear that data from Facebook was being used to influence political processes in countries around around the world. It was a kind of beginning of a so-called "techlash" that emerged. From having been the prospects of the future, companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, they in just a couple of years came to be portrayed quite differently, and were singled out as the cause of many of the major problems of our time. Shoshana Zuboff's seminal book [Surveillance Capitalism](The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power: Zuboff, Shoshana: 9781610395694: Amazon.com: Books) came a few years later and pointed out how business models and algorithms greatly shape conversations and societies in a destructive way in many respects. She believes that these large companies' data collection is not only aimed at influencing user behavior, but aimes to make us all content users who inside our apps, which in turn generate billions for the companies.
There has also been more criticism from other researchers in many different disciplines, such as social psychology. Jonathan Haidt is an American social psychologist and author [who has criticized social media for potentially causing polarization, increased violence, decreased empathy and increased stress](https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social- media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/). He has argued how social media can exacerbate our natural tendencies to seek confirmation from the groups we are in and that excessive use of social media can lead to a lost ability to deal with dissent and meet people from other groups in a constructive way. Haidt also believes that social media can have a negative impact on our health by increasing our time in front of screens, reducing our sleep quality and increasing our stress. He argues that social media can create a culture of comparison and achievement, which can lead to increased burnout and anxiety. Haidt also argues that social media can have an impact on democracy by creating filter bubbles that make us see a one-sided view of the world and reduce our exposure to dissent. He believes that this can lead to increased polarization and a reduced ability to make informed decisions.
A further problematic area that has come to play a major role in the view of social media is the widespread problem of threats and hatred online. Threats and hate in social media are a big problem for those who are exposed. But at the same time also a problem for democracy and for public discourse. Threats and hatred risk creating an environment where it is difficult for individuals to express their views openly and respectfully, which can prevent democratic debate from capturing a diversity of perspectives and opinions. In addition, threats and hatred can cause individuals to silence or avoid certain topics altogether, which can lead to a shift in the public debate towards other or more polarized views. Threats and hatred in social media can also be a problem for democracy because it can undermine individuals' trust in political institutions and processes. It can also contribute to the spread of false or misleading information, which can make it difficult for individuals to make well-informed decisions in elections and other contexts. At a societal level, threats and hatred in social media can also risk causing division and polarization in society, which can create an atmosphere of discord and hostility between different groups. In addition, it can lead to actual violence and aggression against certain individuals or groups, which can have serious consequences for the welfare and safety of society.
In this context, a last example of a problem in which social media has come to play a central role is in challenges linked to disinformation. Disinformation can be described as false or misleading information that is disseminated with the intention of creating confusion or misleading the recipients. A special form of disinformation is malign influence. It is when, above all, state powers or their allied actors intentionally try to influence public discourse in another country by spreading information that is misleading, distorted or harmful. These problems are not new because of social media, they have been around for a long time. But what social media does in this context is turn the creation and spread of misinformation into a cost-effective weapon. One of the biggest risks of disinformation and malign influence is that they can create a situation where it is difficult to determine what is true and what is false. This can lead to people having a distorted view of the world and making decisions based on incorrect information. Disinformation and malign influence can also contribute to dividing society and creating discontent and anxiety. Democracy can be hurt if disinformation and malign influence leads to important decisions being made on the wrong basis. It can also undermine confidence in democratic institutions and processes if people believe they are not getting access to correct information. Public discourse can also be damaged as it can make it difficult for people to form their own opinion on important issues. This can lead to society becoming divided and making it difficult to reach a joint solution to important problems.
It is thus possible to see a parallel development where social media as platforms have come to change and develop in step with the needs of the market and the technological development, while at the same time they have had to deal with an increasingly complex reality of various problems that have come into the light. This turn, from a time where social media was something new, exciting and positive, to also include challenges and problems for communities, has meant an increased attention on the big tech companies in general, and the platform companies in particular, when it comes to legislation and regulation , mainly within the EU and in the USA. Starting in the US there has been a debate about whether tech companies like Facebook and Google has too much power and if there is a need to regulate these companies. There has also been a debate about whether there is a need to regulate the content posted on social media, particularly when it comes to hateful content and the spread of misinformation. Other debates that have been going on in parallel in the US are a broader debate about whether internet providers should be regulated in the same way as traditional telephone providers, as well as whether there is a need to strengthen the protection of personal data on the internet. In the EU, there has been a similar debate about whether tech companies and social media should be regulated. The EU has also introduced a range of laws and regulations to protect personal data, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force in 2018. In both the US and the EU, there have also been debates about whether tech companies and social media should be responsible for the content published on their platforms. Among other things, this has led to many companies introducing various measures to counter the spread of hateful content and misinformation. Despite this, the measures taken by the companies have not been considered sufficient by many, and further demands have been placed on the platforms. In the EU, legislation continues to develop, including through upcoming legislation Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA).
Despite all the criticism that has emerged over recent years, the role and position of the platform companies has nevertheless been perceived to be unthreatened when it comes to their more everyday functionality. Some of the services the platforms offer have come to be experienced as a kind of basic societal infrastructure. The ability for parents to create a group together in Messenger or WhatsApp to coordinate things in a school class. The association that creates a group on Facebook to share tips and knowledge. The company that provides support to customers on Instagram and so on.
Twitter has also had a relatively unthreatened role as the arena for public political conversation, at least until today. Despite a lot of turmoil on Twitter with Donald Trump as the main user and with a megaphone in hand, with many problematic situations of spreading threats and hatred against politicians, officials, journalists, activists and many others, and despite severe problems with fake accounts, state-controlled bot networks and illegal activity, Twitter has maintained its special position in advocacy and community conversation. Until this year, when Elon Musk takes the stage and after a very complex and puzzling process in which he first wants to buy Twitter, then changes his mind, only to return and buy the platform for what appears to be a hefty premium. In a short time, Twitter has gone from being a relatively stable platform to becoming the most turbulent of them all.
It is today very unclear in what way Twitter as a platform can play the role it has done. In a short time, much of the competence and infrastructure that existed at Twitter in matters of content moderation, law, community relations and more has been dismantled and decisions in the company seem to be made very arbitrarily. The uncertainties are so great that it has caused journalists as well as politicians, researchers and companies to leave the platform, or at least temporarily stop using it. Perhaps the negative spiral dance that Elon Musk has now set in motion is so far gone that a critical mass is looking for new and other digital places.
To summarize, you can describe it as the Tiktokification of Instagram and Facebook above all, but also YouTube, has turned them more into digital playgrounds than town squares. Fragmentation means that there is no single platform that gathers a larger majority of a population in a platform that also has societally useful functions. Changed legislation, especially in the EU, creates new conditions for the platform companies. And the increased volatility, where the purchase of Twitter from the market by Elon Musk has in a short time come to damage a very central place for parts of global public discourse.
In a relatively short time, the platforms have gone from having a relatively clear role in an emerging digital society, to becoming unclear and difficult to understand. As places for entertainment, for pastime, for shopping and pleasure, they undoubtedly have a role to play. That said, it has also become increasingly apparent that the commercial incentives that in so may ways are the starting point for the existence of these platforms do not meet the needs of individuals and communities when it comes to providing digital public infrastructure, and digital public spaces .
The change we are now in, where there is uncertainty about how society's digital conversations can be conducted, and what constitutes a digital public space, creates frustration and confusion. Many find it difficult to navigate the digital complexity we now find ourselves in. It is becoming more difficult for both individuals and organizations to design plans and strategies. Which platforms should I use? How do I communicate digitally today? In which digital places can I become part of society's public discourse? How should my company best market its services? How should the NGO prioritize to recruit new members or call attention to its burning issues? Where and how should the political conversation take place in a digital age? The questions are many.
My view is that the entry of platforms into society, in public discourse and in the political conversation at large has contributed to a lot of good. It has opened up public conversations and invited more people to take part in them. A greater diversity of voices have been able to be heard. And at the same time, all the challenges I described above have put a damper on the prevailing conditions and situation. But the experiences many have of these years' development and change in digital places also open up new opportunities. If we can take with us the insights and newly gained experiences we have formed, it may be possible to contribute to developing something new and better. There are many who, in parallel to the developments described, have long explored alternative paths forward, where other values and principles than those we find in global platform companies, have had to dictate the terms of development. Perhaps now is the time for new innovations and new opportunities to emerge, which take their starting point from new and different questions. Perhaps it is high time to ask ourselves the question of which digital places and digital public spaces we need, in order to shape a resistant and resilient digital democracy, where the interests of society and individuals are the starting point? Perhaps now is the opportunity to seriously develop the fabric of a democratic digital society.