Platform Society: The Opportunities and Risks

The early days of the internet – when we were still imagining what the future information society might look like – have given way to the new reality of social platforms, as online digital platforms have risen to dominate social interaction on the internet. Whereas web 1.0 was a world of divergence, plurality, experimentation and exploration, the story of web 2.0 since the beginning of the last decade has been one of convergence, concentration, and commercialization as platforms have taken over an ever greater share of the running of the web and are becoming ever more central to the operation of our economy and society in what some have called the “platform revolution”. Today these platforms permeate all aspects of our public and private lives; in virtually every area these platforms are important means to information and connectivity.

This rise of online platforms in general, and social platforms more specifically, has been dramatic over the course of the past decade. This transformation towards a platform economy is happening fast and it is one that we are not as yet prepared for, leaving traditional institutions in a reactionary position. The story is becoming somewhat familiar at this stage, large platforms rise to prominence, start to have an impact in the real world, and inevitably – due to the fact that they operate on different principles – create friction with existing institutions and then we react to them, trying to impose regulation. We see this with the rise of Uber disrupting the cab industry, Airbnb disrupting the accommodation industry, or Facebook and the media industry.

But these growing pains of platforms and the frictions they cause within society are only the tip of the iceberg. The development of social platforms is the current Wild Wild West of the ongoing transformation into a network society, through which our existing institutional infrastructure will be transformed along many dimensions over the coming decades. This transition will not be a smooth one as we try to build a new set of social institutions that harness the new possibilities engendered within information technology and the proliferation of communications networks.

In this ongoing transition, the question is, though, still very much open as to how are we going to engineer all of the values and social dynamics into these platforms in an effective fashion that delivers the outcome that people desire? no one knows. But this isn’t going to stop people moving forward. We are starting to engineer public values into algorithms, this is a very practical matter, that much of our social science is not really ready to deal with. There is a major gap between our accumulated sociological knowledge and the current practical needs as we move more and more social interaction online and try to automate it. The transition into an information network society will assuredly be a rocky one, but the question remains will social platforms ultimately bring us together or bring us apart?

This paper explores the many issues currently faced in the rise of social platforms and the transition into an information society, looking at some of the most salient issues currently faced by societies around the world as they have adopted new social networking technologies. We discuss the effects of private business models on the design of these social systems. We look at the central issues of data, privacy, transparency and the consequences, challenges, and risks of automating social interactions through algorithms.

  • Publish Date: 2-3-2017

  • Length: 20 pages

  • Type: Society Insight

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