I need support with this Communications question so I can learn better.

Option 1. You have been selected to replace Mark Zuckerberg as the CEO of Facebook for a year. What changes will you bring to help Facebook come closer to the ideals of cyberoptimists and address the concerns of cyberpessimists? Identify at least four significant changes you will bring to Facebook’s operations and discuss each of them in detail.
Option 2. You join a small organization that works for a contentious social cause you care about (e.g. immigration, climate change, advocacy of a minority community, etc.) and are asked to increase its public engagement online. Drawing on your knowledge of digital networks and communities, identify at least two strategies to do so and explain why you think they would work. Then consider how increased public engagement could also bring more online hostility (flaming, trolling) against your members from those who disagree with your cause, and discuss two measures you would take to reduce such hostility.Digital Media & Society
‘An impressive accomplishment. The book will reward both students and advanced
scholars with its comprehensive overview, deft and accessible style, and an array of
significant insights contributing to our developing understanding of social media and,
most broadly, a coming post-digital society.’
Charles M. Ess, University of Oslo
‘A brilliantly written, essential text for understanding how digital media are changing
society and how we can theorize and empirically study digital transformations.’
Christian Fuchs, University of Westminster
‘Digital Media and Society is a remarkably clear and engaging guide to understanding
the complex interactions between technology and the everyday. The compelling current
examples beautifully illustrate concepts and theories, making learning a pleasant ride.’
Stefania Milan, University of Amsterdam and University of Oslo
Digital Media & Society
Simon Lindgren
SAGE Publications Ltd
1 Oliver’s Yard
55 City Road
London EC1Y 1SP
SAGE Publications Inc.
2455 Teller Road
Thousand Oaks, California 91320
SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd
B 1/I 1 Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area
Mathura Road
New Delhi 110 044
SAGE Publications Asia-Pacific Pte Ltd
3 Church Street
#10-04 Samsung Hub
Singapore 049483
© Simon Lindgren 2017
First published 2017
Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research orprivate study, or criticism or
review, as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, this publication
may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form, or by any means, only with the prior
permission in writing of the publishers, or in the case of reprographic reproduction, in
accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency. Enquiries
concerning reproduction outside those terms should be sent to the publishers.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2016961958
British Library Cataloguing in Publication data
A catalogue record for this book is available fromthe British Library
ISBN 978-1-4739-2500-7
ISBN 978-1-4739-2501-4 (pbk)
Editor: Michael Ainsley
Editorial assistant: John Nightingale
Production editor: Imogen Roome
Copyeditor: Sarah Bury
Proofreader: Neil Dowden
Indexer: Martin Hargreaves
Marketing manager: Lucia Sweet
Cover design: Tristan Tutak
Typeset by: C&M Digitals (P) Ltd, Chennai, India
Printed in the UK
Author’s note on the cover
Part I: Theories
1. Digital Society
2. Social Media
3. Cyber Debates
4. Interaction and Identity
5. Communities and Networks
Part II: Topics
6. Digital Visuality and Visibility
7. Feeling Digital
8. Digital Citizenship
9. Digital Power and Exploitation
10. Digital Activism
11. Mobile Culture
12. Software, Algorithms and Data
Part III. Tools
13. Digital Social Research
14. The Research Process
15. Digital Ethnography
16. Mapping and Mining Digital Society
Part IV: Conclusion
17. A Theory of Digital Media and Social Change
Author’s Note on the Cover
One of the key conclusions to be drawn from this book is that social actions and phenomena
that may appear to be quite random, insignificant, or even absurd can end up having a larger
potential to transform society than one might initially believe. I discuss, in the concluding
chapter, how novel social forms, such as memes and trolling, may be wrongfully construed as
ephemeral curiosities while they may in fact be early clues about some truly new ways of
engaging and behaving that are emerging as a consequence of the saturation of the social by
the digital. This is a complex process where embryonic social forms that we initially lack
names for, and consequently adequate understandings of, gradually assume broader meanings
and exert a more far reaching influence on modes of thinking and acting in society. This
book’s cover design — a rendition of ‘Flamethrower Squirrel’, the star of one out of many
meme images being circulated on the internet — was chosen to represent this.
Part I Theories
1 Digital Society
Key questions
What is digital society?
What is the relationship between technology and social change?
What does it mean, from a social perspective, that things are digital?
In what social and historical context was the internet created, and how has it evolved?
What does it mean that ‘media are social environments, and that social environments are media’?
Key concepts
Digital society * digital media * the internet * social change * post-industrial society *
information society * media ecology * media logic
Today we have the internet. We have smartphones. We have apps, social network services,
blogs, and media sharing platforms. One stunning statistic after another tells us about the
extreme amounts of information and knowledge — much of it created by ‘ordinary people’
— flowing through the silicon, copper, optical fibre, and wireless infrastructures in the skies,
under the ground, and in our laps and pockets. Indeed, most people are quite well connected,
and instead of digital things in society, we increasingly have digital society. It wasn’t always
like this, however. Like the wheel, the printing press, the steam engine, the telephone, and
television before it, digital media have put their mark on society of today. At the same time,
people in society continuously contribute to shaping the new media through the ways in
which they use, adapt, or resist them. In general, this process of society transforming and
being transformed by media happens along the lines of what historian of technology Melvin
Kranzberg (1986: 545–546) has called Kranzberg’s first law. It goes like this:
Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral. […] Technology’s interaction with
the social ecology is such that technical developments frequently have environmental,
social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the
technical devices and practices themselves, and the same technology can have quite
different results when introduced into different contexts or under different
This book is about digital media and society, and I have chosen to use the concept of ‘digital
society’ throughout the book to refer to the result of the equation of digital media + society.
As you will soon become aware, there are many other potential suggestions, both for what is
the best equation for describing society today, and as regards to how it is best resolved. This
is because social scientists love to name things. We like to develop sets of concepts —
theories — that we imagine will grasp some of the key features of some slice of reality.
Among the things we love the most is to give names to phases and periods in the history of
society. The early sociologists battled each other to put labels on the emerging industrialised
society and early modernity, and on social patterns and phenomena within those frameworks.
Since about half a century back, the race is on to characterise our present age of multitude,
fragmentation, computerisation and global connectivity. As you will see in the first five
chapters of this book, there is definitely no lack of suggestions, but there is, however, a lack
of consensus over which concepts are the best. For the time being, then, let’s call our present
society digital society. I mean then, society as affected by digitally networked communication
tools and platforms, such as the internet and social media.
In this first chapter, I discuss what the digital is, and how it can affect the social. I give a
historical background to the internet, a set of technologies at the centre of a relatively new
form of society — the one that I call digital society, remember? Depending on whom you
ask, this same society might also be called a post-industrial society, an information society, a
network society or a number of other names. I also introduce in this chapter what media are,
from a perspective where they are seen as environments for social interaction, rather than
simply as channels for the transmission of information. The media environments of today are
increasingly complex and entangled, as new tools and technologies are introduced so
Internet or internet?
The word for the globally interconnected network of computers is sometimes written with a capital
‘I’, and sometimes not. I have chosen to go with the non-capitalised version of the word in this
book. I will talk about the internet rather than the Internet. Early in its history, in the 1970s, the
name of this new fantastic network was most commonly written as ‘the Internet’, and this is still a
very common form today. In fact, the internet is still quite fantastic. Actually, in some documents
up until the early 1990s, the internet was even called the INTERNET, with all capitals.1 While
views differ, and there might indeed be some good arguments for retaining the capital ‘I’, one must
decide on one of the options when writing a book like this. I think a good way of seeing it is that,
today, the internet is incorporated into the lives of people in a way similar to radio (not Radio) and
television (not Television). I have used the same logic in writing of the web rather than the Web.
1 http://volokh.com/2013/11/12/history-internet-typography-division-contd/
Media Everywhere
For most people today, there is nothing strange or novel about using digital tools for doing
social things. But those of us who were born before the major breakthrough of the internet
still tend to refer to it, and the gadgets and software with which we interact with it, as
something eternally new. This is because there is a tendency to make a connection between
media and social change. Media are tools, channels, platforms and strategies which we can
use to obtain, produce, and share knowledge about the world around us, through
communication and interaction. Media are at the centre of how we, as groups and individuals,
relate both to society at large — as a structure — and the many social activities that happen
within it — as a setting for our lives together. Therefore, there is nothing odd or surprising
really about people making sense of their lives, their sociality and their place in history
through their relationships with media. Throughout history, different media, such as cave
paintings, television, or the internet and mobile phones, have all played a specific role in how
we relate to the world, and how we understand how society has transformed, and is
continuously transforming.
But media don’t just enable us to say, think, and do things. They involve possibilities as well
as limitations for how we can act and interact. This is what we mean when we say that they
are structures. If we regard media as just television, radio, the internet, and so on, there is, of
course, life beyond media, where people can think, create, and do stuff. But a wider definition
of media includes our very languages — both written and spoken — and the more abstract
cultural and symbolic ‘mythologies’ and ways of thinking. Just as a 1980s television producer
could not transmit either smell or touch to the audience, and a blogger in the 1990s could not
embed video as easily as a blogger can in the age of YouTube, languages also ‘decide’ what
can be said and done, or not. Depending on the media — broadly defined — that we can use,
some things are more likely to be created, thought, done, or achieved than others. This is why
a science of the social must deal with the media of its time. Beyond the specialisms of media
studies, where things like film genres or journalistic conventions are analysed, there is also a
need for sociologists to examine the role of media in a much more general sense. No matter if
one adheres to Marxism; to the theories of sociological classics like Weber, Durkheim, or
Simmel; to traditions in social theory such as symbolic interactionism, structuralism, or poststructuralism; there is always an interest in the tools and structures used in the creation and
maintenance of social reality.
Different tools and platforms that we use to get or spread information, and communicate, enable and
limit what we can do in their own specific ways. The medium used will alter our ways of seeing,
speaking, and acting. Think about the difference between learning about current events from the website
of a big media corporation and from friends on Facebook or Twitter. In what ways are your uses of
television and YouTube similar, and how do they differ? How do you act in a phone call as compared to
in text messaging with the same person? Try to think of other examples of how different media lead to
different ways of thinking and behaving.
Throughout history, key shifts in technological ability and practice have changed how people
relate to the social sphere and the world around them. The invention of writing by the
Sumerians around 3000 years BC enabled the transition from reliance on spoken word and
memory to the preservation of laws, stories, and other items through the creation of written
text. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote, back in the 1960s, that one of the most crucial
transformations of people’s ways of being social following the transition from oral to written
cultures was the separation of thought and action. McLuhan claimed that this was because the
process of externalising spoken sounds into media, such as letters, changed people’s ‘mental
processes’. With the subsequent historical emergence of other technological developments —
the introduction of the printing press, radio, telephones, television, computers — McLuhan
(1962: 32) identified a development towards an ‘externalization of our senses’ that creates:
a technological brain for the world. Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian
library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as in an infantile
piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes
inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic
terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.
So, even if he was quite pessimistic about what life would be like inside the ‘electronic brain’
of society, McLuhan made the vital point that it is impossible to analyse or theorise about
social and cultural change without focusing on how people and their communication and
interactions are affected by the media that they use. Much like, as he put it (1962: 64), ‘the
alphabet is an aggressive and militant absorber and transformer of cultures’, and that ‘a
nomadic society cannot experience enclosed space’, any digital media application —
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or any other — will affect and shape sociality, and influence
what we can say, do, or experience, or not. At the same time, like I said before, people’s uses
of the applications will also contribute in turn to shaping them.
So social science needs to concern itself with the roles of the prevailing media formats in the
development of the social and how this evolves and transforms. This is especially important
for the new media of any era, as they might be harder to approach critically during the time
that we familiarise ourselves with these technologies and integrate them into our everyday
existence. As scholars we must, as McLuhan (1962: 40) wrote, try to capture the new
‘translation of culture’ which happens alongside the introduction of new media technology.
One particular challenge of this is that:
Every technology contrived […] by man has the power to numb human awareness during
the period of its first interiorization. (1962: 153)
Today, we live in a digital society in the sense that we are in an era where our lives, our
relationships, our culture, and our sociality are digitised, digitalised, and affected throughout
by digital processes. When we repeatedly speak of ‘the digital’ in this way, we use it as an
encompassing notion for our current experience of social life. But what is ‘the digital’, really?
Is it a purely technological phenomenon? How does it relate to humankind? To
communication and interaction? Are there measurable qualities to what it is to be ‘digital’ or
has it rather to do with subtler or gradual processes? What does it mean that society ‘becomes
digital’? What changes have digital media introduced to the forms and methods through
which we relate to each other and the world around us, and how can such transformations be
Zeroes and Ones
From the outset, the digital has to do with mathematics. Being digital, then, means simply
using numbers — digits — rather than analogous objects to convey information. When some
form of input is numerically encoded, it can be subjected to mathematical processes such as
addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division, through algorithms — procedures by which
computers carry out stuff — that are defined in software programs. In computing, input
values are converted to binary numbers, 0 and 1, instead of using all numbers ranging from
zero to nine. The binary system was invented by philosopher and mathematician Gottfried
Leibniz in the 1600s. He used this system for coding, computing, and controlling information
when experimenting with ideas for machines that could do calculations by using things such
as marbles — being in place, or not — and punched cards — having holes, or not. This is
how the computers that we have today, in anything from smartphones and laptops to
refrigerators and drones, work too, but with refined microelectronics instead of marbles.
The usefulness of binary numbers for building computers, gadgets, robots, and the like, has to
do with the electronic aspects, as in e(lectronic)-mail or e(lectronic)- democracy. In digital
electronics, the number ‘0’ means that electricity is off, while ‘1’ means that it is on, and
different computerised things communicate — transfer instructions and information — with
the help of electronic pulses of these ones and zeroes. The power of binary is that it works
with the smallest and most efficient computer programs, or circuits, which are created
through series of 1/0 switches that are arranged so that they can perform various logical or
mathematical operations. Technologically speaking, this binary system forms the basis for
everything we do that is digital.
Experiments similar to those of Leibniz were developed by scientist Charles Babbage in the
1800s, through his work to first construct a ‘Difference Engine’ (difference as in the 0/1 idea
of binary), and later, a more complex ‘Analytical Engine’. Ada Lovelace, who worked on
creating instructions for the Analytical Engine, is considered to be the world’s first computer
programmer. While neither the computer nor the code were ever finished or tested, these
early attempts paved the way for the subsequent development of computers and software
throughout late modern history. Lovelace, who wrote in her notes about possibilities for
computing that included many other uses than just calculating numbers, was a visionary. She
made the important distinction between numbers, and the operations to be performed, and the
results to be achieved. She wrote in one of her notes that the Analytical Engine:
might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual
fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations,
and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating
notation and mechanism of the engine […] Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental
relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were
susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and
scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent. (Toole 1992: 178–179)
At their core, then, computers have been invented and developed to solve mathematical
problems, but their actual capabilities, obviously, stretch far beyond mathematics. During the
latter parts of the 20th century, digitisation had advanced beyond purely scientific
applications, as text, sound, graphics, and images became digitally encodable. Today,
computers can store and transmit data, which changes how we deal with anything from our
family photos and recipes to government documents or business plans. We have also learnt
that computers can manage communication networks, and this has transformed how we form
friendships, and how we connect and stay in touch with people, sometimes across large
geographical distances. Furthermore, computers can process text, images, and sound, which
has changed the way in which writers write, musicians play, and painters paint. Spaceships
and airplanes are flown by computers, and digital devices are increasingly entangled in our
everyday lives, in the form of laptops, tablets, smartphones, and things like robot vacuum
cleaners. Digitalisation of ourselves and sociality continually moves ever closer with
wearable devices and smart scales, showers, and toilets. Still, at the heart of every computer
lie circuits that contribute to all of these social and cultural transformations, through the
breaking down of operations into mathematical equations. As Paul Ceruzzi (2003: 1), a
computer historian, puts it:
Deep inside a computer are circuits that do those things by transforming them into a
mathematical language. But most of us never see the equations, and few of us would
understand them if we did. […] As far as the public face is concerned, ‘computing’ is
the least important thing that computers do.
When we speak of today’s society as being digital, we don’t very often mean to say that it
just draws upon binary numerical operations. What we do tend to mean is that it has been
transformed in a number of quite drastic ways, following the development of the early
‘computing’ machines into smart devices which have increasingly enabled large-scale
networked connections, coordination, and communication in both automated and humandriven ways.
Games Between People
The binary numerical system, and the advances in computing that were enabled by it, made
digital information — the type of information which is stored using series of zeroes and ones
— a crucial tool, dimension, and force of social life. This social transformation happened
gradually during the 20th century, and is still constantly evolving today. In the early 1970s,
sociologist Daniel Bell had already described the emergence of a future society where
handling and relating to information would be at the very centre of daily life, even though
today’s social media, tablets, smartphones, and wearable devices might not have been exactly
what he envisioned.
Bell (1973) used the term post-industrial society — which he later came to partly replace
with the notion of an information society — to refer to entirely new forms of production and
community that he claimed had replaced the previously prevailing industrial society. He said
that this happened because of a powerful convergence between telecommunications and
computer technologies. Bell talked about how different forms of work had been predominant
during different historical eras, and argued that this had defined various types of society in
different periods. Pre-industrial agricultural societies were dominated by the ‘extractive
work’ of farmers, while the defining form of work in the subsequent industrial society had
been the labour of fabrication, carried out by factory workers. The coming of the postindustrial society in the Western world, during the latter parts of the 20th century, was
characterised by service employment and ‘information activities’. Bell’s idea was that as the
form of work that was predominant in a certain era became rationalised to a certain level, a
shift happened to the next form: when farming became highly automated, people turned to
cities for work; as factories were increasingly robotised, people had to turn somewhere else.
Bell argued that what was emerging during the second half of the 20th century was an
information society that met new needs that were arising among a post-industrial workforce.
For Bell, the most important things that were then produced were services, and he felt that
services were always ‘games between people’. He said that information had become the
material of work for a majority of people. Banks do transactions, therapists are engaged in
dialogues, teachers convey and stimulate knowledge, software developers write code, and
advertisers and journalists compose and transmit images and symbols. All of these jobs are
about delivering services, and the service work that is done is also information work. As a
result of this, Bell said that ‘information professionals’ represented the most prominent
category of jobs on the new labour market. This did not mean that everyone was now a
journalist or a marketer, but that nearly everyone deals with information in some form as a
key part of their work. While Bell talked optimistically about this, in terms of ‘the rise of
knowledge experts’, the same development has more recently come under debate as critical
researchers have seen both the information work of professionals and consumers in digital
society as a sort of digital labour — a concept that I will return to in Chapter 9. What the
likes of Bell saw in terms of opportunity, democratisation, personal development, learning,
and enjoyment can, from another perspective, be seen as just another form of mass value
production for the benefit of capitalists.
Think about the notion of information work and information professionals.
Is it true that the majority of people today work with information in various ways? Envision a predigital society (agricultural or industrial) and try to think of jobs in that society which you think were
not information work. Try to think of ways that those jobs might still be defined as being dependent on
various forms of information. Think of some jobs today that are clearly about dealing with information.
Now try to think of ways to argue that these jobs are also about material aspects of social reality. Do
you agree that we now live in an information society? What has happened with industrial capitalism?
Has it been replaced?
The Bedlam of Blip Culture
Another proponent of the post-industrial perspective, futurist Alvin Toffler (1970, 1980),
claimed — like Bell — that mediated information was now to become de-massified. Instead
of the standardised messages that were transmitted, broadcast as it were, through traditional
mass media channels from a few select senders to the uniform masses of the many, we were
now to get ‘narrowcasting’. This idea is quite similar to what writer and entrepreneur Chris
Anderson argued some decades later in his book The Long Tail (2006). Anderson said that
things with small, niche audiences will survive, and are important, in the digital world, in
ways that they could not possibly be in a situation where one had to focus on a small number
of things with huge audiences. In the early 1980s, Toffler imagined that digital media would
work very much like they do today. Writing about what he called the ‘bedlam of blip culture’,
he predicted, as many writers and researchers have more recently discussed, that the myriad
small pieces of content offered through electronic media over time will make people more
active in navigating and piecing things together by themselves:
[People today become] more at ease in the midst of this bombardment of blips — the
ninety-second news-clip intercut with a thirty-second commercial, a fragment of song
and lyric, a headline, a cartoon, a collage, a newsletter item, a computer printout. […]
Rather than trying to stuff the new modular data into the standard […] categories or
frameworks, they learn to make their own, to form their own ‘strings’ out of the blipped
material shot at them. (Toffler 1980: 166)
Another often emphasised feature of digital society is that it compresses time and space and
makes them less important. For example, when we send texts, chats, or emails to each other,
there is no need for us to be in the same place to be able to communicate. The exchange need
not be instantaneous either, as we can respond to digital messages whenever it suits us. In
Chapter 4, I will discuss such transformations in more depth. But for the time being, let’s just
ask ourselves whether these characteristics of computer-mediated communication really are
that revolutionary? Haven’t we already since ancient times — since the first symbolic
language, actually — been able to get past limitations of space and time through various
forms of mediated communication, ranging from rock carvings and pen and paper to the
printing press and the telephone? This is a question of whether the coming of information
society marks a gradual difference, or if it signals the transition into a completely new form of
society. But more about that in later chapters.
In either case, Bell argued that the changed conditions for everyday micro-interaction brought
on by digital technology contributed to profound social transformations. The power and
influence of territorially based bureaucratic and political authorities would lessen, as would
that of history and tradition. The punch clocks, schedules, and timetables that so strongly
grounded and confined industrialism in space and time were to be replaced by other notions
of time and space that were more fluid and dynamic — and that made physical presence less
Bell and Toffler generally thought that this development was steeped in opportunities, and
they were both very optimistic about what was supposed to happen in the future. There would
be no more manual work; people would become more intellectual and friendly; there would
be an end to ‘radical politics’ (which they thought was a good development). Even though the
high volumes of information floating about could sometimes be frustrating, and in spite of the
stresses of blip culture, they both hoped — in Toffler’s (1980: 2–3) words — for ‘the death of
industrialism and the rise of a new civilization’. Society was to become ‘more sane, sensible,
and sustainable, more decent and more democratic than any we have ever known’. People
would no longer be reduced to numbers, or analysed only in terms of how much income they
could generate (this is interesting in relation to debates today about people being reduced to
data more than ever). We would all live in a communal society where the environment, care,
and education were the priorities, at the cost of individualism, capitalism and competition
(Bell 1973: 220, 283). There would be a sort of consensus democracy where no dictator could
In Chapter 9 of this book, I will return to such issues of new forms and patterns of authority
in digital society. But aside from the need to evaluate the actual consequences of these
changes, there is also a debate about whether digital society (‘the information society’, ‘postindustrial society’) has happened at all. Of course, there is no denying that much of the
assertions of these theorists are true. We need only look to our own daily lives to find plenty
of proof that digital tools, platforms, and information are immensely important to most of us.
Digital technology is an integrated and important part of a huge number — if not the majority
— of common social activities. Banking and payments, travel and communications, culture
and entertainment, cooking and cleaning, business and commerce. One can think of nearly
any sector or activity, and quite easily realise how digital information is a rather vital part of
things that go on there. We buy our train tickets in mobile applications, we stay up to date
with global news on tablets, our cars and tumble dryers have smart microchips in them,
environmental activists mobilise with the help of social media platforms, and so on. In short,
it is very easy to make the case that we live in a highly digitised world which is abundant
with information.
This is so obvious that even those who might be critical of the theories about the information
society still agree that digital information plays a very important role today, and might do so
even more tomorrow. For example, there are some Marxist theorists who were quite in
opposition to Bell’s ideas about post-industrialism. Some of them suggested that we instead
speak of ‘post-Fordism’ (Lipietz 1987), referring to a transition from an era marked by mass
production to an era of ‘flexible specialisation’ (Piore & Sabel 1984). While such writers
argued that capitalism, like in the industrial society, were to remain being the dominating
force, they identified a number of changes similar to those discussed, for example, by Bell
and Toffler. They said information processing had become more important, and that an
increasing share of workers were now doing things with information, like analysing and
manipulating symbols, managing ideas, and constantly retraining themselves to deal with the
increased flexibility and globalised character of social reality. Similarly, theorists who have
described the late 20th-century social transformations in terms of ‘post-modernity’ also argue
that the new age is marked by increased symbolic complexity and intensified flows of
information (Lyotard 1984).
Towards Something New: Evolution, Revolution and
But even if everyone seems to agree that we now live in a society where ‘information’, in its
broadest sense, is crucial, does this automatically mean that the social and cultural changes
which have followed from the technological innovations in these areas have been enough to
allow us to say that we have a new society? Are the changes comparable to what happened
during the industrial revolution? While some writers obviously argue that this is the case,
quite a few others remain sceptical. Critics, such as, for example, the Marxists mentioned
above, have said that digital information technologies might have changed many things, but
not the fundamental continuity of capitalist industrialism. After having convincingly argued
in several ways that we indeed live in a society where flows of information are at the very
centre, sociologist Manuel Castells (1996: 520) writes:
However, this evolution towards networking forms of management and production does
not imply the demise of capitalism. The network society, in its various institutional
expressions, is, for the time being, a capitalist society. Furthermore, for the first time in
history, the capitalist mode of production shapes social relationships over the entire
In making this point, Castells speaks of a network society rather than an information society.
While these ideas are largely overlapping, I will deal in more detail with the idea of network
society in Chapter 5. In either case, information society theorists like Bell and Toffler have
been attacked by many for being historically short-sighted. Those who have denounced the
‘information revolution’ have argued instead that the developments during the latter half of
the 20th century did not cause any dramatic shift, but was rather the culmination of trends in
communication which stretch way back into the past. For example, sociologist and historian
James Beniger (1986: 435) has suggested that we are dealing with a ‘control revolution’ that
had already started in the mid-1800s:
The Information Society has not resulted from recent changes […] but rather from
increases in the speed of material processing and of flows through the material economy
that began more than a century ago. Similarly, microprocessing and computing
technology, contrary to currently fashionable opinion, do not represent a new force only
recently unleashed on an unprepared society but merely the most recent installment in
the continuing development of the Control Revolution.
Beniger’s argument is that ‘control crises’ followed from the acceleration of society’s entire
processing system in the wake of the industrial revolution. In these crises, informationprocessing and communication technologies had a hard time keeping up with the speed of
society. Thus followed the control revolution — a series of rapid technological changes in the
arrangements used for collecting, storing, processing, and communicating information. These
tendencies are in fact rather similar to what is happening around the phenomenon discussed
these days as big data (but more about that in Chapter 12). So what may appear to be the
advent of a new informational society, Beniger argues, is rather a digital intensification of
Throughout the following chapters of this book, I will deal with a number of research areas
where studies have been made that, at least in some respects, can shed light upon whether the
1970s and 1980s prophecies and prognoses were right or wrong about what the emerging
information society would entail in terms of social and cultural consequences. In most cases,
we will see that the answer is neither a clear yes nor a definite no. As the digital society plays
out in practice, things turn out to be quite a bit more complicated than those futurologists
expected. In the end, it is not that important really whether one should label our present-day
society ‘post-industrial’, ‘post-Fordist’, ‘post-modern’, or as an ‘information society’,
‘network society’ or a ‘control society’. Such debates might be interesting for theorists who
want to lay claim to having ‘discovered’ and named a certain era. In the end, however, one
must be very careful with such labels. Sociologist Krishan Kumar (2009: 29) writes:
Labels, like rumours, can take on a life of their own. The labels of intellectual discourse
are no exception. Once sufficiently established, they can govern reality […], at least
scholarly reality. They inspire conferences, books, television programmes. They can
create a whole climate of critical inquiry which, especially in these days of academic
entrepreneurship and the multinational scholarly enterprise, feeds on itself. ‘The lonely
crowd’, ‘the affluent society’, ‘the technological society’, ‘the hidden persuaders’, ‘the
power elite’: these are all well-known examples of labels which in recent decades have
generated much activity of this sort.
Indeed, there might also be ideological reasons for choosing certain concepts for describing
things. ‘The information society’, and some of its related notions, actually fit quite well with
Western neoliberal thinking. The idea that innovation and technology leads to a richer and
hence better world maintains a faith, similar to that of the enlightenment, in progress and
rationality. It is of course no secret today — with debates about surveillance, digital labour,
consumer profiling, targeted advertising, and internet governance — that the information
society idea is related to big business and large-scale politics.
In this book, I use the notion of digital society to refer roughly to all of these developments.
The concept is just as awkward as any alternative, but I think it is important not to be blinded
or constrained by concepts that carry a lot of historical baggage. I use ‘digital society’ in a
pragmatic way, as a neutral label, when dealing with social and cultural uses and
consequences of digital media, and this relates to realised, as well as unrealised, potentials for
transformations at both micro and macro levels.
Digital tools and platforms
There are many ways of collectively naming the interactive activities and environments that people
engage in online. When writing about these, I have tried to vary the words used to a certain degree,
while at the same time keeping with a somewhat fixed set of formulations. You will see that I
write of the environments as sometimes ‘internet and social media’, sometimes ‘digital media’ or
‘digitally networked media’, and sometimes as ‘digital tools and platforms’. With these
interchangeable wordings, I mean to refer quite generally to things such as computers,
smartphones and tablets, and to services such as email, texting, Skype, YouTube, Facebook,
Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, blogs, forums, and so on. With these digital tools and platforms,
people do things among and between each other. I will write about how people ‘communicate’ or
‘interact’, that they are engaging in ‘computer-mediated communication’, and that this happens
‘online’. This underlines that in digital society, people in general are increasingly networked an
interconnected through the internet.
The Internet
Before moving on to a more specific discussion of what digital media might mean, we must
focus first on one of the key inventions of digital society — namely, the internet. This global
network of computers, which enables and structures an unmeasurable amount of social
activity around the world, feels today as if it was always there. But in fact, it only became
widely available in the mid-1990s, through the invention of a protocol for something called
the World Wide Web. In reality, the history of the internet goes quite a bit further back than
the 1990s, and it is important to keep in mind that its emergence was shaped by a number of
specific circumstances. The web didn’t just materialise, it was the product of certain efforts
and projects.
In 1959, at the height of the Cold War, Paul Baran, a computer scientist at the RAND
Corporation, a US military think tank, was given the task of creating a communications
system able to withstand a nuclear attack. At least that’s how the story goes. The strategy was
to establish a computer network that did not rely on centralised command, and thus was not
vulnerable to attacks targeting central hubs (Galloway 2004). Baran’s network was based on
the technology of packet-switching, through which messages are distributed in small
fragments to be reassembled at the receiving end. The system was finally realised at the end
of the 1960s through funding from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA),
President Eisenhower’s response to the Soviet Sputnik launch. The agency’s ARPANET, the
first computer network based on packet-switching, was used by the military and by
academics to transfer and exchange information. Castells (2002: 24–25) describes how the
Network Working Group, which was doing most ARPANET design in the late 1960s,
consisted mainly of graduate students who had studied in the same secondary school in
Southern California, later to become students of Leonard Kleinrock at UCLA. The so-called
RFCs introduced in 1969 by one member of this group – Steve Crocker – became important
for the subsequent development of the internet as a space for open communication: RFCs
(Request for Comments) were memos about work in progress, and their ‘intelligent, friendly,
co-operative, consensual attitude […] set the tone for the way the Net developed’ (Naughton
1999: 135). The young ARPANET developers, and the student culture of which they were
part – as well as the wider context of late 1960s counterculture – had a great impact on how
the global internet came to emerge. Castells (2002) writes that the birth of the internet
happened at the rather unlikely intersection of science, military interests, and libertarian
culture. It is a common misinterpretation that the internet was created solely as a military
command-and-control mechanism, when it was in fact co-opted already from the start by
academics (and others).
‘E-mail’, which was initially called network mail, was introduced in 1972, and the term
internet itself appeared in 1974 as an abbreviation for ‘internetworking’. Control of the
network was transferred from the Department of Defense to the National Science Foundation
by the end of the 1980s, and then to commercial telecommunications interests in 1995. The
fact that a global telecommunications network was already in place increased the efficiency
by which the network could be distributed globally. The previously mentioned user interface
called the World Wide Web was developed in 1991 by programmer Tim Berners-Lee, at the
European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), which had adopted connections to IP
addresses internally in 1985 and externally in 1989. The first graphical browser, Mosaic, was
released in 1993, and by 1998, all countries worldwide were part of the network.
Since then tools using the internet infrastructure — such as the web, social media, and mobile
apps — have become a crucial part of how people today obtain information, communicate,
and interact. This digital and cultural ecosystem provides us with a language for relating to
each other and the world around us. In that sense, the internet is a medium.
You have read about the history of ‘the Internet’ as a military/academic project started in the 1960s.
Since the mid-1990s, the internet has become increasingly commercialised and widespread. Today, it is
ever present to the point where it is nearly transparent to its users. It tends to feel like part of our lives to
the extent that we don’t think about when we are ‘on the internet’ or not. Try to think of situations when
the internet, as a technology, becomes visible to you. What types of situations are these? What do you
think about them? How do you deal with them? What about when you hear of ‘surveillance scandals’?
What about when you are in situations when you can’t access the internet for some reason? Try to think
of other examples of when the net comes into view.
Media as Environments, Environments as Media
From the perspective of media ecology, the internet — as an intrinsic part of digital society
— is a medium because it is an environment. And conversely, it is an environment because it
is a medium. Media ecologists such as McLuhan (1964) and media theorist Neil Postman
(1970) have maintained that media must be defined as something more wide-ranging than the
traditional informational devices, such as radio, television, newspaper, movies, sound
records, computers, and so on. Instead, they argued, a medium is any symbolic structure, or
social environment, that in some way, and under certain circumstances, defines human
interaction and the production of culture. From this perspective, a newspaper is a medium
because it provides us with a certain way of relating to the world — through print text, still
images, and certain journalistic genres and conventions. It also establishes limits, as a
conventional old school newspaper does not allow for things like moving images, sounds,
and online reader comments. In a similar way, from a media ecology perspective, coffeehouses, bowling alleys, and classrooms are also media, for the same reasons: they offer
certain ways of relating to the world, while at the same time establishing boundaries for what
can be said, done, expressed, learnt, or achieved. Sociologically speaking, this means that
media, like the internet, are social structures.
According to sociologist Anthony Giddens (1984), social structures consist of two
dimensions: first, the rules implicated when social systems are produced and reproduced;
second, resources — symbolic and others — that people can draw upon while doing things in
society. This is also similar to what social psychologist Erving Goffman (1959) wanted to say
with his so-called ‘dramaturgical’ perspective on interaction. People in society enter different
roles and stages, while performing socially with a degree of agency, but always in relation to
certain limitations or expectations. The environment of the interaction thus affects what we
do, and how we do it. From the perspective of media ecology, media — such as the internet
and its various incarnations and platforms — are such environments: symbolic structures
within which we are situated and through which we engage.
This situatedness and embeddedness happens on two levels. First, there is the sensorial level,
where things like a Facebook page, a Twitter profile, or an Instagram feed each employ our
senses in different ways, much like reading is visual, radio is auditory, and video games are
visual and auditory, as well as tactile. In a way, the reality we sense is constructed or
reconstructed through the medium at hand. Famously, McLuhan (1964: 35) defined media as
‘extensions’ of our senses that decide how people experience and become aware of the world
around them. This also relates to what McLuhan meant when he, even more famously,
declared that ‘the medium is the message’. Switching from one medium to another
reconfigures our senses and alters the ways in which we comprehend and reconstruct the
world around us.
Second, there is the symbolic level, at which every medium is constituted by a certain
systematic set of rules and codes in the form of vocabulary, grammar, and other conventions.
While a director creating a film has to master and relate to certain cinematic vocabularies,
posting an Instagram photo might similarly require knowledge of conventions such as using
hashtags and applying filters. And this is not mainly about knowing how to apply the filter or
type the hashtag, but about mastering the social rules for when to use them and how to make
them mean certain things. As we learn these skills or attitudes, we are at the same time
socialised and acculturated into the symbolic environment of the medium. In this sense, a
medium is quite similar to a language or a culture that is used to make sense of the world.
Media ecologists talk of some major changes throughout history and how these introduced
crucial social transformations. The shift from a culture of talking to a culture of writing meant
that the elders’ role as experts and unique sources of knowledge diminished. The introduction
of the printing press meant a further democratisation of information, and the arrival of
electronic media contributed even more to balancing the temporal, spatial, and symbolic
constraints for who could speak, where and when, and to whom. Today, we live in a world
with a growing number of co-existing media, which means that we relate not to one, but to a
combination of several environments. It is not sensible to conceive the internet as part
writing, part still image, part moving image, part sound, part computer, part telephone, part
television, and so on. Rather, it must be approached as a whole, and then as a whole that
might be more than the sum of its parts.
While the content of radio, television, or the internet might be a football game or a political
debate, the message — in McLuhan’s terms — of each of these media is not that. The
message is instead equal to the social changes that a medium generates. He wrote (McLuhan
1964: 20) that ‘the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or
pattern that it introduces into human affairs’. He also argued that the content of a medium is
always another medium: the content of television might be the medium of a theatrical play,
the medium of football, and so on. He wanted to make the point that by just studying the
content, we risk becoming entangled in this spiral of media within media within media. It was
therefore better, he thought, to instead focus on understanding media in terms of the ways in
which they transform the social.
The user
The word ‘user’ might have a negative ring to it. And this is not only in those cases when it is
related to drugs and addictions. In computing, there is the concept of the ‘end user’ who stands in
contrast to the expert developers, programmers, or hackers who command the system, product, or
service to be used. The end user is assumed to be less competent than the experts. In discussions of
‘media use’, the notion of usage tends to evoke an image of audience behaviours where something
is served up for people to use, in order for them to get various forms of gratifications. The user,
then, appears not only to be less knowledgeable, but also less resourceful and creative. In media
studies during the last few decades, however, there has been increased talk about users being
active. They have been shown to be just as competent as the creators of content. Their expertise is
sometimes of a different kind, and comes into expression in how they make use of media content
in smart and unexpected ways. But more and more often they also create entirely new things by
and for themselves. Because of this, words like prosumer or produser or participant have become
more popular than ‘user’ in some contexts. In this book, I have still opted for the word ‘user’ in
many cases. I do this from a pragmatic perspective as I think it is a neat word which is easy to use
(!) and understand, and because using things may indeed also mean using them to produce or
create something other or new. I definitely agree that users of digital tools and platforms may
indeed draw on these tools and platforms in their own production and circulation of things (tweets,
blog posts, video clips, remixes, manifestoes, etc.). They may use them to participate, and they
may use them in ways that alter their intended or current meanings and functions.
Entangled Media
This leads us further onto a set of interrelated theories about remediation, mediatisation, and
media logics – theories which all deal with different and overlapping aspects of the increased
complexities of how media affect, and are affected by, our everyday lives. Writing about
remediation — how digital media continuously absorb and repurpose other forms of media
—media scholars Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (1999) felt that McLuhan’s notion of
media nested within other media might not be refined enough to describe the direction that
this process has taken in digital society. On the one hand, they show how this nestedness or
layering can contribute to a sense of immediacy. A computer user might be so familiar with a
particular interface that, when using it, it becomes transparent to him or her. Likewise, a
gamer might be so immersed in a particular world or story that he or she forgets about the
mediated aspects of how the story is told. Thus, the content of digital media might be
experienced in very immediate ways. On the other hand, Bolter and Grusin write about
‘hypermediacy’ which is, in a way, the opposite. This is what occurs when the interface is
instead very obvious and visible, allowing for the user to interact with it, as, for example, on
a website where different views can be selected or toggled, or with any platform where
profile photos and info are added, where templates are customisable, and so on.
Digital media also affects the social by playing a large role in processes of mediatisation.
Mediatisation describes how media have become an increasingly entangled part of our
realities, a process that is accentuated by digital technology. This is not only in terms of how
the mere quantity of media platforms and communication tools have increased. It is just as
much about qualitative changes in how media communication is dispersed in new ways —
temporally, spatially, and socially in digital society. Technologically mediated
communication is now accessible all the time, at any place, so that more and more social
settings are affected and shaped by communication through media.
The process of mediatisation is in turn linked to what has been called media logic. Media
researchers David Altheide and Robert Snow (1979), who are considered to be the originators
of the concept, presented the theory of media logic as a critique of the one-sided focus in
mass communication research on the effects of media content on audiences. Instead of
looking at the media as ‘variables of impact’, they argued that one must comprehend the
contextualised role of media. How does a medium function as a form of communication, and
how do they change our ways of seeing, speaking, and acting? This is similar to what
McLuhan said.
To describe what media logic is, Altheide and Snow referred to classic sociologist Georg
Simmel, who was interested in what he called social forms. Social forms, such as domination,
conflict, or exchange, could be studied, Simmel (1971) said, separately from the actual
content of specific occurrences of such forms. In other words, the interesting thing for a
sociologist is the ‘form’ of, for example, conflict as it might occur and re-occur throughout
times and places, rather than the specific content of any one conflict, and so on. Similarly,
Altheide and Snow (1979: 15) said that a media logic consisted of a certain form for
transmitting information. This means that the media researcher looking at such logics is
interested not in specific content, but in how media operate as forms for organisation,
presentation, and communication. Therefore, a media logic is a ‘processual framework
through which social action occurs’. Studies of for example sports events, protests or politics,
using data from digital media communication, can be carried out within fields like sports
studies, social movement studies, and political science, without necessarily being what I, in
this book, call digital social research, and which is described in detail in Chapters 13–16. This
is because digital social studies, relatively independent of the particular topic of
communication, is interested in the (media) logic by which digital media alter social
circumstances around, and for, sociality, communication, and interaction. Media scholar Stig
Hjarvard (2013: 17) provides a clear definition:
The term ‘media logic’ is used to recognize that the media have particular modus
operandi and characteristics (‘specificities of media’) that come to influence other
institutions and culture and society in general, as they become dependent on the
resources that the media both control and make available to them. […] The logic of the
media influences the social forms of interaction and communication, such as how
political communication is performed in the media […] and media logic also influences
the nature and function of social relations, as well as the relationships between sender,
content, and recipient of communication.
From this perspective, the analysis of a blog would not have to be mainly about the actual
topic of the blog — what it is specifically saying about fashion, racism, heteronormativity, or
gaming. It could be about that, but in order to qualify as digital social research it would
definitely also have to be about how the medium of the internet, and/or the web, and/or usergenerated self-publishing, and/or blogs as platforms affect how social relations are
constituted, and how they function. It would also have to ask questions about what this
particular medium does to the relationships between what is said, by whom, to whom, as
compared to how those things work in other media or environments — following other
So as you can see, thinking in terms of media logic does not have to mean that all media
follow one, unified rationality. This might be the case in some studies of media logic, where
focus has largely been on the meaning production of mainstream news (preferably on
television). More generally, however, the notion refers to a variety of ways of working
(‘modus operandi’ as Hjarvard has it) that different media might have. Different media
distribute resources differently, and adhere to different formal and informal rules,
opportunities, and limitations.
So, while politics in the 1980s were mainly confronted with processes of medialisation in
having to adjust their ways of speaking to get the maximum impact in newspapers and on
television, politics today in digital society can meet a wider range of different media logics:
that of mainstream corporate media, that of citizen media, that of viral messages, that of the
likes of social actors such as Anonymous and Wikileaks, and so on.
About this Book
While terms can differ — one might speak of online media, new media, ‘new new media’
(Levinson 2012), networked media (see Chapter 5), social media (see Chapter 2),
participatory culture (Jenkins 2006), spreadable media (Jenkins et al. 2013), smart mobs
(Rheingold 2002), networked publics (Varnelis 2008), etc. — what has been called digital
media in this chapter is seated at the centre of an ongoing process of social transformation.
This process is not only about zeroes, ones, and technology, but about the societal changes
that result from, enter into, and work through the software and hardware. These changes
include new textual experiences in terms of genre and form, new ways of representing the
world, new relationships between people (producers and consumers, teachers and students,
politicians and citizens, and so on), new conceptions of the relationship between the body,
nature, and technology, as well as new patterns of organisation and production.
This book is about digital society — what has been thought and said about it, what it is and
what it could be, and how it can be researched and analysed from a social perspective. In this
first part of the book, about theories, I deal with the concept of social media (Chapter 2), and
with the debates about whether the internet and social media are good or bad for society
(Chapter 3). I also provide a framework for understanding how digital media have
contributed to altering the parameters for how people interact and for how society is held
together. In general, while analogue things tend to be fixed in time, space, and materiality, the
digital tends towards a state of flux. It can move instantly across space and place; it can be
edited, re-edited, and re-mixed. The digital also offers novel, low-threshold tools for the
creation and circulation of content. It potentially enables new or transformed social roles and
relationships (Chapters 4 and 5).
In Part II, on topics, I deal with a set of thematic areas at the intersection of the digital and the
social. I discuss how the internet and social media might introduce new ways of seeing and
feeling — or being seen and felt (Chapters 6 and 7). I also discuss how digitally networked
media can contribute to challenging, altering, or potentially giving rise to new forms of
participation, power, and politics (Chapters 8, 9, and 10). One chapter (Chapter 11) is
devoted to how space and place are construed in partly new ways because of the central role
played in digital society by mobile media, and yet another (Chapter 12) deals with the
increasing social role of software, data, and algorithms. These themes are presented in order
to provide an overview of a number of key topics within the social scientific study of digital
media and society. Sociologists David Beer and Roger Burrows (2007) identify three
interrelated areas that especially require sociological engagement. These are:
The transformed relationships between the production and consumption of content.
The increasing amount of private information posted in the public domain.
The emerging new rhetoric about democratisation and participation.
Beer and Burrows call for a renewed interest in sociological description, and think that social
scientists must start reconsidering how they conceptualise current technologies, practices, and
Part III, about tools, is about studying digital society empirically. As more and more people
participate in an increasing amount of production of digital content, posting it to a number of
networked platforms, huge amounts of data about strategies, choices, sentiments, views,
preferences and so on are also registered and made available — to varying degrees — to
researchers. While this development relates to problems of data ownership and the
exploitation of these data for marketing or surveillance purposes, it also generates new
opportunities for research. In the methods part of the book (Chapters 13–16), I will discuss
the importance of mixed methods approaches when analysing emerging and rapidly changing
phenomena such as those at the intersection of digital media and social transformations.
Attention will also be devoted to some of the specific challenges — ethical and others — that
are introduced when working with data from the internet and social media. I will introduce a
framework for digital social research that rests firmly on an ethnographic foundation, but
which also branches out into other techniques for mapping and mining digital society. In the
concluding chapter of this book (Chapter 17), I present a theory about digital media and
social change.
Further Reading
Ceruzzi, Paul (2012). Computing: A Concise History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
This book offers a broad account of the history of computing from its very early days up to today’s
smartphones, and also gives a background to the internet, the web, and social media.
Webster, Frank (2006). Theories of the Information Society. London: Routledge.
Webster provides an introduction to several of the different theoretical perspectives on the
information society, but also argues in favour of looking beyond ideas of a dramatic historical shift
and instead looking at how social patterns that are long-established persist but become
McLuhan, Marshall (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy. London: Routledge.
Meyrowitz, Joshua (1985). No Sense of Place. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Castells, Manuel (1996). The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
These books by McLuhan, Meyrowitz, and Castells are examples — from the 1960s, the 1980s,
and the 1990s, respectively — of scholarly writing about new media and social change.
Altheide, David (1995). An Ecology of Communication. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
In this book, Altheide, one of the originators of the notion of ‘media logic’, discusses how changes
in communication media alter social processes, relationships, and activities. He underlines the
importance of not just analysing the content of media, but also the different social environments
created through different media.
2 Social Media
Key questions
How have the currently popular forms of social media developed through the stages of web 1.0
and web 2.0 in the history of the internet?
How can classic sociological theories help us understand the social in social media?
What are networked publics? Why are they important and how do they relate to social change?
Key concepts
Social media * web 1.0 * web 2.0 * social facts * social actions * social cooperation * selfpresentation * networked publics * user-created content
In this chapter, I discuss how the internet and its uses and applications, have developed in an
increasingly social direction, especially over the last fifteen years. I go back to a set of classic
sociological theories to shed light on how we can conceive the social dimension of what is
popularly known today as social media. Society is held together by structures in relation to
which we perform social actions — cooperate, form our individuality, and interact with
others in innumerable ways. The internet and social media help us do these things in partially
new ways. While classic theories might explain some of the things that are going on online,
the transformations in the media ecosystem also introduce changes that demand new
perspectives to make sense of people’s social strategies and relations. One such theoretical
concept is that of networked publics, which describes how the changes brought on by
digitally networked media have connected and mobilised people in new ways across social
spheres, cultures, and nations, globally (Ito 2008). The world now functions according to a
logic that internet researchers Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman (2012) call networked
individualism (see Chapter 5): people relate to each other through individually centred
networks that are looser, more open, and more diverse than those of previous historical
periods. In those networks, important parts of the interaction happen through digital media.
Digital Tools and Platforms for Being Social
Those of us who remember starting to use the web in the 1990s will recall the experience of
quite static forms of content, and of a relative lack of two-way communication. A few years
into the 2000s however, there was increasing talk of a transition from an early form of web
— web 1.0 — to something that was called web 2.0. The latter is a concept with several
dimensions. First, it was a buzzword used in business lingo when gurus made promises that
where people uploaded videos to YouTube, ‘liked’ stuff on Facebook, and blogged about
their favourite brands there was also unthinkable amounts of money to be made. Second, it
referred to certain technological solutions and innovations — blogging platforms, RSS feeds,
wikis, social network sites — that encouraged participation, networking, and creativity
among peers. Third — and most importantly from a sociological perspective — it related to a
certain frame of mind and action which is about different forms of making and connecting
(Gauntlett 2011).
The epitome of the 1.0 era was the traditional web ‘page’ which allowed for very little
interaction, maybe just a clickable link to send an email to the creator of the page. Popular
sites that emerged in the 2.0 era are Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, and these
differ largely from the old web as they are designed to allow for new levels of user
interactions, and to fill very different functions altogether. They also introduce a whole new
sociological dimension to digital media through notions such as those of friends, groups,
likes, and so on. As the idea of a web 2.0 was popularised, especially through the talks and
writings of tech entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly (2007), the essential difference between the old
and new web came to be defined in terms of the latter being focused on any participant being
a potential creator of content. So while web 1.0 technologies and services assumed and
promoted that the vast majority of users just consumed content passively, web 2.0 included
lots of tools to maximise the potentials for user-created content. People can do stuff by
themselves, and enhance them together. Computer scientists Graham Cormode and
Balachander Krishnamurthy (2008: n.p.) describe how democratisation, creativity, remix,
interaction, and complex networking are central aspects of web 2.0:
The democratic nature of Web 2.0 is exemplified by creations of large numbers of niche
groups (collections of friends) who can exchange content of any kind (text, audio, video)
and tag, comment, and link to both intra-group and extra-group ‘pages.’ A popular
innovation in Web 2.0 is ‘mashups,’ which combine or render content in novel forms.
In other words, web 2.0 technology enabled and encouraged a number of social activities that
were not as prominent with web 1.0. The web 2.0 was developed in order to realise the
interactive and collaborative potentials of the internet in better ways than web 1.0. With
innovations like blogs, social-networking sites, wikis, tagging, and sharing, 2.0 emphasises
social interaction, creativity, and the production of knowledge among peers. It also enables
the co-creation and constant editing by multiple users of multimodal content, that is, content
which mixes several modalities (written text, photographic images, videos, sounds, etc.).
When we speak of online platforms for such types of interaction, networking, and creativity
today — Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, Instagram, etc. — we tend to call them
social media. But this does not mean that people didn’t socialise, create, and share things
through media before. Web 2.0 should be seen rather as an extension than a transformation of
social phenomena that existed way before it — much like social networks among friends who
liked each other existed long before social networks on the internet among ‘friends’ who
‘like’ each other, in the Facebook sense (Baym 2011: 386).
As discussed in the previous chapter, media are tools for making sense of the world around
us, and it would thus be fair to say that all media are social. On the other hand, no media are
social in themselves, unless people use them in social ways. The things that we call social
media are both preceded and surrounded by many other tools that enable online sociality,
engagement, and community-building. In spite of hailing from the days of web 1.0, things
like online forums, email, and instant messaging are also still used widely. But digital social
platforms like YouTube and Facebook have definitely contributed to a major transformation
of the information and communication ecosystem. We have acquired new infrastructures for
social exchange, and these infrastructures are getting more and more sophisticated.
The history of social media
All media have a social aspect to them, but if we look specifically at the tools and platforms that
are talked about as ‘social media’ since around the mid-2000s, their pre-history is with BBSs and
Usenet.1 BBSs, bulletin board systems, were a form of independent computer servers that
functioned as meeting places where users could download files or games, as well as post text
messages to one another. BBSs, popular from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, were accessed with
modems over the telephone line, and were mostly run by hobbyists and often with a focus on
technology-related interests. Other precursors to the social internet as we know it were USA’s
CompuServe (1969–2009) and France’s Minitel (1978–2012), both being pre-web online services
that, among other things, included chats or functionality similar to that of web discussion forums.
Usenet, popular around the same time as BBSs, is a similar system, but without a central server,
where users can post entries in a wide variety of categories (newsgroups). In the United States, the
paid online service AOL (America Online) also offered, in the 1990s, member-created
communities with searchable member profiles.
1 An example of a summary of the history of social media can be found at
http://historycooperative.org/the-history-of-social-media/. Another one is available at
After the mainstream breakthrough of the internet and the web, the first social media site that was
similar to the things that we call social media today was Six Degrees (1997–2001). Named after
the theory of ‘six degrees of separation’ (see Chapter 16), it was based on users creating profiles
and ‘friending’ each other. This was similar to what American users had been able to do with
former classmates on the Classmates.com site since 1995. After this, the social internet was
dominated for a few years by blogging. Blogs (short for ‘weblogs’) emerged in 1998–99 with
platforms such as Open Diary, LiveJournal, and Blogger. Blogs are social media in the sense that
the blogging platforms connect blogs socially through links and comments into a ‘blogosphere’.
Aside from blogs, instant messaging — with clients like ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger, and MSN
Messenger — was also popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The first surge in what we know now as social media came with the launch of Friendster in 2002,
and more massively with MySpace (launched 2003). These were both social network sites as we
know the format today. LinkedIn, a networking site for businesspeople, was also launched in 2003.
The following year, Mark Zuckerberg famously started Facebook — first as TheFacebook.com,
and then only for Harvard students — from his dorm room. Facebook now has around 1.6 billion
monthly active users worldwide, and is seen by many people as synonymous with ‘social media’.
Twitter, sometimes labelled a ‘microblog’ service, was created in 2006, allowing users to post
‘tweets’ that can be responded to and recirculated (‘retweeted’). Twitter now has more than 300
million active users.
The key characteristics of social media, in this sense, is that they are based on users having
accounts or profiles through which they can ‘friend’ or follow each other, and that content can be
liked/favourited, commented, and shared. After Facebook and Twitter, the social media logic has
been applied in a growing and evolving number of services like Flickr and Instagram (for social
photo sharing), YouTube (for social video sharing), and variations like Tumblr, Pinterest, and
Snapchat. Today, social media is best seen as a name for the complex ecosystem of many different
social media platforms that serve similar purposes, but in different ways and with different
flavours. Each user will use her or his own combination of tools to connect and interact. Some will
stick to email and instant messaging, while others will be on sites and apps like Facebook, Twitter,
YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat all at the same time.
An important aspect is that users of social platforms are identifiable and present through
some sort of ‘profile’, which allows for a certain amount of experimental work with who we
want to be and how we want to present ourselves to others. The actual visibility of the profile
will vary, as Facebook makes it possible to elaborate our personae rather extensively while
Snapchat only hints at who the user is, thereby demanding that people have some extra
knowledge about who they are interacting with. Apart from the profiles, there are also often
functions for reacting to, or interacting with, content by liking it, disliking it, sharing it,
commenting on it, responding to it, and sometimes editing or remixing it. In this case as well,
the availability and design of functions will differ between platforms. Most social media
platforms also include some sort of messaging or chat function, by which users can
communicate one-on-one or in groups aside from the more public flow of communication.
Media and creativity researcher David Gauntlett (2011) appropriately concludes that social
media are seldom easily defined as tools, but rather as broad platforms. For Gauntlett,
YouTube is a prime example of a digital creative platform because of three things:
It is a framework for participation. The wide range of types of video that are uploaded
by people ranging from poets and skateboarders to medics and engineers illustrates that
this is ‘just’ a platform. There is nothing about it which prescribes what types of things
should be performed on its stage. The technological features might promote certain
behaviours (such as liking, responding, etc.), and rules like the ones prohibiting
pornography and piracy definitely set some limitations. But generally, the platform is
open to a very wide range and variety of content.
The platform is content-agnostic, which means that it neither knows nor cares about all
of the uploads, experimentations, and innovations that its users might be doing.
YouTube as such does not care whether a big news corporation registers an account to
post its professionally produced features, or if an ‘ordinary person’ goes on the site to
share gaming walkthrough videos.
The platform has community features by which users can communicate and connect to
promote their own videos, to share knowledge and skills, to entertain or support each
Digitally networked social media — whether they are social network sites, social apps,
forums, or blogs — are about sociality. In a sociological sense, they are about what Georg
Simmel (1950: 10) called ‘sociation’, that is, they enable processes of mediation by which
individuals become ‘connected by interaction’ to form groups and, by extension, build
society. Sociation and society, however, can mean many different things. Therefore, let us
turn to some of the classic sociological theories about social action, interaction, community,
and cooperation for some help with delineating and untangling things. I will return to a
detailed discussion of communities and networks, more specifically, in Chapter 5.
Social Facts
Like I said, we can get a more refined understanding of how to understand the sociality of
digital media by going back to some of the classic sociological theorists. In a similar
endeavour, social media researcher Christian Fuchs (2017: 39–46) turns to Émile Durkheim,
Max Weber, Ferdinand Tönnies, and Karl Marx. While all of their perspectives help us
interpret the social characteristics and impact of digital media, I would also like to add Georg
Simmel and Erving Goffman to the mix. This is because their perspectives focus on some of
the processes that I see as key to the ways in which people interact in digital society, namely
the fragmentation of our social beings (which Simmel talks about) and the corresponding
symbolic management of our selves and identities (which Goffman talks about).
Classic sociologist Durkheim discussed the social in terms of social facts. In his book on The
Rules of Sociological Method, he explained this notion by giving a series of examples of how
society — the social — imposes itself upon us. When we do things, it is not always because
we want to do these things ourselves, but rather that we somehow know that we ought to do
these things. Durkheim (1895/1982: 50) writes:
When I perform my duties as a brother, a husband or a citizen and carry out the
commitments I have entered into, I fulfil obligations which are defined in law and
custom and which are external to myself and my actions. Even when they conform to
my own sentiments and when I feel their reality within me, that reality does not cease to
be objective, for it is not I who have prescribed these duties; I have received them
through education. […] Similarly the believer has discovered from birth, ready
fashioned, the beliefs and practices of his religious life; if they existed before he did, it
follows that they exist outside him.
In other words, society is not only the sum of what individuals do, but rather something more
or larger than that. Something which is super-individual — that exists above and beyond the
different individuals that are the building blocks of society. Society has got properties of its
own in the shape of collective systems of meaning and communication that we draw upon to
function together as an organism. Today, the internet and social media are no doubt part of
this super-individual realm. When reading social media from a Durkheimian perspective,
Fuchs notes — as I discussed earlier — that media can be seen as social to the extent that
they are products of social processes between people. Social structures are built into and
expressed through them. So when someone posts a picture of their lunch onto an online
photo-sharing service, or when a person sets up the design for their blog, or composes their
profile for an online dating site, he or she does this in relation to the social structures that
exist — independent of individuals — in and through social media. Already back in 1895,
Durkheim (1895/1982: 51) made a similar point:
The system of signs that I employ to express my thoughts, the monetary system I use to
pay my debts, the credit instruments I utilise in my commercial relationships, the
practices I follow in my profession, etc., all function independently of the use I make of
them. […] Thus there are ways of acting, thinking and feeling which possess the
remarkable property of existing outside the consciousness of the individual. Not only are
these types of behaviour and thinking external to the individual, but they are endued
with a compelling and coercive power by virtue of which, whether he wishes it or not,
they impose themselves upon him.
As discussed in the previous chapter, theorists like Giddens and Goffman remade the point
that the social consists of systems of rules and resources that are constantly produced and
reproduced by people. So, when we see the internet and social media in McLuhan’s terms as
extensions of ourselves, this can be seen, from a Durkheimian point of view, as the individual
using these tools for extending into the realm of the social.
If you are regularly using more than one social media platform, such as, for example, Facebook and
Twitter, or Twitter and Instagram, etc., think about how your social behaviour differs because of the
platform as such. Are you showing or expressing different parts of yourself depending on the
possibilities of the platform? What are the differences between platforms as regards what behaviour
they encourage? To what extent can you act freely with the platform as a tool, and to what extent do you
feel restrained by the platform, or even forced to act in certain ways?
Social Actions
If we turn to Weber, one of his key concepts was social action. He said that social relations
are constituted by a certain form of actions (i.e. social ones) that are meaningful interactions
between people. An action is social when the person acting does something which ‘is
oriented to the past, present, or expected future behavior of others’ (Weber 1922/1978: 22).
In other words, much of the things we do on social media, such as sharing, messaging, liking,
subscribing, inviting, and so on, are indeed very likely to be social actions. Weber makes
clear, however, that all things that crowds do — and the internet is definitely full of crowds,
as in participants, publics, followers, commentators — are not social. He writes:
Social action is not identical […] with the similar actions of many persons or with every
action influenced by other persons. Thus, if at the beginning of a shower a number of
people on the street put up their umbrellas at the same time, this would not ordinarily be
a case of action mutually oriented to that of each other, but rather of all reacting, in the
same way to the […] need of protection from the rain. (Weber 1922/1978: 23)
In other words, much of the discussions of whether the internet should be seen as a social
force for empowering people, making the world a better place, and bringing about a new
public sphere, relate to the tension between social actions — in Weber’s terms — and other
types of (crowd) actions. Some have suggested that digital social media mostly promote
clicktivism, that is, quite mindless crowd behaviours, rather than actions with a genuine social
foundation and impact (Morozov 2013). Others have argued that even though clicktivism
does not follow the traditional pattern of socially impactful action, it might still be of great
importance to society (Halupka 2014). It is important to think about whether interaction
through social media gives rise to entirely new types of actions, which we must interpret
according to other criteria than those we are used to. These things are dealt with in more
detail in Chapter 4.
Social Cooperation
Tönnies, with his notion of Gemeinschaft, and Marx, speaking of ‘co-operation’ as
fundamental for human existence, contribute to an understanding of the social in terms of
collaboration. For Tönnies, Gemeinschaft is what holds society (‘Gesellschaft’) together.
Society is merely people coexisting, but community (‘Gemeinschaft’) is the language, the
ways, the mores, and the beliefs that bring about social coherence and unity. This state can be
described in terms of kinship, intimacy, and togetherness:
(1) Relatives and married couples love each other or easily adjust themselves to each
other. They speak together and think along similar lines. Likewise do neighbours and
other friends. (2) Between people who love each other there is understanding. (3) Those
who love and understand each other remain and dwell together and organize their
common life. (Tönnies 1887/1974: 55)
Returning to Durkheim, one might say that what makes society into more than the sum of its
parts is the same magical ingredient which Gemeinschaft adds to Gesellschaft. According to
Marx and Friedrich Engels, writing about cooperation, something becomes ‘social’ when it
entails several individuals working together to produce something:
The production of life, both of one’s own in labour and of fresh life in procreation, now
appears as a twofold relation: on the one hand as a natural, on the other as a social
relation — social in the sense that it denotes the co-operation of several individuals, no
matter under what conditions, in what manner and to what end. It follows from this that
a certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain
mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself a
‘productive force’. (Marx & Engels 1932/1998: 48–49)
So, while Tönnies was more focused on intimacy and emotions, and Marx and Engels rather
on material production, both of their perspectives on the social are unified by their emphasis
on the importance of people doing creative things together. These questions about
connections and community among people are dealt with further in Chapter 5.
Social Presence
Georg Simmel, another one of the classic sociologists, saw sociality in terms of the
movement of individuals towards communal forms of thinking, talking, and acting. He
argued, however, that society is not the result of people giving up their individuality
completely, nor can individuals exist in isolation outside society. Rather, we are ‘composed
out of reciprocal relationships to others’, while existing neither as purely ‘natural objects’,
nor as mere ‘societary beings’ (Simmel 1910: 385–386). One aspect of this interplay between
individual and society is that the full complexity of a person can never be fully represented
within the realm of society. There is always something more, or something else, to the
individual than what he or she displays in relation to others. This means that our social
presence is different from, but often overlapping with, our individual persona. When we
interact socially, we are always understood by ourselves and others in ways that are altered,
sliced, or distorted by the ‘mask’ that we are wearing in the presence of others. Therefore,
Simmel claims, all social beings are fragments:
We are all fragments, not only of the universal man, but also of ourselves. We are onsets
not merely of the type human being in general, not merely of the type good, bad, etc.,
but we are onsets of that not further in principle nameable individuality and singularity
of our own selves which surrounds our perceptible actuality as though drawn with ideal
lines. The vision of our neighbor, however, enlarges this fragment to that which we
never are completely and wholly. He cannot see the fragments merely side by side as
they are actually given, but as we offset the blind spot in our eye so that we are not
conscious of it, in like manner we make of these fragmentary data the completeness of
an individuality. (1910: 379–380)
With this, Simmel points to an irreducible difference between the essence of an individual on
the one hand, and his or her expression in society on the other. Social media communication
relies to a large extent on small bits of communication — tweets, status updates, Instagram
images, snapchats — and in Simmel’s terms we can see these bits and pieces as fragments of
individuality that make up increasingly important parts of the social selves of many people in
the world. His perspective can be read in hindsight as a criticism of the structural inability of
society — or social media — to fully represent individuals. Even though the tools and
platforms that we have at hand to express and represent ourselves may be powerful in many
ways, Simmel also warned about a form of alienation following from the fact that a human
being’s move towards society can never be complete.
It is impossible to give a complete image of ourselves through social media. Like social interaction
more generally, the digital platforms that we use allow for only some aspects of our personality to be
expressed. The things we express may differ from platform to platform, and depending on who we are
interacting with. Try to think about any discrepancies between what you feel to be your ‘real self’ and
your ‘online self’? Are these selves multiple and, if so, how do their variations relate to different
platforms that you use? Is there in any way a tendency to portray ‘ideal selves’, in order to show what
we think is expected in a given setting? Can social media be an esteem booster, or is it the other way
around? Is there a risk that social media gives people a false or inflated sense of self?
Writing about ‘the tragedy of culture’, Simmel concluded that every social setting or culture
bears something tragic; namely that the very same tools and means that allows people to
develop their individuality further are at the same time limited in ways that make it
impossible to ever really, fully, represent oneself. There might be a risk with social media and
web 2.0 technologies, which rely so heavily on certain templates and styles, that ‘the abstract
person’ mediated through our profiles and the content we create and circulate obscures ‘the
real person’ (Lanier 2010: 70). There is a complexity ‘outside’ society (or media) that can
never be fully or entirely or universally expressed ‘inside’ it. As Goffman (1959: 1–2) puts it:
Many crucial facts lie beyond the time and place of interaction or lie concealed within it.
For example, the ‘true’ or ‘real’ attitudes, beliefs, and emotions of the individual can be
ascertained only indirectly, through his avowals or through what appears to be
involuntary expressive behaviour. Similarly, if the individual offers the others a product
or service, they will often find that during the interaction there will be no time and place
immediately available for eating the pudding that the proof can be found in. They will be
forced to accept some events as conventional or natural signs of something not directly
available to the senses.
This idea about the social resting on a number of tacit and sometimes even random and
floating presuppositions is similar to the ideas later popularised within the post-structuralist
theoretical tradition about the impossibility of fixing definite meanings of things. Reality has
an infinite number of possible meanings. But some of these meanings — which are always in
some sense temporary compromises, or the effect of some form of symbolic violence where
some meanings are imposed at the cost of others — become dominant and held to be ‘true’ in
certain times, places, or cultures.
This irreducibility of the outside gives rise to a number of social strategies and tactics.
Goffman (1959) described how such strategies for self-presentation in social interaction
develop. He did this by famously drawing on a set of dramaturgical metaphors. In our social
lives we enter into various roles on different stages, acting in relation to different scripts.
People around us in society are like an audience that reacts to our performance. Similar to the
above notion of an inside and an outside of society, Goffman thinks in terms of the stage as a
‘front region’ in relation to which there is also a ‘back region’ — a backstage dimension
where we can get rid of our assumed or ascribed roles or identities.
On a digital and social photo sharing platform like Instagram, for example, users prepare their
performance (snapping the photo, deleting it, snapping a new one, cropping it, filtering it,
captioning it, tagging it, etc.) in a back region which is not visible to the audience. Once
edited and composed, the performance that is the Instagram photo is presented in the front
region. But access to the front region is also controlled as regards who is supposed to take
part of the performance as all performances do not address all thinkable people in society. In
the case of Instagram, these things will be decided by things like whether the user has a
public or private account, who is a follower, who has been blocked, whether users follow a
hashtag that has been used as part of the performance, and so on. Goffman (1959: 152) writes
that ‘access to these regions is controlled in order to prevent the audience from seeing
backstage and to prevent outsiders from coming into a performance that is not addressed to
This process will look different depending on the social setting as different settings will offer
different tools for interaction. This has been conceptualised in terms of ‘affordances’. This
concept was introduced in research on digital media to balance between, on the one hand,
seeing technology as causing certain social actions and, on the other hand, seeing technology
as completely shaped by social actions (Juris 2012). The theory of affordances, as formulated
by psychologist James Gibson (1977), sees technologies in terms of the ‘action possibilities’
that are latent — and can be realised depending on the abilities of the individual — in a given
environment, tool, or platform. A chair allows for sitting, a touchscreen for manipulating
content by touch, a video camera for capturing moving images and sound, and so on.
Similar to how people in society must relate to social conventions, expectations, cultural
norms, rules, and laws, when carrying out their actions, anyone who uses a medium has to
relate to the functional and relational aspects of that very medium. Goffman’s idea that we
draw on different sorts of ‘expressive equipment’ to perform our personal front goes well
with this. He calls the work we do with this ‘impression management’ (1959: 49). In different
social contexts — a book club, the workers in a factory, a thread in a discussion forum,
followers, and users of a certain hashtag — people work together to define and make sense of
this particular social situation or setting. This entails agreeing — even if tacitly — on certain
rules of interaction. Which assumptions is the interaction resting on? Which things are
important and which are not? What is seen as good and bad behaviour? This idea of
Goffman’s is in fact very similar to what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1990) later described as
the ‘logic of practice’ in different social ‘fields’. Among certain social groupings, there will
exist varying degrees of familiarity and solidarity in relation to such agreements. Also, in
different fields, or different settings, the agreements between participants over how one
should act will vary. There is, however, a tendency among participants ‘to accept the
definitional claims made by the others present’ (Goffman 1959: 4). People are social beings
who communicate, interact, and care about what others think and do.
In other words, we ‘make’ the social together. As we have learned from the classic theories
that were discussed above, the social is also more than the sum of the individuals who come
together socially. This is because people create communities and negotiate rules and come to
formal or informal agreements. People cooperate and work reflexi…
Purchase answer to see full

Why Choose Us

  • 100% non-plagiarized Papers
  • 24/7 /365 Service Available
  • Affordable Prices
  • Any Paper, Urgency, and Subject
  • Will complete your papers in 6 hours
  • On-time Delivery
  • Money-back and Privacy guarantees
  • Unlimited Amendments upon request
  • Satisfaction guarantee

How it Works

  • Click on the “Place Order” tab at the top menu or “Order Now” icon at the bottom and a new page will appear with an order form to be filled.
  • Fill in your paper’s requirements in the "PAPER DETAILS" section.
  • Fill in your paper’s academic level, deadline, and the required number of pages from the drop-down menus.
  • Click “CREATE ACCOUNT & SIGN IN” to enter your registration details and get an account with us for record-keeping and then, click on “PROCEED TO CHECKOUT” at the bottom of the page.
  • From there, the payment sections will show, follow the guided payment process and your order will be available for our writing team to work on it.