Digitization is transforming cultural practices, from friendship, intimacy and sexual relations, to the construction, targeting, and surveillance of publics. Digital platforms and mobile apps, such as Facebook, Tinder, YouTube, Instagram, Netflix, the Russian platform VK, and the China-based WeChat, TikTok, and Tantan, have rapidly become central to the production, circulation, consumption, and monetization of culture. The complexity and scale of these changes require active collaboration across a wide variety of disciplines, including economics, the social sciences and the humanities. With this in mind, the GDC will build on and further strengthen existing interdisciplinary and cross-Faculty collaborations within UvA and beyond to identify vital topics, shape research agendas and develop innovative methods.
Led by researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds, GDC is designed to maximize such interdisciplinary collaboration. The initiative is directed by Thomas Poell (Media Studies) and Marieke de Goede (Political Science), together with Monika Kackovic (Entrepreneurship), Olav Velthuis (Sociology), Jeroen de Kloet (Media Studies), and Nachoem Wijnberg (Amsterdam Business School).
There are three main areas of inquiry within GDC. Consumption & Participation covers shifts in how people connect with each other, express their identities, and develop tastes and preferences. Production & Labour focusses on new types of platform-based work, as well as shifts in market structures and worker protections. Finally, Security & Citizenship examines how digitisation enables new modes of public expression and collective action, while also facilitating data-driven forms of surveillance. A key objective across all areas isto bring in perspectives and comparisons from beyond the West.
To build a strong (local and global) research community on these areas of investigation, the GDC organizes several events, soirees, research seminars and an annual conference. Moreover, GDC offers a seed funding program, providing research fellowships and event grants.
Areas of inquiry
- Consumption & Participation (WP1) focuses on daily cultural practices developed by users of digital platforms and mobile apps. Research suggests that the systematic datafication, algorithmic processing, and monetization of social activity and cultural content by these platforms is transforming how people connect with each other, express their identities, and develop tastes and preferences. Mobile messaging and dating apps - from WeChat, Whatsapp, and Facebook to Tinder, TikTok, and Momo - are facilitating new modes of intimacy and social interaction, as well as extensive networks of so-called “weak ties”. Simultaneously, novel forms of cultural expression and genres are developing through live-streaming platforms, photo- and video-sharing services, and microblogging sites. The way in which we consume music and television is, for instance, fundamentally affected by Spotify playlists and Netflix recommendations. Categorization through algorithms governs cultural consumption practices and related forms of canonization and economization - be it on Spotify or in the contemporary art world.
- Production & Labor (WP2) focuses on the (re-)organization of production and labor relations that takes place through and around digital platforms and mobile apps. Particularly striking are the new types of platform-based workers that have emerged, such as influencer, social media creator, content moderator, engagement manager, or webcam sex worker. The forms of work performed tend to blur the boundary between amateur and professional practices. At the same time, older types of work are being platformized through gig or sharing economy platforms, like Uber, Didi Chuxing, Deliveroo, Ele.me, and Airbnb, which transform employees into micro-entrepreneurs. Digitization also affects and disrupts institutionally established work routines in virtually every sector, including news, education, health care, retail, and entertainment, and impacts organizational design and innovation processes within creative industries.
- Security & citizenship (WP3) explores how digitization enables new modes of public expression and collective action, while simultaneously facilitating ubiquitous data-driven forms of surveillance which enhance commercial and governmental control. Digital media have been widely celebrated as vehicles of emancipation, allowing everyone to express their opinions in public, as well as easily connect with others to challenge power. Although we have indeed witnessed the rise of new social movements, this celebratory account has been greatly complicated over the past years. Major tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Tencent increasingly engage in datafication, turning the data trails citizens leave online, often unknowingly, into detailed consumer profiles. The collected data are in turn commodified by tech giants. While this severely impacts privacy, notions of privacy may well differ around the world. Moreover, governments have become increasingly sophisticated in employing data generated by online activity to surveil and control public space and opinion. In China, a social credit system is developing to encourage citizens to behave properly and punish those who don’t. In Europe, by comparison, data are increasingly important to surveil and track migrant flows en route to European borders and intercept potential asylum claimants before they reach the borders. Collecting and connecting data is widely seen as an important solution to contemporary security challenges.
To systematize the inquiry within and across these three work packages, the RPA will focus on four cross-cutting processes, which have been at the center of scholarship on the social, cultural, and political implications of digitization and platformization. This will facilitate the discussion and collaboration between researchers working within the different work packages.
The first process concerns the reconfiguration of market relations within and between cultural fields and economic sectors. Research demonstrates that the development of digital platforms generates network effects that lead to a concentration of economic power. Platforms operate as markets, connecting large numbers of cultural producers and consumers. This leads to the following research questions for the three work packages:
- How are cultural identities and tastes articulated within platform markets? Under what conditions does the platformization of cultural fields result in winner-take-all effects, with a small group of producers earning increasingly high profits while the majority hardly earns anything, and when does the opposite occur - i.e. a more equal distribution of profits? Under what circumstances does platformization lead to cultural homogenization and when does it facilitate diversity? To what extent and how does platformization give rise to new categorical structures, and how do consumers use these structures to make sense and give meanings to cultural goods? (WP1)
- What are the consequences of platformization for the market competition between cultural producers? How does the rise of platforms and mobile apps affect the nature and sustainability of work in different cultural sectors? (WP2)
- What are the relations and tensions between social media platforms as spaces of public expression on the one hand, and their commercial objectives on the other? (WP3)
Second, the RPA examines the construction of data infrastructures. Digitization depends upon systematic collection, algorithmic processing, and categorization of data through digital platforms, mobile apps, and the internet more generally. These technical processes entail important decisions concerning in/exclusion in databases, dataflows and conditions for data sharing. These processes of datafication are anything but neutral, but exist in complex interdependencies with content and (censored) cultures of expression. This raises a number of questions:
- Do perceptions of what is private and public change, as social activity is increasingly datafied, and culture is progressively categorized through algorithms, and fed back to us as metrics, updates, and recommendations? (WP1)
- What affordances do data infrastructures provide to cultural producers? And what kinds of skills and forms of capital are required to successfully use these affordances in cultural production? How do social media allow for the diffusion of new cultural standards (e.g. beauty ideals promoted by Instagram influencers) and produce new job opportunities (turning a migrant worker in China into a popular magician on the Kuaishou platform), as well as reproduce and fortify pre-existing, offline exclusionary boundaries? (WP2)
- How are differences in class, gender, and race articulated and politicized in processes of datafication, which are often assumed to undermine traditional social and cultural boundaries? How are data shared between commercial platforms and state security actors, what shape do these data-sharing infrastructures take, and what are the power political consequences? (WP3)
- How does digitization transform understandings and practices of self and identity, as it simultaneously emancipates and shapes individuals? (WP1)
- How do different modes of governance intervene in cultural production and affect the autonomy and agency of cultural producers? (WP2)
- How do platform companies and states increasingly try to shape and control online exchange, and what are the consequences for freedom of speech and collective action? How is data protection understood and practiced? And how do national boundaries and jurisdictions play a role in these processes, which are fundamentally transnational? (WP3)
Finally, we investigate how the digital and digitization are represented and imagined. The impact of digitization is very much shaped by how individuals and institutions understand and relate to digital technologies and data. Initially, platforms and mobile applications were perceived as emancipatory technologies and digital data as traces of the social. Over the past years, this imaginary has been critically questioned and complicated. This leads us to the following questions:
- Are consumers developing a more critical disposition towards digital technologies and systematic data collection? And, if so, how does this translate to new practices of cultural consumption and participation? What new bottom-up digital initiatives emerge worldwide to counter the dominance of the dominant platforms? (WP1)
- What alternative imaginaries and strategies do cultural producers develop to enhance their socio-economic position in relation to digital platforms? (WP2)
- How do citizens, platforms, and governments imagine the digital in the face of a more critical public opinion? What aesthetic repertoires are drawn upon when new digital surveillance technologies are introduced in public space? What new forms of visual culture are now shaping the cultural imagination? And what are the social and political implications of such imaginations? (WP3)