As the power of digital platforms grows, tensions between platform companies and their users are increasingly making headlines. Prominent content creators have been “deplatformed” for spreading misinformation and hate speech. Uber and Lyft drivers frequently organize to resist exploitative policies.
Existing studies of platform governance emphasize how platforms’ rules are set, implemented, and enforced. One strand of research emphasizes the role of algorithms and digital interfaces, which dictate how users interact with content and with each other. Another focuses on the human labor involved in implementing policies pertaining to user-generated content.
edX president Anant Agarwal—with the words “the future of education” displayed prominently behind him—takes questions from the audience
These days, the word “platform” is commonly used to refer to entities like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. These portals are sites of public discourse and see their role as connecting various sorts of publics: video producers to viewers, journalists to readers, or advertisers to potential consumers.
YouTube, for instance, started in 2005 as a Friendster-type social network portal that proclaimed, “Show off your favorite videos to the world”; by 2008, it had constructed itself into a “distribution platform for original content creators and advertisers, large and small.”
Recent work, both scholarly and popular, has spoken much to our discomfort that so much of public discourse now occurs on these privately-owned, for-profit, and unregulated platforms that lend themselves all too well to unique forms of harassment, invisible algorithmic manipulations, and sinister forms of corruption.
In a recently published ethnographic study, I found that the platform arrangement does much more than muddy the grounds between public and private, commercial and personal, work and play. It transforms the nature of work, the framing of organizational roles, as well as the construction of substantive expertise. From 2013 to 2015, I followed a non-profit start-up called edX through its stated mission of reinventing education by making Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs caused a sensation in 2012 as three new start-ups (Udacity, Coursera and edX) leveraged the power of networked computing and collaborated with universities to offer prospective students anywhere in the world an interactive distance learning experience.