The Internet has changed society, in some ways radically, over the last 30 years – in different directions, however, than was initially hoped for and expected. In the 1990s, socio-political debates were dominated by ideas of a free, decentrally organized, and self-regulated Internet that would largely manage without governmental intervention. This is described by Ulrich Dolata, Professor of Organizational Sociology and Innovation Studies at the Institute for Social Sciences (SOWI) and Jan-Felix Schrape, Senior Researcher at the SOWI, in the introductory text to the 62nd special issue of the Cologne Magazine for Sociology and Social Psychology, which they published.
Dolata, U. & Schrape, J.-F. (Hg.) (2022): Internet, Big Data und digitale Plattformen. Politische Ökonomie – Kommunikation – Regulierung. (“Internet, Big Data and digital platforms. Political economy – communication – regulation.”) 62. Sonderheft der Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie Wiesbaden (“62nd Special Issue of the Cologne Magazine for Sociology and Social Psychology Wiesbaden”): SpringerVS. doi.org/10.1007/s11577-022-00843-6 or you can find all articles here: SpringerLink (Open Access)
The commercialization of the Internet
From today’s point of view, the two social scientists find: “The Internet and the data-based infrastructures built on it have indeed transformed business, politics, the public sphere, and society across the board and in some radical ways. But instead of decentralization and democratization, strong concentration processes and new monopolies are the consequences that are now visible everywhere.”
According to the two social scientists, the most striking development of the past three decades is the large-scale commercial appropriation and private-sector takeover of large parts of the Internet, which has been driven by technology companies based largely in Silicon Valley. For a long time, the public and politicians hardly reflected on these developments and only began to think about starting points for regulating Internet platforms and their companies in the mid-2010s.
Now the Web is characterized by countless commercially operated platforms that offer specialized services and consumer products. In addition, extensively structured social media and messaging platforms have emerged, through which significant parts of online-based communication, opinion-forming, and publicity are organized and structured.
The great influence of corporations
“Today, the structure-forming and rule-setting influence that leading IT companies such as Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (Google), and Meta (Facebook) have gained with their intertwined platforms extends well beyond purely economic power positions and reaches deeply into society,” Ulrich Dolata explains. In this way, they not only control central access points to the Internet, but also structure and monitor almost completely the movement options of their platforms’ active users as well as filter content and information flows on a large scale. “The big social media platforms have thus triggered another structural change in the public sphere,” says Jan-Felix Schrape.
Public attention is changing
This structural change is expressed, among other things, in a mutual penetration of different media formats and public arenas, the scientists say. This is significantly altering established patterns of public attention. Together with traditional journalism, this results in a hybrid media system that calls for a substantial readjustment of regulatory instruments. The services provided by platforms such as Instagram or Twitter, they say, primarily consist of the algorithmically personalized selection and linking of content published elsewhere or user-generated content. “This is precisely what makes their regulation as necessary as it is difficult,” Schrape adds. People often talk of “the platforms”. Ulrich Dolata and Jan-Felix Schrape identified these platforms more precisely and describe their architecture as consisting of two interconnected levels: the platform-operating companies as the organizing core and the platforms as areas of social action.
From different perspectives – empirical, theoretical, and historical-constructive – the 18 articles in the special issue deal with the organizational, socio-economic, and regulatory characteristics of platform-based Internet and, in this way, present state-of-the-art sociological Internet research. The articles of the special issue can be viewed free of charge at SpringerLink.