07. January | 2022

New Paper: Heuristics on Digital Platforms from a Use-Centred, Relational Perspective

IRS researchers have now presented new conceptual considerations on digital platforms. The basis for this is the project “Platform ecology: creative collaboration in the field of tension between virtual and concrete spaces using the example of fashion design”. They look at these platforms from the perspective of users. In doing so, they shift the focus from the technical-organisational aspects of selected platforms to the diverse practices with which users integrate online platforms into their everyday lives. The article “Platform Ecology: A User-Centric and Relational Conceptualization of Online Platforms" was published in the journal Global Networks.

Digital Platforms – An Analytical Look at a Controversial Topic

Digital platforms have become one of the most controversial topics of our time. Some commentators marvel at the efficiency of this new business model and hope for positive effects, such as increased sharing of scarce goods, more open labour markets or new impulses for social coexistence. Others complain about the dominance of the digital corporations behind the digital applications. Among other things, they criticise the way algorithms working in the background imperceptibly shape social situations according to economic interests, such as Facebook's handling of polarising expressions of opinion. Still others focus on the precarious working conditions of so-called “gig workers”, which arise in the course of globally unbounded labour markets. The discussions show that digital platforms today are to be understood as technical infrastructures that fundamentally restructure social coexistence.

Platform Ecology as a Heuristic

The term platform ecology proposes a heuristic. It seeks to enable future research to discover new aspects of online platforms by adopting a specific new perspective: For the first time, the perspective of the users is decidedly taken. This opens up a view of the many ways in which online platforms are integrated into everyday practices. Platforms form structured offers that facilitate certain actions, but also impede or completely exclude others. How exactly these offers and restrictions work in use, however, is by no means fixed. Rather, it depends on the interests, abilities and motivations of the users. Furthermore, users do not view individual online platforms in isolation, but as one of several alternative offerings. These offers are compared with each other and combined in many ways. Finally, use always takes place in a physical environment, whether at home on a stationary computer or in an urban context as a mobile application. Online offers are thus perceived in concrete situations, analogue and digital spheres influence each other, penetrate each other mutually. The heuristic of platform ecology is also suitable for analysing the spatial reach of relationships. Users enter into local and translocal connections, they maintain these in physical as well as virtual presence.

Platforms Open Up Possibilities and Set Boundaries

Users move in a structured space of possibilities, in which offers and restrictions lie both in the technical setting of the platforms and in the evolved environment of their spatial surroundings. Users strive to adapt and structure the digital and analogue environment according to their wishes, but at the same time, resistance to many of their wishes for appropriation is also present in the structures created. Users are therefore not powerless, but often enough they can also be forced against their will to use functions on digital platforms that offer few advantages for their purposes. Similar to an ecology, in appropriating and engaging with their partly analogue, partly digital environment, users form so-called socio-technical niches in which various digital applications and practices are arranged according to their personal preferences and purposes and then permanently integrated into their everyday lives.

A Look Ahead to Future Research

The heuristic of platform ecology can be used for further research. First, the spaces of possibility change depending on which group of users is considered. In the IRS research, fashion designers were considered, but the heuristic will also allow other groups to be studied in the future and comparisons to be made between them. Finally, a process perspective can be taken, which is suitable for looking at how online and offline possibilities are linked over time in concrete projects. The emergence or change of socio-technical niches can also be examined. In doing so, the focus is on how online platforms themselves change over time under the influence of usage practices.

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