Interview by Rafael Grohmann, assistant professor in Communication at the Unisinos University, Brazil
Andreas Hepp, professor for media and communications at the ZeMKI, Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research, University of Bremen, published his new book, Deep Mediatization, about transformations of society from digital media and their infrastructures.
The central concept is deep mediatization, which he and Nick Couldry had previously worked on The Mediated Construction of Reality. In his view, this is “an advanced stage of the process in which all elements of our social world are intricately related to digital media and underlying infrastructures”.
In an interview with DigiLabour, Hepp shows the importance of mediatization research to dialogue with platform studies and presents the notions of “pioneer communities” and “platform collectivities”.
The author argues that surveillance capitalism and data colonialism “are not the necessary outcomes of deep mediatization” and presents the emergence of new forms of organizing.
DIGILABOUR: In your last book, Deep Mediatization, you talk about the need for mediatization studies to come closer to platform studies and studies on materiality of media and digital infrastructures. How would this dialogue/ relationship be?
ANDREAS HEPP: Deep mediatization is an advanced stage of mediatization in which all elements of our social world are deeply related to media and their infrastructures. If we understand this as a characteristic of the stage mediatization is currently at, it is no longer simply a question of how, for example, certain television formats or different approaches to organizing editorial offices shape politics or other social domains. Fundamentally, it is about how we create our society through digital media and their infrastructures, and how they are reconfigured as a result. To describe this adequately, one needs both an historical view of mediatization research and the detailed arguments outlined by critical data studies – such as entanglement, data doubles, and so on – which do the work to analyze specific phenomena but are less helpful on their own for gaining an overall picture. In reflecting on these strengths and weaknesses, my goal with Deep Mediatization was to integrate these different research traditions. It is a dialogue in which mediatization research provides an overarching framework for interpretation and critical data studies brings in empirical instances to analyze. In my view, the two approaches complement each other very well.
DIGILABOUR: I found your notion of “pioneer communities” very powerful, with the maker and hack movements. Our readers may not know this notion. How you define pioneer communities and what are the emerging movements today ?
HEPP: For several years I have been carrying out empirical research into pioneer communities such as the Maker Movement, the Quantified Self Movement and, in regard to journalism, the Hacks/Hackers movement. My Interest in these communities stems from the idea that the “making” of deep mediatization is often thought about too simply: In the tradition of a shortened political economy of media, the big tech companies such as Apple, Facebook or Google are constructed as the prominent driving forces for change. Without wanting to peel away the at times highly problematic influence of such companies, I believe that this picture is too reductive. The ground for new developments is often laid out by pioneer communities such as the ones mentioned above; companies only really emerge in the second step of what is essentially a process. Pioneer communities are not only experimental groupings related to new forms of media-technology, media change and the formation of collectivities, they also demonstrate a sense of mission: members of these communities see themselves as forerunners of media-related development and the transformation of society as a whole. Individual members publicly present themselves in these terms and are the subject of ongoing reportage, whether this is in the blogs run by the pioneer community itself, or in more mainstream journalism. Pioneer communities do not only possess this marked sense of mission, they also develop ideas of media-related change that can provide orientation to broader social discourses. Studying pioneer communities as intermediaries between the development and the appropriation of new media technologies allows us to grasp current mediatization processes from the actor’s point of view.
DIGILABOUR: You wrote that algorithms “have further amplified the processual character of media”. What does that mean? Or, how to insert the algorithms and data (and the datafication) from the point of view of media and communication studies?
HEPP: We are used to thinking of media as static. But if we look at them more closely, they have always been in a state of constant change. Television in the 1990s was very different from the television of the 1950s. Because today’s digital media are increasingly constructed around algorithms, changes can be made much more quickly and efficiently than was the case with mechanical or electronic media. A platform like YouTube is constantly evolving – in a certain sense, it is permanently in a “beta” state –, and fundamental to that process is the constant collection of user data and the continuous reiteration of the platform according to analyses of those data. In Deep Mediatization, I suggest that digital media should not be thought of as a process alone, but that we should consider the ways in which continuous data generation and processing has intensified media’s process-like nature.
DIGILABOUR: What does it mean to understand “platform collectivities”?
HEPP: In times of deep mediatization we can see new forms of collective formation. In media and communications research we have generally been used to thinking of collectivities as communities. But now new forms of collectivities have emerged which form around platforms and which are not actually communities at all in the strictest sense of the term. One can think of something such as the collectivity of Spotify or AppleMusic users who share certain musical tastes. This collectivity is formed through the processing of user data and members of this collectivity receive similar title suggestions, (automated) communication takes place in relation to them, and so on. Another example would be the collectivity of Uber riders, which is also formed around a platform, and whose members initially only share the fact that they offer their work through the affordances of the Uber platform. This is not a community either. It has the potential to become a community when people recognize their shared situation and form a common “we”. This happens as the site of contestation and antagonism whereby Uber drivers make demands for better working conditions, conditions designed by the platform’s designers. Interestingly, additional media, such as internet forums, then begin to play a role. Through these external media, drivers are able to exchange ideas and develop this common “we”. With the concept of platform collectivity, I am trying to draw attention to these connections and encourage the discourse to be sparing with the concept of community. We should only speak of communities if there really are this shared “we” that become apparent in permanent social structures of human figurations.
DIGILABOUR: What are the new ways to organize deep mediatization – and face data colonialism and surveillance capitalism, for example?
HEPP: At the end of Deep Mediatization I ask how can mediatization work to bring about the “good life” for as many people as possible? One of my core arguments is that we should think about new ways of organizing digital media and their infrastructures. Digital media and the internet have unfolded into our lives at the same historical moment as peak neoliberalism. It seems quite “normal” to many that platforms, for example, are organized as private companies. But why should they be? Wouldn’t some social media platforms be better off as public media organizations, especially when it comes to the processing of such a large amount of data? Or couldn’t other platforms providing taxi services or accommodation, for example, be much better organized as cooperatives run either by users or by the providers of services themselves? Don’t many platforms belong much more to the communities they claim to serve? And what would a local journalism platform that is really for the people look like? My argument is to think much more radically about how we organize digital media and not just to put up with the myths and ideologies of the big tech companies. The crises of recent years – from “fake news” to the Coronavirus and the false information about it propagated digital platforms – have shown us that these companies are much more profit-driven than they are oriented to the common good. This should give us food for thought. While I think this through theoretically in Deep Mediatization, in the field of local journalism a team of colleagues and I put theory into practice through our experimental local news platform molo.news.
Dr Andreas Hepp is professor for media and communications at the ZeMKI, Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research, University of Bremen. For more information about him and his research, see http://www.andreas-hepp.name.