Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Patrick Jagoda reviews José van Dijck’s The Culture of Connectivity

José van Dijck. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 240 pp. Hardcover $99.00. Paperback $24.95. 

 

Reviewed by Patrick Jagoda 

 

In recent years, the popularity of social media has skyrocketed with Facebook, for example, surpassing 1 billion users in 2012. The complexity of an emerging, interconnected, and ever-changing historical present — one informed increasingly by online social networks — has made the work of critical history difficult. Given that these networks shape the production, distribution, and processing of knowledge in the early twenty-first century, conceptually rich historical scholarship is essential to making sense of the central role of everything from algorithms to online affects in everyday life. The Culture of Connectivity undertakes this challenge by offering a lucid account of the period from the late 1990s onward — a period often characterized as the web 2.0 or participatory media era. In her analysis of social media, José van Dijck turns primarily to social network sites and user-generated content rather than trading and marketing sites (for example, Amazon or eBay) or play and game sites (for example, FarmVille or The Sims Social). Over the course of eight chapters, Van Dijck is most attentive to Wikipedia (2001), Facebook (2004), Flickr (2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2006).

 

A number of scholars, including Danah Boyd (It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens), Geert Lovink (Networks without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media), and Sherry Turkle (Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other) have undertaken the difficult work of analyzing social media and networks from the vantage point of our early twenty-first century moment. The Culture of Connectivity engages with this scholarship while offering its own reading of the historical trajectory of social media. The core argument of van Dijck’s book is that the proliferation of social media has entailed a transition from community-oriented connectedness to owner-centered connectivity. The transition to web 2.0, she argues, has entailed making social relations technical through platforms that manage and engineer daily human interactions. Van Dijck tracks this shift through a method that mediates between Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory (which attends to the relations of human and nonhuman actors) and the political economy approach taken by Manuel Castells (which turns to the economic institutions and political conditions that govern social network infrastructures). The first approach leads her to focus on technological platforms, user agency and participatory action, and new genres and forms. The second approach concerns platform ownership models, governance structures of social media sites, and business practices that commodify online sociality. Even with the clarity of these guiding frameworks, The Culture of Connectivity perhaps stands out most for the ways it attends to microhistorical changes that are often difficult to track given our increasing embeddedness in social media networks and their frequent multilevel updates. For example, van Dijck attends to Facebook’s gradual shift from a database or personal archive model to the predominantly narrative structure that became most clearly visible in the timeline feature introduced in 2011.

 

In the end, the most startling problem that the book highlights is the difficulty of opting out of social media. Is it possible, the book asks, not to participate while simultaneously garnering digital literacy and critical thought about the historical present? This problem — one that takes on not only technological and sociopolitical but arguably aesthetic and formal dimensions — has become pronounced at a moment in which the connectivity of social media feels ubiquitous and relational connectedness seems, sometimes, like a utopian aspiration or obsolete desire of a now-distant twentieth century.