The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

David Nieborg, Anne Helmond: From web to apps. A platform studies approach to Facebook’s political economy

David Nieborg, University of Amsterdam

Anne Helmond

In recent years, Facebook has become a dominant player in the growing mobile app economy. With its suite of mobile apps, including Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, Facebook occupied the global top four of most downloaded apps of 2015 in both the iOS and Google Play app stores (App Annie, 2016). In this paper we critically engage with the evolution of Facebook’s business model in the age of mobile media and investigate how changes in the platform’s advertising strategies have been reflected in their suite of mobile apps. We operationalize this inquiry by proposing a methodological contribution to the emerging field of app studies by combining a critical political economic approach to Facebook with methods from software and platform studies.

The history of Facebook, often framed as a Silicon Valley start-up or an emerging social network site, has been well-documented (e.g. Brugger, 2015). We aim to build on this body of work by studying the evolution of Facebook’s platform in the wider app economy. In 2007, around the same time of Apple’s launch of the iPhone, Facebook started its transformation from a web-based service into a mobile-first enterprise (Goggin, 2014: 4). Yet, at the time, the mobile ecosystem, and the mobile advertising ecosystem in particular, was still considered a ‘sleeper advertising medium,’ kept back by a lack of bandwidth, fragmented hardware (Wilken and Sinclair, 2009), and rudimentary tracking and targeting tools needed for effective mobile marketing. Since then the industry has evolved and grown tremendously, and in January 2016 more than 1.44 billion users visited Facebook’s mobile apps, generating 80%, or US$4.5 billion, of the company’s advertising revenue (Facebook, 2016).

Critical scholars have shown considerable interest in social media platforms, either by grappling with the issue of privacy and surveillance (Cohen, 2008), or by drawing on Dallas Smythe’s (1977) notion of the ‘audience commodity’to debate the extent to which social media usage constitutes a form of ‘immaterial labor’(McGuigan and Manzerolle, 2014). While such critical interventions offer an important counterweight against the utopian and sometimes very one-sided rhetoric of social media’s business manifestos, the aforementioned studies pay less attention to the technological dimensions of platforms. We aim to contribute such a technical sensitivity by connecting two bodies of theory that so far have seen little synergy: critical political economic studies of social media and software and platform studies.

Software studies analyzes the relation between software and culture (Fuller 2008), and in the case of software platforms such as Facebook, the related field of platform studies connects the technical specificity of platforms as computational infrastructures to culture (Bogost and Montfort 2009). In practice this entails analyzing Facebook’s end-user facing interface (i.e. front-end, the website, apps, and their features), as well as its developer facing interface (i.e. back-end and Facebook application programming interfaces and software development kits). Inspired by Ankerson’s software studies approach to writing histories of the web (2009), we make use of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to reconstruct Facebook’s evolution as a computational software platform via an analysis of two sets of archived documentation aimed at software developers and advertisers. Political economic analysis, on the other hand, is conducted in tandem via a financial analysis of Facebook’s mandatory Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings and through a discourse analysis of Facebook’s quarterly investor calls outlining high-level managerial strategies (e.g. Facebook, 2016).

Taken together, the proposed mixed-method approach moves beyond a genealogy of Facebook as a company and instead studies the transformation of Facebook’s platform with a focus on its mobile products (i.e. apps) vis-р-vis its underlying business model. By doing so, we investigate Facebook’’platform politics’(Gillespie 2010) and offering a methodological approach to conducting historical, critical material analysis of advertising-driven apps. Facebook’s app suite is in various stages of development and we expect to find differences in the ways individual apps, or ‘products’as Facebook calls them, are ‘monetized’. Or, as noted by Van Dijck (2013), we hypothesize that Facebook first facilitates ‘connectivity’as a starting point for the subsequent commodification of sociality and data.


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David Nieborg, Anne Helmond