Luci Pangrazio, Monash University, Australia
The ways in which young people use digital platforms develop with experience, and are guided by changing understandings of what they should ‘and should not ‘be doing online. As such, young people continually develop tacit rules and understandings that guide their platform participation. While based on social interactions with peers and other online contacts, these rules are also technologically situated through the architecture and processes of digital platforms. Identifying how digital platforms shape the communicative practices and socialities of end users is therefore a key part in exploring their influence. Building on the work of several authors who have investigated the politics of platforms (Gillespie, 2013; Hands, 2013; Gerlitz & Helmond, 2013) this paper explores the tacit rules and understandings that users develop through their participation on the platform. Based on recently completed research with Australian teenagers the paper addresses the following research questions:
> In what ways, do the algorithms, processes and policies of digital platforms shape the communicative practices of young people?
> What influence do offline contexts (i.e. safety discourses, adults, peer pressure) have on how young people negotiate the rule-making process?
> In what ways do young people experience or interpret the technologically situated nature of platform participation?
While previous studies on how young people use the internet and digital media (e.g. Ito et al., 2010; Davies & Eynon, 2013; Boyd, 2014) have tended to rely on self-reports of behavior and/or observations of use, the present research used a series of art-based ‘provocations’to generate understandings and insights into the patterns and histories of their online practices (see Pangrazio forthcoming). In particular, the research was based on a series of workshops that supported participants in model-making, painting, mapping and digital design. These activities were used to encourage the young people to reflect upon issues relating to their use of digital platforms that would have been overlooked or remained hidden through more conventional research approaches. Representing their digital histories and practices through such creative techniques encouraged participants to critically consider their engagement with digital platforms and the rules and understandings they generated as a result of this. The paper therefore uses visual and textual data generated through the production of these artifacts to explore the tacit rules that underpinned these young people's platform participation.
While the tacit rules of platform participation were socially constructed, analysis of the data demonstrates that they were strongly shaped by the algorithms and processes of the digital platforms they use. As such, these young people's communicative practices tended to follow distinct patterns, ranging from one-way projections of information to more involved interactions with others. During the research period the majority of their digital practices took place on the social media platforms Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. However, several other platforms (i.e. YouTube and Steam) also offered opportunities for interacting and communicating online. While each of the participants initiated a range of digital connections this paper explores the four typical patterns to the young people's online communication practices which formed a tacit set of rules for their use of mainstream digital platforms: projecting the self; interacting with others; co-operating with others; and testing provisional aspects of self. Simply using a platform like Snapchat, for example, encouraged a particular form of communication and disposition in the participants, which often led them to test the bounds of self. In a similar way, communicating through Facebook often encouraged the projection of a ‘best’ self in what might be thought of as a kind of contemporary, adult form of ‘show and tell’. In this way, a set of communication practices and socialities are promoted and later 'fixed' through the platform. These findings highlight how 'social media logic' (van Dijck & Poell, 2013) or the 'norms, strategies, mechanisms and economies' (p.2) come to be reflected in the communication and social interactions of young people.
While the structure of the platform shaped the type of digital connections that were established, the findings also point to the socially embedded nature of these interactions. Participants were accomplished at initiating digital connections to reflect and reinforce varying levels of friendship, however, the platform played an important role in steering how these relationships were experienced. Indeed, digital platforms opened up new methods of communicating with others but these were often in quite particular and sometimes constrained ways. This was a source of reticence and anxiety for some. Digital connections that involved projecting the self, for example, made several participants feel vulnerable, mainly because of the fear of being judged negatively or simply rebuffed. Despite this, due to social exclusion, participants felt compelled to engage in the ritualised practices promoted through mainstream digital platforms.
The paper concludes by considering the dominant values and social relations implicated through these platforms ‘and how they most often reproduce the dominant offline values and power relations. In this sense it is argued that platforms reify particular social practices, while weakening others, leading to communicative practices that are strongly situated by technology.
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