I’m currently reading an excellent book, The Culture of Connectivity, by the media scholar José van Dijck. It has many virtues but her project as a whole really resonates with my interests. Though she doesn’t use the term ‘ontology’, the intentions underlying the book are very much in keeping with those of the symposium on the Social Ontology of Digital Data and Digital Technology (or Digital Social Ontology) which I’m running in London in July:
I propose to look at distinct platforms as if they were microsystems. All platforms combined constitute what I call the ecosystem of connective media—a system that nourishes and, in turn, is nourished by social and cultural norms that simultaneously evolve in our everyday world. Each microsystem is sensitive to changes in other parts of the ecosystem: if Facebook changes its interface settings, Google reacts by tweaking its artillery of platforms; if participation in Wikipedia should wane, Google’s algorithmic remedies could work wonders. It is important to map convolutions in this first formative stage of connective media’s growth because it may teach us about current and future distribution of powers. (loc 483)
Doing so necessitates that we address the underlying ontological questions in a systematic way: what are platforms? What are their characteristics? What are their causal powers? How are they shaped? How do they change? How do they interact? What are the properties and powers of the emergent wholes? These questions shouldn’t be detached from empirical studies but should rather be addressed in dialogue with them. Such issues are unavoidably addressed in social scientific work on social media but doing so in a systematic way, understanding this as Digital Social Ontology, would help draw partial answers into constructive dialogue and open up a conceptual space within which the “connective approach” advocated by José van Dijck would become easier to sustain, particularly across disciplinary boundaries within what is still a fragmented field of inquiry.