In the past decade, the Internet has changed from a mere information provision system into a system that is increasingly centered on communication and community building (Fuchs et al. 2011). First and foremost, this evolution was driven by the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook or Wikipedia, whose participatory nature has spawned celebratory visions of a new age of collaboration and distributed power. However, social media (or new media) are a contradictory phenomenon, and not all observers are enthusiastic about their implications. While their basic premise is to engage users in collaborative production, sharing, and consumption of content, social media also enable “massive provision and storage of personal data that are systematically evaluated, marketed, and used for targeting users with advertising” (Fuchs et al. 2011, p.3). The potential for user surveillance serves as a good example of how social media might in fact give organizations more power over stakeholders, rather than less. Addressing the dual nature of new media, this paper explores the question of whether they really lead to distributed power, or simply reinforce, possibly even exacerbate power imbalances.
When discussing the implications of new media, optimistic scholars like Clay Shirky often emphasize “greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action” (Shirky, 2011, p.29). Shirky believes that this eventually supports civil society and the public sphere. A strong point in his argumentation is that, through new media, “larger, looser groups can now take on some kinds of coordinated action, such as protest movements and public media campaigns, that were previously reserved for formal organizations” (Shirky, 2011, p.35). Anecdotal evidence for Shirky’s claims can be found in the upheaval of the Arab Spring, where new media have facilitated the coordination of public protest and challenged established institutions. But as usual, there are two sides to every coin. Just as authoritarian regimes are weakened, they are likely strengthened at the same time. Think of the implications of new media for the surveillance of dissidents, for example. However, this does not dampen the enthusiasm of techno-optimists, nor does it contain the hopefulness of utopian visions to the possibility of democratizing Middle Eastern nation states.
As more and more organizations are introducing internal, company-maintained social networks in an attempt to improve collaboration and communication on the job (‘Is business-centric’, 2011), some observers proclaim the democratization of the workplace (cf. Doolittle, 2012). Often, the argument goes that “by creating an environment where employees can dialogue with anyone from their organization”, social media have the power to flatten corporate hierarchies (Doolittle, 2012). But it is doubtful that such idealistic scenarios can be achieved in practice (‘Is business-centric’, 2011). And while the benefits remain theoretical, the trade-offs are often quite realistic. One need not be a political protester in Egypt in order to be concerned about surveillance through new media. Fuchs et al. (2011) observe that digital traces on company social networks often permit the precise reconstruction and documentation of employee activities.
A popular worry among European users of social media is that employers could gain access to personal information that is harmful to career opportunity. Considering that corporations are increasingly finding ways to capitalize on the surveillance potential of new media, this is a valid concern. Popular media frequently report that companies search Google or social networking sites to gather information on (potential) employees (cf. Tokc-Wilde, 2011). But it would be false to assume that corporations’ interests lie only in the workforce. Primarily, firms want to gather intelligence on consumers, and a good way to do this is through social media. Via complicated terms of service agreements, companies like Facebook (or any provider of a Facebook app) gain consumers’ permission to track their personal web activity for the purpose of consumer profiling and targeted advertising (Fuchs et al. 2011). Often, however, the legitimacy of consumer consent is questionable. Privacy policies are so lengthy, deliberately vague, and obfuscated through legal jargon, that many consumers grant these privileges unknowingly. Additionally, consumers might feel pressured to accept such agreement because they fear that the scale of social media adoption could lead to the social exclusion of non-participants. These circumstances can hardly be considered empowering. Instead, they hint at social inequality. Weaker groups, who might not fully understand the implications of being active on a social networking site, are exploited at the benefit of stronger groups (corporations), who set the rules, supported by an expensive legal team.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that new media are entirely beneficial to organizations. There certainly are situations in which new media favor the stakeholders. Shirky (2011) explains:
“Disciplined and coordinated groups, whether businesses or governments, have always had an advantage over undisciplined ones: they have an easier time engaging in collective action because they have an orderly way of directing the action of their members” (p.35).In this respect new media can, at least partly, compensate for the weaknesses of ‘undisciplined groups’: Firstly, new media reduce the difficulty of organization, enabling stakeholders to inexpensively coordinate protest on public platforms. As Argenti (2006) notes, it has never been easier for antagonists to attack corporations publicly. (Of course, this also makes corporations vulnerable to unsubstantiated smear campaigns, or hoaxes.) The general public now also has greater access to corporate information, as everything a company says and does is recorded on the Web. Secondly, the speed of technology makes it more difficult for businesses to gather their resources and successfully coordinate a response (Argenti, 2006).
“One should neither be optimistic nor pessimistic about the transformation of power structures on the Internet. The Internet still is a tool that is used by powerful groups for trying to support their control and domination of other groups just like it is a tool that has potentials for being used in resistances against domination” (p.6).