I’ve been meaning to respond to this very interesting Tom Slee post for weeks and weeks.
Maybe we should stop talking about “information and communication technologies” or “the Internet” or “new and social media” as a single constellation of technologies that have key characteristics in common (distinctively participatory, or distinctively intrusive, for example), and that are sufficiently different from other parts of the world that they need to be talked about separately. The Internet is still pretty new, so we tend to look at it as a definable thing, but digital technologies have now become so multifaceted and so enmeshed in other facets of our lives that such a broad brush obscures more than it reveals.
I think that this is right, and have made at least vaguely similar arguments in the past, but disagree with Tom’s further suggestion that the best way to do this is through looking at “smaller scale structures” – e.g. drawing clearer distinctions between different kinds of social media, each of which works somewhat differently. The logic of this argument seems to me that people who now study and make claims about the Internet should be studying and making claims about e.g. “Internet-based social network platforms” instead. But it may not necessarily make much better sense to study “Internet-based social network platforms” than to study the Internet, because these platforms will be nearly as much a jumble of different causal effects as the broader Internet. One can easily imagine how the same kind of logic of debate will reproduce itself at still lower levels, with e.g. people who think that Facebook is teh awesome for social connectivity pointing to all the ways in which Facebook potentially brings people together, and others who think that Facebook is horrible pointing to all the ways in which it potentially turns people into isolated drones.
The better way to do what I think Tom wants to do is to try our best (this is admittedly hard to do consistently) to think about the universe in a quite different way. Rather than trying to drill down and down and down through ever more specific technologies until we finally discover the fundamental particle of electronically mediated social connectivity (or, more likely, give up from boredom or despair), we should start from a very different set of premisses.
Instead of wanting to study ‘the Internet’ or ‘Facebook’ or whatever, we should investigate the possible existence or relative strength of various posited mechanisms which causally connect certain explanatory factors with certain kinds of interesting outcomes. Most technologies will potentially bundle a number of these mechanisms together – hence, the need to try to disentangle these mechanisms as much as is possible in specific instances. Sometimes the mechanisms bundled in a particular technology may work against each other, so that e.g. a particular technology may be associated with mechanisms which simultaneously undermine and strengthen e.g. increased political participation in different ways. The relative efficacy of these mechanisms (or, better, the circumstances under which they are likely to be more or less efficacious) should be the focus of investigation. Instead of asking ‘does Facebook help protests in authoritarian regimes?,’ one would ask questions such as ‘does social influence from peers make individuals more likely to participate in demonstrations?,’ ‘does widely spread information about protester deaths make individuals more or less likely to participate?,’ ‘does government-provided information make citizens less likely to participate in anti-regime protests?’ and so on.
This I think, helps to disentangle the specific causal questions from each other (one could imagine how Facebook could possibly be associated with each of these possible mechanisms, and with many others). It also breaks down (as Tom wants to break down) the artificial separation between ‘new media’ and ‘old media,’ by forcing the researcher to think about the specific ways in which particular media may be associated with this or that causal mechanism. It is more plausible to me than to Tom that many ‘new’ media are likely to be more open to a wider number of participants than many more traditional media – but this is not a necessary prior – instead it’s a topic for empirical investigation.
I should make it clear that none of these arguments are original to me. Instead, they are an application (with minor updates) of claims made by Adam Przeworski and Henry Teune forty years ago. Przeworski and Teune famously (for political science values of ‘famously’) called for comparativists to ‘replace country names with variables.’ In other words, they wanted political scientists to stop maundering on about the differences arising from the ineffable national characters of Germany, France and Italy, and instead to formulate hypotheses about the relationship between variables that might be seen or not seen in different national cases (e.g. to construct a trivial and obvious example, to test the hypothesis that states with powerful left parties are more likely to have extensive welfare states). I’d like to see people who study the ‘Internet’ and ‘social media’ stop studying them, and instead start focusing on the role of causal mechanisms that might (or might not) be associated with specific technologies in explaining political outcomes, i.e. to start replacing technology names with mechanisms. This would, of course, require Real Research. But it seems to me more promising than the likely alternatives.