A (very) brief history of digital media

1.3. A (very) brief history of digital media

When we talk about digital media today, we mainly talk about their negative effects on society. We lament the power of monopolistic platforms like Amazon, Facebook, or Google. We share scare stories about the supposed impact of Russian bots on US elections. We worry about the climate of political discourse in face of rough and uncivil exchanges online. Wherever we look, digital media appear as a threat. This was not always the case.

In the heady days of the nineteen-nineties - when digital technology was in its fifties, the internet was 21, and the World Wide Web had just seen the light of day - people saw the internet predominantly as a medium of liberation and empowerment. The ability to publish websites independently or to communicate freely and pseudonymously on internet fora was seen as an opportunity for people whose voices were previously unrecognized to find each other and get their voices heard. These expectations gained broad traction in society in the early two-thousands. The dot-com crash in March 2000 devaluated the stock of many companies in digital tech. In the attempt of creating new excitement about digital technology, digital entrepreneurs started to talk about the Web 2.0 and associated technological innovations that enabled greater degrees of user interactivity than the previous version of the world wide web. Interaction, connection, and user empowerment became powerful narratives of the time.

But Web 2.0 did not only empower users. If anything it empowered technology companies even more. While the power of the world wide web lay in the ability of users to publish websites without support of companies or institutions, Web 2.0s backbone was provided by a few large companies: Alphabet (formerly Google), Amazon, Apple, and Meta (formerly Facebook) emerged as powerful players achieving all but monopoly status in their chosen field. The power of these companies led to many accounts lionizing the achievements of their founders and CEOs. At the same time, voices critiquing their power and increasing reach into ever more areas of society emerged.

Economists tend to emphasize the economic opportunities emerging from platform business models. By allowing market participants to find each other, platform companies create business opportunities and value, where there was none before. Prototypical examples include Airbnb - a company connecting people looking for a place to stay and those willing to sublet apartments - or Uber - a company connecting people looking for a ride and those willing to provide taxi services.

In contrast, sociologists and media scholars tend to point to the dangers of emerging power imbalances between platform companies and market participants. They warn against the associated powers of platform companies to shape the production conditions and structures of markets they come to dominate. Platform business have also been critiqued for bypassing regulation - such as Airbnb circumventing tourism restrictions and bed-limits set by city governments, or Uber by circumventing labor laws by treating drivers not as employees but instead as independent contractors. Outside Silicon Valley this critical view of platforms and the underlying business models has come to dominate public and regulatory discourse.

The critical view of digital media has become so widespread that some have diagnosed a "techlash" of late - a backlash against digital technology. Beside the business practices of platform companies and their dominant market power, actual and perceived transgressions of technology companies or their founders have contributed to this. Apparent negligence by tech companies in reigning in malicious actors like the English consultancy Cambridge Analytica, or curbing hate speech, or stopping the spread of misinformation have all contributed to their image in public and among regulators to suffer severely. In fact, the dominant view at the moment seems to be that technology companies are a threat to democracy and healthy societies. Nevermind that the empirical evidence is indicating that the effects of malicious actors like Cambridge Analytica is all but neglectable and that the spread of misinformation online appears to be exaggerated. While digital media are clearly an arena where political conflicts of the day are staged, their causal role in the widely diagnosed deterioration of political competition and discourse is far from certain.

The bad news is that digital media probably never were as beneficial for society as the early proponents believed. The good news is, that the flip side to this argument is also likely to be true: Digital media are probably far from so detrimental as feared by their detractors today. While the good was never as good as hoped for, at least the bad is not as bad we sometimes fear.

The more discerning readers are probably just about to point out that this (very) brief history of digital media was actually a (very) brief history of US digital media. As always, the more discerning readers are correct. The discussion of digital media and its role in the world is still predominantly told based on cases from the USA. But this is limiting. While ten years ago one could reasonably make the case that the largest digital technology companies were based in the US, this is no longer the case. For example, in the meantime Chinese companies have grown into powerful providers of digital platforms used all over the world, think TikTok or WeChat. They even have developed into important providers of digital hardware providing the technological backbone for digital communication all over the world, think Huawei. This means two things going forward. For one, the provision and regulation of digital media will become much more subject to geopolitical considerations and competition than it has in the past. But more broadly, it also means that academics need to widen their gaze from a predominant fixation on observations based on Western countries or the USA and account for the uses and effects of digital media in other international contexts.