What can be studied is always a relationship or an infinite regress of relationships. Never a ‘thing.’—Gregory Bateson, 1978
In 1984, sociologists Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker published a paper detailing the extension of sociology into the arena of the hard sciences. Since then, the hard sciences have repaid the visit many times over: a synthesizing of society and technology has led to what N. Katherine Hayles has described as one of the most consequential developments in twenty-first-century technology: “the movement of computation out of the box and into the environment.” Unsurprisingly—considering that their modus operandi is to hyphenate the social and the technological—platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter have led the charge.
After tracking the spread of YouTube widgets across the web, researcher Anne Helmond was among the first to fully address the -isational tendencies of social media platforms—though she stopped short of making the material leap. Such a leap was made a few years later, when Jean-Christophe Plantin and his colleagues postulated that digital technology has set in simultaneous motion “a ‘platformisation’ of infrastructure and an ‘infrastructuralisation’ of platforms.” Social media platforms have since become part of our societal furniture—seamless and seen less—and, in the words of Melvin Kranzberg, “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”
“The ground is quite literally the basis of the behaviour of land animals,” writes ecologist James J. Gibson in his 1979 book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. In this new millennium, the platform has emerged as the new basis of behaviour. Square-footage sans social media has begun to disappear. All the world’s a platform. But as platform-free space continues to dwindle, are the stakes of cancellation too high? Is the recent amplification of the cancel culture debate, as well as the media ascension of figures of Laura Loomer, a sign that those stakes are already too high? Not according to Twitter & Co. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a platform is “a raised level surface on which people or things can stand.” But the supportive aspect of the word tells only half the story. By definition, every platform must have an edge. One can stand on a raised surface, but one can also be pushed off it. In “The Politics of ‘Platforms,’” Tarleton Gillespie writes: “‘Platform’ has been deployed in both their populist appeals and their marketing pitches—sometimes as technical platforms, sometimes as platforms from which to speak, sometimes as platforms of opportunity. Whatever tensions exist in serving all of these constituencies are carefully elided.” Throughout history, Gillespie continues, “policy debates about emerging technologies and information intermediaries have been marked by key structural/spatial metaphors around which regulation has been organized,” so the degree to which platforms are running on—and hiding amidst—etymological fumes ought to be checked, rechecked and checked again. Enter Laura Loomer.
In November 2018, Twitter permanently suspended the account of social activist and political stuntwoman Laura Loomer for her tweets about US Representative Ilhan Omar, whom she accused of being pro-Sharia and antisemitic. The case of Loomer versus Twitter did not end there—in August 2020, Loomer won the Republican primary for the 21st Congressional District of Florida. Now, buoyed by the fact that, despite their policy of political verification, Twitter have explicitly refused to replatform the Floridian candidate, Loomer is serving (and campaigning) to destabilise the consensus definition of platform once again: a “discursive resting point” (à la George Bazerman) that the likes of Twitter have worked hard to flatline. Even a cursory flick through the political nomenclature—one stands on an issue, one gives a stump speech—reveals the longstanding provenance of the term. As Shoshana Zuboff has written in her work on surveillance capitalism: “taming this new force depends upon careful naming.” The masthead of the Laura Loomer for Congress website reads: “Stand with Laura Loomer.” But stand on what? Stand where? On 3 November—election day—Loomer shared a literal platform with veteran Democrat incumbent Lois Frankel, who has served Donald Trump’s home district since 2013. However horizontal the stage, the pair could not be on less equal footing.
“Platforms don’t look like how they work and don’t work like how they look,” writes Benjamin Bratton in the Stack: “Platforms are what platforms do.” In the spirit of Bratton, author and strategist Benedict Singleton has proffered a counter-history of de–sign: “one in which artisans have been treated as deeply suspicious figures: purveyors of an unruly practice that broadens its palette beyond wood, stone, metal and animal parts (and latterly, plastic and pixels) to human behaviour.”
Interfacial technology has opened the door to a new species of affordance that not only affords falling, but pushing; not only hiding, but being able to hide itself. Gibson’s 1979 remarks about animals also apply to platforms in 2020: “When touched they touch back, when struck they strike back; in short, they interact with the observer and with one another. Behavior affords behavior.” For just as every platform has an edge, every platform has a platformer—or, as Singleton has written, “an invisible director-of-affairs lurking in the figurative ‘offstage’ of everyday.” Gibson asks: “How do we go from surfaces to affordances?” Well, with respect to platform infrastructure, one must go to the edge—or study those, like Laura Loomer, who have fallen off.
Connectivity, publicity, profit etc.—everyone knows what a Tweet can perceptibly afford. Platforms make sure of that. But what can a tweet materially cost? For Laura Loomer, the consequences of her 2018 tweets did not end with her deplatforming, but have reached beyond 2018 and beyond Twitter itself. When the decision was made to remove Loomer from the platform, Twitter established not only a company standard, but a platform standard for antisocial behaviour, which first rippled through the social sphere—Loomer was deactivated from Facebook and Instagram in 2019 (for her original tweets)—and then spread further afield. PayPal not only banned Loomer from their platform—establishing a standard for mobile-payment platforms, which Cash App and GoFundMe upheld—but extended the ban to subcontracted users of PayPal services, whose members range from Teespring to WordPress. “How am I supposed to pay my bills?” wrote Loomer on her Instagram account, before its deactivation. “Am I supposed to be homeless? I guess these people won’t be happy until I reach a breaking point and just die.” In describing the complexes often hidden within the features of communication networks, Susan Leigh Star uses an infrastructural analogy: “There are millions of tiny bridges built into large-scale information infrastructures, and millions of (literal and metaphoric) public buses that cannot pass through them.” For Loomer, who is also banned from Uber and Lyft, bridges literal and metaphorical have closed.
“Modern technology involves scientists who ‘do’ technology and technologists who function as scientists,” wrote intelligence specialist Edwin T. Layton in 1977. Today, technologists not only function as scientists, but as politicians, lawyers, bureaucrats and businessmen. In “How to Infrastructure,” Star and Geoffrey C. Bowker describe the ways in which infrastructural inversion (a turning upside-down of infrastructures) can reveal the deeper processes, the “normally invisible Lilliputian strings” that lie beneath the surface. What deplatformisation accommodates—as a fringe yet fundamental process—is a kind of platformational eversion (a turning inside-out of platforms) which, pressing pause on rhetoric and design, focuses instead on action, on process, on (to quote John Durham Peters), “the basic, the boring, the mundane, and all the mischievous work done behind the scenes.” An infrastructural optic opens up the phenomenon of deplatforming to a more systemic analysis, wherein deplatformings can be viewed less as outliers and more as symptomatic outgrowths; as manifestations of an underlying process that is not separate from, but part of platform infrastructure. Did Loomer and Trump break into the system from without? Or did they emerge from within a broken system? A look at the infrastructural fallout, during and after, short term and long, can reveal elements that can often be hidden by time, scale and PR.
As systems grow, so do the risks of system failure—not only for those within the system, but for the system itself. The more wires there are, the more wires there are to cross. For communication networks like Twitter, high-profile deplatformings—public acts of excommunication—pose a unique dual threat: not only to the platformational integrity but to the infrastructural invisibility of the platform. “The normally invisible quality of working infrastructure becomes visible when it breaks,” writes Star, “the server is down, the bridge washes out, there is a power blackout.” Andrew Marantz has written about how characters like Laura Loomer can present a catch-22 for social media and news media alike:
I often wondered whether I was giving people like Loomer too much attention. If what they wanted was press, then wasn’t my reporting on them part of the problem? I tried to remind myself that the real subject of my writing was not Loomer and her cronies, per se, but the attentional structures that had enabled them to sneak toward the forefront of the American public square—in short, the screwed-up incentives of the social Internet.
For Twitter, the hypervisibility of Laura Loomer—whose antics, such as handcuffing herself to Twitter’s New York headquarters, have acquired the viral tag of Loomering—coupled with the hyperconnectivity of her case—which touches upon social, economic, legal and political concerns—has strongarmed the platform into transparency, forcing them, time and again, to drag platformational operations out of the comfort and privacy of their own offices and into the public square. Loomer, Frankel, Dorsey: though only two of those names will be on the ballot, on election day, all three made the headlines.
“A ‘good’ hiding place,” Gibson continues, “is one that is concealed at nearly all points of observation.” Deplatformisation is one particular point of observation from which platforms cannot easily hide. A 2010 BBC poll found that 79% of people in 26 countries considered Internet access to be a fundamental human right. In light of this, should the courts of public opinion be the place where constitutional and institutional rights are negotiated, given or taken away? Should a social media platform like Twitter—where blue checkmarks hold inordinate and unelected sway—be the place where gavels are banged? Or the one to do the banging? As the designated battleground for social dialectics—public versus private, social versus technological, man versus machine—deplatformings are uniquely positioned to raise such questions. In her analysis of platformisation, Anne Helmond notes how the nominal move from social media sites to social media platforms brought a reconceptualisation and renewed scrutiny to the study of Twitter & Co. Presently, platforming returns 8,330 results in Google Scholar. Deplatforming returns 372. Perhaps now, as contradictions mount, the time has come for the study of platforms to make another nominal move: to turn to the relational, the dynamic, the antonymic.
Despite the fact that our contemporary blend of platform and infrastructure has given deplatforming a newfound exilic dimension, there is still a tendency to dismiss the deplatformed as fringe, as other, as things. Yet when beheld as a whistleblowing device, as a kind of infrastructural man on the inside, deplatformisation takes on an entirely different complexion. For innocent bystanders, charitable actors and guilty parties alike, deplatformisation presents the public with up-to-date mappings of the social mediascape: signposting cliffs, uncovering pitfalls. What the case of Laura Loomer reveals, to her and to everyone else, is that a social media platform like Twitter can impose economic sanctions, take political stances, set judicial precedents and forge infrastructural ties. One thing is for sure: the recent election in Florida’s 21st Congressional District will have consequences not just for Floridians, but also for Twitter the company and for the entire online world.
Excellent read. Brilliant piece.