José van Dijck is arguably the preeminent sociologist in the Netherlands, conducting research about how online platforms have crept into public life that has proved foundational to European regulation like the Digital Services Act. Today on Reimagining the Internet, José talks to us about PubHubs, an attempt to build a decentralized, privacy-focused social media network for Dutch public institutions.
José van Dijck is Professor of Media and Digital Society at Utrecht University, and developing PubHubs with Bart Jacobs. She has published books including 2018’s The Platform Society and 2013’s The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media.
For more on attempts to build the Dutch public Internet, check out our episode with GJ Boegarts from Public Spaces, who gets mentioned a few times in this episode.
José, GJ, and Ethan all recently published the paper “Creating PublicSpaces” in Digital Government: Research and Practice.
Hello everybody. Welcome back to reimagining the internet. I am your host, Ethan Zuckerman. I am thrilled today to have my friend José van Dicjk with us. She is a professor of Media and Digital Society at Utrecht University. She’s working on an amazing project that you’ve heard me talk about before called Pub Hubs with Bart Jacobs in collaboration with public spaces. These are all organizations we talk about a lot on this podcast. Jose is one of the leading thinkers in the world around social media and social media platforms wrote a book called The Platform Society in 2018 with Thomas Poell and Martijn de Waal. Previously wrote a book called The Culture of Connectivity, A Critical History of Social Media. She’s a member and former president of the world, another one’s Academy of Arts and Sciences. Frankly, if we took time to talk about all the awards you deservedly won, we wouldn’t have any time to actually talk. José, thank you so much for joining us here.
José van Dijck:
Well, this is such a generous introduction, Ethan. I’m very happy to spend some time with you online.
Well, I’ve been learning so much from you over the years, and I’ve had the pleasure of coming and hanging out with you a little bit at your check. I want to talk first about this term, the platform society, because this idea that our society is being transformed by these social media platforms, and more broadly by platforms, whether it’s Airbnb, whether it’s Uber, these technologies that are quite totalizing terms of their effects on the economy and society more broadly. What is the platform society? What made you decide to sort of coin and develop this term?
José van Dijck:
Yeah, in 2018, I think the platform society still looked very differently than it looks now, but we basically coin to the term because we wanted to explain how a lot of our offline activities like communication, like mobility, lots of other activities, how they have been moved to an online environment, all our activities and services and even infrastructures are increasingly platformized as we call it. They’re becoming platform environments, platform spaces and those platforms have all become part of a huge global platform ecosystem system. Those actually— there’s two very big ones. There’s an American ecosystem, of course, where the platforms are controlled and organized by five big tech companies, of course, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft. And there’s a Chinese ecosystem of platforms that is dominated by three mainly big Chinese companies. Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. We call it the acronym, it’s the BAT companies. But of course the Chinese ecosystem is controlled by the Chinese state.
Now, if we stick to the American platform ecosystem, which is mostly what we inhabit in Europe and in the United States, what we’re seeing is that very large online platforms, such as social media, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, but also TikTok, but also app stores, advertising services, pay systems, search—of course—maps, clouds, lots of these platforms are actually kind of together constructing that ecosystem and we’ve all very much become dependent on that ecosystem as such.
So while platforms have come to govern societies and the way they are organized, I think that ecosystem need to be governed and controlled democratically rather than being governed by a few big companies that are not very transparent in terms of how they control it, how they moderate it. Frankly, I think it’s very hard for just one global company to globally moderate and control an online space for communication if you have like three billion users. I think that is well, almost impossible to control that and it’s also undesirable to have that control by a centralized company that is fairly in transparent as far as its moderation and control is concerned.
There is no such thing as a public online space that is governed in the Netherlands by a public entity or that is governed even from the very principles, for instance, principles that I had heard to, like open source, like a nonprofit, like, you know, communication can be moderated by the community stem cells, decentralized, all those principles by design that I would like to advocate as part of that, you know, organizing the architecture of that public space. So, you know, in short, and some, we really need to reorganize, but also rethink, first, reflect on what that public space should look like.
We’re having this conversation a very interesting moment. It feels like platforms have never been more powerful. It feels like in particular that these US platforms have never been more powerful. But there are at least three things going on. One is that these platforms are looking increasingly economically fragile. Certainly Twitter, certainly Facebook look like they’re going through some very difficult times. The Chinese platforms seem to be reaching new technological heights. Something like TikTok now appears to be at least the most compelling social experience in terms of capturing people’s time and attention. And we’re seeing both YouTube and Facebook sort of struggling to keep up.
Maybe the most interesting in all of this is that Europe slowly but surely seems to be trying to bring regulatory frameworks to bear. So we’ve just seen the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act. We know from the movements of the EU that what matters as much as what’s in those acts is how they end up being enforced, how they end up coming into play. Can you talk a little bit about what seems to be the EU approach with DSA and DMA to sort of challenging the concentration of corporate power under platformization. How is the EU trying to unwind this?
José van Dijck:
Well, that question goes to the heart of what we’re currently going to. You mentioned Twitter. It’s hugely interesting to see it sort of collapse now under the reign of Elon Musk and who first thing he does is sort of fire the entire moderation section in his company, which I think was the most important section that he had. So that is indeed very fragile. From there, what we can see is that indeed there’s on the Chinese side, there’s TikTok, of course, is emerging as one of the most powerful new platforms that reigns the global platform industry from a very different ideological principle and is state controlled. But TikTok, like the American platforms, is running into regulatory boundaries. We are looking forward to the EU as a new regulatory force, I think, to keep in place or to sort of diminish the extraordinary power that comes from both the American and the Chinese ecosystem as an infrastructural platform ecosystem. And what the EU can do is particularly enforce or first, of course, they need to articulate the very principles by which they want to enforce public values. And in doing so, I think they’re at least putting some fences around what is allowed in Europe and what is not. That, I think, is very important.
Towards TikTok, for instance, they’re saying, “Well, you know, you can’t do this in terms of, you know, for instance, using and controlling old children’s data that go into TikTok.” To the American platforms, they’re clearly putting boundaries as to how they can operate in Europe. And according to this new Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, but particularly the DSA, what we’re seeing now is that Europe becomes the regulatory force of the global American ecosystem and the Chinese ecosystem in terms of protecting those public values. Not only the value of privacy, which is very important, has always been important to the European space, but also security, democratic control, transparency, but also things like accountability. How can we take responsibility for the online spaces that we need to manage?
You know, mostly we use the metaphor of the stack to articulate how platforms are stacked on each other to function and how they are sort of vertically integrated. But if you look at the stack as a tree, you see that there’s three different types of services: the infrastructural services in the roots, the sectoral services in the branches, those are the branches of the tree, but in the middle there’s this powerful trunk with the very large online platforms like online media for instance, online social media platforms like pay services, like cloud services, like search. There’s a number of those, what we call gatekeeping services, that control the flows of data through the tree from the branches to the roots and from the roots to the branches. And that is why it is so important to own and operate some of these monopolizing platforms in the middle, in the trunk of the tree.
So regulators look at, for instance, monopolizing tendencies of these companies who own, for instance, both infrastructural services take hardware, for instance, then they have built in software that is built into the hardware like laptops and the iPhones, et cetera. For instance, if we look at Google and how they integrate their online services from the branches of the tree to all the way to the bottom in the infrastructure, what we’re seeing is that schools, even in the Netherlands, 80% of our primary schools are using—we call that the Googleization of education—but they’re using Google Infrastructure, hardware, build on that build into that is Google software, everything from search to Google Scholar. And on top of that, there’s packages of Google Workspace for education. So the entire line of all the way from infrastructure, hardware to sectoral services like administrative services for schools are built into the Google system.
Now, that is an important thing to understand when it comes to regulation, because regulators want to avoid the kind of vertically integrated or vendor locking, as we call it, in those services. So they have to respond to how is this stack organized? Could we, for instance, impose principles like interoperability, meaning that if you use a certain infrastructure, structural services, can you build on top of that another platform service that locks you into that vendor space? Those are the kind of questions that are being raised by regulators. And those are the kind of principles that you could translate into laws. So that is why it’s so important to reimagine that space that have all captured us in the platform ecosystem.
Our mutual friend, Geert-Jan Bogaerts, works for one of the many Dutch public broadcasters. He works for VPRO and heads their technology there. And he has observed that to be a public broadcaster in the Netherlands, one of the things you have to do is track attention to your website. You have to demonstrate that you’re serving an audience, and part of the way you serve the audience is the website. The default tool to do this is using Google Analytics, which is a very powerful analytics package. But it’s also an incredibly surveillant analytics package. It puts tracking information on every web browser and goes a long way towards violating privacy in various, different ways. So, Geert-Jan uses this as sort of an example of saying we’ve got to have a better alternative to this. At minimum, we need to find a way to use the Google system in the least surveillant way possible. At most, maybe we actually have to develop our own systems of analytics that are privacy respecting. And so he’s used this insight to start a project called Public Spaces, which you’ve been very involved with. Talk a little bit about Public Spaces and what it might mean for values-led institutions to get involved with the creation of software.
José van Dijck:
Yeah, Public Spaces was organized as, you know, out of dissatisfaction with how well public organizations are served by commercial big tech corporations. And what we came up with is each and every one of those organizations is too small to actually develop its own software, develop its own, you know, public space. So we bound them together, we co-organized, ee are trying to co-organize and reorganize this public space. But then of course, we first need to, well, articulate the principles by which we want to develop and create this architecture. So what we aim to do is building a public space that creates a cooperative of various public organizations that can create an alternative, at least a safe and secure public space to operate in online. And we’re learning from each other how to use that space more—how to turn it into a better environment for all each and each of us—and also how to collaborate on the basis of those principles. Each and every one of us is too small to do that, but together we can actually maybe create an alternative to that you know commercialized space.
So I think that notion of creating those alternatives becomes really interesting and powerful. And one of the things that Public Spaces has observed is that once you combine all the public broadcasters, the cultural institutions, the museums, the galleries, sort of all of that you’re reaching an enormous percentage of the Dutch population. The other piece of this is that these organizations exist with values sort of baked into their existence. Talk a little bit about this notion of sort of the charters that allow a public broadcaster or sort of a museum to exist with public funding, and what that might mean as far as having a consistent set of values that we could bring into play around this.
José van Dijck:
Well, let’s take museums or public broadcasters. They’re not allowed to bring their activities into a commercial space. That is simply not allowed by their funders. Now, if you organize an event, for instance in a museum or, you know, a public broadcaster, what they often do is broadcast documentaries and an organizing event. And they have to rely, for the organization of that event, they have to rely on commercial tools like Facebook or Instagram or put it on YouTube. And what they’re trying to look for now is actually creating a space where you’re not dependent on those tools, but where you can create your own online environment that does not process your data, that is not a centralized hub where all of your data go to, and where you can actually use your own open source tools in order to bring, you know, to offer a public space to these organizations. So for public organizations to remain public online, you know, you need to do a lot of work. You can’t, you know, you can’t just take refuge to any of these online platforms that will process your data into a centralized hub and where you have no control over what they do with your data.
Right, so maybe the easiest example of this is YouTube, right? If you’re De Balie, which is a wonderful space for talks and lectures and public discussions in downtown Amsterdam, you probably want to share all this information and put it out on a video service. As soon as you put it on YouTube, you’re putting it in a surveillant, commercialized environment where it’s going to come up to people through algorithmic recommendation services. It’s going to track people’s movement between different videos. All you really wanted to do was put the video somewhere visible, but suddenly you bought into this very complex system that you may or may not support. Unfortunately, the flip side of this is that if you start your own video sharing service run by De Balie, run by the public broadcasters, it’s possible that no one’s going to come to it. So how do we manage this tension between the services that are the most popular and where the audiences already are and the possibility of building services that are consistent with our values.
José van Dijck:
Well, that’s the big question, of course. How do you manage, how do you balance these two things? You want to go where your audiences are. On the other hand, you want to take your audiences to safe spaces where they can rely on the security, the privacy, etc. that is offered by that environment. If you take your audience to YouTube, you know that your data are going to be processed by Google Analytics. You know that you will be reliant on the servers offered by Google, etc. So you’re becoming part of a web of services that you cannot take control of and you cannot escape from.
But on the other hand, if you would build for each and every single event or a single service—if you would build your own platform—people may not be able to find it. As you say it’s not connected it’s not you know part of that culture of connectivity or hyper connectivity that has been organized by the big five platforms, so how do they find you? Well the idea is that you know by putting those public spaces organizations together if 45 or 50 organizations that we’re working with now, if they can create a space that all of these different audience want to come through and we can collaborate in organizing that space, we may become a, well, maybe a Dutch hub so far or a Dutch environment. We’re not thinking big, we’re not thinking centralized, we’re thinking decentralized. Because what currently, what we’re seeing currently is that we want to organize that online space, not for global communities in the first place. 90% of these audiences are not so much interested in becoming part of a global event. They’re interested in communicating online about perhaps something in their village or in their city or making a community of 20 or maybe 50 people that want to talk about the documentary.
You don’t need to have a global platform to organize your local events, your national events. So you have to rethink that whole dependence on global structures for actually organizing local or national events. And that is, I think, the kind of scale that we’re currently trying to build into our reflections on what do we really need? What is it that an organization needs for online communication? Do we really need to rely all the time on global platform moderation if we just want to take that event locally or nationally? So that is the kind of thinking we’re currently engaged with.
This move towards very large online platforms has certain commercial logics to it. If you have billions of users, you can build very robust infrastructure. You can sell the attention of those millions of users to very big global advertisers. It’s possible that you can also bring them into very small groups and sort of target ads to them. It seems like in many ways, the Dutch model that’s emerging with you as one of the leaders behind this is the very small online platform. And the very small online platform doesn’t need moderators in the Philippines to be making decisions about what should be happening in a conversation about a video from the De Balie.
Let’s talk about how the notion of the very small online platform applies to Pub Hubs, which is the new project you and Bart Jacobs are heading up. I’m going to embarrass you and point out that the major source of funding for this right now is the fact that you won the Spinoza Prize, which is the highest scientific prize in the Netherlands. It’s an incredible honor and well-deserved and comes with a substantial award, which you’re putting towards funding this project on very small online platforms. What is Pub Hubs and why do we need it? And thank you for making it possible.
José van Dijck:
Well, yeah, I’m using a small amount of my prize towards that goal. But Pub Hubs and it’s sort of a pet project, it has become a pet project, so you know, one of my pet projects. But the name Pub Hubs is short for public hubs and what we aim is we want to build a decentralized open source, nonprofit online community, a network that is really based on public value, such as safety and democratic control and transparency. So that is really the goal and you call it very small online platforms. It’s really that it’s not big. It’s trying to service institutions, public organizations, in their own size. We’re not you know wanting to depart from a centralized notion of platforms but from a decentralized notion of platforms. We want to work on designing and governing a platform in co-creation with public organizations such as the public broadcasters and public libraries, for instance. We also want to work with patient organizations who have their own needs.
And we recognize that each of these public organizations has its own needs and wants its own functionalities. Some have very small communities that are already you know functional offline. For instance, take patients organizations. We have a number of patient organizations that sometimes work with groups of 20 or 50 users. And they are very heavily moderated by volunteers that are already involved in the offline community. They have very different needs than for instance a public broadcaster who wants to organize an event after broadcasting a documentary and wants to reach at least 10- or 20- or 40,000 people, which is a lot in the Netherlands. But you have very different needs that are not currently, not being served by the very large online platforms. So what we’re trying to do is understand the needs for different functionalities of those public organizations and cater or customize, you know, the platform that we want to organize, customize that towards their needs.
Sometimes those needs are very concrete. Like we want to have an environment where 20 to 50 people can talk to each other, can interact in a very secure way. So we have to put a lot of effort into securing that space, for instance, by allowing them to take on pseudonyms or do that anonymously. But in such an environment, we need actual responsible moderators to do that. So, you know, in another instance, for instance, in public libraries, you may want to cater to groups that are, you know, talking about books: children, 12th graders, for instance. And they have special needs in terms of security or anonymity or pseudonymity, for instance. I think, you know, rather than sending them to TikTok, which offers now a book talk club, I think you can also allow a library or enable a library to organize such a space on public terms. That doesn’t cost much money, but also a space where the data of children who are using that space are not going to be sold to any kind of platform provider.
One of the examples that gets given a lot in explaining pub hubs is one that’s very close to my heart. I have a child in seventh grade. There are spaces where the parents of seventh graders can get together and talk, but it’s a Facebook group because that seems to be the default that everyone uses. You mentioned the idea of something like a Facebook group as being a reason why we might have Pub Hubs. Rather than going into that closed monetized environment, perhaps my high school provides this space instead.
But you just raised something very interesting, which is that Pub Hubs is built around this identity architecture called IRMA which Bart Jacobs has worked on. It’s a very clever system that lets you present a credential. So you can imagine a system where we want 12th graders to be able to have a discussion about LGBTQ issues in books, and we want to make sure that people are actually 12th graders rather than predatory adults. But we also want to be anonymous. And this IRMA system allows you to sort of say, “I’m not going to tell you who I am, but I am going to tell you that I’m in 12th grade at a Dutch public school, let me in.” That’s going to be a huge shift, I think, for people in thinking about how we represent ourselves in communities. Why do you think that’s so important? You say, “Why is it so important to have that sort of fine-grained control over identity participation?
José van Dicjk:
Yeah identity has been you know hotly debated issue of course these days. But what is so important about this issue is that organizations so far offline had a huge responsibility in protecting for instance children or you know vulnerable groups from their data being exploited by external parties. They do that offline. It’s very common that at least in Europe to you know it takes protective measures to protect that data or information is taken from those groups. They feel safe in their interactions. But we haven’t been able so far to create a space where those boundaries are respected and where they’re not sort of become vulnerable to data exploitation.
So by making institutions central to our Pub Hubs platform—the organizations that are public, one of their most important features features is that they are responsible for protecting their, for instance, their members or their children if it’s a school. Now in doing so, they really understand what it is that they’re doing. And the thing is if they don’t have an online environment where those values are respected, they can’t really control that environment anymore. So it’s very strange where some organizations are really very good at protecting their offline spaces when, for anything that is online, they just go to anyone of the large online providers. And that is simply because there is no alternative.
The reason why we’re building Pub Hubs is to create at least the alternative. And actually there’s another reason why we’re doing this because, and that is also why IRMA was built—IRMA is an acronym for “I reveal my attributes”—by designing that space and turning it into technical functionalities, you actually learn how to articulate principles. For instance, in terms of IRMA, that was like, you don’t always need to give all details about your individuality. You don’t need to give your birthday, your date of birth when you go to a liquor store, for instance. If you can just show that you’re over 18, you’re eligible to buy alcohol. Now, that system is based on a number of functionalities that you can build into the technology.
What we have tried to do, and what we’re trying to do now with popups is to build such an environment. And by doing so, we’re learning about how we can, for instance, articulate principles that may be translated into law. So once you have articulated those principles, you can take them to the, you know, to the legal level, and hopefully the legislators are sort of translating that into law. Anyone who wants to build a new public system can actually comply to that law. There’s a double intention behind what we’re trying to do. By building and by creating, co-creating such a space, we’re articulating the principles by which we want to have our online spaces designed by others.
What’s the current status of Pub Hubs? Are there any communities currently using it or are we still sort of in the building phases?
José van Dijck:
We have just started last year and it’s, you know, it is very complicated because it’s a process of co-creation. We’re currently having, we have three testing grounds: one with public libraries, one with patient communities, And the third one is the public broadcaster, VPRO that you mentioned. We want to do those tests before we build a real prototype because it’s very important to do that in concurrence with the various organizations for whom we are actually building. It’s very exciting. I’m an academic. So this is the first time I’m involved in this type of co-creation. I had no idea there were so many groups who were wanting to be involved in creating their own building their own online environment. It’s very exciting, but I can’t predict like this is going to take either, you know, not one year, at least five years, I think, but maybe more.
But we’re learning a lot from the process, and that is also important. Learning what, you know, you do not want to be provided for you, but what you can provide yourself.
It’s been wonderful to watch work that you’ve been doing for many years thinking critically about platforms now coming into play in actually building organizations—organizations like Public Spaces that is now trying to think about this seriously in the public broadcast space—now coming into play in software like Pub Hubs. This idea of Europe providing a third model, not just through regulation, but from creating software and creating new paradigms out there is incredibly interesting. And José, you’re right at the heart of this. It’s just a pleasure to have you on the talk about these questions.
José van Dijck:
Well, thanks very much, Ethan. And it’s always such a pleasure to talk to you.