FM reviews
First Monday


Culture of connectivity José van Dijck.
The culture of connectivity: A critical history of social media.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
cloth, 240 pp., ISBN 978–0–199–97077–3, US$99.00.
Oxford University Press:



The latest book from media scholar José van Dijck, The culture of connectivity: A critical history of social media, is a timely and very much needed analysis of our contemporary digital–media scenario. Besides providing a complete and comprehensive account of the five leading players in the social media game, van Dijck also explains how the culture of connectivity, as she calls it, has evolved and became an intrinsic part of everyday life. The goal she sets in the very title of her work, namely not to describe but rather to critically examine the history of social media, is superbly achieved in every chapter. Moreover, her poetic writing style makes the book an informative, yet appealing, reading experience.

By drawing on recent academic works produced within the field of digital media research, José van Dijck puts forward an analytic model for the understanding of social media. She uses a hypothetical family to exemplify her arguments, which makes it easier to put her thoughts in a practical context. Similarly to other publications in the field, such as Mirko Schäfer’s Bastard culture! How user participation transforms cultural production (Amsterdam University Press, 2011) and Mark Deuze’s Media life (Polity Press, 2012), The culture of connectivity seeks to disclose the aspects of mediated culture that are hidden from — or ignored by — common users, and which have deep cultural, political, and economic implications. Examples can be found in her discussions about the blurring of boundaries between public and private spheres of personal life, about new media governance and about the complex business models underlying social media corporations.

The culture of connectivity is based on a theoretical framework that couples actor–network theory and political economy. French theorist Pierre Bourdieu and Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells are brought together in a complementary dialogue that allows for a deep and complete disassembling and reassembling of social media. In so doing, van Dijck composes a research framework that acknowledges the mutually constitutive nature of social practices and technological affordances. This framework particularly emphasises the intertwined and nuanced relations established between media, sociality, and profitability.

Van Dijck’s work is divided into eight chapters. The first one, named “Engineering sociality in a culture of connectivity”, brings an overview of the field and an introduction to the theme. This is also the chapter in which van Dijck introduces her key concepts: ecosystem, connectivity and sociality. From chapter one, we can learn about the rise of social platforms, their categorisation and, ultimately, the changing nature of social interaction.

Then, van Dijck moves on to introduce her theoretical framework and to set the basics of her work. In “Disassembling platforms, reassembling sociality”, the author explains why she chooses actor–network theory and political economy as the main frames through which to understand contemporary social dynamics. In the second chapter, it becomes clear how van Dijck’s analytical model not only explains the multiple elements that compose the “ecosystem of connective media”, but also reveals the nuanced relations established between them. This chapter is particularly interesting because it sheds light on the technical, social, economic, cultural and political layers that make up contemporary social interactions. Those layers will then become central in the remaining of The culture of connectivity, being the ground for comparison and contrasting of the five social platforms van Dijck focuses on.

The following five chapters go deeper into the analysis of the main social platforms currently used. By focusing respectively on Facebook, Twitter, Flick, YouTube and Wikipedia, the author discloses details about the functioning of each social media as well as about their role in the broader ecosystem of connective media. Each chapter follows the same structure: first, the platform under consideration is introduced and its overall definition and purposes are presented. Then, its techno–cultural elements are discussed. More specifically, the platform is analysed in terms of its users, technology and content. This techno–cultural analysis is followed by the examination of the socioeconomic structures that shape social media: ownership, governance and business models. Finally, the chapter is concluded by the reassembling of the discussed platform, through which its parts are reconsidered in broader social, political and economic contexts.

The final chapter wraps up the discussion by putting together again all the elements that comprise social platforms, and by discussing the cultural, economic and ideological foundations that sustains the ecosystem of connective media. This is one of the most engaging sections of the book and certainly the one in which van Dijck’s criticism reaches its deepest form.

The strength of van Dijck’s work lies in her ability to explain both the micro and macro dimensions of mediated communication in straightforward and yet complete ways. By comparing and contrasting new media in terms of forms, uses and governance, the book addresses complex issues about social interactions and networked communication. The questions raised throughout the chapters are extremely relevant in face of the obscure and muddy ground in which both social media and mediated sociality are currently embedded. However, some of the questions raised by José van Dijck are left either open or superficially answered, which makes The culture of connectivity very interesting and elucidating in some aspects, but a bit frustrating in some others. Further attention to issues of privacy and privilege, for instance, would have considerably added to the strengths of the book. Although van Dijck’s focuses on the history of social media, these themes are of vital importance in the critical assessment of social platforms.

The main achievement of The culture of connectivity lies in its throughout and unique perspective on social media. Being the first academic work to provide a critical analysis of the historical evolution of the ecosystem of connective media, van Dijck’s book is a mandatory reading for those interested in the subject, not only academics but also the general public. Media students in the beginning of their careers will find in The culture of connectivity a source of inspiration and comprehensive knowledge that are premises for further understanding the social media scenario. — Suen de Andrade e Silva, Utrecht University, the Netherlands. End of article

Copyright © 2014, First Monday.

Review of The culture of connectivity: A critical history of social media
by Suen de Andrade e Silva.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 4 - 7 April 2014

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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