Platform Analogies: How Bookstores, Libraries, and Supermarkets Can Inform Thinking on Social Media
A growing body of research contends that social media platforms (SMPs) are not “mere intermediaries” in a worthwhile effort to convey the magnitude of platforms’ influence on public information. However, this article argues that their unprecedented scale notwithstanding, SMPs can be usefully analogized with information intermediaries that preceded them—and that conceptualizing them in this way need not understate their power. Via an examination of brick-and-mortar booksellers, public libraries, and supermarkets that sell periodicals, this study finds that information intermediaries have long shaped the cultural and political landscape via three key mechanisms that also apply to contemporary SMPs: strategically directing human attention, moderating objectionable content, and intervening in the production of third-party content. By taking the political and normative dimensions inherent in information intermediation seriously, this article deepens contextual understandings of SMPs and suggests future avenues for platform change.