Over the past decade, commercial social media platforms have scaled up, in terms of the number of users, and scaled out, in terms of integration into public life, taking on infrastructural significance. This paper adapts sociologist Norbert Elias’s conceptualization of the civilizing process to examine the role of social media in society, arguing that social media platforms establish socially sanctioned categories of people and modes of conduct. Taking Facebook as an exemplar, the paper analyzes the pedagogical, punitive, and incentivizing practices through which platforms produce social norms and societal ideals. From the company’s ambition to become the social infrastructure of the globe and its expansionist history, to policy documents and moderation practices, to formatted interactions and incentive structures, Facebook universalizes appropriate conduct and emotional expression in accordance with the interests of brands and advertisers. With its integration of information technology and automated decision making, Facebook takes over tasks traditionally associated with institutions like the home, the school, and the workplace and acts as a civilizing infrastructure in a double sense: first, infrastructure itself is civilized by the ability to sense and judge people and actions, and second, infrastructure becomes a civilizing force in the world on the basis of these abilities. Finally, the article concludes with a discussion of the implications of civilizing infrastructure for our understanding of civility, Facebook, and infrastructural politics.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
The author would like to thank CJ Reynolds, James N. Gilmore, Kevan Feshami, Lillian Boxman-Shabtai, and Ted Striphas for their careful readings and conversations that have strengthened the argument, along with their general contributions to the quality of everyday life.
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- civilizing process
- infrastructural politics
- social media