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The new gatekeepers: The private governance of cultural values and its implications for public discourse.
While they can sometimes appear to be neutral conduits, digital intermediaries like Google, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Apple, and Twitter all make decisions about what can be said and done on their sites and devices. The particular character of these decisions have implications for the contours of public expression in a digital age. As more and more of our public discourse, cultural production, and creative interactions with others move online, and this handful of massive, privately-owned digital intermediaries continue to grow in economic and cultural power, it is crucial that we examine the ‘curatorial’ choices they make about the content they host.
This work will not only document the particular policies being imposed by these digital platforms, it will examine how and why these choices are made, the reasoning invoked as justifications, and the means by which these rules are enforced. Of particular interest are
the way these sites, in attempting to regulate such vast amount of content from such wide variety of users, combine human oversight, communal policing, and technical management to help curate and remove material they deem unacceptable.
These decisions and methods, and the velocity at which they are assembling into a broad governance framework, call for careful inquiry. But they also raise larger sociocultural questions: How do we balance the health of a community with each individual’s right to
unfettered expression? What are the contours of the relationship between users and platforms in social media? How do we maintain a rich public sphere when access to it is powerfully governed by private, commercial institutions? How is the democratic potential of the digital environment enhanced or attenuated by these policies and the means by which they are imposed?
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Tarleton Gillespie is a professor at Cornell University, in the Department of Communication. He is affiliated with the Department of Information Science and the Department of Science & Technology Studies. His scholarship has aimed to understand and reveal the emerging structure of digital culture. His first book, Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture [MIT Press, 2007], examined the legal and technological changes enacted in response to the challenges of digital copyright, taking what are typically legal and economic disputes instead as sociological and cultural dilemmas about how we circulate and regulate public expression. In 2009 it was selected as Outstanding Book by the International Communication Association, and was awarded the CITASA Book Award by the Communication and Information Technologies division of the American Sociological Association. He is currently working on a second book, under contract with Yale University Press, and co-editing an anthology for MIT Press.