The Political Economy of Social Data:
A Historical Analysis of Platform–Industry Partnerships

by Anne Helmond, David B. Nieborg, and Fernando N. van der Vlist

In: SMSociety ’17, Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Social Media & Society, Toronto, ON, Canada, July 28–30. New York, NY: ACM Press. doi:10.1145/3097286.3097324.


Social media platform–industry partnerships are essential to understanding the politics and economics of social data circulating among platforms and third parties. Using Facebook as a case study, this paper develops a novel methodology for empirically surveying the historical dynamics of social media industry partnerships and partner programs. Facebook is particularly emblematic as one of the few dominant actors that functions both as data aggregator and as digital marketing platform whilst operating a multiplicity of dedicated partner programs that cater to a wide array of industry partners. We employ mixed methods by aligning digital historical research and interview methods: using “digital methods”, we reconstruct both ongoing and former declared platform–industry partnerships and programs with web data whilst conducting semi-structured interviews with selected platform partners to contextualize the empirical research. This enables us to address (i) the dynamic relations between social media platforms and industry partners, (ii) their diversification by catering to a growing number of stakeholders with distinct interests, and (iii) their gradual entrenchment as dominant actors within an emerging digital marketing ecosystem. By tracing how and when partnerships and industry alliances are forged, sustained, and terminated over time we are able to develop a critical account of the political economy of social data that addresses the politics of platforms and stakeholders as well as the consolidation of platform power.

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