App Studies: Platform Rules and Methodological Challenges

Anne Helmond, Fernando N van der Vlist, Carolin Gerlitz, Esther Weltevrede, David Nieborg, Thomas Poell, Jeroen de Kloet, Guohua Zeng, Johannes Paßmann

Abstract


The panel engages with conceptual and methodological challenges within a specific area of ‘internet rules’, namely the space of mobile apps. Whereas the web was set out to function as a ‘generative’ and open technology facilitating the production of unanticipated services and applications, the growing popularity of social media platforms, and mobile apps is characterised by proprietary services that facilitate accessibility but obstruct transparency, tinkering, adjustment, and repurposing. This broader development from ‘generative’ technologies to ‘tethered’ devices and services has been referred to as ‘appliancization’ by Jonathan Zittrain (2008). In addition to Zittrain’s focus on the proliferation of proprietary technologies, we suggest that platform infrastructures create specific conditions for the emergence of app ecologies and that apps and platforms are mutually dependent on a technological and economic level.

From this perspective, the panel explores a number of novel methodologies for app studies. So far, methodological approaches for studying apps have focused on end-user interfaces and how users interpret app affordances (McVeigh-Schultz and Baym 2015), qualitative analyses of their political economies and the politics of location (Dyer-Witheford 2014; Wilken and Bayliss 2015), their social norms of use (Humphreys 2007) or their affective capacities (Matviyenko et al. 2015). The empirical investigation of apps and their ecologies currently faces multiple challenges: First, in contrast to most data collected from web sites and platforms, user activities can neither be simply observed or scraped from front-end interfaces nor easily be collected via APIs. In order to access app data, researchers may need to participate in using the app, which only affords a partial view (e.g. in the case of Tinder, Snapchat, and messaging apps) thereby opening up a number of ethical concerns. Second, method development has to respond to apps’ fast update cultures. Like other internet-enabled technologies, apps are considered as services rather than products and have frequent development cycles, including design and features changes, which do not only require researchers to constantly adjust their tools and approaches, but which also make it particularly difficult to reconstruct the history of an app or its features.

This panel responds to these methodological challenges by advancing methodological approaches that all share a common device or medium-specific perspective, departing from the specific features of each app to attend to its data ecologies, political economies, practices, or histories, whilst reflecting critically on the relations between method and medium. One contribution advances digital methods for app analysis by mapping larger platform ecosystems in which apps emerge and thrive. It explores how apps reinforce, alter, and interfere in the interpretation of social media platforms and their features. Engaging with Facebook’s mobile app and its political economy, the second paper attends to the difficulties of getting access to historical app information whilst tracing relations between the introduction of new features and the advancement of the platform’s business model. A different approach to writing a microhistory of apps is offered in the third paper on the Twitter’s retweet button. Bringing together historical and ethnographic insights, this paper offers a detailed narrative of the becoming of a platform feature at the intersection of technicity, use practices, third-party apps and platform politics. The fourth and final paper focuses on the WeChat app and draws on ethnographic methods to explore the affordances of entanglement when the only way to study an app is by joining and participating in it.

All four papers approach apps not as discrete technologies, but as being situated and subject to distributed accomplishments of technicity, economics, practices, data, third parties, and platform politics. They connect platform studies and app studies by drawing attention to their intricate relations, e.g. in the case of platforms offering apps, apps built on top of platforms, apps facilitating practices that inform platforms, and apps functioning as platforms. The papers outline relations between and gaps in app and platform studies, as the study of platforms has identified the relevance of data circulation and the involvement of third parties, but has not explicitly asked how apps capitalise on platforms and vice-versa, or how they reinvent and inscribe into each other. From the perspective of app studies, adding a focus on platforms allows researchers to map the ecologies in which app data circulates as well as the regulatory rules and conditions for their development. The panel thus advances the field of app studies by exploring novel methods for empirical app research which allows to attend to the technicity, political economy, history, and enactment of app ecologies.

Keywords


digital methods, apps, platforms, social media, use practices

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