Over the past couple of years, a few of my Facebook friends passed away. In one case, the young man’s family was able to step in and manage the “Facebook exit” gracefully. In another, the eventual exit was a bit more ad hoc and stretched out a bit longer, but the family and friends were eventually able to put the Facebook profile to rest. In the third case, the suicide of a remarkable colleague with no surviving direct relations, it has been quite a different story: even a year later, his profiles are still active on both Facebook and LinkedIn (and God knows where else).
A virtual afterlife? A forensic or historical artifact? A market externality?
It may seem strange and inappropriate to some, but these cases led me to wonder if social networks and other platforms should not be required to offer users settings for “end-of-life” options…. the possibility to provide instructions as to the disposition of one’s “digital remains.” While existing laws do govern disposition of physical remains and possessions, our “digital remains” (except for when copyright or intellectual property laws apply) are unregulated and do not even have a legal status within our current framework of laws.
Many questions arise: what rights, if any, do we, our families/descendents have to our “digital remains?” Can there or should there be a defined, regulated legal space between the “public domain” and that which is proscribed by copyright and intellectual property laws? Does all of this have to do with legal concepts of privacy or of property? Why don’t “legal use” arrangements, such as leases and licensing agreements, seem to apply automatically to our leftover digital goods and assets (which are frequently connected to private property or perhaps more often arise as “products” out of often extensive value co-creation processes between us, platforms, and others)?
Once again, while it may seem somewhat bizarre or macabre to be raising this set of issues in this context, I can assure you that its shock effect is entirely utilitarian: I am only interested in making a point about the regulative functions of platforms.
In my run-up to producing my Part II of Part 1: “Modern Platforms” and “Service Science:” New Ways of Understanding “Platform” Mechanisms, Interests, and Outcomes, I have been thinking quite a lot about how platforms are de facto regulators (often invisibly, subtly, and frequently disruptively conferring, precluding, and reallocating the rights and obligations of platform participants), challenging and altering institutional and legal structures of identity, privacy, property, and allocation of co-created value.
Certainly, our governmental and judicial systems have been caught flat-footed by these blitzkrieg developments that have suddenly fully permeated personal life-worlds and commercial spheres of interaction, agreement, and transaction (with thousands of examples ranging from Facebook to ODesk, et al). And only a few platform scholars have begun to plumb and explore these economical and social deep-sea trenches: most notably, as in “Platform Rules: Multi-Sided Platforms As Regulators,” Boudreau, Kevin J. and Andrei Hagiu, Platforms, Markets and Innovation, edited by Annabelle Gawer. That article/chapter,provides a basic conceptual framework for interpreting non-price instruments used by multi-sided platforms (MSPs) by analogizing MSPs as “private regulators” who regulate access to and interactions around the platform. We present evidence on Facebook, TopCoder, Roppongi Hills, and Harvard Business School to document the “regulatory” role played by MSPs. We find MSPs use nuanced combinations of legal, technological, informational, and other instruments (including price-setting) to implement desired outcomes. Non-price instruments were very much at the core of MSP strategies.
However, as of yet, such research has been scarce, and there has been only limited exploration and explication of “non-price value exchange mechanisms” established and activated through new e-based platform models.
What Hagiu, Boudreau, and some others do (in contrast to those scholars who tend to focus on the classical industrial and economic characteristics of platforms or to those writers and commentators who optimistically proclaim platforms as the “market marvels” and “growth and ROI engines” of the 21st century) is this: they start to look objectively and analytically below the “surface aura” of platforms into the essential structures, logic, and processes that define, comprehensively, what they are or “are like” (what they are similar in function to): “‘private regulators’ who regulate access to and interactions around the platform” (through “nuanced combinations of legal, technological, informational, and other instruments (including price-setting [AND NON-PRICE INSTRUMENTS]) to implement desired outcomes”).
So to repeat my assertion from above: “platforms are de facto regulators (often invisibly, subtly, and frequently disruptively conferring, precluding, and reallocating the rights and obligations of platform participants), challenging and altering institutional and legal structures of identity, privacy, property, and allocation of co-created value.”
Often, citing an extreme case helps to saliently and clearly make a point that might otherwise be obfuscated or even suppressed by autonomous forces or by design and more or less active intent. We now are starting to see discussions and legal challenges related to data privacy and some other phenomenon in the context of a Facebook or a Google. But these are just small, limited bits of issues and evidence of what might be a broader and more serious atrocity (perhaps even a kind of “crime against humanity”). If we want to know more about the “bodies that lie buried” in platforms, we will all have to start digging deeper and wider, thinking harder, and connecting more dots (not just commercially as suppliers and consumers, but also economically, legally, and ethically as 21st century human beings).
Thinking about our own “digital remains” and their fates may be a sobering thought, but quite possibly a very helpful one.