How to Compare the Many Internets of the World? Scholars Suggest a New Way

How do you grasp something so grandiose as the internet? Two Danish researchers lay out a way for us to measure the structural conditions for digital communication in different settings, presenting an updated version of Hallin and Mancini’s landmark model of understanding media systems.

We may share the same sun, but when it comes to the ubiquitous internet, the network comes in as many forms as there are countries and regions. The internet is not a monolithic architecture. A newly published paper by PhD post-docs Signe Sophus Lai and Sofie Flensburg from the Department of Communication at the University of Copenhagen give a pioneering toolbox for researchers to actually measure how digital communication is different from country to country, from region to region.

– Studies on the internet quickly conclude that the internet is this global network eroding the national and regional boundaries. People and nations have a lot of similarities; we use the media in the same way across the globe more than we did in the past, said Flensburg. But if we look at the political structures surrounding the internet, for example through how data harvesting is regulated in the EU and the US, that makes a lot of difference.

The web used to be a wild one. Lai and Flensburg explain how the early internet had low barriers to enter the market, how you didn’t need huge data centres to host a web page. The internet was where legacy media business would take their business but also make it an add-on to their existing forms of media. New entrants would come, and they would see it as an opportunity because it was cheap and easy. 

Now we have arrived at a point where many of these small actors, if they had any success, were acquired by the bigger digital players. Today, the barriers to entry are high. 

– It’s really difficult to make it as a new online retailer because Amazon is everywhere, said Lai.

Like a rocket deploying in several parts during take-off, Lai and Flensburg had the initial launch of their grand quest of mapping the digital communication earlier in their paper from 2019, suggesting we need a more comprehensive way of looking at how our digital society is built, beyond traditional media institutions.

– We both had to figure out how to grasp how the internet, in particular in Denmark where we were doing our dissertations, had altered the structural conditions for how to communicate, said Lai.

– The internet is not the same in China, Russia and the US, said Flensburg. China has another way of thinking about the role of the state and interference in the media than we do in Europe and the US. Our hypothesis is that if we look at the ways in which the internet is institutionalized, if we look at the market structures and so forth, we will see these regional differences. We will be able to interpret the development and institutionalization in the light of existing structures. Of course, at the same time acknowledging that the internet is also changing these very structures, said Flensburg.

How then can we even begin to think about these structural changes? Lai and Flensburg assure me they are not kidding when saying their framework changed around 70 times.

Going beyond legacy media

The researchers see the well-known model by Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini as a very compelling way to think about what impacts the ways in which communication can take place and how media institutions work in and across national settings. The model, originally developed in 2004 and refined in a paper in 2012, focuses on a world that by now has moved way beyond its original settings, which was focused on examining journalism and news media across nations.

Although inspired by the model, Lai and Flensburg saw its limitations, which Hallin and Mancini also addressed themselves in 2012. Lai and Flensburg felt this time needed a sufficient model for explaining how communication works, finally, as it is something “scholars have asked for decades”. Increasingly, scholars have found a keen new interest in digging into power structures in our digital communication, with an emphasis on the FAANG enterprises – that is, the big five digital dynasties we know as Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. 

Still, as Lai and Flensburg argue in their new paper, we are just getting started in understanding our digital communication in society; how it shapes it and is mutually shaped by society.

42 ways to measure

Lai and Fensburg wanted to zoom out and thus see the bigger picture. That started from realizing there is a need to distinguish the differences across nations and regions. But how do you actually compare the internet in different settings? To deploy an empirical framework, Flensburg and Lai set out on a quest to find the data sources needed to make comparisons. In the end, their new model consists of 12 indicators, consisting of 42 concrete measures, that researchers are suggested to use when making a comparison of digital communication systems between nations or regions.

– In order to capture this convergence between technologies, between sectors and policy fields we felt that we had to step away from the indicators and the measures that we were used to in understanding power structures in the media industry. But we wanted to keep that macro-oriented, political economy perspective on what structures our daily life with digital media, Flensburg said.

After their first article, which lays out the parts of our digital communication that depend upon each other to make our communication function, Lai and Flensburg did their first big exercise in data crunching, comparing the communication systems in Denmark from a historical point-of-view. 

– The internet as infrastructure has matured, and we are beginning to see how it actually has changed existing institutional structures. It’s becoming more clear how much power Google has, said Flensburg. What we’re trying to say is that the infrastructural conditions are different, the material conditions are different and it’s actually important to take those into consideration, for example, to say that the size of the US matters when we compare it to a small country like Denmark. 

China, on the other hand, has kind of skipped the stage of desktop computers and wired internet and moved straight to mobile communication, Flensburg explains. 

– That affects the way the market develops in these particular regions, and it affects the scope of policy and all the possibilities that politicians and regulators have, said Flensburg.

By launching the new framework, not tested yet outside Denmark but intended to be put to use by future research, the researchers want to enhance the possibilities of monitoring or strengthening the power structures in the digital society. 

– We feel a lot of the regulatory problems or policy issues stems from the fact that we don’t know a lot about these power structures, said Flensburg. We don’t keep an eye on them.

Read the article:

Flensburg, S., & Lai, S. S. (2020). Comparing digital communication systems: An empirical framework for analyzing the political economy of digital infrastructures. Nordicom Review, 41(2), 127–145.

Further Reading

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