On the the shift to an algorithmically organized culture

Tarleton Gillespie on the outrage last year about Facebook’s emotional contagion experiment:

Just because we live with Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t mean we fully understand it. And even for those who know that Facebook curates our News Feeds algorithmically, it’s difficult as a culture to get beyond some very old and deeply sedimented ways to think about how information gets to us.

The public reaction to this research is proof of these persistent beliefs — a collective groan from our society as it adjusts to a culture that is algorithmically organized. Because social media, and Facebook most of all, truly violates a century-old distinction we know very well, between what were two, distinct kinds of information services.

On the one hand, we had “trusted interpersonal information conduits” — the telephone companies, the post office. Users gave them information aimed for others and the service was entrusted to deliver that information. We expected them not to curate or even monitor that content, in fact we made it illegal to do otherwise; we expected that our communication would be delivered, for a fee, and we understood the service as the commodity, not the information it conveyed.

On the other hand, we had “media content producers” — radio, film, magazines, newspapers, television, video games — where the entertainment they made for us felt like the commodity we paid for (sometimes with money, sometimes with our attention to ads), and it was designed to be as gripping as possible. We knew that producers made careful selections based on appealing to us as audiences, and deliberately played on our emotions as part of their design. We were not surprised that a sitcom was designed to be funny, even that the network might conduct focus group research to decide which ending was funnier (A/B testing?). But we would be surprised, outraged, to find out that the post office delivered only some of the letters addressed to us, in order to give us the most emotionally engaging mail experience.

Mary Gray on the future of Internet Studies

Mary Gray’s keynote at IR13 lays out an important vision for the future of new media studies:

We have reached a critical moment in internet studies: we need to challenge ourselves and our publics to think about the Internet in the contemporary world in far more nuanced, socially-situated ways. … Doing otherwise simply sets up emerging technologies as the next new “toaster” to study, ever distracting us from the social context that animates the cultural work of any technology, reproducing a habit of finding norms and variations rather than interrogating their production vis-à-vis media.

Complexity means focusing on the context of media use above and beyond the devices in play. We need to challenges ourselves and our audiences to think relationally, dialectically about our relationships with technology.

There’s a lot at stake here, she argues, and calls out big data for claiming to offer unmediated truths about social behaviors. Gray concludes that de-centering new technologies and devices in our research might make us less popular (or even less fundable), but is nonetheless necessary:

Shifting to context will be hard as it will rob us from the novelty that makes us interesting to funders, reporters, and a general public hungry for the story that makes technology the hero or villain and retains the individual’s role as the arbiter of their own destiny in the face of technological change.

In the past few weeks I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about the need to pay close attention to our common sense ideas about technology. Indeed as Gray warns we usually view new technology as the hero or villain; the problem or the solution to our complex social problems. Plenty of scholars are questioning these binaries and creating nuanced studies of technology that center context and power relations. Gray’s speech is a good reminder that this approach is not yet the norm in Internet Studies.