Predictive search’s black box, horizons of identity in social networks

From “Mapping Commercial Web 2.0 Worlds: Towards a New Critical Ontogenesis” by
Ganaele Langlois, Fenwick McKelvey, Greg Elmer, and Kenneth Werbin of Infoscape Research Lab, Ryerson University. (link)


How can we understand, map and otherwise critique emergent forms of connectivity and articulation among Web 2.0 sites, users and content, especially when the architecture and technical processes shaping communicational dynamics are black-boxed, opaque and secretive?

This is an important question because of the way Web 2.0 platforms want to tell us what we want before we know we want it, and thereby predict our identity before it has a chance to discover itself. It’s one of the ways it impoverishes possible narratives of the self under the guise of activating more of them. By recommending things we wouldn’t have discovered on our own, it seems to enlarge us, but it also forecloses on unbounded curiosity. Because these predictive systems aren’t openly disclosed, because we can’t see the algorithms or all that feeds into them, we can’t know if the ways in which they prescribe our identity are benign, in our best interests, or if they are producing subjects (and subjectivities) suitable for a system engineered to exploit them. We can’t decide after we’ve received the recommendations, etc., because that prescribed subjectivity is by that time a fait accompli, meaning our own judgments can no longer be trusted. We need to know what is in the black box before we disappear inside it.


Web 2.0 spaces do not simply transmit content according to specific communicative formats, even though this is still one of their roles. Rather, Web 2.0 spaces serve to establish the conditions within which content can be produced and shared and where the sphere of agency of users can be defined…. While the type of commercializing processes at stake with Web 1.0 were primarily about transforming users and their content into commodities, Web 2.0 dynamics establish the conditions within which such processes of commercialization can occur through the promotion and harnessing of user-generated content.

Web 2.0 imposes a horizon of possibility for identity, aspiring to become the dominant institution in the interpolation of subjects in techno-capitalistic society (“the cyber-capitalist infrastructure” or the “networked economy”).

What Zimmer (2008) describes as a Faustian trade-off between augmented personalized exploration and surveillance and commercialization gives way to a dynamic whereby the process of commercialization is part of providing to users augmented cultural knowledge, affect and desire, to borrow from Terranova (2000)…. Commercial Web 2.0 is about us — it is about re-presenting ourselves through the mediation of the platform. This where Web 2.0 platforms echo Lazzarato’s point that contemporary forms of capitalism is about the creation of worlds, which means the setting up of a horizon of possibilities. This also means that specific processes of subjectivation can be formulated as the crystallization of psychological, social, economic dynamics and factors that favour the formation of specific subject positions. These processes are present on Web 2.0 platforms and present us with the paradox of narrowing down the field of possibilities while creating, producing and enriching our experience of being on the Web. Commercial Web 2.0 platforms are attractive because they allow us, as users, to explore and build knowledge and social relations in an intimate, personalized way. In this dynamic, the commercialization of users and information is one of the central factors through which this enrichment takes place. As a consequence, alienation disappears, as in the Web 2.0 worlds there is no contradiction anymore between the marketing of user information and the subjective enrichment of users: what used to be two separate processes are now one in the augmentation of social and cultural factors. Third-party advertising is reinscribed as cultural capital produced by the platform for the user through personalized recommendations.

Alienation seems like its opposite — the process of restricting our identity to its articulation on social networks appears to us as an opening up of possibilities, thanks to automated recommendations, archiving, and the facilitation of immediate feedback on our broadcasted self-fashioning gestures. We cooperate with the shifting of our identity and our social relations online into pens built and controlled by commercial interests. The commercialization comes to seem like authentication, proving our selves have social value. It also seems like an escape from old-economy impersonal market relations because all transactions are deeply personalized and specific, and thus seem identity-validating. It seems more like “community” in relation to a long-outdated sense of what consumerism was supposed to connote — mass conformity. But consumerism is now the inverse, hyperpersonal identity mongering, with the “unique identity” as the perpetual product being sold and resold to the same individual subject. This fixes subjects with in the matrix that Web 2.0 is building, which will allow for total administering of identity to subjects if and when the project completes itself.

Basically, Web 2.0 is letting us sell out before our authentic self even exists. Selling out becomes the prerequisite for having an authentic seeming self, validated by the predictive systems online and fixed in illusory flux of social networks. “The hybridity of the user points out how processes of subjectivation on Web 2.0 worlds are both highly personalized and standardized. That is, the representation of ourselves takes place through a platform’s universal algorithmic logic. As users, we input personal information into the platform, and in turn, the platform represents us on the user-interface as the aggregation of bits and pieces of images, texts, sounds, videos, and links. The user-interface becomes the site where the exploration and extension of ourselves, our knowledge, culture and affect is negotiated through a technocultural mediation”


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