The Machine Recommends: Critique

When Courtney first mentioned that she was contemplating a study of the meaning of the “Like’ or ‘Like button’ across social media, I was immediately interested. After working in communications, particularly across social media, for around 2 years now, I have experienced huge differences in the power of the ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ in determining engagement and conveying meaning. Even from a personal perspective, I know that my use of the ‘like’ across different platforms changes so much, and how much power I feel I have to influence social settings and behaviour changes accordingly.

Initially her aims seemed to be focused on two approaches to the ‘like’ as a subject of academic study:

  1. Determine the power (social impact, meaning, value) of the ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ across different platforms.
  2. Collect data on how her personal use of the ‘like’ determines her experience of the digital setting.

However, following her initial research of this subject, I could see that Courtney needed some direction. Although this particular subject was fertile ground for a research essay that could grow into her honours thesis, which for her seemed to be the aim, it was very broad and fragmented across social platforms, meaning that she would have to study copious amounts of data to even end up with a broad understanding of her subject matter.

Even after Courtney’s Project Pitch, where she crystallised her trajectory by focusing on just Facebook and the data which she could pull from the site about her personal ‘liking’ behaviour and how the Facebook like represents meaning, it still seemed as if Courtney was not sure exactly how she would present her work.

After talking with Courtney about her project, it was clear that her methodology was still being questioned. While she had found a focus within the data that Facebook offered on its marketing tactics based on her ‘liking’ behaviour, her presentation methods were still very hazy, and she was struggling to reconcile her interest in the subject matter and desire to present her work creatively, while also maintaining a long term view towards her honours thesis.

Courtney’s eventual presentation of her ‘Data Archive’, obtained from Facebook and interpreted in a creative way, is The Machine Recommends, a short blog where she reviews media which Facebook recommended to her based on its ad topics algorithm. While the blog has only a few posts (5 at current count as of 1/11/15), the reviews and accompanying data analysis, as well as the ‘How Do I Find My Data?’ page, are refreshingly creative forms of data analysis and visualisation. As Courtney mentioned in her beta, she struggled to identify the most meaningful way to present her research, especially as she wanted her research to have social utility and originality.

In Courtney’s beta presentation she mentioned that she had made many informal observations on how much education her friends and family had on how Facebook collects data. The types of privacy concerns and lack of education that most of her respondents had indicated that there could have been an extra tab on the blog or even a modification of her trajectory for the project where she might be able to identify general misconceptions about Facebook data collection and usage, as well as educate the public on how Ad Words specifically responds to everyday behaviour on the platform and how to accesss your ‘Ad Topics’. This would increase the social utility of the project through increased emphasis on education of the public of the negative aspects of social media usage, an element of social media which is often swept under the carpet.

The concept that The Machine Recommends is based on e.g. ‘how well does an algorithm really know us?’ and ‘does our online behaviour really reflect who we are?’, seems to have been superficially explored within the project content, and may have benefited from further theoretical and philosophical discussion. Take, for example, Mike Rugnetta from Idea Channel’s video ‘Are You Literally What You Post‘, where Rugnetta proposes that the idea of ‘self’ online is closely tied to the curation of content and the identification of specific memes and images as ‘literally’ ourselves in their construction of meaning and emotion e.g. while posting a picture of Taylor Swift reacting to something and captioning ‘literally me right now’ does not mean you are literally Taylor Swift, you are suggesting that her reaction, identity and personality say something meaningful about your own in real life. In relation to this argument, Courtney could argue that ‘likes’ have vastly less meaning than ‘Shares’ and our original posts do on Facebook, constructing authentic meaning in a way that the pages we like simply cannot. This argument could be a conclusion drawn from the data which she pulled from her Data Archive (discussed on the website), which she commented in her Beta presentation seemed to be very inaccurate, producing entertainment that she generally disliked and would not have picked herself.

Based on the initial reviews that Courtney has constructed, I would love to see the blog grow to become a digital forum for people to contribute to as a way of expanding digital literacy about data collection and online identity. Perhaps opening the blog up to ‘guest blogs’ where other digital media students and bloggers can download their data and review suggested media would increase general public understanding of the way in which Facebook analyses our everyday behaviour, as well as encouraging self-awareness about what we post online and what it says about us.

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