Monthly Archives: March 2008

I have not idea whether it’s going to be accepted but here is my proposal for the Internet Research 9.0: Rethinking Community, Rethinking Place conference. The title is: Algorithmic Proximity – Association and the “Social Web”

How to observe, describe and conceptualize social structure has been a central question in the social sciences since their beginning in the 19th century. From Durkheim’s opposition between organic and mechanic solidarity and Tönnies’ distinction of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft to modern Social Network Analysis (Burt, Granovetter, Wellman, etc.), the problem of how individuals and groups relate to each other has been at the core of most attempts to conceive the “social”. The state of “community” – even in the loose understanding that has become prevalent when talking about sociability online – already is an end result of a permanent process of proto-social interaction, the plasma (Latour) from which association and aggregation may arise. In order to understand how the sites and services (Blogs, Social Networking Services, Online Dating, etc.) that make up what has become known as the “Social Web” allow for the emergence of higher-order social forms (communities, networks, crowds, etc.) we need to look at the lower levels of social interaction where sociability is still a relatively open field.
One way of approaching this very basic level of analysis is through the notion of “probability of communication”. In his famous work on the diffusion of innovation, Everett Rogers notes that the absence of social structure would mean that all communication between members of a population would have the same probability of occurring. In any real setting of course this is never the case: people talk (interact, exchange, associate, etc.) with certain individuals more than others. Beyond the limiting aspects of physical space the social sciences have identified numerous parameters – such as age, class, ethnicity, gender, dress, modes of expression, etc. – that make communication and interaction between some people a lot more probable than between others. Higher order social aggregates emerge from this background of attraction and repulsion; sociology has largely concluded that for all practical purposes opposites do not attract.
Digital technology largely obliterates the barriers of physical space: instead of being confined to his or her immediate surroundings an individual can now potentially communicate and interact with all the millions of people registered on the different services of the Social Web. In order to reduce “social overload”, many services allow their users to aggregate around physical or institutional landmarks (cities, universities, etc.) and encourage association through network proximity (the friend of a friend might become my friend too). Many of the social parameters mentioned above are also translated onto the Web in the sense that a person’s informational representations (profile, blog, avatar, etc.) become markers of distinction (Bourdieu) that strongly influence on the probability of communication with other members of the service. Especially in youth culture, opposite cultural interests effectively function as social barriers. These are, in principle, not new; their (partial) digitization however is.
Most of the social services online see themselves as facilitators for association and constantly produce “contact trails” that lead to other people, through category browsing, search technology, or automated path-building via backlinking. Informational representations like member profiles are not only read and interpreted by people but also by algorithms that will make use of this data whenever contact trails are being laid. The most obvious example can be found on dating sites: when searching for a potential partner, most services will rank the list of results based on compatibility calculations that take into account all of the pieces of information members provide. The goal is to compensate for the very large population of potential candidates and to reduce the failure rate of social interaction. Without the randomness that, despite spatial segregation, still marks life offline, the principle of homophily is pushed to the extreme: confrontation with the other as other, i.e. as having different opinions, values, tastes, etc. is reduced to a minimum and the technical nature of this process ensures that it passes without being noticed.
In this paper we will attempt to conceptualize the notion of “algorithmic proximity”, which we understand as the shaping of the probability of association by technological means. We do, however, not intend to argue that algorithms are direct producers of social structure. Rather, they intervene on the level of proto-social interaction and introduce biases whose subtlety makes them difficult to study and theorize conceptually. Their political and cultural significance must therefore be approached with the necessary caution.

When sites that involve any kind of ranking change their algorithm, there’ll probably be a spectacle worth watching. When Google made some changes to their search algorithms in 2005, the company was sued by (a search engine for kids, talk about irony) who went from PageRank riches to rags and lost 70% of their traffic in a day (the case was dismissed in 2007). When Digg finally gave in to a lot of criticism about organized front page hijacking and changed the way story promotion works to include a measure of “diversity”, the regulars were vocally hurt and unhappy. What I find fascinating about the latter case was the technical problem-solving approach that implied the programming of nothing less that diversity. It’s not that hard to understand how such a thing works (think “anti-recommendation system” or “un-collaborative filtering”), but still, one has to sit back and appreciate the idea. We are talking about social engineering done by software engineers. Social problem = design problem.

The very real-world effects of algorithms are quite baffling and since I started to read this book, I truly appreciate the ingenuity and complex simplicity that cannot be reduced to a pure “this is what I want to achieve and so I do it” narrative. There is a delta between the “want” and the “can” and the final system will be the result of a complex negotiation that will have changed both sides of the story in the end. Programming diversity means to give the elusive concept of diversity an analytical core, to formalize it and to turn it into a machine. The “politics” of a ranking algorithm is not only about the values and the project (make story promotion more diverse) but also a matter – to put it bluntly – of the state of knowledge in computer science. This means, in my opinion, that the politics of systems must be discussed in the larger context of an examination of computer science / engineering / design as in itself an already oriented project, based on yet another layer of “want” and “can”.

Thanks to Joris for pointing out that my blog was hacked. Damn you spammers.