Contexts and Backgrounds

Hamish Robertson’s and Joanne Travaglia’s “Impact of Socil Sciences – Big Data Problems We Face Today Can Be Traced to the Social Ordering Practices of the 19th Century” provided a wonderful reading that situates the many issues and discussions of big data into a historical framework that allows us to understand the data revolution as a development of a first data revolution in the 19th century.

This first data revolution is so ingrained in the Western world that it is difficult to even perceive it as anything but natural. This era of information organization was the period of classification, a period that sought to classify a variety of organisms such as animal species, words and social dynamics. I use the word “organisms” to emphasize the historical mobility and liveliness of society’s forces and products. While science provided the tools for classification, the authors argue that classification is nothing but natural. In the contrary, “a great deal of social data is coercive in nature” (5). They attempt to reveal it is not science, but society, that we see through the instruments of classification.

This historical background of data management and classification on the 19th century creates an interesting dynamic when integrated into Jose Van Dijck’s and Thomas Poell’s “Understanding Social Media Logic.” In this work, the authors attempt to demonstrate how social new media logic infiltrates and is infiltrated by mass media and offline processes in the same way that 19th century data management and ideologies can be found in mass media and new media logic. In addition, I appreciate “Understanding Social Media Logic” in that it is almost didactic in its organization and presentation and allows the reader to carefully meditate about the different aspects of social new media (logic, programmability, popularity, connectivity and datafication) and how they are integrated in individual lives. The comparison between the two articles is also fortunate in that it reveals how the image of the scientist capable of presenting natural and objective data has been adapted from the 19th century animal and plant sciences to television news broadcast to television product advertising and to the apparent objectivity of non-human mediated logarithmic information. Ironically, while many other articles did alert readers about the subjectivity of data collection and the important place that data collection acquires in the struggle for power, Van Dijck and Poell are able to evince this subjectivity and social coarseness of classification by providing a 19th century-style classification of different media logics and attempt to remain objective in their assessment of media effects.

While Robertson’s and Travaglia’s article provides a background that clearly influenced the logic of media, Van Dijck’s and Poell’s offer a present context to read social new media (and mass media). These were indeed very interesting articles, especially when assigned together, that allows for a good reading of the “media world” today.

Contexts and Backgrounds

One thought on “Contexts and Backgrounds

  1. Hey Daniel.

    You’ve nicely summarized the two pieces here, and pointed out the reasons they work so well together. I’m with you on this. I think they complemented each other quite nicely, and compel a more thoroughly historiographic consideration of different media formations. Some people have made comments expressing discomfort with the Van Dijck piece’s use of “logic” to describe the operation of social and mass media forms. I wonder what your thoughts on this are, given that you see a neat fit between the two pieces. In some sense, the Robertson and Travaglia piece seems to suggest that if there is a logic to data-driven technologies, it is much broader and more durable than any one moment in the development of mass communication technologies; an expansive epistemological framework that encompasses both contemporary “big data” technologies and the research practices of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. If this epistemological framework is the through-line, what sense does it make, do you think, to distinguish between mass and social media logics? Are these just variations on the theme of (social) scientific objectivity? Or are they meaningful distinctions for specifying the emergence of social media platforms? Perhaps this is something we can take up in class on Monday.


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