On Logics and Tactics

This week’s readings offer a nice cap to many of the discussions we’ve has in this class, in particular by addressing the following two issues regarding data epistemologies: history and infrastructure. To use an analogy from Jonathan Sterne, these matters are the water in which the fish (in this case users, producers, coders, etc) swim. I largely agree with the points made in Hamish Robertson and Joanne Travaglia’s piece, and with the throughline they draw between 19th century scientific practices and epistemologies and those “problems” that define the contemporary information age. For that reason, I’m choosing to focus this response on Jose Van Dijck and Thomas Poell’s piece on social media logic which I found both extremely useful and generative in my own work.

The piece opens with in essence a discussion of the role that social media and mass media play as invisible intermediaries that are not so invisible. This point is very much simpatico with the scholarship of Lisa Gitelman, Tartleton Gillespie in his work on platforms, as well as other media industry scholarship on digital intermediaries and infomediaries. That is, all of these scholars  discuss the ways in which services that propose to merely “connect people” do much more than passively enable people to connect, but rather actively change the way that this connection is defined and activated. Van Dijck and Poell build on this idea by weaving a narrative about the ways in which a newer social media logic intertwines with older logics of mass media, offering a detailed and thoughtful discussion of user/producer relationships, programmability, popularity, connectivity, and datafication.

I think individually, all of these sections are successfully argued—particularly through the nuanced discussion of the way users, platforms, advertisers, and online environments shape each other. My confusion arose I think, in the more specific definitions and choice of words to describe these relationships. Social media logic is defined as: “the processes, principles, and practices through which these platforms process information, news, and communication, and more generally, how they channel social traffic” (5). Meanwhile, mass media logics are the “set of principles or common sense rationality cultivated in and by media institutions that penetrates every public domain and dominates its organizing structures” (3). These definitions are certainly not very close, and immediately it felt to me like the argument was set up to compare apples to vegetables, or something along those lines.

The authors do end up explaining the differences more carefully later on by talking about the way mass-media logic is one way editorial strategy and social media logic is two-way dialogic relationship between users and code, but I think ultimately their insistence on maintaining the paradigm of “logic” is a detriment to the overall flow of the essay. Logic does connote invisible infrastructures, but it seems less suitable to a discussion of tactics, or the purposeful navigation of these infrastructures (I’m thinking along the lines of Rita Raley here, who uses the word “tactics” to discuss intervention, disruption, and pre-emption on the part of individual actors). And, if we are to accept that the word “logic” encompasses both of those things, then I have to wonder—why is it the authors feel a need to choose a word that is so broad?

My second gripe with this mass media “logic” vs. social media “logic” paradigm is that it seems to exclude other genealogical explanations for how we interact with social media beyond mass media. What about, for instance, the influence of Google search on our penchant for using keywords and hashtags? What about those classification systems pointed out in the other piece—the libraries and census organizations that first developed the rubrics for data epistemologies? These certainly aren’t the same “logics” as mass media logics.

Anyway, I understand that the argument that this essay missed a lot isn’t that powerful given the word count restraints that all short articles have to deal with, but I do feel that this discussion of logics is narrow in a way that it need not be, particularly given the more nuanced arguments made in the individual sections.

In any case, I did really like this article in that it describes very well the things that I am trying to pay attention to in my data visualization project: namely the way in which particular platforms (twitter in my case) cause users to adjust their tactics of communication. My word cloud for Planned Parenthood is below. I’ll be categorizing groups of words into topics in my final project: calls to action, politics, women’s health, and references to actual abortion (chop, body, parts etc).

word cloud

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On Logics and Tactics