The debate about tools like Twitter Trends is, I believe, a debate we will be having more and more often. As more and more of our online public discourse takes place on a select set of private content platforms and communication networks, and these providers turn to complex algorithms to manage, curate, and organize these massive collections, there is an important tension emerging between what we expect these algorithms to be, and what they in fact are. Not only must we recognize that these algorithms are not neutral, and that they encode political choices, and that they frame information in a particular way. We must also understand what it means that we are coming to rely on these algorithms, that we want them to be neutral, we want them to be reliable, we want them to be the effective ways in which we come to know what is most important.
Twitter Trends is only the most visible of these tools. The search engine itself, whether Google or the search bar on your favorite content site (often the same engine, under the hood), is an algorithm that promises to provide a logical set of results in response to a query, but is in fact the result of an algorithm designed to take a range of criteria into account so as to serve up results that satisfy, not just the user, but the aims of the provider, their vision of relevance or newsworthiness or public import, and the particular demands of their business model. As James Grimmelmann observed, “Search engines pride themselves on being automated, except when they aren’t.” When Amazon, or YouTube, or Facebook, offer to algorithmically and in real time report on what is “most popular” or “liked” or “most viewed” or “best selling” or “most commented” or “highest rated,” it is curating a list whose legitimacy is based on the presumption that it has not been curated. And we want them to feel that way, even to the point that we are unwilling to ask about the choices and implications of the algorithms we use every day.
Peel back the algorithms, and this becomes quite apparent. Yes, a casual visit to Twitter’s home page may present Trends as an unproblematic list of terms, that might appear a simple calculation. But a cursory look at Twitter’s explanation of how Trends works – in its policies and help pages, in its company blog, in tweets, in response to press queries, even in the comment threads of the censorship discussions – Twitter lays bare the variety of weighted factors Trends takes into account, and cops to the occasional and unfortunate consequences of these algorithms.
Gillespie pulls back the curtain and shows the little man working the levers and knobs that control the public face of the great impartial oracle that we seem to want the web to be. However, the ‘reality’ that Twitter’s trending topics or Tumblr’s Explore shows is the result of conscious algorithmic and curatorial decisions that shape the results. And that shaping is not just one of emphasis, but of exclusion and censorship.
We are confronting a serious issue of public discourse, one that has been with us for hundreds of years, since Gutenberg: those that control the presses, control public discourse.
Increasingly, as we move out of the industrial, modern era, that control is shifting from corporate media companies – TV, magazine, and newspaper companies – into a web-based, post-modern, post industrial time. The rise of search and social tools has raised up companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google, and our notions of relevance – and our beliefs and values – are directly influenced by the mazes that these companies have built.
Our social discourse has migrated online: first, in the early ’00s, to a constellation of blogs, but now we have migrated into social territorial explicitly owned and managed by web companies.
This is a direct analogue of the growing ownership of US public space by retailers, landlords, and developers. We live in a world of malls, private parks (like Zucotti Park, strangely enough), and other semi-public, privately controlled environments. These are not places solely under the jurisdiction of our civil laws: they are subject to arbitrary controls by their owners. (Paradoxically, it is the fact that Zuccotti Park is not a New York City park that allows protestors to sleep their over night.)
Can we rely on the corporation interests – or whims – of entrepreneurs to control public discourse?
Or more centrally: Is there actually an alternative? If I am interested in seeing what is most relevant to me when I turn on my device, some software has to run, some agency is needed to filter through petabytes of blurbage to pick out the snippets I can read over breakfast. If not this system of Twitter, Flipboard, News.me, and Summify, then what? Are all curation and algorithmic filtering inherently censorship?
I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, any system to filter – either by social curation or algorithmic analysis – will impose some worldview to determine what factors should go into excluding some stories and surfacing others. But, no, that worldview should not be intentionally ideological, imposing an extremist viewpoint. Or perhaps, in the perfect world, we could imagine that the worldview would be something like our own, and potentially even accessible to users.
When a long list of complex factors are smooshed together, and these companies have to decide how things will be filtered and float, the last thing any user wants is a system skewed to sell more soap. The interests of the individual and the public should predominate.
Just as the government has stepped in to stop unscrupulous advertising in the industrial era (like claims that cigarettes aren’t dangerous) we will likely have to regulate the degree to which web media services factor in commercial interests to their inner machinery.
Just because a restaurant is private property does not mean the laws of the land don’t apply. This is why the challenge against Jim Crow laws started with lunch counters: to challenge the notion that owners could pick their clientele, and make their own laws.
We are likely to see a new sort of rights movement: not a civil rights movement, but a social rights movement.