Algorithmic Architects

My current project is titled Algorithmic Architects: Rhetoric and Information in Networked Worlds. Based on my dissertation research, the project focuses on the role of algorithms in technological systems. I am interested in understanding how the structures of digital media shape rhetorical events and agency in the information age.

My project seeks to understand how algorithms shape democratic engagement. In short, my argument is that algorithmic power comes from arrangement. Algorithmic agency comes from directing the flow of attention and materials in networked media. Digging into ancient Greek theory and philosophy, I argue that the term kosmos best encapsulates how socio-material order flows in networked systems. Combining kosmos with posthuman views of agency, I analyze five case studies in algorithmic power and democracy:

  1. "Networked Manipulation in the Google Universe": This chapter studies how Google search results become sites for political contestation through Google bombing. I study the Google bombing of Rick Santorum, a campaign designed to defame the former Senator by offering an explicit alternative definition of Santorum. I also analyze the alt-right's use of Google bombing to spread white nationalism, including anti-Semitism.
  2. "Who Belongs in YouTube's Algorithmic Agora?": This chapter analyzes how YouTube's algorithms decide who can take part in the platform. I first focus on copyright algorithms, which in 2015 blocked Rand Paul's presidential campaign announcement video when it matched copyrighted audio. I also investigate how YouTube's moderation systems falsely flagged LGBTQ+ videos, cut off their revenue, and blocked them from young viewers in restricted mode.
  3. "Facebook's Personalized Publics and Racial Politics": This chapter examines how Facebook infers race and harms minority users. I first trace Facebook's deployment of "ethnic affinity advertisement," which allowed the site to push different advertisements for Straight Outta Compton, and which came under fire for allowing advertisers to illegally restrict minority users from viewing housing ads. I next assess Facebook's algorithmic moderation system and its tendency to protect white users while restricting black voices on the platform.
  4. "Networked Memories of 9/11 in Timescape": This chapter assesses the dynamics of Timescape, an algorithm-based exhibit at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. The exhibit creates network maps from news stories, creating an algorithmic universe radiating from the attacks of 9/11. I consider how Timescape has been heralded as an "objective" way of viewing the world, even as the exhibit aggregates subjective human experiences through algorithmic synthesis
  5. "Remembering and Forgetting Nelson Mandela on Facebook" is the final case study of the book, tracing how algorithmic power on Facebook shaped the memory-making practices of mourners following Nelson Mandela's death in 2014. Connecting to my previously published work on Facebook memorials for Mandela, this chapter theorizes "algorithmic amnesia" and its effects on democratic governance.

In each case, algorithms create a world that reflects the human biases of the "offline" world. Algorithms are not inherently objective, unbiased, fair, or just. Rather, we must recognize their tendencies to harm minority users, reify privilege, and prioritize profit. I offer in the conclusion a few strategies for creating better algorithms, starting with a simple notion: to improve our algorithms, we must improve ourselves.