In RCDH this week we’re discussing metadata by way of a collection of interesting readings. Jessica Reyman’s “User Data on the Social Web: Authorship, Agency, and Appropriation” (and texts she has shared via Twitter @jessreyman) primarily occupied my interest. I feel like I know enough about metadata to nod along in conversations where it surfaces, to understand that what it can index about data created on the web is tremendous (see the cross space ads encountered that track patterns of search and purchase or these Twitter metadata visualizations), that it is aggregated by large (unseen or hiding in plain sight) entities, and that the line between it and what I “create” on the web is grey. Reyman gets at this grey area by exploring the complexities of using social web technologies, recognizing all of the productive activities that occur—not only the creation of content, but the overlooked generation of data (515). Reyman poses the following:
- How do we write on the social Web?
- How do we write ourselves through the social Web?
- And how do we write the social Web? (516)
It is Reyman’s argument that data is not merely the by-product of algorithms and aggregation formulas, but “a dynamic, discursive narrative about the paths we have taken as users, the technologies we have used, how we have composed in such spaces, and with whom we have participated” (516). Reyman provides examples of different social web platforms policy language on the distinction (or not so clearly delineated) between data the sites collect (which is framed through a rhetoric of enhancing user experience) and the content users produce. Reyman proceeded to blow my mind with a definition of data that I didn’t know: data and content/information are not viewed as the same thing (519). The data generated through content production is viewed as an “authorless object” (524), or one authored by technologies (nonhumans) alone. User consent requires only an agreement to the services when signing up, not an active role in understanding or mediating responsibilities of use (521). What Reyman argues is that data should be considered as a text coauthored with technologies, texts, and other users, which would reconceptualize it as living instead of as a sort of waste by-product of the content (523). Citing Krista Kennedy’s “Textual Machinery: Authorial Agency and Bot-Written Texts in Wikipedia”, Reyman makes visible the interaction between humans and nonhumans in data production “user data generation depends on users, on their interactions, participation, and production. It does not exist without them” (527).
Reyman tulimately draws our attention to the need to balance technology companies rights’ over user data (that they claim for the free services provided) with rights’ of the users, explaining that “With a balancing of users’ and technology companies’ rights over user data, the social and participatory Web could be nourished as a space that provides access to tools for participation and production, and also recognizes the value of human agency required for rich, meaningful social networks” (529).
In thinking about how we write ourselves and the social web through the social web, I’m wondering what means of balancing data are available beyond privacy fences (DoNotTrackMe and Ghostery) that can be built around browsing. I find myself thinking about the work the Creative Commons is doing to help users understand creating and interacting with web content; does data fall within Creative Commons domain? Is it an issue of outdated copyright law policies (seeing data as by-product rather than content) in need growing (more dynamically) with the times? I’m also curious to learn about more projects/texts created from data that could make visible what is too often dismissed as content debris—developing a meta awareness of metadata in interacting with the web.
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