Tag Archives: actor network theory

About a bot: Materiality, multiplicity, and memory in the study of software agents

Stuart Geiger (@steaiou)

Stuart Geiger

Editors’ note: The next post for our Ethnographies of Objects edition is by one of the people who inspired it when he talked about an ‘ethnography of robots’ for EM last year. Stuart Geiger (@staeiou) is a PhD student at UC Berkeley’s School of Information and long time Wikipedia editor who has been studying Wikipedia bots for many years and who has brought us really great insights: not only into how Wikipedia works but also on new ways of thinking about how to do ethnography of largely-online communities. In this thoughtful post, Stuart talks about how his ideas about bots have changed over the years, and about which of the images below is the “real” bot.     

A few weeks ago, Heather Ford wrote to me and told me about this special edition of Ethnography Matters, focusing on the ethnography of objects.  She asked me if there was something I’d like to write about bots, which I’ve been struggling to ethnographically study for some time.  As I said in an interview I did with EM last year, I want to figure out how to ethnographically study these automated software agents themselves, not just the people who build them or have to deal with them.  Among all the topics that are involved in the ethnography of objects, Heather briefly mentioned that she was asking all the authors to provide a picture of their given object, whatever weird form that may take for bots.

At first, I started to think about the more standard epistemological questions I’d been wrestling with:  What is the relationship between the ethnographer and the ethnographic subject when that subject isn’t a human, but an autonomous software program?  What does it mean to relate an emic account of a such a being, and what does ethnographic fieldwork look like in such an endeavor?  How do classic concepts like agency, materiality, and the fieldsite play out when investigating what is often seen as more of an object than a subject?  What do we even mean when we say ‘object’, and what are we using this term to exclude?  I could take any one of these topics and write far too much about them, I thought.

As always, after jotting down some notes, my mind started to wander as I entered procrastination mode. I shelved the more ‘theoretical’ questions and moved to what I thought was the easier part of Heather’s request: to provide a photo of a bot.  I thought that finding an image would be a fun diversion, and I had so many great cases to choose from.  There were humorous bots, horrifying bots, and hidden bots.  There were bots who performed controversial tasks, and bots whose work was more mundane.  There were bots I loved and bots I hated, bots that were new and bots that were old.  There were bots I knew backwards and forwards, and bots who were still a mystery to me.  I just had to find an image that I felt best encapsulated what it meant to be a bot, and then write about it.  However, I didn’t realize that this simple task would prove to be far more difficult than I anticipated — and working out how to use imagery rather than text to talk about bots has helped me come to articulate many of the more complicated issues at work in my ethnography, particularly those around materiality, multiplicity, and memory.

Read More… About a bot: Materiality, multiplicity, and memory in the study of software agents

An object of journalism: the hyperlink

Juliette de Meyer

Juliette de Meyer

Editors’ note: Juliette de Maeyer (@juliettedm) kicks off this month’s edition focusing on Ethnographies of Objects with a response to two questions posed to her: ‘Why is the hyperlink an interesting object of journalism?’ And ‘What’s the best way to approach this object methodologically?’ Her work on hyperlinks is a fascinating exploration of materiality, stubbornness and methods for trailing the object. 

An object of journalism?

First things first: why do I even claim it is an “object”? A link is not exactly a thing that can be touched… However, a link has a material existence in the digital realm, with a beginning and an end — it is clearly defined by chunks of code, the <a> and </a> HTML tags that border it. We can define what’s a link, what’s not a link and, even, what’s almost a link: the six news sites I have extensively studied for my dissertation all contain what I call « plain text links », that is a URL effectively written in the text of the news story, but which is not a link. The idea of indicating another place on the web is there, it’s a reference to another web page or site, but it’s unclickable.

Hand cursor

The 3D hand cursor that appears over a hyperlink. Image by StockMonkeys on Flickr CC BY

The material boundaries that define the object itself suddenly become blurry, and that’s exactly where it becomes interesting. Why did the journalists produce almost-links or anti-links? Same goes for the apparently very simple distinction between internal and external links: internal links lead to pages in the same site, the same domain, defined by its URL, whereas external links point to other sites. Alright, but what about links that lead to other sites belonging to the same owner? News site A is the online counterpart of a tabloid, and sometimes links to articles published by news site B, the online counterpart of the quality paper — all are owned by the same company, and due to convergence efforts, news sites A and B are produced in the same newsroom. Formally, that’s still an external link. The material boundaries again become interesting when they are challenged.

A link also has an unambiguous existence for the actors involved in online news making. Ask a journalist, a blogger or an editor: they know what a link is. They can recognize one, they know when they produce one. This may seem a very mundane quality, but many things that we claim to study academically don’t have such an obvious existence. Try to ask journalists about their Bourdieuan habitus… Of course, this is not to say that the Bourdieuan habitus is an invalid concept. There might even be a portion of habitus involved in the ways journalists deal with links. It’s simply a question of vantage point: studying objects—things that exist—is a bottom-up approach that allows to iteratively discover concepts, theories and issues. It’s an empirically-driven, inductive perspective: instead of saying “Hey! The issue of sourcing is an important concept in news, let’s see how journalists use links to show their sources”, the logic sound more like this: “So there’s this thing that seems quite unique to online news, it’s called a hyperlink: let’s see why journalists use it… They use it to show their sources, but also for many other reasons!”.

Approaching the study of the hyperlink methodologically

A link. Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2261628/Britney-Spears-close-signing-lucrative-deal-perform-Las-Vegas-ending-relationship-Jason-Trawich.html

A link

Studying a single object of journalism has a great advantage: because it is so focused, it allows the use of mixed methods. It’s a very pragmatic argument, verging on stubbornness: I’m studying the link, and just that. Sure, other online news features are fascinating, but I don’t want to know anything about the latest multimedia fad or the craze of users’ comments. This is why I can cope with doing a big data content analysis, a historical discourse analysis, and some ethnographically-inspired newsroom observations — and graduate in due time (hopefully). All these methods are extremely time-consuming: being highly selective about what I was actually going to look at was a matter of survival.

And it produced interesting results. Let’s consider, for example, the ancient debate of how outdated CMS weigh on bad or non-existent linking practices. I’ve conducted ethnographically-inspired work in two newsrooms. CMS-wise, one of the newsroom was a classic case of print-centric tools forced upon web people: journalists in charge of online news had to use the same tools as print folks. Visually, it meant that they had to write their stories in an interface that looks like a printed page, with columns and stuff. No HTML allowed, of course. Hence, no links — or more particularly, no inline links: side-column links are another story. If they wanted to add inline links in their stories, they had to circumvent the automatic workflow and log in into another system. Everything was incredibly ugly and counter-intuitive. It involved many clicks and did not exactly fit well with the pressure to publish fast. When asked about their linking practices, journalists in that newsroom complained that there were many technical barriers. They claimed that they did not produce a lot of links, because of the print-centric tools they had to use.

In the other newsroom I’ve visited, journalists worked with a spanking new CMS, a blog-like interface where everything could be dragged and dropped effortlessly. The possibility to add inline links was smoothly integrated and it could be done at any stage of the process. Journalists claimed they added links “whenever it is necessary”.

Guess which site produced more inline links? The first one, with the print-centric CMS and many alleged “technical barriers” to linking. This surprising result was only visible when looking at aggregated data over a long period of time, it wasn’t obvious when looking at a handful of articles because both sites produced rather few inline links (around 10% of articles contained at least one inline link in the second site, whereas the proportion was a bit more than 20% for the first newsroom). This is exactly why it was important to complement newsroom observation with a large-scale content analysis. Or to complement the content analysis with newsroom observation, if you prefer. Looking at a specific object allowed me to do just that: multiply the vantage points while keeping my research feasible with the time and resources I had. Nothing new, really, just good old triangulation with a pragmatic twist.

All in all, the “object” is a very useful lens. It allows a research stance focused on what’s material, but does not limit it to the study of artifacts. Discourses, representations and meaning all play an important role in my research — as much as large-scale content analysis and ethnographic inquiries. Focusing on the “object” is the only way I know of keeping it all together.

Featured image by JanneM on Flickr CC BY NC SA

August 2013: Ethnographies of Objects

This month’s edition is co-edited by CW Anderson (@chanders), Juliette De Maeyer (@juliettedm) and Heather Ford (@hfordsa). The three of us met in June for the ICA preconference entitled ‘Objects of Journalism’ organised by Chris and Juliette. Over the course of the day, we heard fascinating stories of insights garnered through a focus on the objects, tools and spaces surrounding and interspersed with the business and practice of newsmaking: about faked photographs through the ages, about the ways in which news app designers think about news when designing apps for mobile devices and tablets, and about the evolution of the ways in which news room spaces were designed. We also heard rumblings – rarely fully articulated – that a focus on objects is controversial in the social sciences. In this August edition of Ethnography Matters, we offer a selection of objects from the conference as well as from an open call to contribute and hope that it sparks a conversation started by a single question: what can we gain from an ethnography of objects – especially in the fields of technology, media and journalism research?


Hardware. Image by Cover.69 on Flickr CC BY

Why an *ethnography* of objects?

As well as the important studies of body snatching, identity tourism, and transglobal knowledge networks, let us also attend ethnographically to the plugs, settings, sizes, and other profoundly mundane aspects of cyberspace, in some of the same ways we might parse a telephone book. Susan Leigh Star, 1999

Susan Leigh Star, in ‘The ethnography of infrastructure‘ noted that we need to go beyond studies of identity in cyberspace and networks to (also) look at the often invisible infrastructure that surfaces important issues around group formation, justice and change. Ethnography is a useful way of studying infrastructure, she writes, because of its strengths of ‘surfacing silenced voices, juggling disparate meanings, and understanding the gap between words and deeds’.

In her work studying archives of meetings of the World Health Organization and old newspapers and law books concerning cases of racial recategorization under apartheid in South Africa, Star ‘brought an ethnographic sensibility to data collection and analysis: an idea that people make meanings based on their circumstances, and that these meanings would be inscribed into their judgements about the built information environment’.Read More… August 2013: Ethnographies of Objects

Infra/Extraordinary: From GoPros to vanity camera drones

The Infra/Extraordinary column is devoted to zooming in on intriguing objects and practices of the 21st Century. Adopting a design-ethnography perspective, we will question informal urban bricolage, weird cameras, curious gestures and wonder about their cultural implications.

Go Pro helmet in the Swiss Alps

Go Pro helmet in the Swiss Alps

The other day in the Swiss Alps, among the crowd of heavily-protected people skiing and snowboarding, I couldn’t help noticing a peculiar type of people: the ones with a camera attached to the top of their helmets. It’s hard to miss them as this apparatus gives them extra inches as well as an odd robomechanical look. For those unaware of this intriguing outfit, this device is a “GoPro“, a camera named after the brand of “wearable” camcorders one can add on different types of gear for sport/adventure video and photography. Common usage of GoPros range from surfboarding to bungee jumping, snowboarding or just driving your car in memorable places.

Contemplating such devices during my day skiing, I started noticing a certain amount of GoPro-enabled people around me each time I was in the line for a ski-lift, or at the outdoor restaurants (which left me wondering about the type of video the users might get when seated sipping their coffee). What does the recent surge in such devices indicate? What does it mean with regards to the evolution of photography?

A SUV with a GoPro cam attached on it, encountered in Monument Valley, UT.

In the last fifteen years, we have seen an exponential growth of digital photography. Compact cameras, SLRs and cameras available on cell phones have become ubiquitous and are used by increasing numbers of people. This situation has led to a wide range of practices, as shown by various studies in sociology or human-computer interaction. Wearable camcorders seem to be an extension of the tendency some people have to copiously document their activities on platforms such as Flickr, Instagram or social networks in general. But there’s an important difference here: the documentation is no longer discrete; it’s continuous, as long as there’s enough battery. To some extent, this documentation is delegated to a machine that is also no longer gripped by the users; it’s attached to our clothes or to specific gear such as an helmet or your skateboard.

Gordon Bell

Gordon Bell, Photography by Dan Tuffs.

For people interested in Human-Computer Interaction, this practice does not come out of the blue. Certain projects conducted by Microsoft in the last ten years have dealt with this already. Gordon Bell, principal researcher in the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley Laboratory, is a long-time defender of what he calls “extreme lifelogging”, i.e. the exhaustive collection of data and content about one’s life in order to create a personal archive. This type of project also corresponds to existing products such as Vicon Revue or Memoto. And of course, readers of “As we may think” by Vannevar Bush in 1945 may find some similarities with the Memex project, a “device in which individuals would compress and store all of their books, records, and communications“.

Beyond tracing the genealogy of such an idea, what interests me here rather deals with the evolution of such practices. Talking with GoPro users and observing their use in my daily environment, I recently noticed a shift: the camera is sometimes pointed at the user(s). So, instead of filming the mountains, the ocean or the road, wearable cameras are also employed to collect footage about the people using it. Look for instance at this YouTube video called “GoPro Hero 2 rear view facing driver, Suzuki GSF 650N”:

Of course, cameras have always been used to shoot people, but what is relevant here is to see how users can do that on their own, without the help of friends or relatives. From an Actor-Network perspective, one might say that this function has been delegated to a non-human: the camera mounted on an arm attached to something close enough to frame the user. This situation is reflected in the design of the “arm” with plenty of what they call “mounting accessories” which are aimed at different contexts. There’s a whole ecosystem of artifacts and practices to observe here!

MeCamMeCam Finally, being interested in design and futures practices, I also can’t help being intrigued by the next logical move. Given this practice of filming one’s self and the recent surge in personal drones, we’re only a few steps away from what I’d call “Vanity drones”, flying robots that would film users and stream the data on social networks… But, wait a minute, I just stumbled across this MeCam, a $49 camera “designed to follow you around and stream live video to your smartphone, allowing you to upload videos to YouTube, Facebook, or other sites“.

Head-mounted cameras, necklace cams, vanity drones… all these artefacts highlight how digital photography evolved and how their design encapsulates assumptions about their use. One can see a trend towards the automation of data collection, which correspond to common practices on the Web and social media. To put it differently, these devices reveal the intricate relationships between their design and our information ecosystem.

Cheering up the chatbot

The speech to text tool on my phone is convinced that “ethnography” = “not greasy.” (At least “not greasy” tends to be a postive thing?) Generally STT and voice commands work great on it though. You have to talk to it the right way: Enunciate; dramatic pauses between each word; don’t feed it too many words at once. The popular speech recognition application Dragon NaturallySpeaking emphasizes that users train the system to recognize their voices, but there’s always an element of the system training its users how to talk.

For entertainment purposes, it’s best to avoid the careful pauses and smush things together, producing text message gems like “Send me the faxable baby.”  It’s the mismatches between human intention and machine representation that can make using natural language interaction tools like STT, chatbots and speech prediction both frustrating and hilarious. When it’s bad, it’s really really good.

I’ve been playing with the game Cheer up the Chatbot the last couple days (from RRRR, “Where the games play you”).

Chatbot has an unusual way of interacting with people, as so many chatbots do.

Screen explaining Chatbot's mental disorders

Screen explaining Chatbot’s mental disorders

Understandably, Chatbot is sad.


Poor chatbot


The goal is to get Chatbot to smile.

Open-ended questions make robots happy

Open-ended questions make robots happy


The game is a mix of bot and human-to-human chat, where you switch between talking to the game’s bot and to different players who are presented as the “Chatbot” speaker to each other.  When you hit a moment where there are enough players with different agendas online — including some who don’t know how the game works, some presenting as Chatbot, and some presenting as people — it can get weird.

Read More… Cheering up the chatbot