Rendering the familiar unfamiliar.

Clement Valla, The Universal Texture, 2012

I spoke with Taina Bucher and Surya Mattu today, who gave me excellent advice and direction on my thesis project.

Conversation #1: Be clear about your audience. 

In our conversation, Taina drew a distinction between the work that she has done and the work done by other researchers seeking to gauge digital literacy and algorithmic awareness (“do people know that they’re not seeing everything?”). They want to make the algorithm visible to its users. Taina, on the other hand, is more interested in user beliefs or expectations of how the algorithm system should perform. Her research aims to understand not only how people believe the Facebook algorithm functions, but also their normative conceptions about what algorithms should do.

Of course, it’s difficult to measure feelings or beliefs, so I’ve found myself asking: How can I observe user beliefs about how a platform should or does perform? How can I create an interaction that creates or observes those experiences? Many researchers take a qualitative approach – talk to study participants, interview them – but what will be my creative rupture?

Sterling Crispin, Data Masks, 2014

Conversation #2: Make it real, not hypothetical.

The conversation with Surya was really productive – he immediately understood what I was trying to achieve with this project and gave me 3-4 references of projects that had tried to achieve a similar effect, including the Chrome Extension alter, which allows you to scroll through a screenshot of someone else’s News Feed. We talked about his work on the Black Box Chrome Extension, which he said was his attempt to try to poke at the few aspects of the Facebook algorithm that are public but not immediately visible.

One piece of advice Surya gave me was to focus on the real data rather than the hypothetical. Sometimes the simplest intervention yields the most effective response. For instance, I told him about the research Taina Bucher has done to collect anecdotes from people who had had strange run-ins with the Facebook algorithm. He felt that she took a very powerful approach by focusing on the stories and images of real people, rather than theorize. He recommended that I start experimenting and see what resonates most with users.

Alter, Sena Partel, 2016


After talking to Taina and Surya today, I feel like I’m ready to move forward and experiment with Facebook, including downloading my own Facebook archive, building a Chrome Extension, building a 3D model of my face from tagged pictures, scraping Reddit discussions about how the Facebook algorithm works, and using personal data in an unexpected way.

I often think about Jenny Odell’s observation about her own work, that rather than take an new, unfamiliar technology and make something boring with it, she takes a familiar technology and renders it unfamiliar. I want to do the same with my thesis project.

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