On Social Media Algorithms and Art (This text is a work in progress, as is the rest of this site and the project itself.)
On the Social Influence of Social Media Algorithms:
Social media ranking algorithms have recently come under scrutiny for amplifying and encouraging sensational content. YouTube and other media providers have taken steps to address these concerns and limit the most sensational content. But visibility, through search rankings and recommendation algorithm — is still dependent on engagement metrics: some combination of viewer attention measurements that suggest eyeballs are staying glued to the site and to sponsors’ ads. While such metrics are often said to encourage the production of “quality” content, there is often a fine line between high engagement and addiction — which has famously led to phenomena like the YouTube Rabbit Hole. A highly engaging video may simply be one, that, like a car wreck, you can’t look away from.
The practice of producing eyeball grabbing videos to distribute political disinformation is by now well known, but the visibility of non-political, yet sensational content is also amplified by engagement algorithms. These algorithms can impact cultural and political perceptions in more subtle ways — e.g., by amplifying stereotypes. At their most basic, the algorithms promote videos by seasoned “YouTubers” with the access to information and the inclination to strategize their work to maximize algorithmic appeal. Some types of videos and videomakers — “crowd pleasers” — get more visibility than others. This visibility bias can influence how the public perceives the social media world — and the world in general. And it can reinforce stereotypes by rewarding YouTubers for producing demographically stereotypical content.
Building on my own “Algocurator,” ‘What the Robot Saw,’ curates its content using algorithms that run counter to standard commercial ranking algorithms — it includes only videos with low view counts and channel subscriber counts. It’s a collage film that generates endless glimpses of the social media world we’re missing, by a member of the only audience that sees it all — the robots that index and evaluate all online content. The real-time cinematography in ‘What the Robot Saw’ is based on the imagined directorial style of a computer vision robot, as it pans, zooms, greyscales and edge-detects, looking for “features” in images to help it understand and organize the human world. Behind the scenes, computer vision and neural networks are used to eliminate undesirable clips and edit selected clips, then organize the clips into a loose, stream of consciousness linear structure.
Contemporary artists like Trevor Paglen have engaged AI as both subject and process, and online projects like Underviewed have focused on less popular YouTube videos. The audio project “Dadabots” livestreams AI-generated music. But I think it’s also useful to think about “What the Robot Saw” through the lens of Expanded Cinema. Stan VanDerBeek’s 1960’s idea of a Culture Intercom — a network through which people around the world could share videos — is sometimes compared to YouTube, but probably shouldn’t be. With “What the Robot Saw,” I’m thinking about structures like VanDerBeek’s, as well as early Expanded Cinema artists like Nam June Paik, Valie Export, and Andy Warhol, who in various ways engaged the juxtapositions between the space-times of television, film, and the worlds they simulate. On YouTube, contemporary “television” — in the form of a perpetual stream of online video — and the everyday conflate, as do distinctions between our offline “selves” and our semi-fictional online identities.
In The Fourth Revolution – How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality Luciano Floridi writes that “the micro-narratives we are producing and consuming are also changing our social selves and hence how we see ourselves. They represent an immense, externalized stream of consciousness…” In “What the Robot Saw,” the Robot internalizes, reflects, and magnifies, this nearly unseen portion of the collective hyperreal stream of consciousness — online selves who may never actually be seen by humans.
On the Title:
“What the Robot Saw” is a wordplay on “What the Butler Saw,” an expression that refers to watching voyeuristically through a hypothetical or metaphorical keyhole.