Saturday, May 16, 2020

Tanya Kant's "Making It Personal"

Tanya Kant is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies (Digital Media) at the University of Sussex, UK. She is Co-Managing Editor of the open access, multimedia publishing platform REFRAME.

Kant applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Making it Personal: Algorithmic Personalization, Identity, and Everyday Life, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The odd thing is that I work in [data analytics] so I’m fairly well aware of what’s out there, but I don’t have the feeling I’m on top of it, and I find that very, that bothers me and a tool like [Ghostery] probably gives you a false sense of security that you are on top of it.

--Robkifi (machine learn­ing researcher, UK).
This quote from Making It Personal is taken from a research interview with data specialist Robkifi [the interview participant’s chosen pseudonym] on his use of online privacy tool and data tracker blocker, Ghostery. The page explores Robikfi’s statement that online privacy tools give him ‘a false sense of security’ when it comes to being monitored by commercial data trackers such as Google, Facebook and third party profilers. Despite being an analytics expert – comfortably fitting the computer sciences definition of a ‘power user’ – Robikifi feels that when it comes to controlling his own online data trail (his browsing history, social media ‘likes’, click-throughs, location data, and other traceable digital movements), it is not possible to wholly prevent commercial platforms from surveilling his online movements. Taking into account similar interview responses from other ‘power users’, I argue on this page that – somewhat counter-intuitively – the more web users know about data tracking, the less powerful they feel in understanding and controlling their own data profiles. Power users feel anxious that they can never ‘be on top’ of commercial data tracking because there is no ‘top’: data trackers don’t just collect data about us in order to offer us ‘personalized’ advertising, they use data profiling to create new knowledge in order to monetize and shape our identities, individual preferences and our everyday digital movements.

I’m pleased that the Page 99 Test works well with Making It Personal. The fact that the page features an interview excerpt from a research participant really reflects the book’s central aim: to critically analyse how web users themselves understand and negotiate the algorithmic personalization practices (such as online data profiling) that intervene in their daily web trajectories. Page 99 highlights that algorithmic personalization does not only pose a threat to user privacy – it also creates anxieties around knowledge production and users’ own sense of self. That said, the page only reflects one of the book’s themes; arguments about online identity performance, algorithmic capital and trust in personalization systems aren’t featured. Still, I hope that Page 99 provokes reflections in readers that even so-called ‘power users’ of data tracking technologies can be considered powerless in the face of contemporary ubiquitous, sprawling and unknowable algorithmic personalization practices.
Visit Tanya Kant's website and Twitter perch.

--Marshal Zeringue