Search, share, shop

That’s gonna be my next seminar @ the Department of Science & Technology Studies, Vienna, winter term 2013/14. I’m already looking forward to interesting discussions! :)

Search, share, shop. Critically examining the internet as technology, medium and social practice

The internet has often been described in utopian or dystopian terms if we think of the Twitter revolution in the Arab Spring or the narrative of Google making us stupid. Both of these blunt examples illustrate techno-deterministic viewpoints that often accompany the internet in public and academic discourses. This seminar aims to challenge these viewpoints by conceptualizing search tools, social media and wikis not as external to society, but rather as enacted in society and hence mirroring social, political and economic values and ideas. ‘Technology is society made durable’ as Bruno Latour put it straightforwardly. At the same time, however, Google, Facebook and co. also materialize and hence solidify societal values, politics and ideologies. They may be seen as shaped by society, while at the same time shaping society.

The task of this seminar is to critically examine the web as technology, medium and social practice. Using literature and analytical concepts from STS and critical new media studies we will address the following questions: What values, politics and ideologies do technological tools like the PageRank algorithm embody and how do they get inscribed in their technical Gestalt? In what ways may search tools and social media be seen as ‘acting’ in terms of shaping user practices? How do Wikileaks and Twitter challenge classical politics and what are the features of the arising ‘networked news ecology’? How do open access, Wikipedia and social networks like affect and transform practices of knowledge production and dissemination? What are the business models of Google, Facebook and Amazon, how do users contribute to the ‘like economy’, and what consequences does this trigger in regard to the exploitation of digital labor and user data? And, finally, what classical and new methods may be used to study digital phenomena of all sorts?

To answer the above mentioned questions theoretical discussions will be mixed with empirical work, which will lead to a small research project each student will conduct in the seminar paper.

More information on dates, time etc. here.

Technoscientific Promotion and Biofuel Policy

Jenny Eklöf and I have been collaborating on a project during my HUMlab fellowship (2010-2012). Our study investigated how the biofuel controversy plays out in the Swedish press and Google search results. The results will be published in the journal Media, Culture & Society (mid of next year). The exact phrasing of the editor goes like this:

“It will be several issues, and certainly several months, before your piece is prepared for publication and the proofs sent on to you. Please do not contact us for a specified issue number and date until 5 months or so after this note of acceptance.”

Well, if you don’t want to wait that long please let us know and we’ll send you a copy!

That’s the abstract:

What are the conditions for the public understanding of biofuels and how do the media shape these conditions under the influence of a new production of knowledge? This article investigates how the biofuel controversy plays out in the Swedish press and Google search engine results and analyses winners and losers in the tight attention economy of contemporary media. It describes different visibility strategies biofuel stakeholders employ in both media arenas, and identifies a form of technoscientific promotion that hybrid actors use to succeed in the day-to- day struggle for media attention. To conclude, it raises broader societal questions of the contemporary blurring of knowledge boundaries and the emergence of new information hierarchies and their biases. By understanding how contemporary media shape controversies, we can address the democratic potential of both mass media and science.

search engines matter

Finally, another article deriving from my PhD work has been accepted by a peer-review journal :) It’s the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) journal Policy and Internet. The article with the title “Search Engines Matter: From educating users towards engaging with online health information practices” will be published in May 2012, in the special issue on eHealth. I’d like to thank the guest editors Rik Crutzen and Gordon Gao, as well as the managing editor David Sutcliffe, who was a great help in the whole peer-review process! Further I’d like to thank my Viennese colleagues, who contributed to the empirical work for the article, my HUMlab colleagues for having supported me during my stay in Sweden, and Mike Frangos, who commented on earlier drafts of the paper and helped me with editing the English!!

I’ve posted the abstract below and will add the link to the article once it has been put online.

While the internet is often discussed as empowering or endangering patients due to broadening access to medical and health-related information, little is known about the way patients actually get informed about medical conditions and how the technology shapes their practices. This article draws on 40 user observations and 40 qualitative interviews to explore how users employ the web to obtain knowledge about a chronic disease in the Austrian context. Following concepts from the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) it elaborates how users’ individual medical preferences and search engines’ mechanisms of pre-filtering information co-shape online health information practices. This analysis exemplifies that search engines are no passive intermediaries, but rather actively shape how users browse through, select and evaluate health information in the context of their own bodies of knowledge. Accordingly, new skills are required on the part of users, but also on the part of medical professionals and policy makers. Both policy makers and doctors are invited to engage with users’ highly individual search practices and establish more dialogue-oriented and technology-focused health policy measures, rather than trying to educate users with standardized quality criteria for websites not responding to users’ online routines and needs, as will be finally concluded.