Erik Borra is New Media developer at the University of Amsterdam's New Media program, freelance programmer and web researcher. He is lead programmer and researcher for Govcom.org, a foundation dedicated to creating and hosting political Web tools.
My area of research is post-demographics – which can be thought of as the study of the personal data in social networking platforms, and, in particular, how profiling is, or may be, performed, with which findings as well as consequences. With the 'post' prefix to demographics, the idea is to stand in contrast to how the study of demographics organizes groups, markets and voters in society. The term post- demographics also invites new methods for the study of social networks, where of interest are not the traditional demographics of race, ethnicity, age, income, educational level or derivations thereof such as class, but rather tastes and other information supplied to make and maintain an online profile. Which methods may be brought to bear in order to conceptualize significant derivations of profile information, apart from markets niches? (DMI, 2008) In this respect, Jyri Engeström's talk about social objects, social peripheral vision, and nodal points, was of interest to me.
In his talk Jyri explained that traditional social network theory is good at representing links between people, but that it does not explain what connects those people and others. Inspired by Lev Vygotsky, Pierre Bourdieu, Karin Knorr-Cetina, and Bruno Latour, Jyri explains that people do not connect to each other but that they connect through a shared, 'social', object. Besides being a sociologist, Jyri is a web entrepreneur, and uses the concept of the social object to explain the success of popular web 2.0 services like Flickr, Delicious, and YouTube. They all have an object, whether it be pictures, bookmarks or videos, which people can gather around.
The rise of online social networking fits into what could be referred to as the social shift of the Web. This is a change from the Web as a network of interlinked texts to a more social Web, in which the users are nodes in the network, actively organizing themselves around other nodes: the social objects (Knorr-Cetina, 2001; Engeström, 2005). When one takes the approach of an object centered sociology, people connect through social objects and each such object allows one to take a particular action; in the words of Latour (2005): the object mediates. Social objects thus afford certain actions and Jyri prophesizes that when a web service easily allows these actions to be performed on that (digitalized) social object, it will be a cash cow. All these actions leave traces as well; some of those traces we do ourselves and some are automatically generated. The combination of all these traces leading to and fro a particular user in the 'performed' network is what Jyri calls 'social peripheral vision'. This social peripheral vision however, naturally leads to information overload as the data streams become ever bigger. To be of interest only important contextual updates should thus be brought to your attention. From a network perspective this accounts to finding the events that are significant to somebody in the network. The detection of these significant events amounts to pattern recognition to obtain what Jyri calls 'nodal points'; what I call post-demographic.
From an entrepreneurial viewpoint using the concept of object centered sociality leads to infinite possibilities for new services. With the connection of more and more devices to the Internet (think RFID, geo-aware systems, new mobile phone applications), and when the information provided by such devices leads to a new social object, new web services around that social object will sprout. It is clear that services aggregating data surrounding different social objects and filtering out 'relevant' information will be a sine qua none.
When entrepreneurs leave traditional social network theory aside, it is time for academics to start asking different questions too. Given that the users are providing data with fields devoted to interests as opposed to basic demographics, and given that these interests can be mined and analyzed to create new groupings, which attributes do these groups have? It is time to devise new methods to research these kinds of questions. In particular, the digital methods initiative is interested in the new privileging mechanisms created by post-demographic data. Whilst governments and marketing may find particular relationships between age, income and location of interest (for different reasons), which actions are being undertaken by profilers, given a particular blend of interests? (DMI, 2008) What happens for example when the nodal points become political attributions; when a web service derives your detailed, ever changing, political interests and stores it forever?
Digital Methods Initiative (2008), Post-Demographics.
Engeström, Jyri (2005). "Why some social network services work and others don't. Or: the case for
Knorr Cetina, Karin (2001). "Objectual Practice." In: Schatzki, Theodor R., Knorr Cetina, Karin and
von Savigny, Eike (eds.), The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. London: Routledge, 175-188.
Latour, Bruno (2005). “Reassembling the Social”, Oxford University Press, 2005.