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The Industrialisation of User Recommendations

Cécile Méadel and Francesca Musiani are the final speakers in this ECREA 2014 session. Their interest is in the Industrialisation of user contributions through online platforms: this includes recommendations, information, and advice. The Internet reconfigures the mechanisms by which goods and services are assessed by others; this creates an economy of qualities.

The process has been increasingly automatised through contemporary Internet technologies, and this allows new practices. This is an industrialisation of user contributions, drawing increasingly on 'big data' approaches that create links between a variety of different data points.

The present project focusses on deliberate contributions, not on tracked user activities. This is not a disintermediation of markets, then, but a reconfiguration: new intermediaries emerge here, and the chain of interactions is transformed – these new intermediaries capture attention and create new value by connecting user contributions to the products and services being discussed.

The operators of such contributions are the actors involved in the making of contributions. They put in place the mechanisms and devices to collect contributions, shape and integrate them; they also process this subjective matter to extract quantifiable and networkable information.

Websites collecting opinions range from consumption-centric sites such as Amazon through Goodreads and Doctissimo to opinion-centric sites like Autisme42. This is a crowdsourcing of user views that draws on the 'free' labour of users to generate new value. Users contribute to gain reputation or symbolic remuneration, to support a cause or document issues. They also do so to find like minds.

This helps to debunk the understandings of user participation as an emancipation of users, but also the scenario of user-generated content as an exploitation of users. Operators claim ownership over user contributions, but the applicability of such claims is unclear.

In the process, expressive formats are becoming standardised; this is driven by the operators as such standardisation aids the generation of reliable data on products and services, but also by the tendency of communities to develop and standardise their shared practices.

Operators make contributions visible, summarise and cluster them and generate meta-discourses about them, and allow the continuous monitoring of opinions by marketers – but it nonetheless remains complicated to reduce the diversity of contributions without trivialising them. The actors engaged in this are not necessarily concerned about such issues, however.

There is an economy of exchange taking place through the recommendations enacted by Internet users, then. Their contributions participate in this economy in different roles: in the economy of recommendation, as well as in the industries on which they comment, and the new industries of recommendation which emerge. The industrialisation of recommendations does not remove the professional/amateur barrier, then, but it does reconfigure it.