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Who Does Rule the Internet, Then?

Tonight is the night of the AoIR 2016 public plenary, and while it's a panel discussion which I won't blog we are going to start with a few short statements from the panellists. We begin with Kate Crawford, who notes the contribution of so many AoIRists to our understanding of the Internet as more than a utopian cyberspace, and instead as a complex stack of network protocol, platform, infrastructural, connectivity, Internet of Things, and other Internet governance layers.

But we have a new problem: more and more artificial intelligence backend systems are being deployed now to ingest and process the data that we constantly generate. These are also moving beyond what we have traditionally called 'the Internet', operating in a wide range of institutions and influencing our perceptions of the world around us. The processes are not particularly intelligent, after all; the famous image of a naked girl fleeing napalm bombings in the Vietnam war was recently censored by Facebook, for instance, and while this image was reinstated this is only the tip of the iceberg of the many arbitrary and opaque decisions that are being made by such algorithms. But the decisions being made by humans are not necessarily all that better – there is overall an irrational confidence in the calculability of reality.

Accountability in Digital Humanitarianism

The final paper in this AoIR 2016 session is Mirca Madianou, who begins with a clip promoting the "I Sea" app that purports to take a crowdsourcing approach to scanning satellite images for migrant boats in the Mediterranean in order to spot and help boats in distress. However, that app was a scam; it showed static satellite images rather than live feeds.

Towards the Platform Society

After an exciting workshop day, we're now starting AoIR 2016 proper with the opening keynote by José van Dijck from the University of Amsterdam. She begins by noting the work of Tarleton Gillespie on the politics of online platforms, which has been very influential in Internet studies in recent years. Internet platforms are now intricately interwoven in a technical, commercial, and social ecosystem, with a number of leading platforms serving as the major gateways to that ecosystem.

But new platforms are constantly emerging, to systematically connect people to things, ideas, and money. These platforms penetrate all aspects of our public and private lives; in any major area these platforms are important gateways to information and connectivity. A platform in this context is an online site that deploys automated technologies and business models to organise data streams, economic interactions, and social exchanges between users of the Internet, José suggests. They are therefore not simple facilitators, or stand-alone objects, but are intricately connected to each other.

Situating Digital Methods

Our Digital Methods pre-conference workshop at AoIR 2016, combining presenters from the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam and the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology starts with a presentation by Richard Rogers on the recent history of digital methods. He points out the gradual transition from a conceptualisation of the Internet and the Web as cyberspace or as a virtual space to an understanding of the Web as inherently linked with the 'real' world: online rather than offline becomes the baseline, and there is an increasing sense of online groundedness.

Social Media and Their Consequences

The final speaker in this Social Media and Society session is William Housley, whose interest is in the role of social media as disruptive technologies: they affect how we organise ourselves in our social relations, and how these social relations are captured through big data on social media activities. This has a strong temporal dimension, recognising the dynamics of change over time.

Contradictions in U.K. and European eID Regulations

The next session at Web Science 2016 begins with Niko Tsakalakis, whose focus is on electronic identity. eIDs are a set of identifiers that set us apart from other people, and these can take a number of forms from software to hardware identifiers and biometric data. Such eIDs are now enshrined in a number of regulations at national levels, and also enable cross-border transactions across Europe.

Social Media from the Anthropologist's Perspective

The final day of Web Science 2016 starts with a keynote by Daniel Miller, who contributes an anthropologist's perspective to the conference. He notes that especially when it comes to the popular discussion of Web technologies such as social media, there are many spurious claims about how they change social interactions – and anthropologists are called upon to make sense of these claims. Anthropology, he notes, is in fact the study of people as social networks: we are all of us embedded in our social relations with others, and it is these relations that anthropology examines and analyses.

This enables a process of 'holistic contextualisation', which aims to examine comprehensively why people do what they do, online and offline. This studiously avoids any simplistic concentrations on online or offline activities, as people are almost always operating across both spaces. One core principle of this is the idea of 'polymedia', which builds on the fact that cost and access barriers to most media have decreased to the point that people no longer choose their media based on such factors, but instead on other – social and moral – considerations. (The moral judgment comes in as people assess others' uses of specific media: is it appropriate to break up a relationship via social media, for instance?)

Internet Technologies in Party Decision-Making Processes in Germany

The third speaker in this session at Web Science 2016 is Gefion Thuermer, whose interest is in decision-making processes within political parties. Such processes must be equal and inclusive, which may be a problem the more Internet-based communication tools play a role.

Modelling Web Advertising Clickthroughs

Next at Web Science 2016 is Sergej Sizov, who focusses on the economic value of Web advertising. This is surprisingly difficult to calculate, and Sergej begins with the hypothetical example of a small Web advertising campaign. We may make a range of assumptions about click-through and purchase rates, but variance matters: in a substantial number of cases, campaigns may generate no profit whatsoever.

Using VPNs to Access the Internet from China

The next AoIR 2015 session I'm in has only two papers, as one speaker has dropped out at the last minute; the first speaker therefore is Fan Mai, whose focus is on the use of Virtual Private Networks and anonymising proxy servers in China. Some such servers are used especially by expatriates living in China, trying to access western media sites that are otherwise blocked.


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