In-visibility as a concept for research on social software

I’d like to highlight a recent articleWant to be on top? Algorithmic power and the threat of invisibility on Facebook by Taina Bucher which uses the notion of invisibility for an analysis and description of Facebook’s ‘News Feed’. The author convincingly shows how the algorithmic logic of the ‘Edge Rank’, operating the News Feed, imposes certain forms of interaction. In particular, the algorithm enables as well as constrains people’s presentation on the News Feed and in doing so induces a ‘regime of invisibility’ on its users. The notion of invisibility is taken from Foucault and the description of Bentham’s panopticon as a metaphor for disciplinary mechanisms in modern societies. But whereas Foucault’s panopticon imposes a threat of visibility on its inhabitants, Bucher shows that the News Feed operates rather on the contrary mechanism; user experience the danger of becoming obsolete and invisible once they refrain from interacting on the platform.

News Feed

For my Master thesis (entitled In-between online and offline moments, and the order of visibility) I have in a similar fashion turned to Foucault’s notion of disciplinary visibility for an analysis of the social network platform ‘StudiVZ’, a German version of Facebook. As my study illustrates, the interaction on the platform is dominated by an ‘order of visibility’, a desire to be visible and present, which is in fact built in the algorithmic logic of the platform. It thereby shapes the interactions taking place, i.e. people’s constant, deliberate self-presentation on the platform. However, in contrast to Bentham’s panopticon, within Facebook there is not one overall observer but users watch over one another in this sense.

The work also questions the up to that point prevailing analytic separation within media studies and internet research between offline and online contexts, treating them as disconnected spheres. You may read intro and conclusion of my thesis here.

MA title

The notion of invisibility describing the algorithmic logic of social software has not yet been sufficiently taken up within media studies. I still think this concept is a promising entry to study and analyse the structure and setup of social networking sites. More research can be done in order to show how and to what extent these sites interfere with and shape (sociomaterial) practices.

The work has been part of a recent initiative by scholars in media studies and adjacent disciplines (cultural theory, sociology, computing) entitled ‘software studies’ which involves not only scientists but designers, engineers and artists. Check the website for more information.


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