Monday, April 24, 2017

Core Post 5: Post-TV and the "User"

This week’s readings explore the entanglement between the televisual and the digital web. The authors note many different attributes intensified or rendered irrelevant during this ongoing moment of technological transformation. In different ways, they all take up Lisa Park’s call that these moments of “chaotic indeterminacy of new technologies” are rich moments for social and cultural analysis precisely because they can reflect existing social and economic structures (134). In this response, I want to focus on the production of the “individual” as it emerges from and is subjected to larger promises of technological freedom and control. It seems that in these moments of “chaotic indeterminacy,” there often is a “lure” toward an optimistic reading of new technology. Lisa Parks and Tara McPherson both caution us against any liberatory reading of what seems to be an increased amount of agency granted during the Post-TV era. Parks reminds us that flexible microcasting—or personalized TV—aligns with the desire to “program” the self, a desire at the heart of US neoliberal logics (Parks 134). Similarly for the WWW, McPherson traces how the “Web constitutes itself in the unfolding of experience” through what she describes as volitional mobility, scan-and-search, and transformation (McPherson 200).

Tara’s phenomenology of the Web was a great method for explicating the dynamic ontology of the Web by beginning on the level of the experiential. As a method, phenomenology interrogates the question of “liveness” by distinguishing between perceived “liveness” (through the screen image) and experienced “liveness.” While reading Tara’s phenomenology of the Web, I was reminded of my previous employment (prior to my PhD program) as a Product Marketer for an online web company. My job as a Product Marketer was to manage a cross-functional team of web designers and developers to optimize the website (which functioned as the outward-facing “packaging” of our subscription software product). We utilized a wide array of software to best understand “user behavior” in order to be more effective product marketers. A simple version of our team’s goal was to help and persuade a new user to navigate from a landing page to ultimately subscribe to our product. In our arsenal were programs such as Optimizely A/B testing software, a program that allow us to segment the site visitors and show them different versions of the same site flow—perhaps with a different leading image, or different call-to-action buttons (Interestingly, part of Optimizely’s success as a testing platform was that the founder developed the technology to help run Obama’s web campaign for the Presidency. A condensed version of Optimizely’s marketing promise was that it could transform user behavior data into real political change in the real world). Another program we would use was CrazyEgg, a “heat-mapping software” that tracked cursor/click/scroll activity on web pages. As Tara describes the movement of the cursor, I was thinking of how the illusion of interactivity promised by the web is also the same vehicle by which new surveillance and behavior software masks itself. In a simplified way, Tara’s phenomenology of the web could also be read as an ideal “user test.” But, perhaps like the Obama campaign example, such data-fication of the individual user can potentially be used for positive political change.

Example of "heat-mapping"

An additional thought to conclude: I’ve been thinking about how this notion of “flow” must be conceptualized differently in the post-TV/digital era. As McPherson notes, debates about “flow” (and segmentation) have been at the core of televisual studies. But when we think of digital platforms, online television is not simply a uni-directional broadcast of content but is also susceptible to the instability of the web in general. Users flow onto sites through traffic channels and can cause a website to “crash” (I think this happened when was overloaded during the Season 5 (?) premiere of Game of Thrones). This is an incomplete thought, but I am interested in how to conceive of “flow” on the Web, when the ontology of the Web is comprised of a dynamic confluence of traffic, flows, and segmentation.

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