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Reyman, Jessica.  “User Data on the Social Web: Authorship, Agency, and Appropriation.”  College English 75 (5).  513 – 533.

  • R. begins by highlighting the ubiquity of social networking technologies in university contexts, emphasizing the great opportunities offered by such platforms for coordinating student learning.  She also notes that there is relatively little understanding on the part of professors and students about how their user data is handled on the web by the folks that offer free services like WordPress, Twitter, etc.
  • According to R., private companies use user data for data mining, selling off information about facebook posts, etc., to other private companies for marketing purposes.
  • This article explores “the implications of practices of data mining for intellectual property on the social Web.  This exploration seeks to push the field toward new inquiries about what it means to author online: How do we write on the social Web? How do we write ourselves through the social Web?  And how do we write the social Web?” (516).
  • Reyman argues that user data isn’t merely a technology by-product, commoditized and sold to the highest bidder; rather, she sees user data as a “dynamic, discursive narrative” about users, technologies, writing, and participation in digital spaces.
  • R. worries about how user data is used, noting that social web companies have “quietly wrest control from users without a battle having ever been waged” (517).
  • R. argues that data-mining is dangerous because it exposes users to unintended audiences, increases opportunities for surveillance, and can enhance the violent practices of authoritarian regimes.  For English folks, data mining should be considered in terms of authorship and ownership because it reveals “both practical concerns for users and theoretical implications for the concept of intellectual property online” (ibid).
  • R. reviews the FB flaps over the past couple of years to highlight the trend toward diminished control of user data produced and collected in social networking spaces.  She argues that ToS are “based on agreements made between unequal partners, between uninformed users and powerful companies that hide much of their activities from users” (522).
  • R. argues that fine-grained control and additional options aren’t the cure for cooptation of data-mining.  Rather, she notes that, “by considering data as coauthored with technologies, texts, and other users, we can reconceptualize user data as dynamic, living texts rather than as technology by-products to be bought and sold.”  (523).
  • R. describes the position of technology providers: they think of data as a product of companies’ investments in developing technologies that generate the data, compile it, aggregate it, and mine it for specific ends (524).  This depersonalizes data and turns it into commodity – not the product of human creativity or effort.  This means that data, from the perspective of tech providers, is authorless.
  • R. contends that the problem in recognizing data as authorless is a loss or failure to recognize human agency in the generation of data (526).  Further, if we fail to recognize the agency of humans and only the agency of technological agents in the production of data, then the copyright/ownership claims of humans are already ceded.  There’s the rub for Reyman.

 

Questions

  • I have some questions concerning the distinction between content and data.  Obviously, copyright protects content as unique expression (recall the telephone book case).  Data is supposedly “objective facts” that function as unowned property.  Reyman argues that data cannot be objective in as much as it is tied to individual users, time, activity, and technology.  In other words, she’s arguing that the process of production in social media spaces renders data content . . . no matter what (525).  Some useful things that might clarify and some questions:  1) Are we talking about metadata here?  If so, Reyman’s argument seems to suggest that folksonomic systems that rely on metadata to function are copyrightable . . . or at least should be considered content.  Problematic?; 2) Reyman’s argument seems to hinge on the idea that “the type of property that is produced – user data – is not understood as holding intellectual and creative value, but only as a commodity to be bought and sold” (527).  Again, a clarification of what is meant by “data” would be useful here.  If we’re talking about metadata, I think there’s a distinction to be made between time stamps, file sizes, and file formats and folksonomic data like user-generated tags, user-generated archiving systems, and various forms of user initiated linking.  A clarification between what one might call “automatic” metadata and “user-generated” metadata might be necessary to avoid this confusion.
  •  Reyman does do a bit of work at the beginning of this article to try and frame Google and Facebook as framing themselves as do-gooders and civically concerned entities.  That being said, they’re publicly traded companies that operate on profit margins.  Recognizing the philanthropic efforts and positive public-relations framing as do-gooder corporations doesn’t unmake them as profiteering corporations.
  • Reyman recognizes the power of data in shaping the participatory web toward the end of the article (bottom of 529) when she notes that data enables “collective intelligence, personalized experiences, and responsive technological spaces” (529).  Yet, if full control of data was ceded to individuals and ignored the technological agency/authority involved in its generation, who would create the algorithms and connective networks that utilize such data to function?  Are we talking about the creation of an open-source social networking movement that utilizes data on a user-permission basis?  If a commercial entity won’t code the technological tools that make both 1) commercial and 2) social webs possible, who’s going to do the work?

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