Data User Practice. PHD Project, 2021-2025


Working with User Practice on Data-Driven Platforms in Educational Contexts

Because feeds are algorithmically organized, they are highly ambiguous environments for users, places where the rules for visibility are unknown and change constantly without notice. At the same time, user practice is highly individualized through targeted communication and engagement optimization algorithms. How do users make sense of this communicative yet unstable quasi-social environment? This field study aims at developing collective participatory inquiry into user practice as a methodological tool for cultural education of the digital.

Feed-based platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok are part of digital everyday practice for large parts of the population, especially the younger generation. These platforms are run on the basis of targeted-ads business models, which means that users are being tracked, profiled and their attention is being sold to advertisers, being classical advertisers selling products, but also communication and information campaigners of various kinds. This targeted – meaning highly individualized – mass communication bears effects that are increasingly being understood, and range from the psychological effects of metrics, pervasive competition, and online harassment, to the social and political stratification through disinformation and algorithmically driven polarisation by engagement optimization algorithms.

However, when it comes to user practice, there is little understanding of how users are facing that data-driven digital reality. How do they make sense of their digital experiences on platforms? How do they make choices, however little they might be? And how are they relating their personal experience to the political dynamics?

This study aims to address these questions in the classroom, in order to develop a liberatory educational methodology of addressing techno-political topics in cultural education of the digital. The classrooms will be located at art schools in Zurich, Switzerland. It is a part of and furthering of my ongoing educational practice in art and cultural education of the digital, with an interest to wider questions.

This study is based on two hypotheses:

  • User practice on feed-based platforms is highly individualized practice.
  • Feeds are algorithmically organized quasi-social spaces. Their algorithmic organization is a black box to the users, creating situations of high ambiguity.

The first hypothesis is describing a situation of isolation of practice, that fosters an apolitical understanding of user practice as something arbitrarily happening to oneself, where all problems are cast as personal failure (to protect oneself, to master the tools, to fight addiction, to spot the fake, and so on).

The classroom provides a space of communal exchange, that makes visible the shared struggles, and the structures behind these struggles, thus countering the hyper-individualized practice of social media. The sharing of personal experiences between peers is a strategy of „making the personal political“, and has a long history in liberatory struggles. Most prominently, it was the heart of the so-called “Conscious Raising Method” developed by the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960ies, which was key to creating a broad discourse around and the mobilization for the political fight for women’s rights of secondary wave feminism in the 1970ies in the US, and abroad.

To create that social space of shared experience, communal inquiry, and theory-making from below is the basis of this study. For this, strategies of documentation and visualization of feed practices need to be developed, since the platforms themselves are highly volatile and do not offer any tools for self-documentation.

On the basis of an established space for shared inquiry, the questions of the second hypothesis can be addressed. The second hypothesis means that user practice is happening in a very specific place, that is communicative, but its sociality is characterized by a high degree of ambiguity: feeds are organized algorithmically, meaning that visibility is distributed through unknown rules that change frequently and without notice. How do users make sense of this unstable social environment? How is this affecting their sense of self, of relations, of interaction? How are they adapting, what strategies do they employ?

Methodologically speaking, this field study combines a cultural studies framework (a cultural consumer study of “feed culture“) with the sensibilities for the active and self-determined role of participants of participatory research, having auto-ethnographic and focus group interview methods at its center.

Since this study is a PHD project, it will link the findings with theoretical discourses in the fields of cultural theory, sociology, media studies, educational theory, philosophy, and political theory.

This PHD project is part of Latent Spaces research project. It is based at HFBK Hamburg, supervised by Prof. Dr. Nora Sternfeld (HFBK Hamburg) and Prof. Dr. Felix Stalder (ZHDK Zurich).