Regions of Interest Karen ann Donnachie, 2020. Algorithmic Collage.

The App is not the Territory

The App Is Not The Territory | Karen ann Donnachie & andy simionato

We are writing this short text for and within the ecosystem of “Platformism”— a collective term we use to refer to the mass adoption of apps and web apps, such as this shiny new platform of Art + Australia. 

“Platformism”, accelerated by the rise of 'Web 2.0', epitomised by user-data-driven 'in-app-purchase'-laden widgets we consume daily on our digital devices, we see (largely) as a cripplingly normalising force, designed to be used by institutions of centralised power for the exchange of capital and to influence social and cultural production. Social media apps' endless scroll, always promising the next, better meme just beyond our thumb's horizon has altered the way we see photography and art with selfies, brunch pics, memes. Yet, with through and (perhaps) emerging from this cocoon, we see how Web 2.0 has contributed to establishing complex ecosystems of co-agentic authorship that derive precisely from surveillance capitalism's farming of user data such as speech, text, and image.

The question for artists perhaps is how to harness this potential to actively shape cultural activity for art and community-building.

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Firstly, a confession. The term “platformism” arrives already carrying some luggage. Essentially, platformism, in its original anarcho-socialist context of the 1970s, was a belief system in which an individual was required to subscribe exactly to a specific set of principles in order to be included in that community. Because of some common etymologies, this definition will seems to bear relevance as we move forward, but to be honest we only came to know of this original meaning well after adopting the term in conversations and other writings.

But now if we are to commit to the term “Platformism” for our purposes here; capitalising the word, capitalising on its original uses, and therefore speculating on the value of its future meanings, we should at least explicate our intentions more directly. The word platform is derived from the same etymological origins as plateau, which in turn can be reduced to two axioms:

A plateau is a contiguous plane. Which means that the vertical distance between each point on the plateau is sufficiently close that together they appear as a plane. If we stay within a geographical context, a plateau has no other discerning topographical features such as a mountain or valley. It is defined by its homogeneity. Also, a plateau is a raised area. Every point of the homogenous plane we described in the previous axiom is equally higher than whatever lies outside of the plateau.

 + Karen ann Donnachie & Andy Simionato

Through the etymological roots of these two words, we understand that a platform can be considered a contiguous set of points which are equidistant from whatever is not the platform. Web 2.0 platforms are clubs with members who enjoy the view from their privileged tier status.

Of course, platforms have had other more recent usages, from the space for boarding and descending from a train, to the political platform (both the physical stage itself, and later the more abstract notion of an organisation of people and their guiding principles). More recently, the word platform has assumed new meanings in the context of the Internet. The word now also signifies an electronic space designed to promote specific individual and social behaviours and activities. But these meanings intermingle to signify both a physical space (a geographic plateau, or a train platform) and more abstract notions which both borrow from these earlier topographies and progressively add to them.

Where is the Edge of the platform?

The platform is not only circumscribed by a boundary, but that the platform itself consists of a complex ecosystem of boundaries.

This complex ecosystem of boundaries function to define value systems which can be reduced to at least three which may be of interest to our discussion:



            Capital value             Social/political value             Cultural value

 

Capital value systems are most apparent in the exchange of goods and services made possible by either user-based initiatives, or as a direct result of monetization systems introduced by the platform which reward the clicking of advertisements or other behaviours desirable to the platform (Youtube, Facebook, Instagram have ‘adsales’).

Social and political value systems are embedded within the technological structures of each platform. Although varied in the methods of exchange and distribution of these values, each platform is driven by the exchange of human labour for social status (always within the platform, but we’ll return to this.)

Finally cultural value systems are of import to this discussion, as the platform has been repeatedly called upon to function as a cultural archive. The use of Twitter by Mr. Trump in the years leading up to 2020 when his account was clamorously closed, with all the tweets published while he held tenure as the U.S.A president removed, is a useful example of the unwitting, and sometimes unwilling, role of the platform as a cultural archive.

Certainly, each of these three methods of value distinction should be understood, as Groys tells us, as “an ideological fiction designed to justify the domination of certain institutions of power.” (Groys) Commodification of Rights - Discrimination - Disposability and Extraction - Dominance - Empathy - Incrementalism - Individualism - Myth of Objectivity- Surveillance - White Supremacy Culture. It is the edge which defines each of these (fictional) value systems.

So back to the defining aspect of the platform is its edge…

Edge | Affinity | Weight | Decay : the algorithmic measure of potential for impact. 

.. Or, the Invisible co-agentic hand of social media platforms. The promise of the platforms to publish users’ content, to broadcast their voice, to launch their images, to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” or “give power to create and share ideas and information instantly” is not as simple as the various platforms’ mission statements would suggest. The suggestion is that every user is equally welcome, equally promoted and has equal opportunity to reach an audience, and the platforms are swift to brag about the number of users subscribed. However, the way the sorting algorithms within platforms are coded, result in a very uneven distribution of visibility in the marketplace of attention, according to Forbes, only a portion of our followers sees our posts (on average, 10% to 30% of followers on Instagram).

Many platforms have developed a flavour of ‘Edge Ranking’, a complex descendent of Larry Page’s ‘Page Rank’ (a game-changing algorithm used in early internet), which attempts to measure the ‘value’ of any given activity and promote it accordingly. There seems to be (at least) three significant common variables in the calculation, generally corresponding to notions of ‘affinity’, ‘weight’ and ‘decay’. 

Affinity measures the social proximity or connectedness of the User with any potential viewer or group thereof, weight gives value to authentic content and ‘creative labour’ over ‘reposts’ or second-hand activity, while decay factors in the time elapsed, giving precedence to the most recent actions within the platform. In this manner it is easy to see how so-called ‘bubbles’ quickly emerge at the hand of such algorithms, reinforcing smaller communities of like-minded users. These algorithms are supposedly for the Users, and their experience of the platform, as the resulting ‘feed’ is skewed toward recent significant posts from the heart of one’s social network, however this series of calculations is also gamed by social media marketeers, authors and artists exploiting these processes.

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