GSLIS doctoral candidates Sarah T. Roberts and Miriam E. Sweeney presented on a panel at the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) in Dublin, Ireland, on June 28. The presentation, "Free Speech, Visual Discourses and the Invisible," also included panelists Ergin Bulut, doctoral candidate in Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, and Victor Pickard, assistant professor of communication in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
The following abstracts describe the papers presented by Roberts and Sweeney:
Unseen Agents: Uncovering the Hidden Work of Commercial Content Moderation
Sarah T. Roberts
Online content moderation is the practice of screening of user-generated content posted to Internet sites, social media and other online outlets that encourage and rely upon such material to generate visits to and participation in their platforms. Despite being essential to the media production cycle for commercial websites and social media platforms, commercial content moderation is largely unknown outside its own industry and those that rely on it. This research endeavors to unveil the practice of commercial content moderation in the context of contemporary trends of globalization, outsourcing and other economic and geospatial reconfigurations facilitated by the increasingly networked nature of the world. Content moderation tasks vacillate from the mind-numbingly repetitive and mundane to exposure to images and material that can be violent, disturbing and, at worst, psychologically damaging, and it requires these tasks of workers that are frequently relatively low-status and low-wage. This research connects commercial content moderation with digital media economics, digital media practices and their sociopolitical, economic and ethical implications. It reports and describes the experiences of content moderators in a number of different contexts and situations, working around the globe. It maps content moderation on theoretical grounds to other scholarship on digital work, aligning it in the greater context of the ecology of social media to the end of recognizing, acknowledging and improving the conditions under which the workers labor.
Your Service: Anthropomorphized Virtual Agents in the Digital Workforce
Miriam E. Sweeney
Anthropomorphized virtual agents (AVAs) are computer programs with human characteristics and personality traits that act on behalf of a user in a virtual environment. In this sense, AVAs may be thought of as digital worker programs that fulfill information, work, learning, and entertainment functions (Laurel, 1997). These programs are increasingly integrated into library services, online shopping sites, search engines, customer service interfaces, mobile applications, personal computing applications, and online education. The anthropomorphized metaphor that AVAs leverage as a design strategy draws on hegemonic narratives of identity, including gender and race (Zdenek, 2007). Despite much excellent work on themes such as sexism in design of virtual women, scholars examining AVAs have not yet fully explored the linkage between raced and gendered representations of virtual agents and the information service roles they often simulate. As certain types of information and service work are being replaced by digital workers in virtual environments, it is important to trace how narratives of identity and labor combine to shape a digital workforce. This research explores at how race, gender, and information work are represented in Microsoft’s "Ms. Dewey," the titular character in the now defunct search interface of the same name. This project denaturalizes anthropomorphization as a design strategy, maps representations of race, gender, and labor in virtual agents against broader social and cultural contexts, and explores the consequences and implications of racializing and gendering information artifacts.