The World of Edgerank: Rhetorical Justifications of Facebook's News Feed Algorithm
Computational Culture (5), Special Issue on Rhetoric and Computation
24 Pages Posted: 15 Apr 2016
Date Written: January 15, 2016
Web algorithms like Facebook’s so-called Edgerank algorithm play an increasingly important role in everyday life. The recent surge of research in such algorithms often emphasizes algorithmic orderings as powerful but opaque. In this essay, we propose an alternative reading of the Edgerank algorithm as a self-justifying ordering of the world. Drawing on the pragmatist sociology of Boltanski and Thévenot, we examine Edgerank as not just a hidden logic, but a rhetor that actively constructs a rhetorical commonplace that can be drawn upon in order to justify the evaluations produced by the algorithm. We do so by examining three specific situations where the operations of Edgerank have been critiqued and defended: First, Facebook’s own response to the critique that social media produce echo chambers. Second, Facebook’s presentation of the main variables in the Edgerank algorithm. Third, social media marketing blogs about how to handle the algorithm in practice. Based on these events, we construct an ‘internalistic’ account of the rhetoric of Edgerank, opening for an exploration of its moral grammar and the world or dwelling place it assumes and enacts. We find that the world of Edgerank is ordered according to recent engagement, which means it has affinities with what Boltanski and Chiapello have termed the connectionist world. At the same time, the world of Edgerank is marked by a tension between authenticity and automation that is a result of the algorithmic standardization of relations. In the rhetoric that comes with Edgerank, this tension is not something to be overcome, but rather a self-justifying hybrid, which points to a potential displacement of moral grammars in an age of computational valuation.
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