Tag Archives: agency

user agency on the web

WordPress “masks the database and creates a continuous blogging experience within the browser” (Helmond in Reader, p. 180), yet the database is rigidly defined and categorised. Discuss how this shapes the way we interact with the World Wide Web through blogging and how it affects user agency.

What lies behind that Times New Roman 'W'?

Anne Helmond discusses the relationship between users and the mediums that they ‘engage’ with. In this subject, we have established the characteristics of Web 2.0, or more specifically in this case, blogging. ‘Interactivity’ is routinely cited as an essential component of Web 2.0 and blogging. Indeed, we must engage with the medium for it to be considered a part of the ‘new media’ category.

A core element of this subject is the blog project. Through blogging, we are given first hand experience at using the tools of Web 2.0 and interacting and engaging with net communication applications – to facilitate this, we use: WordPress.

Helmond (2007) proposes that in spite of the rhetoric of Web 2.0 and interactivity and customisation, our supposedly limitless user agency is in fact quite limited by the database foundations of WordPress and other similar blogging websites.

The interface presented to users in their browser windows “masks the database” to create a fluid and seamless “blogging experience” for the user(/blogger) (Helmond 2007)

Hosted by servers and managed by software, databases are used to store information. As the name suggests, ‘data’ is ‘based’ in a single location, resulting in the efficient ‘storage’ of information. But databases cannot be interpreted or manipulated by the untrained eye. It requires particular technical expertise to be able to edit and control a database without the assistance of an interface. For this reason, a graphical interface is employed to help ‘bridge the gap’ between database-illiterate ‘users’ and the database. Helmond delves into a technical explanation of the various internet protocols and coding languages that are used to store information in the most efficient manner within digital databases.

The question raised by Helmond’s article is this: if we are interacting with an interface (such as the one of WordPress), are we really engaging with the medium at all? Is our user agency limited by our technological-illiteracy?

Although these are valid questions, blogging websites like WordPress and Blogger are not about facilitating an intimate relationship between the user and the database. They focus on the relationship between users and other users: they create a clean and clear interface that “masks” the complexity of the database that lies beneath.

When we post on WordPress, we are entering information (or raw data) into a database. The information of this database is hosted by a ‘server’, managed by ‘software’ and reproduced on personal computers and mobile devices with the ‘browser’. But posting on WordPress is more than just the technical side of things. Posting on WordPress is about encouraging free expression, in text and in visual form; it’s about engaging with your fellow WordPress peers on the other side of the world, and; it’s about being a part of community which today alone has ‘freshly pressed’ 107,034,473 words.

One problem that I encountered with Helmond’s article was the sense of techno-elitism that it promoted. Part of her article seems to suggest a quasi-class divide along the lines of technical expertise between “those who know” and “those who don’t”. In suggesting such a divide Helmond undermines the meaning of WordPress and the internet at large. The internet is about a freedom to network, to communicate and with Web 2.0, a freedom to interact. Moreover, the internet introduced a crucial change to the media landscape that preceded it: the internet put the means of production and distribution in the hands of many, not just the hands of the elite. As Helmond alludes to a divide between technical experts and the technically-illiterate, she simultaneously resurrects the very media landscape that the advent of the internet sought to quash.

“Masking the database” connotes an insidious and deceptive act, but it isn’t a bad thing. “The job of computers and networks is to get out of the way, to not be seen… so we can interact with it intuitively” (Berners-Lee in Helmond 2007). Tim Berners-Lee is right, it’s just important to consider and acknowledge that something more happens ‘behind the scenes’.

//nickkotzman.

Sources:

  • Helmond, A., ‘Software-Engine Relations’ in Blogging for Engines: Blogs Under the Influence of Software-Engine Relations, MA Thesis, Amsterdam, University of Amsterdam, pp. 44-80, 2007.

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