The User’s User

Lauren McCarthy’s Social Turkers experiment draws unique attention to our concept of not just online socialization, but human quantification.

Drawing upon the Amazon service that provides “access to an on-demand, scalable workforce” performing what it calls “Human Intelligence Tasks,” McCarthy set about on a series of blind date which were determined by anonymous ‘workers’ contributing input in exchange for various micro payments (roughly a quarter per job). She surveilled her dates via her camera phone and maintained regular contact with the service via text message. The stated objectives were self-discovery and to address her control issues.

The process yielded (thankfully) some appropriate inner-dialogue (“I wonder what to do if Iā€™m pushed further, is this wrong?”(source) while possibly opening up more range for discussion than she started with.

Only a week into the project, McCarthy begins to ask: “Who is really in control? Me, as the one using this unknowing guy for my project? Him, because I need his participation, because I need him to like me enough to stay and interact? The workers, because they are determining my words and actions?” (source).

This series of questioning is the most interesting.

When we traditionally think of digital Users, we consider the act of a lone participant who logs in, interacts and uses their own decision-making skills to accomplish a task. This could range from color correcting a photo in a desktop application to posting an off-the-cuff Tweet. In either case, the User is there of his own free will and making conscious decisions. But a project like this extends the metaphor of “use” beyond the mechanical tool onto the date and the workers behind it. Unaware of the project, the date is reduced to functionality, and not much else. Faceless and out of context, the worker is reduced to a commodity ā€” essentially converting themselves to RAM for a few cents.

As an experiment, I don’t feel compelled to pass judgment on her attempt, yet can’t help but feel a bit unsettled with the questionable execution. (The level of mindfuckery this must have performed on these dates seems more brutal ā€” and intentional ā€” than even the normal amounts we’ve come to know as 21st century dating.) McCarthy appears to show some guilt in her last post (the project lasted a month), but only upon realizing that she might have to take some responsibility in real-time for her behavior during the experiment. (source). It was essential to the storyline that the anti-heroine redeem herself through empathy, even at the expense of objectivity.

The introduction of Empathy is essential to the outcome, but its presence here is what makes me leery of what the results illustrate. McCarthy is simply replicating the anonymous, transactional behavior with which Google and Facebook uses to sort, taxonomize and “customize” our online experiences. The important distinction is that McCarthy, beyond the confines of the lab, is ultimately human and inevitably knows when to say when. Her digital counterparts do not. (75 min)