What We Do

University of Warwick

Algorithmic Identities

Celia Lury
Scott Wark

Profiling and recommendation are a part of the online services we use every day. These services suggest things we might like to buy or people we might want to connect with. They recommend songs, books, movies, and television shows that we might want to listen to, read, or watch. Sometimes they get these recommendations right. Sometimes, though, they get these recommendations very wrong, making strange or even comical inferences about who we are from what we do online.

Algorithmic Identities aims to contribute to the social studies of data and algorithms by formulating innovative research methods for studying algorithmic recommendations. In this emerging field, considerable attention has been paid to the social and technical aspects of algorithms themselves. Far less attention has been paid to how users perceive and understand algorithms. In response, we devised this project to understand how people from Chile and the United Kingdom feel about the extraction of digital data and the algorithmic inferences that are made about them. What are recommendation systems? How do they work? How do they shape our online experiences? How do people feel about them? What does it feel like when they get us right? Or when they get us wrong?

To explore recommendation systems, we created a prototype smartphone app called Big Sister. We combine techniques of digital trace collection, qualitative methods and visualisation to open up questions about participation, use and users, habit, and the binary of subjects and objects. We have devised this project as a participatory experiment in “prototyping.” By asking participants to use this app and to reflect on their experiences of recommendation systems online, we hope to make profiling and recommendation systems more transparent.

The Algorithmic Identities project is a collaboration between members of the People Like You team and Martín Tironi and Matías Valderrama Barragán from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Alongside People Like You’s funding from the Wellcome Trust, it is being conducted under the auspices of the Fondecyt project N°1180062: “Datafication of urban environments and individuals: an analysis of the designs, practices and discourses of the production and management of digital data in Chile” and has also been supported by the “Interdisciplinary Research 2018 Funding” from the Vice-Rectory for Research (VRI) of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.