A glossary in progress, this directory describes the fundamental theories related to buzz, as well as the notions and methodologies that are regularly updated to reflect the experiments conducted in the Laboratory. The research team also offers to set out an overview of the methodology of the art by relaying the views of theoreticians and experts.
Projet de recherche, financement RCDAV 2017–2019
Haute école d’art et de design – Genève
The main Internet platforms, including the social networks, are managed through the prism of sophisticated automated programs that distribute the most pertinent content based on commercial premises. The visibility of content on the Net depends to a large degree on the algorithmic priorities of the platform on which it is located. Consequently, Google orients user searches by indexing data according to obscurely commercial criteria.
For years, the entire strategy of Google consists of systematically and progressively stripping us of control over our searches in order to orient us towards more financially remunerative content based on its advertising policy. They go about it in two different ways: by making access to advanced research parameters increasingly inaccessible (and sometimes impossible). Sometimes they even suppress them. They also deploy certain functions (Google Suggest, Google Instant Search) that display answers before we have even had time to ask our question.
When, in 2018, Facebook stated that they favored personal content over thematic pages or even media, the levels of online consultation of certain newspapers immediately plummeted in some countries. The directors of Facebook claimed that they gave priority to social interaction with concern for the well-being of the users. To be clear, the idea is to strengthen affective links between websurfers in order to better orientate them towards targeted advertising. This entails an automated analysis of texts and images: this means that a family photo automatically holds more “value” than a political event or a music clip. Additionally, a user’s publication is only posted on the walls of their closest friends – their degree of proximity is determined based upon assumed algorithmic affinities.
By aligning their personalized calculations with the behavior of Internet users, platforms adjust their economic interests with the aim of catering to the user. It is undoubtedly through this method of affirming the social order by directing individuals based upon their previous behaviors that algorithmic calculations exert their domination. They create the illusion that people are acting independently, however, reduced to their mere conduct, individuals are allotted to the automatic reproduction of society and themselves. The probable preempts the possible. Paradoxically, it is precisely at the moment when users of the Internet, through their representations, their ambitions and their objects, become attached to the notion that they are thinking like autonomous subjects, free of the injunctions of traditional authorities, that algorithmic calculations catch hold of them under the table one might say, by adjusting their desires based upon their regular practices.
An algorithmic reading is fundamentally different from a human one, and here the conclusion is that these continuous operations of selection lead to a sort of unification, a homogenization of relations on the Internet. Are these platforms truly in our own image? Are these algorithmic selections the true mirror of our lives and exchanges? Or, on the contrary, do these networks mold our behaviors by channeling them along the lines of the potential choices of the machine? This goes beyond the dilemma of the chicken or the egg since, as Dominique Cardon affirms, the individual who attempts to venture off the beaten paths of these platforms is quickly brought to order.
One of the postulations of our research was to refuse to buy our visibility by paying for click volume or sponsored content. Thus we had to make do with indexed content, based upon the average surfer. In her talk, Anna Jobin mentions with humor the 42,017 stages required to exist on these platforms and get the better of commercial and algorithmic logic. Even so, the execution of these 42,017 stages does not guarantee this “existence”: the message, whatever it may be, can still remain forever invisible.
For the most part, the images that circulate on social networks are produced by amateurs. Commented photographs, photomontages, the appropriation of existing images: users constantly create, appropriate and share. Social networks did not invent common practices, they are global and legion. A designer is not behind each and every shop sign, each poster for the local bingo, etc. Here, the difference resides in the fact that a community can unite around an image and share it. On platforms such as 9gag, a variety of graphic codes abound and the community of users mobilizes to approve, modify and “advance” a visual. For example, during the Kim Kardashi-Un meme experiment, the image was modified a number of times based upon feedback from users of the platform. Thus, on 9gag, users form communities who possess graphic design skills. One must wonder if this dichotomy between amateurs and designers still makes sense on social networks. In fact, amateur practices are so prevalent that perhaps even the question of amateurism is no longer pertinent. We have sometimes attempted to copy, with varying degrees of success, some graphic codes and appropriate certain memes. Imitation is not always a winning strategy, even though, when we worked on the abstention project, the use of sign holding enabled us to get shared dozens of times. In order to go viral, a design must base itself upon the existing dynamics of social networks even before looking to the fundamentals of professional design. Strategies of insertion or infiltration on social networks require more open approaches in which artistic qualities take a back seat. To such an extent that, after two years of research, we cannot boast of having succeeded in creating an attractive graphic image that is immediately identifiable by our peers. The workings of viral design lie elsewhere and this has transformed the paradigm of the designer.
Nevertheless, the recent evolution in editorial methods have tended to smooth over these common practices. For example, the text processing tools with illustrated backgrounds on Facebook limit the creative experience to a few preconfigured options. Will these generic tools eventually effect amateur creation on social networks? It is still too soon to tell – forms of resistance could always emerge.
The Ubiquity of Discriminatory (HATE) Speech
This research project on design, virality and social commitment came into being in the wake of the virulence and violence of online hate speech that has struck at the very heart of social coexistence. In February 2015, in France, the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights put together a set of recommendations for the fight against hate speech on the Internet, calling for the vigilance of public powers. Since the beginning of the project, European governments have examined the extent of the phenomenon and governmental bodies have marshaled their forces, along with Internet platforms, to attempt to curb hate speech. Social initiatives have attempted to define the extent of the phenomenon and propose educational tools such as Belgium’s Pack Educatif Anti-Discrimination Digitale (“Digital Anti-Discrimination Pack”), created by a group of European partners, including the European Think and Do Tank for Solidarity – PLS. In his report, François Sana, a member of this organization, makes a distinction between open discrimination and latent discrimination. Open discrimination violates the acceptable limits of social discourse in an explicit manner. Latent discrimination concerns messages that are invisible because they are masked by the cultural weight of stereotypes. In both cases, social networks exponentially increase the word-of-mouth effect through the rapid circulation of messages. Even graphically impoverished visuals are created with a real attempt at formatting. In the case of discriminatory speech, an image conveying a simplistic, uncorroborated message without any basis in fact can thus be relayed thousands of times and generate hundreds of approving comments. One has but to observe the images relayed by some Facebook accounts in order to gauge the wide variety of these messages as well as the extent of their diffusion.
When we began our project, we were convinced that our skills as designers provided us with the best arms as we sought to pit our savoir-faire against this hate speech. We were admittedly a bit naive in our process, since, as we explained in the Amateur section, our experiments revealed that graphic quality has little or no effect. This is not due to a disenchantment over the pointlessness of good graphic design, but rather a changing paradigm: designers must now cope with the combined effects of the uninterrupted flow and wide range of messages, along with algorithmic filters, and Internet users innate distrust of all institutional messages, as well as other, often contradictory, parameters. The major challenge we faced was to be able to raise social questions without falling into the traps presented by the shortcomings of divisiveness and stereotypes. We had to implement communication strategies which enabled us to establish spaces where debate could take place without sterile proselytism.
Over the course of the last few months, several press surveys have revealed the ways in which the systems that regulate content on Facebook work. The “cleaners” of the Web, or moderators, consist of hundreds of people gathered together in control centers charged with deciding whether to suppress or preserve preselected content, either because of its having been reported by another user, or through algorithmic recognition. A moderator? can thus requalify up to 25,000 different bits of content each day. Their sensitivities are often severely tested because they are exposed to so many violent and obscene images. We know the limits of such regulation, notably the polemic unleashed when Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World was censured, which proves that Facebook is incapable of telling the difference between art and pornography. We have been censured three times over the last two years. Our Café Cunni Instagram account was deactivated, even though not a single specifically pornographic image had ever been published on it. Our pages denouncing bullfighting were blocked, and some of our civic reminders linked to the Gilet Jaune movement were simply erased. None of these cases included speech of an insulting or violent nature. In the case of Café Cunni, all the visual language was allusive; not a single directly sexual image was ever used. In the case of the page on the corrida, the gory parody used by the students would seem to have been what provoked the signaling of the content and its subsequent censure. Nevertheless, the montage that made use of a series of scenes from horror films to denounce the taboos regarding menstruations was never censured. With seemingly partial and random blocking and other censure applied in a unilateral manner, it remained impossible for us to know the precise motivations for the instances of censure. We can only suppose that our publications on the Gilets Jaunes overly monopolized the attention of surfers, but we have no way to confirm this. Even though there are still humans behind these regulatory systems, the machine remains asymmetrical and it is very rare to be able to recover one’s content.
The influencer Dora Moutot, who deals with questions of women’s sexuality, lives under the Damoclean sword of the threat that her Instagram account with 500,000 followers can be shut down from one day to the next. She explains that the transfer of audiences towards independent platforms such as blogs and e-mails is difficult, so she remains dependent upon the indulgence and opaque governance of the powers of the Internet.
Influencers have large followings among users on social networks. These followers react to their published content by commenting upon and sharing it. We interviewed three influencers: Mademoiselle B. (10,500 subscribers), lifestyle influencer Alma (Schmitt), former influencer for adolescents (28,000 subscribers from ages 13–17) and Dora Moutot, well-known for her positions on women’s sexuality (466,000 subscribers). Each of them is recognized in their field and, like film stars, they are asked to sign autographs and are solicited for selfies. As a result, Alma (Schmitt), thirteen years old at the time, ended up abandoning her account after being over-solicited by her community. All three of them admitted to spending a great deal of time posting to their Instagram account, and using highly elaborate communication strategies. Geneva-based Mademoiselle B shares advice on restaurants, hotels and her picks for brand-name items, as well as personal details about her private life. She works regularly with companies on product placement. Her postings are made according to a precise weekly schedule and her images are well-crafted. Dora Moutot creates visuals to comment upon the many taboos attached to female sexuality. She chooses to rework her images, deliberately seeking to create a rough effect. These two influencers use a visual language consistent with their respective subjects and they do it perfectly autonomously. In all likelihood, the graphic designer would seem to have no place in this mediation which is nevertheless based upon the creation of images. In the case of Mademoiselle B, the visual codes used are prefabricated by platforms such as Instagram – i.e. the square format and digital retouching filters – but she also adapts the conventional format of upscale magazines. Moutot uses a graphic style without pretension or digital effect, which is, according to her, the only guarantee of a faithful and direct transmission of a message. Although she has been trained in the profession of design, she views it with distrust and chooses to upend its conventions, thus generating a “non-design” which paradoxically becomes a design style in and of itself. Our experiments with voter abstentionism were inspired by this influence based upon a personal incarnation of the message. The profession of influencer was born on social networks; their structure thus enables some unknowns to emerge and gain a substantial following. This new practice is simply an amplification of their inherent process; each person is a potential center, and, in this case, a center of attraction. The flow of new publications and commentary necessarily requires constant feeding and influencers often are required to commit themselves full-time in order to retain the attention of their followers. Without the manifestation of this permanent presence, requiring constant efforts at communication, their viral aura is quickly extinguished.
Kit, a “design kit”
In order to create virality, digital users must have the possibility of appropriating a message and commenting upon it before relaying it. Consequently, the creation of polished visuals is not always the best means of inducing this process of transmission. It seems more pertinent to generate conditions that enable the message to come into its own. The forms put into play are not complete so the message is not completely finalized from the get-go. The Pense-Bête Citoyen (“Social/Civic Reminder”) is one example: we set our open question on a yellow background and distribute it in a Post-It™ format on social networks during demonstrations. In the south of France, several workshops took place to create these “Post-Its™”. In this case, the designer’s work took the form of a kit of sorts, namely a Post-It™ and a felt-tip pen and it was up to the community to compose the messages and circulate them. The same phenomenon came into play when we created the Rrom currency. The Rom community took possession of it and distributed it autonomously. These Design Kits must not be mistaken for a sort of “do-it-yourself” practice, or assimilated with generic digital design tools. We are not talking about dwindling the expertise of the graphic designer to a peau de chagrin, but rather shifting their intervention from the creation of a series of visuals to the formulation of a dynamic that can be used to generate subsequent images.
The paradigm of the designer
We discuss this in the section entitled The Ubiquity of Discriminatory (Hate) Speech*, since one of the initial aims of this project was to counter visually poorly constructed discriminatory speech with quality graphic design. This was a form of naivety, the idea that beauty could rescue one from ugliness, also the idea that a viral design would be founded on the same precepts as graphic design. None of our experiments was guided by the precepts of good design – the artistic quality of our images was always secondary, even immaterial at times. Again, this is not about disillusionment, but rather the signal of a changing paradigm. The essence of virality lies only in the conversational character of the message, so it must bear “conversational elements that promote exchanges between strangers.”
In 2019, Facebook had 2.4 billion users each month, 1.5 billion of which consult the platform daily. Instagram numbers a billion users.
Performance and performed design
The expression “performed design” makes use of the double meaning of the word “performance.” The term is used relative to the excellence of a result both in the business world and the realm of sports. In art, performance is a behavioral artistic action, the creation of a series of gestures over a more or less determined period. Here, performed design indicates the necessity of activating the message, beyond its mere publication. We proceeded without purchasing any space, without any institutional campaigns; we worked on designing something that would be passed from person to person. To instigate virality, one must live in the space time continuum of the permanent flow of social networks. We created multiple strategies designed to make messages readable without differentiating the designer from the message. The idea was for the designer to incarnate the message by creating clandestine teams to distribute it, and by taking our actions to the streets. The result, the performance, if you will, occurs through a series of behavioral actions. It is also about taking design to the level of a living art, a living practice that is structured through a singular relationship from person to person. Each internet user can potentially become part of the chain, and, from a passive public, they can become an actor who participates, shares, comments or modifies the message.
SAMPLING, sampled design
In music, DJs sample by appropriating bits of music or other sound sources in order to rework them and include them in a new musical passage. Their composition is often the product of the recycling of preexisting audio footage. We have raised the notion of sampled design regarding the case of the film Le Tabou des Règles (“The Taboo of the Period”), where students appropriated gory film scenes to contrast them with the puritanical attitude that surrounds menstruation. They appropriate images from popular culture to draw attention to a social paradox. Since they do not compose their pieces from scratch, DJs are often considered by their detractors as not being musicians, and yet, they often perform to full houses. Similarly, one might be tempted to say that Internet users are not designers, but any one of them might one day attract large audiences on social networks. It’s a quick leap to make. However, the practice of sampling enables one to reduce the learning curve needed to gain the savoir-faire that makes up the fundamentals of a discipline: DJs don’t have to learn their scales and Internet users don’t have to study design. The dichotomy between an expert designer and an amateur Internet user seems without hold here. A viral design is not a de facto privilege confined to designers. Everyone seems to be on equal footing.
In the practice of design, one appropriates, recycles, hijacks, modifies and alters preexisting elements. This recycling is fairly common on social networks. For example, each user can take a meme and appropriate it. A meme is a recognizable cultural element that can be reproduced and then transmitted by individuals. Richard Dawkins coins the term in his work The Selfish Gene (1976): it is a combination and contraction of the words “mimesis” and “gene.” According to Dawkins, memes are to culture what genes are to biology, thus they also have a direct effect upon their evolution. On social networks, anyone can rework them, share them, injecting them once again amidst the flow of messages. In the 1970s, theoretician and video maker Hollis Frampton considered that each photograph, each video added to an infinite cinema on a scale as large as all of humanity. Thus, we are all contributors to a major collective operation. Forty years later, Frampton’s idea has, to some degree, found its technical resolution in social networks. They appear to be a large machine, infinite and collective, with each Internet user’s flow of messages cumulating with the millions of other flows of other users in a massive sampling operation. Here, we employ the word “sampling” in the manner in which it is used in the music industry. Nelson Goodman explains* that the viability of a sample depends on its “exemplification” in terms of one or several common characteristics. Common properties must of necessity be present, since even in the case of a series of heterogeneous or random objects, the resulting samples would necessarily be the product of that heterogeneity, or that randomness. In order to obtain a series of samples, the sampled elements must be of the same nature in order to be exemplars of these properties. Extending Frampton’s theory to social networks would mean that a sample would, by extension, enable one to depict the mechanisms of social networks: conversational aspects, graphic codes, the dynamics of exchange, but also other parameters that are as yet unidentified. In the case of viral design, what sample could attest to the global mechanics of social networks? This also remains an open question.