The politics of aggregation

I’ve been trying to get some critical purchase on personalisation for some time now. Essentially, I think the subject needs more attention. Cass Sunstein has written extensively on it, and some of his criticisms are valid on a commonsense level – but they are not particularly useful if we wish to develop a critical culture in relation to personalized media. Sunstein is mourning the death of the Fourth Estate, the passing of traditional news media platforms. His books and articles read like a eulogy for a bygone era, an era where people had a common news platform. I think a critical culture would begin by acknowledging that aggregation is a form of production in the same sense as editing a newspaper or a programming a radio show, and that it consequently involves selectivity – in other words, a politics. It’s just that aggregation is usually done by a software agent, not a human being – so we forget this crucial step of selection and assembly. When you visit a personalized news portal, a software aggregator has decided in advance which articles matter and which donít – this is precisely why it is convenient.

The term ‘personalisation’ has been used to describe all manner of things from downloading a wallpaper to customizing your cellphone. I’m going to define what I mean, and distinguish it from ‘customisation’. True personalisation is when digital content has been aggregated for you, based on who you are, where you are, or what you are interested in at the time. In other words, it is different for every single individual; pieces of content have been selected and assembled for you, and preferably delivered to your device. This also means that aggregation is a key first step in personalisation – so if we are to understand the cultural effects of personalisation I think we also need to understand aggregation.