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The TechnoCultural Dimensions of Meaning:

Towards a Mixed Semiotics of the World Wide Web GANAELE LANGLOIS


THE TECHNOCULTURAL DIMENSIONS OF MEANING: TOWARDS A MIXED SEMIOTICS OF THE WORLD WIDE WEB by Ganaele Langlois a dissertation submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies of York University in partial fulfi llment of the requirements for the degree of DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY Permission has been granted to: a) YORK UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES to lend or sell copies of this dissertation in paper, microform or electronic formats, and b) LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA to reproduce, lend, distribute, or sell copies of this dissertation anywhere in the world in microform, paper or electronic formats and to authorize or and to authorize or and procure the reproduction, loan, distribution or sale of copies of this dissertation anywhere in the world in microform, paper or electronic formats. The author reserves other publication rights, and neither the dissertation nor extensive extracts from it may be printed or otherwise reproduced without the authors written permission.

ABSTRACT This dissertation project argues that the study of meaning-making practices on the Web, and particularly the analysis of the power relations that organize communicational practices, needs to involve an acknowledgement of the importance of communication technologies. This project assesses the technocultural impact of software that automatically produces and dynamically adapts content to user input through a case study analysis of and of the MediaWiki software package. It offers an interdisciplinary theoretical framework that borrows from communication studies (discourse analysis, medium theory, cultural studies of technology), from new media studies (software criticism) and from Actor-network theory and Felix Guattaris mixed semiotics. In so doing, the research defines a new methodological framework through which the question of semiotics and discourse can be analyzed thanks to an exploration of the technocultural conditions that create communicative possibilities. The analysis of examines how the deployment of tools to track, shape and predict the cultural desires of users raises questions related to the imposition of specific modes of interpretation. In particular, I highlight the process through which userproduced meanings are incorporated within software-produced semiotic systems so as to embed cultural processes within a commercial imperative. While is an instance of the commercial use of dynamic content production techniques on the Web, Wikipedia stands as a symbol of non-commercial knowledge production. The Wikipedia model is not only cultural, but also technical as mass collaborative knowledge production depends on a suite of software tools - the MediaWiki architecture - that enables new iv

discursive practices. The Wikipedia model is the result of a set of articulations between technical and cultural processes, and the case study examines how this model is captured, modified and challenged by other websites using the same wiki architecture as Wikipedia. In particular, I examine how legal and technical processes on the Web appropriate discursive practices by capitalizing on user-produced content as a source of revenue.


I am greatly indebted to my supervisor, Dr. Barbara Crow, for being an astonishing mentor whose generous support, guidance and encouragement throughout the years have made my experience of graduate school truly fulfilling. My hearfelt thanks go to my other committee members, Dr. Greg Elmer and Dr. Steve Bailey, for their generous feedback and encouragement. I am extremely grateful for Dr. Wendy Hui Kyong Chuns advice and support. This project would not have been half as interesting without the support of the members of the Infoscape Lab at Ryerson University. Our conversations and collaborative work have been a central source of inspiration. My thanks also go to Dr. Fred Fletcher and Diane Jenner for their help over the years. This dissertation would not have been written without the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Ontario Graduate Studies Program, the Infoscape Lab at Ryerson University and the Canadian Media Research Consortium. Finally, my thanks go to my family for their support throughout the years and to my partner Michael Gayner, for his infinite patience.



COPYRIGHT....................................................................................................................ii CERTIFICATE................................................................................................................iii

ABSTRACT...................................................................................................................... iv

TABLE OF CONTENTS ............................................................................................... vii

LIST OF FIGURES ......................................................................................................... xi

LIST OF TABLES ......................................................................................................... xiv

Introduction: The Technocultural Dimensions of Meaning: Software Studies and the World Wide Web .....................................................................................................1

Chapter 1. Technology and Media: Towards a Technocultural Approach to the World Wide Web .........................................................................................................24 1. Towards a Material Approach to Media Analysis: Medium Theory and Materialities of Communication...................................................................... 27


2. Technologies as Actors: Actor-Network Theory, Cultural Studies and Medium Theory................................................................................................. 32 3. Analyzing Web Technologies: The Problem with Essentializing Medium Characteristics................................................................................................... 38 4. The Web as a Layered Technocultural Entity ................................................. 44 5. Technologies of the Web and the Question of Representation ....................... 47 6. Towards a Technocultural Approach to the Politics of Representation on the Web..................................................................................................................... 51

Chapter 2. Web Technologies, Language and Mixed Semiotics..................................60 1. The Technocultural Dimensions of Discourse.................................................. 61 2. Reconsidering Linguistics .................................................................................. 67 3. Mixed Semiotics .................................................................................................. 73 4. Mixed Semiotics and the Web............................................................................ 94 5. Introducing the Case Studies ........................................................................... 100 Case study 1: Adaptive interfaces and the production of subjectivities - the case of Amazon ....................................................................................................................... 102 Case Study 2: Mixed Semiotics and the Economies of the MediaWiki Format......... 103


Chapter 3. Cultural Objects and Software-Assisted Meaning Creation - The Case of Books on 1. and Mixed Semiotics.................................................................. 105 2. The Architecture of Data Processing as A-semiotic Encoding ........................................................................................................................... 118 3. Signifying Semiologies on Shaping the Cultural Perception of Meaning ........................................................................................................... 122 4. User-Produced Content: Meaning Proliferation and Cultural Homogeneity ........................................................................................................................... 149 5. A-Signifying Semiologies: Shaping Sociality and Individuality within a Commercial Space............................................................................ 167

Chapter 4. Mixed Semiotics and the Economies of the MediaWiki Format ............183 1. Technodiscursive Mediations and the Production of Wikipedia as a Technocultural Form...................................................................................... 185 2. The Circulation of the MediaWiki Software and the Rearticulation of Technical, Discursive and Cultural Domains............................................... 205 2.1 Cultural Formatting as the Rearticulation of Discursive Rules ............................ 211 2.2 A-signifying Processes and the Channeling of Cultural Formats......................... 226


Chapter 5. Conclusion: Meaning, Subjectivation and Power in the New Information Age...............................................................................................................................239 1. Rethinking the divide between Information and Meaning Production and Circulation through Mixed Semiotics Networks.......................................... 242 2. Mixed Semiotics and the Politics of Usership................................................. 253 3. Mixed semiotics and Software Studies............................................................ 264

Bibliography ...................................................................................................................269

LIST OF FIGURES Figure 1: The Web Stalker _______________________________________________ 10 Figure 2: The IssueCrawler ( 12 Figure 3: Cookies - Screen Capture of Mozilla Firefox Cookie Window 107 Figure 4: The Interface (Cookies Enabled) ______________________ 108 Figure 5: Personalization on Amazon.com__________________________________ 109 Figure 6: The Empire of Fashion _________________________________________ 116 Figure 7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows _____________________________ 117 Figure 8: A-semiotic and Signifying Processes on Amazon.com_________________ 121 Figure 9: Recommendations featured on the Empire of Fashion page. ____________ 127 Figure 10: Recommendations by Items Bought for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. ____________________________________________________________ 128 Figure 11: My Profile page on ______________________________ 129 Figure 12: Personalized Recommendations Based on Items Rated._______________ 130 Figure 13: Recommendations Based on Items Viewed for The Empire of Fashion __ 131 Figure 14: Recommendations based on Item Viewed for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. ____________________________________________________________ 133 Figure 15: Recommendation Network for the Empire of Fashion (depth 1). 28.March 2007. _______________________________________________________________ 137 Figure 16: Recommendation Network for the Empire of Fashion (depth 1 - subjects). 28 March 2007. _________________________________________________________ 138


Figure 17: Recommendation Network for The Empire of Fashion (depth 2). 28 March 2007. _______________________________________________________________ 139 Figure 18: Recommendation Network for The Empire of Fashion (depth 2 - subjects). 28 March 2007. _________________________________________________________ 140 Figure 19: Recommendation Network for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (depth 1). 27 March 2007. ____________________________________________________ 141 Figure 20: Recommendation Network for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (depth 1; subjects). 27 March 2007._____________________________________________ 142 Figure 21: Recommendation Network for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (depth 2). 27 March 2007. ____________________________________________________ 143 Figure 22: Recommendation Network for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (depth 2; subjects). 27 March 2007._____________________________________________ 144 Figure 23: Customer Reviews for Lipovetskys Empire of Fashion ______________ 154 Figure 24: Customer Discussions for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. ______ 154 Figure 25: Listmanias and So Youd Like To guides - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows _____________________________________________________________ 157 Figure 26: Harry Potter Tags. ___________________________________________ 160 Figure 27: Editorial Reviews for The Empire of Fashion_______________________ 163 Figure 28: Product Placement on Homepage _____________________ 164 Figure 29: Harry Potter Product Placement on the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Page________________________________________________________________ 164 Figure 30 - The Wikipedia Homepage _____________________________________ 194


Figure 31: Power Struggles on Wikipedia (Herr and Holloway, 2007) ____________ 202 Figure 32: Largest Mediawikis - Format ___________________________________ 213 Figure 33: ____________________________________________ 215 Figure 34: A Wikipedia Skin Clone _______________________________________ 216 Figure 35: A Mixed Skin Model__________________________________________ 216 Figure 36: A MediaWiki Site with a Different Skin than Wikipedia ______________ 217 Figure 37: Largest MediaWikis - Focus ____________________________________ 221 Figure 38: Largest MediaWikis - Intellectual Property Regimes _________________ 228 Figure 39: Largest MediaWikis - Intellectual Property Regimes Breakdown _______ 229 Figure 40: Largest MediaWikis - Advertising Breakdown______________________ 234



Table 1: Glossematics80 Table 2: Guattari and Glossematics...84 Table 3: Mixed Semiotics..87 Table 4: Amazon.coms Signifying Semiologies114 Table 5: Mixed Semiotics on Table 6: Mixed Semiotics and the Recommendation System on Table 7: Surfing Paths on Table 8: Mixed Semiotics and Users on Amazon.com161


Introduction The Technocultural Dimensions of Meaning: Software Studies and the World Wide Web Our mundane engagement with the Web is marked by the magic of instantaneous communication, by the possibility of having access to a wealth of information via screens and interfaces mimicking well-known cultural tropes (e. g. the home button, the page) as well as introduce new ways of accessing information that are unique to new media (e.g. hyperlinks and search boxes). Part of the magic of the Web is that it requires less and less computer literacy. The trend that has been exacerbated with the rise of the World Wide Web has been to involve less and less computer know-how through the proliferation of software capable of translating computer processes into recognizable cultural signs and commands. Meaning, then, becomes a problematic site of analysis in this new technocultural environment as it is mediated by software and circulates as both informational input and cultural sign. While the range of fields of study (linguistic, literature, cultural studies) as well as theories and methods (structural linguistics, literary analysis, discourse analysis, content analysis) available for the study of meaning seem to cover all the angles (linguistic, cultural, socio-political) through which meaning is shaped and communicated, there is a gap when it comes to recognizing the contribution of information and communication technologies, and software in particular, in the constitution of the communicative conditions within which the practices of meaningmaking and representation can take place. Indeed, a Web interface bridges the technical and cultural dimension of communication by translating data input into recognizable

cultural forms and meanings. For instance, when a server breaks down, when the Internet browser is outdated or missing a software component, we are forced to acknowledge that the production of meaning is not simply a cultural practice, but a technocultural one that also involves a specific set of materials and techniques. The interfaces that are presented to us on the Web are built through the conjunction of transmission protocols and software programs. This allows for the definition of specific conditions of meaning-making, that is, specific possibilities of expression. This research project is focused in particular on examining how specific possibilities of expression and practices of meaning-making arise within online spaces, and argues that while there exists a healthy body of research on the political, economic and legal importance of the protocols and codes that regulate processes of transmission (Lessig, 2005; Benkler, 2006; Galloway, 2004), more needs to be done with regards to examining how software-mediated semiotic processes serve to order specific communicational, cultural and social values and practices. As such, this research demonstrates how the technical, commercial and social forces that define online semiotic processes establish rules of meaning-making according to a set of power formations. Examining the processes of expression and practices of meaning-making online is important because they are not as direct and simple as taking a pen and writing on a piece of paper, even though it oftentimes feels like typing a letter (Fuller, 2003). Although it seems that, for users, blogs can be created with a few clicks, and image and sound can be easily uploaded onto websites such as Flickr or YouTube, the processes of expression on the Web engage a complex system of software - a series of commands given to a

computer either by human users or other software programs - in order to translate data input into meanings. This is made even more complex with the growing popularity of the Web as a form of cultural expression. Increasingly, using the Web does not simply mean reading a Web page or uploading media onto a Web page, but having software give meaningful feedback to users, for instance under the form of tailored content and targeted advertising. It is these changes in both the modes of expression and in the new forms of software-mediated communication available to users that are the focus of this study through an analysis of software that supports content production. These changes cannot be captured by conventional theories focused on the study of meaning, as they result from the introduction of new software systems whose processes are always hidden behind a cultural interface. The interface then, is double-edged. On the one hand, it is a product of software and on the other, it hides some software processes and highlights others. For instance, the process of surveillance and analysis through which targeted advertising can take place is not always visible to the user. Rather, targeted advertising appears on the screen as another form of the magic of instantaneous communication. The first step of this project is to make these hidden software processes apparent in order to examine the cultural, political and economic assumptions embedded in them. This, in turn, impacts what types of meanings-making practices can be used on the Web, and on how users can interact with meanings and with each other. By arguing for a technocultural conception of meaning on the Web, that is, for an analysis of the production and circulation of meaning that takes into account the specific material, technical and cultural milieu of the Web and in particular the role played by

software in the production and circulation of meaning, this research aims to renew and expand a general concern, within the field of communication studies, with the articulation between meanings and the social and cultural context. This research inscribes itself within the larger problematic originating with Foucault on the necessity to examine texts not only for the meanings that are embedded in them, but also for the ways in which the economies of meaning production and circulation reveal, create, influence and are influenced by social relations of power. Power, in this context, can be defined as not simply a repressive force, but a historically located set of dynamics and force relations that constitute a productive network which runs through the whole social body (Foucault, 1980b, p. 119). The main point is that texts and meanings do not simply express ideas and ideologies; they also existentialize modes of being, subjectivities, and identities. Such modes of existentialization take place at different levels: texts can participate in existentializing, in making real specific subjectivities through the process of representation, and texts can also existentialize specific relations between the producers and consumers of texts - between, for instance, authors and readers. In so doing the production of texts reinforces a social order that defines who has the right to speak about specific topics and how, as well as the proper ways to read a text, that is, the proper way of interpreting texts according to a specific cultural milieu. This research will show that meanings, as shown by Foucaults analysis of discourse, power and knowledge and as further investigated by Deleuze and Guattaris examination of collective assemblages of enunciation and diagrammatic machines, are not simply worth studying at the level of representation. Texts also participate in the

shaping of a social order. In that sense, the specific milieu within which texts are produced and consumed; the political, economic, social and cultural actors that make specific textual conditions possible all need to be examined in order to assess the articulations between the textual and the social, between meanings and culture. By no means are these articulations simple, and the present research argues that the examination of the milieu or context within which meanings are produced and put into circulation cannot limit itself to the social, especially in the case of the Web. As Kittler points out in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1997), the limit to Foucaults approach to discourse is that it fails to acknowledge the role played by technologies of communication through their intervention in the production, circulation and storing of meanings. Communication technologies directly intervene in the production and circulation of meanings by presenting a set of material limits and possibilities. As Harold Innis (1951), Marshall McLuhan (1996) and Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979) argued, the possibilities and limits of communication technologies have profound impacts in the organization of a social and political order. The present research argues that there is a link to be made between the study of the limits and potentials of communication technologies and the analysis of the articulation between the textual and a social order. This type of technocultural analysis is all the more central to the study of the Web as software constantly mediates all processes of signification. It is therefore important to examine how software is shaped by other technical, economic and political processes, and how it participates in the shaping of conditions of meaning production and circulation that define uses of the Web and, in so doing, establish new subjectivities and new relations of power. Thus, the software being

used for meaning production and circulation on the Web is central for examining the specific power relations that are formed on the Web. There already exists a body of research on the cultural impact of software known as software studies, which was originally coined by Lev Manovich in his book The Language of New Media (2001). As a nascent field of studies involving an interdisciplinary range of sources, software studies has garnered international attention, with an edited book entitled Software Studies: A Lexicon forthcoming in 2008 and a new research initiative in Software Studies directed by Manovich at the University of California - San Diego. Software studies is interdisciplinary and encompasses a wide range of approaches from philosophy to cultural studies, new media theory, communication studies and other social sciences approach. Software studies is about defining new methods, theories and tools for the study of the cultural, political, economic and social impact of software. In terms of its history, Manovichs original call for the development of a field of software study stemmed from the recognition that: New media calls for a new stage in media theory whose beginnings can be traced back to the revolutionary works of Harold Innis in the 1950s and Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s. To understand the logic of new media, we need to turn to computer science. It is there that we may expect to find the new terms, categories, and operations that characterize media that became programmable. From media studies, we move to something that can be called software studies - from media theory to software theory. (2001, p. 48, italics in the text) Manovich indicates that software studies cannot be considered as a subfield of media studies, but rather as a new field making use of the central theoretical questions in media studies in order to develop new approaches to the study of software. Furthermore, as

indicated by the direct reference to, on the theoretical level, the works of the Toronto school and medium theory and, on a practical level, the importance of the computer as a technical and material object, the research questions that define software studies go further than the analysis of the psychological, social and cultural contents present on interface. Rather, software studies encompasses both the interface and the unseen layers of programs that make the interface possible in order to explore the hermeneutic, social and cultural realities that appear as a consequence of new modes of representation, expression and meaning-making. There are strong links between software studies and media studies, particularly in the contention that technologies of communication play an important role in shaping cultural perceptions and in allowing for new forms of social relationships to emerge, as Manovich's acknowledgement of the importance of Innis and McLuhans approach demonstrates. The characteristic of software studies, according to Matthew Kirschenbaum (2003), is a focus on the material environment - the imbrication of technical apparatuses - in order to understand the rise of new cultural and social phenomena. For instance, as Kirschenbaum argues, rather than examining virtuality as a fully-fledged concept , a software studies approach would examine virtuality as a phenomenon that is the product of the articulation between material (i.e. technical processes) and cultural norms and practices. Software embodies the articulation between the cultural and the material, as well as the imbrication of culture and technology in that it includes the technical apparatus that enables and mediates new cultural representations and social relations. Software studies, as exemplified in the work of Matthew Fuller

(2003) and Wendy Huy Kyong Chun (2005), attempts to acknowledge both the construction of software - its cultural, political and technical economy - in order to examine what is culturally enabled, or disabled by software, as well as the ways in which software is further articulated within cultural, economic and political processes so as to create new technocultural environments. The study of software, in that sense, is the study of the technoculture produced when software systems are deeply embedded and constantly mediate culture (Williams, 1961), that is, ways of life, meanings, norms and practices. The inseparability between techniques and culture, between material apparatuses and norms, values, meanings, identities and ways of relating to each other, is at the core of software studies. The finality of software studies, then, is to offer a critical account of software through deconstructing the usually unquestioned economic, political and cultural logic embedded within software systems. This, as Fuller (2003) argues, allows for a critical reflexivity on the condition of being software - to go where it is not supposed to go, to look behind the blip; to make visible the dynamics, structures, regimes and drives of each of the little events it connects to (32). The reappropriation of software through this critical reflexivity includes experimentation with new forms of software to highlight the technocultural assumptions embedded in technical systems. In that sense there is a link between software studies and other approaches to studying the Internet, and the World Wide Web in particular, that focus on the question of the verticality of the Web (Elmer, 2006) and information politics (Rogers, 2004) to analyze cultural content on the Web. According to these approaches, the processes of transmission and mediation that takes place through information networks need to be

studied not only at the level of the front-end, that is, the human-understandable signs appearing on a screen, but also at the level of the back-end; the many layers of software that are needed, from transmission protocols to computer languages and programs, to transform data into signs (Rogers, 2004). The acknowledgment of the role played by technical specificities in making communication on the Web and the Internet possible has led to further attention to the visual regimes produced by specific technical characteristics of the Web, and to the ways in which these characteristics can be deconstructed. For instance, alternative ways of exploring the potential of the Web through the creation of alternative modes of surfing have been at the core of Geert Lovink and Mieke Gerritzens Browser Day Project1 and Matthew Fullers Web Stalker . Fullers experimental Web

Stalker (2003) - a Web browser that deconstructs the conventions embedded in popular Web browsers - represents a first attempt to overcome the page metaphor and to represent Web browsing in spatial terms, where URLs are represented as circles and hyperlinks as lines, with text and images collected in a separate window.

Figure 1: The Web Stalker

Fullers exploration, through the Web Stalker, of the cultural conventions embedded in software - how websites are usually perceived as a collection of pages and hyperlinks finds an echo in other social sciences and cultural studies approaches to the Web, which focus on examining the technical mediations of content on the Web in order to see the technodiscursive and technocultural rules that create specific flows of content. Such approaches were originally focused on hyperlinks, with the contention that hyperlinks are indicator of the absence or presence of relationships among entities on the Web (Park & Thelwall, 2005). For instance, Halavais and Garridos work (2003) on the hyperlink network of the Zapatista movement shows how the examination of linking patterns among websites gives strong clues as to the new relationships between the local and the


global and as to how social movements can be both focused on a single cause and exists in a decentralized manner. In a similar way, Rogers information politics argues for the tracking of hyperlinked content on the Web as way of examining the deployment of issue networks on the Web (2004). The IssueCrawler developed by the foundation directed by Richard Rogers functions by allowing researchers to enter a string of URL that are then crawled for their hyperlinks. The IssueCrawler departs from other hyperlink network analysis tools in that it looks for co-linkage rather than all the hyperlinks. That is, the goal of the IssueCrawler is to identify, starting from the list of hyperlinks generated from crawling the original URLs, which other organizations or URLs are linked to by at least two of the original URLs. Such an approach identifies the organizations serving as a reference points for other organizations and thus allows for the visualization of which issue nodes, or URLs that are the most important in a given issue network. Furthermore, the IssueCrawler can be used to identify which domains are linked to - whether educational (.edu), governmental (.gov), NGO (.org) or commercial (.com), as well as the geographic relationship between an event and the ways in which issues surrounding an event are discussed by organizations potentially located in other countries.


Figure 2: The IssueCrawler (

The analysis of the front-end and back-end of information politics has evolved further with the notion of code politics, where content needs to be located as a product of and as embedded within a series of technical mediations that express cultural, commercial and political processes. The Infoscape Lab at Ryerson University has focused on developing software tools to examine the code politics of the Web. Code politics involves not only hyperlinks, but also other markers, such as metatags and other HTML code which give information as to how web designers want their website to be perceived by search engines, as well as indications as to how information within websites is structured and through what means (i.e. open-source software rather than proprietary software). As such,


a code politics approach aims to further integrate questions related to content with the political economy of layers of codes, both within website and on the broader Web (Langlois and Elmer, 2007). A software studies approach to the Web involves a technocultural examination of the materiality of Web technologies in order to see how they articulate with cultural, political and economic processes, that is, how they translate, support and challenge new practices and power relationships. The present research belongs to a software studies framework in that it examines the materiality of software in charge of transmitting, mediating and producing human-understandable meanings appearing at the interface level. In so doing, the present research re-formulates the long-standing question about what constitutes the language of new media, and in particular, the language, or languages, of the Web. This question is not new, and there are a number of contributions within the field of software studies. Manovichs Language of New Media (2001) identified some unique characteristic, or principles of new media: numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability and transcoding. These principles serve as a basis on which to examine processes of cultural manipulation of objects through software as well as to distinguish software from the older media forms. In particular, these principles of software highlight the ease of manipulation of data offered by software - the seeming simplicity of manipulating images, sounds and videos so that any user can do tasks that used to be delegated to specialists within the old media context. Software, in that sense, does not simply mimic the old, and there is a tension between software as remediation of other media (Bolter & Grusin, 1999) and the radically new modes of technical production


that are needed to give the impression that software is embedded within traditional mediated forms of perception. The limits of Manovich's (2001) approach paradoxically lies in the size of its scope. Manovich identifies principles across new media, that is, across a range of technologies from the Internet, through the Web to video games and digital art forms. While invaluable in providing some core principles of new media, this approach is limited in that there is a need to examine, in turn, the communicative characteristics, cultural practices and context that differentiate between, for instance, communication across computer networks, as opposed to watching a digital movie. Furthermore, the finalities of new media forms, whether they are inscribed within an artistic, open-source or commercial logic have to be acknowledged, as they participate in the shaping of technocultural contexts. In the same vein, Bolter and Grusins exploration of the processes of remediation (1999) between new media and old media is central in establishing a genealogy of new media in terms of the continuities and ruptures with old media, but it remains focused in establishing characteristic at a general level. The transition from a general examination of new media to a more focused examination of software - of the deployment of technical components that are unique to new media - constitutes a first step in refining our understanding of the ways in which software shapes a technocultural milieu. Wendy Chuns (2005) exploration of the historic and theoretical genealogy of software highlights the ways in which the analysis of software includes both a focus on the materiality of software as well as a consideration of its social and cultural consequences. As a departure from new media approaches, Chuns exploration of software as a technical and material process through which social


relationships are redefined and new modes of cultural perceptions are developed involves not only an exploration of what is embedded in software, but also of the ways in which software is articulated with other social, cultural, political, economic and legal processes. As Chun (2005) demonstrates, these two levels of analysis - the social relationships and the cultural perceptions organized through the deployment of software - are not separate. It is possible to focus ones analysis primordially on the ways in which political, economic and legal processes are articulated with software in order to produce new social relationships, such as the reorganization of the workplace. For instance, Adrian MacKenzies (2006) exploration of the Java programming language highlights the many levels at which the deployment of a particular software program involves a multitude of actors, from other software programs to industry incentives and programmers. Alternatively, it is possible to analyze the cultural perceptions embedded in software technologies, as Manovich (2001) does. However, the acknowledgment that software both produces and is produced by other cultural and social processes, that is, that software technocultural milieus are the products of many articulations rather than resulting from either technological or social determinism, highlights the complexity of software and poses new theoretical and methodological challenges. In that sense, it becomes difficult to explore changes in cultural perceptions without examining how the capacities embedded in software are in turn articulated with social, political and economic practices. For instance, it is difficult to understand the importance of data manipulation through remixing and sampling without examining how new practices of producing sounds, images and texts challenge traditional conceptions of the work of art,


authorship and intellectual property as well as create new artistic processes and new processes of circulation and consumption of cultural objects (Lessig, 2005). Software, including the cultural perceptions embedded in software, mobilizes a range of processes and both shapes and is shaped by these processes. The theoretical complexity of software as both product of and producing a technocultural context is further enhanced by the difficulty of examining tightly imbricated software programs. Software, in a sense, has also become too broad a term. Software encompasses different levels from what happens when objects are manipulated at the interface level to the automated programming processes that are invisible to the users and take place without user intervention. The difficulty of identifying software (Chun, 2005, p. 28), lies in this very imbrication, in the process through which a software program relies on another software program in order to function. Furthermore, while software was originally associated with one communication device (i.e., the computer), it has now been deployed onto other communication devices that are used within vastly different contexts. While the cell phone is turning more and more into a mini-computer, its context of use is still different from a desktop or a laptop. There are thus several technocultural contexts within which software can be deployed, and it becomes increasingly difficult to be able to encompass all of these contexts, with their specific technical, social and cultural processes. The present research focuses on a specific layer of software within the technocultural context of the World Wide Web. The main research question is about how software components in charge of promoting and producing content and of facilitating users in producing their own content on the Web create new


discursive and cultural practices and meanings as well as are articulated and captured by other technical, economic and political processes that are present on the Web. In so doing, the scope of the research is not on software in general, or even software on the Web, but rather on the software components that have a linguistic purpose so that they are primarily designed to produce content or facilitate content production. In so doing, this research is focused on exploring the relationships between software and users, that is, on how the user as a category with a specific field of cultural values, norms and practices is produced through specific Web technocultural contexts. As Chun (2005) argues, software is ideology in that the interface produces specific modes of representations that shape modes of activity, and thus users: Software, or perhaps more precisely operating systems, offer us an imaginary relationship to our hardware: they do not represent transistors, but rather desktops and recycling bins. Software produces users. Without OS there would be no access to hardware; without OS no actions, no practices, and thus no user. (p. 43) Accounts on the importance of operating systems and desktop programs such as Microsoft Word have been invaluable in pointing out how software allows for the cloaking of data processes and signals through the use of common metaphors of desktop and file folders (Kittler, 1997; Fuller, 2003; Johnson, 1999; Chun, 2005). The World Wide Web has come under the same scrutiny, although most research from a software studies paradigm has come to be outdated in that it focuses on the HTML environment. While HTML is still used for website development, it is more and more replaced by other


languages or included within other software programs (i.e. XHTML, ASP, PHP).2 These technical developments that have taken place over the past few years need to be taken into account, especially as the majority of these new languages to support content on the Web have been focused on making it easier for users with no HTML knowledge to post content on the Web and thus to participate in the shaping of online spaces through, for instance, blogs and wikis. Another characteristic of these languages that is central to this study is the capacity for websites to update content in a dynamic way, that is, to evolve and change content depending on the surfing behaviour of a specific user. The customization of content - customized news, customized shopping suggestions - has also been a growing trend on the Web, and there is thus a vast amount of software studies research to do on these new technological, economic and cultural trends. While there is an ever-growing amount of studies on the social use of blogs, wikis, participatory websites, news groups, and social networks,3 there are comparatively less software studies analyses of the changes in Web content creation over the past few years. As such, there is a need to address the role played by software that supports content production in shaping new signifying practices. The present study aims to offer a first step towards such an analysis by focusing on two case studies of two popular formats that embody differing cultural, technological, economic and political conceptions of the Web and of Web users. The first format is the For a history of Web languages, particularly those related to dynamic content production, see: 3 See for instance, a 2007 special issue on the social uses of social networks from the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication:


one offered by, and the second one is based on the MediaWiki software package, which has been used to produce popular open-source collaborative online spaces such as Wikipedia. Both formats are vastly different in terms of the Web languages and software they use and in terms of their economic model, as is a for-profit enterprise whereas MediaWiki is part of an open-source, not-for-profit model. However, they are similar in that they rely on user-produced content, either to have an extensive database of user-produced reviews and ratings about cultural products in the case of, or to produce a large repository of knowledge, in the case of Wikipedia and other wikis. This requires the use of software to facilitate content creation and to update website content in an almost instantaneous manner. Furthermore, the popularity of both and MediaWiki spaces such as Wikipedia does not simply lie in their capacity to attract users and be a popular shopping space or a popular informational space, but also in the ways through which they have developed specific models that are used elsewhere on the Web. Amazon and MediaWiki exist in different languages and local versions. Amazon inc. has also been developing solutions for online shopping that are used by other online retailers. It also makes use of advertising networks and has developed an online presence on other popular Web spaces, such as Facebook. The MediaWiki software package is being used by countless wikis, both on the Web and by private Intranet networks. Following Chuns (2005) exploration of software as ideology, the starting point of this research lies in the examination of the types of cultural and communicational practices that are enabled by the software used by these formats and, in turn, of how these software layers shape the role of users as agents and actors


within commercial and non-commercial representational spaces. As will be explained in this study, the idea is not to consider that only software as an unproblematic entity, but to recognize that it is itself the product of complex technical, commercial and political articulations. This study argues for a way of locating the interactions and articulations between cultural, technical, social, political and economic actors in the shaping of representational spaces and their users. To summarize, examining the technocultural dimensions of meaning requires an acknowledgement of the networks of power that traverse specific Web spaces and shape cultural, discursive and technical agents such as software layers and users. There are several difficulties in realizing such an analysis. The first challenge lies in finding a theoretical framework to take into account the technocultural role played by technical devices such as software, but in a way that recognizes that software both shapes and is shaped by a range of processes, and therefore that the cultural representations and discursive rules that are mediated by software are embedded within complex power networks. The goal, in short, is to avoid falling into either technological determinism or social constructionism. As will be argued in Chapter One, a problem in analyzing the effects of software stems from an over-reliance on medium theory. While medium theory is useful, particularly with its focus on the materiality of communication technologies as central for understanding the social and cultural changes introduced by the development of a new medium, the framework it offers is not adapted to the specificity of software, which I argue is built through a system of layers involving different types of technical tools and cultural logics. Furthermore, the complexity of software as both shaping and


shaped by technocultural processes cannot be explained through a medium theory framework, which too often attempts to identify one essential feature of a medium rather than acknowledge, in the case of software, its composition as layers. As will be argued in the first chapter, a starting point for further enriching software theory is Actor-network theory (ANT), which offers ways to explore how technical and human actors are deployed through their articulations with each other within actor-networks. Actornetwork theory has gained popularity in the field of the cultural studies of technology and communication technologies (Slack & Wise, 2002) and within the field of software studies (McKenzie, 2006). Its framework for exploring the constitution of networks of human and non-human actors with delineated sphere of agencies offers a robust model for which to explore the Web as constructed through layers of software. Technocultural analyses of meanings from a software studies perspective can benefit from the framework developed by actor-network theory. However, ANT falls short of offering a model through which to study networks of actors at the semiotic and discursive levels, which is what the study aims to achieve. As ANT has traditionally not been concerned with techno-semiotic systems, there needs be a new theoretical and methodological framework to complement it. Chapter Two argues that Felix Guattaris mixed semiotics framework can be used to examine the technocultural formation of semiotic systems. Guattaris mixed semiotics framework was developed in reaction to structuralist linguistic frameworks, and argues that processes of meaning formation cannot be simply studied through an analysis of signs, but also through an exploration of processes that are beyond and below signs, such as material processes and a whole field


of power relations. Adapted to the study of software-assisted meaning production and circulation, such a framework allows for the identification of the technocultural and technocommercial processes that make use of and participate in the shaping of the cultural Web interface. Chapter Three and Chapter Four identify some of these processes through a case study analysis of and In particular, the processes that are identified within the mixed semiotics framework concern the encodings of the material intensities of the Web - particularly users surfing pattern - so as to develop new semiotic systems and new a-signifying systems that impose discursive and signifying rules and modes of subjectivation onto users. ANT complements this framework by allowing for a mapping of the shaping of the agency of both commercial and non-commercial human and non-human actors that participate in the deployment of specific software layers and are in turn embedded and redefined within software-produced mixed semiotics. The analysis of shows how the deployment of software tools to track, shape and predict the desires of users raises questions related to the automated production of identities and subjectivities. In particular, the analysis developed in Chapter Three highlights the process through which user-produced meanings are incorporated within software-produced semiotic systems so as to embed cultural processes within a commercial imperative. The analysis of the circulation of the Mediawiki software in Chapter Four shows how the circulation of the MediaWiki software package through Wikipedia and other websites model is not only cultural, but also technical as mass collaborative knowledge production depends on a suite of software tools - the wiki


architecture - that enables new discursive practices. In particular, Wikipedia is the result of a set of articulations between technical and cultural processes, and the case study shows that this model is captured, modified and challenged by other websites using the same wiki architecture as Wikipedia. The chapter also highlights how legal and technical processes on the Web appropriate discursive practices by capitalizing on user-produced content as a source of revenue. Chapter Five synthesizes the research by highlighting the relevance of mixed semiotics and ANT in identifying some of the power formations that make use of cultural meanings and the semiotic systems within which these cultural meanings can be shaped and communicated. The shaping of a cultural horizon through the deployment of a specific set of techniques is one of the central concerns in the development of the Web, particularly as it involves a complex set of relationships between the front-end of the interface and the back-end of data gathering, storing and processing. The study of the interface through mixed semiotics and ANT thus reveals the ways in which the interface can be used to both shape the category of the user and hide the power formations and informational processes that intervene directly in this process of shaping. The use of the mixed semiotics framework allows for a reassessment of the articulations between informational process and cultural dynamics that intervene in defining a horizon of subjectivation - that is, a set of practices with which human actors are forced to articulate themselves in order to exist as users.


Chapter 1 Technology and Media: Towards a Technocultural Approach to the World Wide Web Examining the technocultural dimensions of meaning, and in particular the role played by software in creating specific technocultural conditions and relations of power to regulate meaning circulation and production requires a detour by ways of defining what I mean by a technocultural approach to the Web. It is necessary to examine the Web as a technoculture, that is, as a site that is defined through the imbrication and articulations of technical possibilities and constrains within cultural practices and power formations. The aim of this chapter is to understand the particularities of the Web as a technocultural context. The main challenge in studying the Web is best problematized in Lev Manovichs statement that new media appear when the computer is not just a calculator, control mechanism or communication device, but becomes a media processor, a media synthesizer and manipulator (2001, p. 25-26). That is, the Web is not simply a technology, even though it is relying on complex set of techniques, from hardware to software. As a medium, it is also deploys a cultural process that mobilizes users, languages and representations. The main question for this chapter is about taking into account the relationship between technology and culture as they surface through the Web. There is a need to develop a theoretical framework capable of taking into account the articulations that defines technocultural networks and shape a medium such as the World Wide Web.


There have been numerous studies of the Web as a medium. Political economy approaches have been useful in demonstrating the shaping of the Internet and the World Wide Web by the market and the state (Lessig, 1999; McChesney, 2000; Mosco, 2004). At the level of content, methodologies such as content analysis and discourse analysis have been adapted to examine the meanings propagated through websites and Web spheres and new methodologies such as hyperlink analysis (Garrido and Halavais, 2003) have been developed to examine Web-specific textual characteristics. Methodologies drawing on ethnography have been reworked to analyze the social consequences and uses of those textual characteristics (Hines, 2000; Schneider and Foot, 2004). This non-comprehensive list of the types of research that are being undertaken for the study of the World Wide Web have managed to partly adapt Stuart Halls classic definition of a cultural studies approach to communication (1980). Indeed, Halls focus on the encoding and decoding of messages invites us to explore the relationships between frameworks of knowledge, relations of production and the technical infrastructures that shape media messages. Cultural Studies approaches to technology have successfully demonstrated that the study of content cannot be separated from the social, political and economic context of communication. In turn, it is necessary to acknowledge that technologies of communication are not simply carriers of content, but are parts of complex technocultural entities that participate in the material constitution of discourse. As is suggested by Jennifer Daryl Slacks invitation to focus on the interrelated conditions within which technologies exist (1989, p. 329), the analysis of the Web as a social space of representation and discourse requires an examination of its material and


technological basis. This chapter argues that the challenge in understanding the Web as a medium lies in the acknowledgement of the Web as a layered technocultural entity, as an assemblage of diverse technical tools, from the hardware, electric signals, algorithms, and protocols of communication to the software, interface and sites of representation they offer. The analysis of these layers needs to go beyond the categories of hardware and software shaped by users. In order to see how these layers are made to act as a medium, it is necessary to not treat them as separate, hierarchized entities. Rather, this research calls for considering the links between these layers through an analysis of the junctures where technocultural agencies are negotiated and mediated. The research uses a variety of theoretical approaches in order to acknowledge the complexity of the Web as a medium, a set of technologies, a cultural form and a space where discursive formations are produced. A comparison between medium theory (Innis 1951, McLuhan 1995, Meyrowitz 1993, 1994) and material analyses of communication (Kittler 1990; 1997, Hayles 1993; 2003; 2004, Hansen 2000, Gumbrecht 2004, Galloway 2004) highlights the general problematic in studying the characteristics of a medium: the roles played by technologies not only in shaping new modes of representation, but more importantly in shaping cultural changes and new social relations. The problem, then, becomes one of analyzing the Web as a complex technocultural assemblage. Actornetwork theory provides the theoretical basis through which cultural studies, medium theory and material analyses of new media and the Internet can be re-evaluated and adapted to take into account the cultural effects of Web technologies.


1. Towards a Material Approach to Media Analysis: Medium Theory and Materialities of Communication

The present research examines the World Wide Web as a medium, and not as a set of information and communication technologies. This is not meant to deny the importance of technologies. On the contrary, treating the Web as a medium means conceptualizing it as an entity, as an agent and not as a neutral tool that faithfully mirrors social and cultural processes without in some ways distorting and changing them. In order to examine the relationships between media, technology and discourse, it is necessary to establish a working definition of the concept of medium. Ian Angus usefully argues that a medium is not simply a technology, but the social relations within which a technology develops and which are re-arranged around it (1998). A medium, then, is the space where technology, social relations and cultural processes are articulated. A medium is a communication system, that is, an information delivery system that, according to Meyrowitz, creates new social environments and is thus active in bringing social change (1986, p. 15). Perhaps the most satisfying definition for the purpose of this study is to adopt Kittlers scientific definition of media as forms of data storage and transmission (1996). This definition expresses a theoretical shift in the examination of the cultural impacts of media systems. By referring to data storage and transmission, this definition calls upon a transmission model of communication rather than the more accepted ritualistic model of communication (Carey, 1975) used for cultural analyses of communication. This definition highlights the importance of the technical capacities of a medium, and links them to the qualitative question of the form 27

of the medium. This definition shows that the cultural characteristics of a medium are linked to its technical capacities. What the medium can or cannot transmit and how it transmits information is crucial for understanding the kinds of social relationships and power dynamics that can be developed through a specific media system. Medium theory is a central reference for examining the impact of media systems within the field of communication and cultural studies. Medium theory has its roots in the works of the Toronto school, particularly those of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, who developed a way of writing about western civilization by focusing on the media not only as technical appurtenances to society, but as crucial determinants of the social fabric (Carey, 1968, p. 271). Innis and McLuhan illustrate two ways of focusing on the cultural impact of media: while Innis (1951) paid attention to the social and political transformations brought about by media technologies, McLuhan (1995) interrogated the physical and psychological impact of media. Innis (1951) argued that writing and print create the possibility of greater territorial expansion and control, thus allowing for the creation of political and economic empires that control vast expanses of space. This space bias of writing and print also has consequences for the ways in which knowledge is defined in terms of abstraction and universality. McLuhan (1995) argued that the sensory imbalance towards sight that is created by writing produces a cultural definition of knowledge based on continuity, sequence, and rationalization. Both Innis and McLuhan focused on the technical capacities of a medium such as print in order to flesh out some of its cultural consequences. Such an approach that reintegrates technologies within the study of media can be found in works focusing on new media and new information


technologies. Paul Virilio (2000), as well as Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein (1994), can be considered as affiliated to medium theory, as their analyses of communication networks and of the proliferation of media highlights the rise of an ideology of speed and virtualization, where the boundaries between reality and virtual reality is constantly blurred. Other scholars who do not particularly affiliate themselves with medium theory nevertheless reintegrate an analysis of different technological components for understanding the cultural impact of new media. Galloway (2004), for instance, examines the protocols of the Internet, such as TCP/IP, with regards to the power dynamics they create through comparing the technological concept of protocol with Deleuzes societies of control (1992) and Foucaults bio-politics. Galloways Protocol (2004) departs from more common analyses of information technologies focused on social uses. It participates in the resurgence of the material turn in communication studies, especially in its analysis of new media that have been described as dematerialized and dematerializing (Kitzmann, 2005). The theoretical need for an analysis of the material aspects of new media is best expressed by Sean Cubitt, who argues that in the half-acceptance of a view that they in some way effectively dematerialize the older media, we have intellectually betrayed the digital media (2000, p. 87). The concept of materiality echoes and expands the main concern developed by medium theory in that it allows for a focus on the technical and material characteristics of a medium in order to assess its diverse impacts, from the question of embodiment (Hayles 1993, 1994, 1999) to that of political and cultural practices (Kittler 1990; 1997, Galloway, 2004). One of the common features between


medium theory and material analyses is that the medium is seen as an agent of change. Kittlers reference to Nietzsches comment about his use of a typewriter: our writing tools are also working on our thoughts (1997, p. 200) illustrates the importance of specific technologies of writing. What Nietzsches example shows, for Kittler, is that the typewriter changed the nature of writing. In the same vein, Hayles work is characterized by the recognition that that the arrival of new media and electronic literature undermines the supremacy of print (2003). By challenging print, new media also point at the limits of scholarly approaches that took the print media ecology as a given. Medium theory and material analyses of communication both offer a common set of research questions on the cultural impact of media. Furthermore, a common assumption, or theoretical move is their distanciation from the question of content. As Meyerowitz describes it, medium theory is focused on examining the relatively fixed characteristics of a medium that make it physically, psychologically, and sociologically different from other media, regardless of content and grammar choice (1993, p. 61), that is, regardless of the message being transmitted and the rhetorical effects being used. In so doing, the approach developed by medium theory tends to ignore questions of content. As McLuhan famously declared: the medium is the message - what is actually transmitted is not content but psychological, physiological and social effects produced by the capacities of different media. In the same vein, material analyses that are derived from the Humanities (Kittler, Hayles, Hansen) operate a similar distanciation between media and their content. Theoretically, such a move corresponds to a reaction against hermeneutics. As Wellbery


describes it in the preface to Kittlers Discourse Networks , hermeneutic theory conceives of interpretation as our stance in being: we cannot but interpret, we are what we are by virtue of acts of interpretation. Hence the universality claim of hermeneutics, its claim to the position of queen of the sciences (1990, p. ix). In that sense, the material turn in communication points out the limits in the study of meanings to understand cultural processes. Gumbrechts Production of Presence (2003) offers a historical account of the beginnings of the materialities of communication movement within the humanities in the 1970s. As Gumbrecht recalls, concepts such as materiality and the non-hermeneutic were developed against the universality claim of interpretation (p. 2). Rather, by repositioning the role of technologies of communication, material analysis aims to demonstrate that the possibility of meaning production is contingent on the technologies of communication available. Hansen (2000) goes a step further in separating technology (including technologies of communication) from text and discourse. Hansen posits technology as a radical other, a second nature that impacts us on a primordial psychological and physical level. In so doing, Hansen rejects culturalist approaches to technology by arguing for an understanding of the experiential impact of technology. Hansens argumentation rests upon a critique of the equation between technology and discourse. His key concept of technesis is meant to represent the putting into discourse of technology (p. 20). For Hansen, technology does not belong to the discursive, but to the real. Hansen not only shares a similar view as McLuhan in that he dismisses the study of the content of media messages, but more importantly, by rejecting the equation of technology as discourse,


that is, as a carrier of cultural meanings, Hansen attempts to avoid the reduction of technology as an extension of the human mind. For Hansen, only looking for the meanings and cultural values carried by technologies means positing that technology is, to some extent, a social construction. On the contrary, Hansen argues that the impact of technology takes place before the formation of discourse, at the experiential level. Such a rejection of interpretation and discourse to understand technology is not only meant to define new theoretical and research questions, but more importantly offers a critique of the philosophical treatment of technology through a new definition of technology as a second nature (p. 234). Technology is not a tool anymore, but a material force and an agent. As the various authors cited above show, the theoretical move deployed through the focus on the question of materiality consists of extending the field of the Humanities through dealing with research questions about the role of technology that were usually the focus of other fields of research, such as science and technology studies (STS), while abandoning traditional concerns with the question of content. Materiality studies and medium theory see technologies as active in bringing social, cultural and psychological change. The subsequent question is about how to trace these agencies, and this is where Actor-network theory can bring some useful theoretical contributions.

2. Technologies as Actors: Actor-Network Theory, Cultural Studies and Medium Theory The development of an analysis of the technocultural materiality of the World


Wide Web stems from the recognition that in order to examine the Web as a medium, it is necessary to focus on the technical mediations that make discourse possible. This demands a conceptualization of the role played by technologies. The methods developed by Actor-network theory are central to this conceptualization. As indicated by its name, Actor-network theory examines the relationships among the actors that form sociotechnical networks. The term actor designates not only the human actors in charge of implementing these systems, but also non-human actors, such as technologies, institutions and discourses (Latour, 1999 pp. 174-215). ANT was developed as a form of ethnomethodology within the field of Science and Technology Studies, and has been mainly used to describe scientific processes (Latour, 1999) and the implementation of technologies, from transportation systems (Latour, 1996) to information systems (Avgerou et al., 2005). Cultural Studies approaches to technology have engaged with ANT, especially in the works of Wise and Slack (Wise, 1997; Slack, 1989; Slack & Wise 2002). These types of cultural studies of technology and ANT share a common set of key theoretical inspirations, among which the rejection of the modernist paradigm that establishes hermetic and essentialist categories; i.e. technology vs. society, nature vs. culture (Latour, 1993; Wise, 1997). The framework offered by ANT recognizes the complexity of assemblages of human and non-human actors through an acknowledgement of the limits of modernist categories. Latour (1993) uses the concept of hybrid to show the impossibility of separating technology, science, nature, culture and society. To use the example of the Web, the concept of hybridity underlines that the Web is not simply a technology, but is also a cultural artifact and a political and economic


entity. The usefulness of ANT within a Cultural Studies framework lies in the development of analytical tools to account for the multiple facets of this socio-technical network. Furthermore, ANTs insistence that technological entities should be considered as actors alongside human and other non-human actors leads to a critical assessment of the concept of causality (Wise, 1987, pp. 9-13). One of the most provocative examples in the examination of human and non-human actors is Latours Aramis, or the Love of Technology (1996), which consists not only of a description of the relationship between the different institutional bodies and human actors that were in charge of implementing a failed transportation system, but also of giving voice to the technology itself. What Latour suggests is that the relationship between social agents and technical actors is not mono-causal, but reciprocal and multicausal, thus echoing the concept of articulation as developed by cultural studies (Slack, 1996; Grossberg, 1996; 1987). What we see as mere technological objects offer constraints and possibilities, and as such are best defined as actors who develop spaces of agencies. For ANT, the risk in focusing solely on the social agents and cultural processes that shape technologies is to fall into some form of social determinism, where technology is seen as a receptacle for social processes (Latour, 1993, p. 55). The kind of analysis that ANT promotes seeks to open the black box - the many elements that are made to act as one (Latour, 1987, p. 131) - in order to examine the network of the many actors that constitute it. ANT invites us to see the Web not as a computer network, but as a socio-technical network that assembles human and non-


human actors; computer developers, hardware, technical standards and protocols, institutional bodies that regulate the architecture of the Web, software and software developers, and users. As Latour and Callon (1981, p. 286, cited in Slack and Wise, 2002, p. 489) argue, the concept of actor encompasses any elements which bends space around itself, makes other elements dependent upon itself and translate their will into a language of its own. In tracing the flows of agency that define the actors and their space of agency within a network (Slack & Wise, 2002, p. 489), the approach developed by ANT is reminiscent of the cultural studies concept of articulation as the nonnecessary connections of different elements that, when connected in a particular way, form a specific unity (Slack, 1989, p. 331). Furthermore, ANT enriches the concept of articulation by defining it as a process of mediation and translation (Latour, 1999, pp. 174-215). These terms are used to describe the process of distortion of cultural, social and political ideals when they are embodied through a specific technology. A whole socio-technical network is composed through the processes of delegating tasks to non-human actors. Translation does not mean direct correlation: while the technology being created is supposed to answer to these specific cultural, social and political ideals, there is no guaranteed equivalence between technique and ideals. The characteristic of the technology itself, and the setting in which it is added make these equivalencies problematic. Through the translation of ideals into technologies, meanings change and evolve. The socio-technical hybrid that is being produced represents a process of mediation, where the original meaning is changed through its material implementation. Latour uses the example of the speed bump to


illustrate the process through which, by delegating a goal (slow down traffic) to a nonhuman actor (the speed bump), the original meaning is changed from slow down so as not to endanger people to slow down and protect your car suspension (Latour, 1999, 186-87). The effect might be the same, but the meaning has changed. At the same time, Cultural Studies can complement ANT by reincorporating the question of power into ANTs analytical framework (Wise, 1987, pp. 33-36), through a focus on the broad ideological, economic and political matrix or context within which an actor network is being developed. As ANT has been developed partly in reaction to macro-analyses that give all agency to ideology and the economy, to the extent that it has failed recognize the large-scale effects that are created through the stabilization of power relations. ANT needs to be adapted to answer questions related to the rise of media. Indeed, one of the central questions that remains to be examined about what happens once Web technologies, which are extremely standardized and automated, are deployed throughout society so that they do not solely belong to their creators, but materializes in specific cultural process. How do these technological layers are made to act as a specific medium? A comparison between ANT and medium theory becomes necessary. There is a similarity between ANT and medium theory in the acknowledgement that technologies are not neutral or passive, but rather active in promoting change and establishing new social relationships. However, there are strong differences between ANT and medium theory. Medium theory has been focused on large-scale social change through the deployment of different media technologies, while ANT, an ethnomethodology (Latour,


1997), has traditionally been focused on more localized phenomena. Rather than attempting to establish a broad picture of the social impact of the Internet, research that uses ANT has focused on the development of a particular information system within a specific organization (see, for instance, Avgerou et al. 2005). Furthermore, ANT is also characterized by its rejection of pre-existing frameworks and categories in favour of learning from the actors without imposing on them an a priori definition of their worldbuilding capacities (Latour, 1997, p. 20). One of the fundamental differences between ANT and medium theory lies in the problem of technological determinism. While Innis work has been critically assessed as focusing on the cultural consequences of the conjunctures of media technologies and social, political and economic processes (Buxton, 1998; Wernick, 1999), medium theory, particularly the work of McLuhan, has been criticized for the ways in which it ignores the institutional and cultural context that foster the development of specific media forms to the detriment of others (Williams, 1975; Meyrowitz, 1994, p. 70). In the case of a medium theory approach to the Internet, charges of technological determinism have surfaced against the idea that computer networks have ushered in a new cultural order. McLuhans global village, for instance, has been revived to express some of the potentialities of information technologies in terms of reorganizing not only modes of communication, but also social relationships and knowledge. These types of utopian and dystopian discourses have been rightly criticized for their failure to take into account the context within which new technologies are developed (Mosco, 2004). Common criticisms, however, do not so much deny that


communication technologies have an impact, but rather show that there is a need to distinguish between the ideological discourses that are constructed around technologies, the ways in which technologies are appropriated by social and economic forces, and the ways in which technologies sometime resist these appropriations and create new possibilities. ANTs invitation to examine in detail and without a priori the relationships that form the networks within which new information technologies are located opens the way for a recognition of the complex and paradoxical effects of media technologies. For instance, the Web might be seen as yet another outlet for media giants (McChesney, 2000), at the same time as it offers the possibility for people to express themselves and reach audiences through online forums and blogging. Through the mapping of the flows of agency that circulate between human and technological actors within specific contexts, ANT helps us recognize that there might not be a simple pattern to the relationships between media and culture. 3. Analyzing Web Technologies: The Problem with Essentializing Medium Characteristics It seems difficult, then, to establish any links between ANT and medium theory, which can be characterized as an attempt to find the essential features of media technologies regardless of their contexts of use and deployment. However, going back to the limits of ANT with regards to the acknowledgement of broader structures of power mentioned above, there is a need to recognize that although there are problems with essentializing approaches to media, there are some stable features that are established overtime. For instance, the uses of the Web might be paradoxical, but representational 38

forms on the Web are fairly harmonized through Web protocols and design conventions. This leads us back to the question of the ways in which the technological layers of the Web offer a certain range of possibilities and delineate the fields of agencies within which they are articulated. A medium theory approach to the World Wide Web calls for an examination of the technical characteristics of the World Wide Web and the ways in which these characteristics offer new cultural possibilities. Medium theory invites us to explore not only what is beyond the surface of Web representations--the social context--but also what is below--the hardware and software that shape what we see on our computer screens as mediated messages. For instance, Kittlers concept of discourse network invites us to consider the technical processes of specific forms of communication in order to uncover the ways in which the machinery of computer networks shapes knowledge according to specific technico-cultural rules. Adapting such an analytical framework to the Web, then, demands an acknowledgement of the complex processes of computing in terms of their ability to create specific possibilities of communication. The examination of these possibilities as they are expressed on and through the Web raises the question of how we should apprehend the problem of technological layers. The web is, after all, only a service allowing for hypertextual communication that makes use of the communication infrastructure offered by the Internet. The Internet, in turn, allows for communication between computers through the definition of specific protocols. At its basis, the Internet makes use of common computing principles that transform electric signals into binary code which are then processed through algorithms


and Boolean algebra. In that sense, it is possible to see the Web as the extension of basic computing principles at a global level. A medium theory approach to the World Wide Web can then be defined as focused on the cultural and philosophical values embedded in these basic computing principles. For instance, Kien underlines that the philosophical works on logic by Leibniz and Boole are at the basis of computer engineering (2002, p. 29-30). The computer as the embodiment of Leibnizs and Booles scientific methods for assessing truth through the use of monist rationality propagates a new way of seeing the world by transforming everything into arbitrary symbolic signs that can be subjected to a series of calculations. As Bolter argues, the translation of information into digital code that can be manipulated through algorithms tends to erase the dividing line between nature and the artificial (1984, p. 218). Computing principles, then, invite us to conjure the world and ourselves as data that can be logically analyzed. As Lister et al. argue, the principle of digitization is important since it allows us to understand how the multiple operations involved in the production of media texts are released from existing only in the material realm of physics, chemistry and engineering and shift into a symbolic computational realm (2003, p. 16). This can be seen as an extension of Bolters argument that computing fosters a blurring of the natural and the artificial. The idea of dematerialization, which is often referred to in characterizing digitization, offers an illustration of this. Dematerialization can be taken as problematic and paradoxical in that it does not mean the absence of material supports for representation, but rather points to the new material relationships that are established between content and hardware. Computing dematerializes representations through a


series of calculation in order to make them readable on a range of devices (computers, PC or Mac, PDAs). A digital picture, then, is not something produced by a camera through chemical processes, but a representation that samples the real and that can be easily manipulated. What the concept of dematerialization highlights is that the status of images, and similarly videos, audio pieces and texts--is different when mediated by computers. Manovich offers an illustration of the importance of the binary code when he defines the five principles of new media as numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability and transcoding (1999, pp. 27-48). What these principles suggest is that the production of representations through computers makes representations malleable through the artifice of the binary code. Consequently, the question that is raised relates to the status of ordinary language itself as it is processed through and mediated by computer languages. An illustration of this is the new problematic that is raised by the production of signs through computing. Following Saussure (1983), the sign is made up of a signifier--i.e. a string of letters--and a signified--the concept that is attached to that specific string of letters. Processing signs through computers requires another layer of mediation, in that the signifier itself needs to be mediated. A word processor, for instance, allows users to create signifiers by recognizing that different keys on the keyboard are associated with specific letters. This operation requires that the act of typing be converted into binary code that is then processed in order for the output--the word on the screen--to appear. In that sense, the seemingly instantaneous act of typing, and by extension, the seemingly instantaneous act of recording sound with an MP3 player or having a picture displayed on the screen of a


digital camera, is actually a complex process that requires a mediation of the signifiers. As Kittler suggests in Discourse Networks (1990), the area of exploration that emerges from this focuses on the ways in which changes in the material basis for representation change the cultural concept of representation itself, and by extension relations of power and what we understand as knowledge. It thus becomes necessary to explore the ways in which the World Wide Web extends these principles of malleability, artificiality and mediation through binary code. While regular users never see the strings of zeros and ones that are processed by the computer, these operations are essential in that they shape the representations that appear on the computer screen. In that sense, the mediated texts that circulate on the Web can be seen as extensions of monist rationality, Boolean logic and algorithmic formulas mixed with the electric signals of the hardware. This allows us to reconsider Manovichs remark about the transition from calculation to representation in a new way. Whereas Manovich considers this transition in historical and genealogical terms, it also appears that this problematic bridging of mathematics and culture is one of the omnipresent (that is, always necessary) characteristics of new media, including Web communication. In particular, the necessary involvement of mathematical formulas in the production of cultural representations raises questions as to the relationships between information and its material support, as discussed previously with the question of dematerialization. More generally, in the computing process, the mathematical layer becomes a new mediator that encodes physical input and decodes it as a string of signifiers. This inclusion within the semiotic process was absent in pre-computer forms of printing and writing.


Kittler (1995) goes a step further in examining the relationship between code and culture by declaring that there is no software. Kittler focuses our attention onto the hardware of the computer in that all code operations (...) come down to absolutely local string manipulations and that is, I am afraid, to signifiers of voltage differences. In particular, Kittler usefully points out the ways in which the software layer is constructed so that computer language can appear as everyday language. This prevents us from focusing our attention on the effects of the computer as a medium. As Kittler declares: What remains a problem is only the realization of these layers which, just as modern media technologies in general, have been explicitly contrived in order to evade all perception. We simply do not know what our writing does. Kittlers conclusion regarding the unique characteristics of computer communication presents us with several insights as well as unresolved questions. By focusing on the technical conventions of computer communication, Kittler usefully points out that the study of computer-mediated texts does not consist simply of studying the interface, but more importantly of rediscovering the hidden processes that make the existence of text and discourse possible. As Hayles (2004) argues, we need to recognize that whereas print is flat, code is deep. However, the one limit of Kittler, which is by extension a problem in finding out the unique characteristics of a medium, is a tendency to reduce a complex technical system to one essential operation--i.e. the production of electric signals. This is where ANT can be used to investigate the relationships between the elements that form the technical materiality of the Web.


4. The Web as a Layered Technocultural Entity While the layers of hardware and software that encode knowledge as electric signals and data are invisible to the user, they actually promote specific ways of using and interacting with messages and offer new cultural definitions of knowledge and discourse--as malleable representations, for instance--that are medium-specific. However, it must also be acknowledged that the algorithmic processing of electric signals is only one of the elements that construct something such as the World Wide Web. That is, if the World Wide Web establishes rules to transmit and represent data, it should then be looked at in terms of the kinds of principles it propagates. The process, then, is not one of peeling back the layers to get at some core essential feature, but one of studying their interactions. As Galloway (2004) describes it in his analysis of protocol, the exploration of technical standards must take into account the multiple layers of technical encoding that are used to build the World Wide Web: ...the content of every protocol is always another protocol. Take, for example, a typical transaction on the World Wide Web. A Web page containing text and graphics (themselves protological artifacts) is marked up in the HTML protocol. The protocol known as Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) encapsulates this HTML object and allows it to be served by an Internet host. However, both client and host must abide by the TCP protocol to ensure that the HTTP object arrives in one piece. Finally, TCP is itself nested within the Internet Protocol, a protocol that is in charge of actually moving data packets from one machine to another. Ultimately the entire bundle (the primary data object encapsulated within each successive protocol) is transported according to the rules of the only privileged protocol, that of the physical media itself (fibre-optic cables, telephone lines, air waves, etc.). (pp. 10-11) What Galloway suggests is that an examination of the physical and mathematical structure of the World Wide Web is not enough. A representation on the World Wide


Web is produced through the interaction between different layers of codes and protocols, and different layers of hardware and software. The question, then, is not so much one of finding the fundamental technical characteristic of a medium so as to draw some essential cultural characteristic, but to examine its technical formation in genealogical terms. As the network approach developed by ANT suggests, there is a need to problematize the description of the Web as layers of technical processes. That is, it is necessary to investigate not only what forms these layers of hardware and software, but also how they are related to each other and how they potentially influence each other. ANTs invitation to treat technological objects as actors becomes all the more relevant when dealing with a complex automated system such as the Web, and examining the relationships, articulations and translations among these actors could lead to a better understanding of the characteristics of Web communication. A starting point for examining the layers that constitute the Web is the analysis of the different cultural values that are encoded within the technical objects and processes that form the Web. In that regard, electric signals, algorithms, binary representations and the Leibnizian and Boolean logic they embody are but one part of the problem. What also needs to be considered, as mentioned earlier, is hypertext as a connection device that was supposed to be an extension of the mind but was also reshaped according to specific power relations (Moulthrop, 1994). Also of importance is the conception of the Internet as a distributed network, an anti-hierarchical structure that seems to embody Deleuze and Guattaris concept of the rhizome (1987). In so doing, the goal is to examine the conjuncture of different technocultural processes and the hybrids they produce.


This cultural level of analysis, however, is not enough by itself. Another way of analyzing the layers that form the Web is to consider the rules of transmission they propagate. At the level of transmission over the Internet, the works of Lessig and Galloway offer a first foray into the space of agency of computer networks defined as networks of struggles and power relationships. In particular, Galloway critically assesses distributed networks such as the Internet by examining the ways in which protocols--the sets of recommendations and rules that outlines specific standards (2004, p. 6)--have become sites of struggle. For Galloway, the equation between distributed networks, in which there are no chains of command, only autonomous agents operating according to pre-agreed rules, or protocols, and the concept of a free, uncontrolled and uncontrollable network does not hold. While the concept of protocol is anti-hierarchical, it is still a massive control apparatus (2004, pp. 243). As protocol defines the rules of data exchange, its potential can be dangerous. For instance, the protocols that make the Internet an open network are also the ones which allow for something like surveillance to exist. Furthermore, the actors in charge of defining the protocols and rules of Internet communication can also be criticized for representing specific interests. ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), for instance, has come under fire for privileging US interests (Wikipedia, 2005a, 2005c). Thus, regulatory bodies can serve specific interests and can reintroduce hierarchical and centralized relationships within networks that were previously distributed networks (Galloway, 2004, Lessig, 1999). The fact that protocol is not only a set of technical standards but also the site of power struggles thus illustrates the ways in which a study of the underlying technical structure


of the World Wide Web in important. Such approaches to the rules of transmission over the Internet need to be extended to the rules of transmission of the Web and other processes that make computer communication possible. To expand on Galloways comments on the layers that form the Internet, it is not really a question of privileging one protocol over another, but rather of examining the ways in which physical signals get encoded and translated through different protocols. ANTs concept of mediation as the examination of the ways in which an original meaning, goal or intent is changed and distorted through the process of technical translation is important here (Latour, 1999, pp. 176-193). That is, there might be a need to use ANTs concept of mediation not only with regards to the relationships between the human and the non-human, but also with regard to the relationships and negotiations between a set of automated non-human actors. In the final instance, the examination of these relationships should operate not only in terms of transmission, but also in terms of the politics of representation. 5. Technologies of the Web and the Question of Representation At the beginning of this chapter, it was pointed out that one of the reasons why computer communication is important for media studies is that the computer is not simply a transmission device, but also a device for representation. The question of layers, then, concerns not only the protocols that are used for ensuring communication between computers, but also requires a consideration of the ways in which technical elements participate in the construction of representations, that is, the ways in which they enable specific practices of meaning-making. There is a need to understand the relationships 47

between the layer of transmission and the layer of representation. The layer of representation brings us back to the most visible layer of the Web--the interface. While the interface is designed to be manipulated by users, I would like to focus on treating the technological elements that form this layer as actors, and not simply as tools to be used. The reasons for this is to highlight the space of agency of these software actors in order to examine their deployment as communicative agents. Web standards should not only be analyzed as transmission devices, but also as representational devices. In order to operate this shift, it is also important to consider technical standards and computer processes not only in terms of the control and limits they express, but also in regard to the cultural environments they create. The agency of software needs to be fully acknowledged, as software becomes not only the actor with which users have to interact but also the mediator that defines the conditions and cultural richness of these interactions. This recasts the analysis of computer code in terms of exploring the ways in which cultural experiences are constructed through a series of encodings that encapsulate information inside various wrappers, while remaining relatively indifferent to the content of information contained within (Galloway, 2004, p. xiii). This opens the way for a reassessment of the relationship between meaning and computing and between media representation and artificial calculation. Positions such as the one developed by Kittler (1995) when he declares that there is no software, that is, that software is just an illusion masking specific technical processes, need to be critically assessed. If the software layer is that which creates the connection between the ordinary languages that are used to articulate representations and the hardware layer of electric


connections, its role as yet another mediator needs to be taken into account. If we start from the premise that computer networks such as the World Wide Web become important only when they develop the capacities to encourage the production of meaning, we have to focus on software as being that which fabricates these cultural opportunities out of the hardware. It is first necessary to further define the differences and relationships between software and hardware. While the hardware refers to the physical parts of the computer-from the motherboard to the modem--the software refers to the computer programs that are stored in a computer. The system software is defined as the set of computer programs that help run the hardware, for instance, operating systems such as Windows. Earlier parts of this chapter reviewed the role of system software in terms of its implementation of a specific form of logic, but it is also necessary to focus on software in terms of its signifying function. In that regard, it is important to look at the application software, which is developed so that users can accomplish several tasks (Wikipedia, 2005b). There are thus several layers of software, and each of these computer programs have specific goals. For instance, the range of software needed in order to produce a website includes programs to create and edit graphics, an editor that can add the HTML, XML or JavaScript descriptors, and sometimes a program to create animations such as Flash animations. The kind of application software needed for the user is a Web browser. A Web browser is capable of translating data, text, codes and protocols into a Graphical User Interface (GUI) that uses ordinary language and representations to make data intelligible and thus allows the user to draw meanings from what appears on the screen.


Software is important in the study of the World Wide Web as it is that which forges modalities of experience--sensoriums through which the world is made and known (Fuller, 2003, p. 63). There has been a great interest in software in terms of the legal issues that are raised through the copyrighting of software, and the alternatives offered by the open software movement. What these issues illustrate is that software does not simply raises commercial issues, but also cultural ones. As software is the technical means through which one can express oneself, it is in some ways akin to the alphabet (Mezrich, 1998). However, software is not simply a means to an end, but also a computer program that defines the ways in which users can interact with texts. To reformulate the agency of software in Foucauldian terms, software is part of the assemblage that defines the rules of discourse, and thus a specific range of activities for users. In that sense, it is interesting to notice that the field of software analysis seems to have been mostly ignored by cultural studies. Web design programs such as Dreamweaver are interesting objects in that they embed some of the conventions of Web presentation by giving the user a determined range of choice in how to organize information in Web format, such as predesigned pages, framesets, and CSS styles. Design conventions are embedded in the software, and propagate specific ways in which information should be packaged. As such, web design software participate in the development of specific rhetorical strategies for Web texts. The aesthetic examination of software reveals some of the specific cultural representations that surface on the World Wide Web. Manovich (2001), for instance, sees software in a historical perspective, by arguing for an understanding of the similarities


between the avant-garde movement and the representations that are made through computer software. The presentation of hyperlinked and coexisting multimedia elements, for instance, is reminiscent of visual atomism, and the windowed presentation of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) can be traced back to the montage experiments carried out by Dziga Vertov, among others. In some ways, then, there is an intriguing evolution of the concept of the artifice of the virtual as it changes from the artificial coding of information, to the creation of representations that acknowledge their artificial combining of disparate elements in order to foster meanings that can be communicated to users. Consequently, the form of the Web--its technical structure--influences the content that is being propagated. The software layer allows for the representation of information and data through metaphors which, as Fuller explains, generate a way for users to imaginarily map out in advance what functional capacity a device has by reference to a pre-existing apparatus (2003, p. 100). In the case of the World Wide Web, it is interesting to notice that the experience of surfing is actually an act of invocation (Chesher, 1997) or of calling up HTML files on a computer (Fuller, 2003, p. 87). The spatial imagery of surfing and of cyberspace in general are but an effect of the bricolage of digital images, text, and other elements linked together by hypertext references (Shields, 2000, p. 145). The bricolage is important here as the process whereby the technocultural assemblages that form the World Wide Web act to represent data and in that sense establish some of the rules of discourse on the Web. 6. Towards a Technocultural Approach to the Politics of Representation on the Web The main argument put forward is that the Web should be analyzed as an 51

assemblage of technocultural layers in order to examine how the conjuncture of these layers constitute and create the Web as a medium. The question of layers points to the need to not reject any of the technocultural components of the World Wide Web as irrelevant. Thus, it is not a question of privileging medium over message, or transmission over representation. Rather, considering the Web as an actor-network allows for a recognition of the complex relationships between technology, language and culture. The broad analysis of different approaches to media and to the World Wide Web in the previous sections of this chapter helps delineate three types of technical layers that constitute the World Wide Web. The first layer is the hardware layer, or the set of technical agents allowing for the actual production and circulation of electric signals over networks. The second layer is the code layer that defines the rules for data exchange. The third layer is the representational layer and includes the interface. These layers are difficult to separate - could protocols and software even exist without the hardware? Would a piece of hardware do anything without some system of representation? However, such categorization is useful for further locating the purpose of this research as an attempt to understand the interaction between these layers. Furthermore, the ways different aspects of these layers have been treated in the literature on the Internet and the World Wide Web underlines some of the research gaps that the present project aims to fill in. In general, analyses from the social sciences that have included Internet and Web technologies have mostly focused on the question of transmission. While there are analyses focused on the question of representation, they have been focused on new media in general rather than the everyday Web.


The question of transmission is found in research focused on the effects produced by new information and communication technologies. An important body of research can be found in this area, for instance, Virilios work on the ideology of speed in the information age, and also sociological analyses of ICTs focused on the new social relationships that are produced through computer networks. Castells (2000) can be considered as affiliated with this, as his goal is to account for the social and economic changes and processes created in the information age. In particular, Castells argument that information technologies allow for the extension of communication networks that reorganize economic and social flows is based on a consideration of the properties of the hardware and not so much on the content carried by these networks. Thus, who is connected to the network and who is not reveals the new power relationships and social inequalities produced by information capitalism. Dyer-Witherford (1999) and Robins and Webster (1998) develop a similar kind of analysis through a political economy perspective. For Dyer-Witherford, capital can integrate new social sites and activities through information technology - for instance, the biopolitical system created through the informatization of life. Information and communication technologies ensure the smooth flow of the circuit of capital into all spheres of life. In a similar vein, Robin and Webster argue that the communication revolution is not simply economic and technological, but also social in that it restructures everyday life, in particular through the abolition of the difference between work time and free time and through the rise of new systems of surveillance. Analyses of the political consequences of networks on the weakening of democratic ideals have been done from various angles - not only political economy, but


also through using Marxism and phenomenology (Barney, 2000), and critical theory (Dean, 2002). For Barney, the invocation of humans through network technologies as standing reserves of bits (2000, p. 192) does not foster democratic reflection and exchange, but rather data mining at the global level. For Dean (2002), the proliferation of computer-mediated communication and information exchange, does not foster a public sphere, but rather serves to create a form of communicative capitalism that limits the horizon of public discussions through the matrix of publicity/secrecy. The question of networks can be covered through multiple angles, some technologically deterministic, others focused on the social integration of technology. The common research point, though, is to examine what the possibility of instantaneous electric communication allows for in terms of new power relationships. These types of analysis do not focus on the content transmitted through computer networks and do not distinguish between different computer networks (such as, Internet, intranets, and private networks). With analyses focused on the code and protocols of Internet, there is a greater focus on specific technologies of transmission and their social effects or social shaping. Lessigs and Galloways works represent such an approach, especially as they focus on the technical infrastructure of the Internet as a site of power struggle. Whereas for Galloway, the protocols of the Internet create new forms of control, Lessig focuses more on the kind of freedom offered by the Internet, and the role played by government and market regulations in ensuring or destroying that freedom of information exchange. In Code, and Other Laws of Cyberspace (1999) and in parts of The Future of Ideas (2001), Lessig focuses not on the physical layer (the hardware) or the content layer (the message)


but on the code layer - that which makes the hardware run. In particular, Lessig focuses on the code of the Internet as a site that influences what kind of communication is available on the Internet. As Lessig (2001) recalls, the protocols of the Internet encouraged innovation and minimized control. Thus, code is law in that it defines the possibilities of communication on the Internet. However, the architecture of the Internet is now changing, and governments and commerce are increasing their ability to control cyberspace (2001, p. 236-237). Thus, there is a growing concern with the growth of control technologies that regulate the content, code and applications used on the Internet. Code is law, but it can also be controlled by the market and the state - the potential of codes can be articulated to fulfill specific needs that, in the end, pervert democratic ideals of communication. In the same vein, Galloways examination of protocol engages in a multi-faceted analysis. Protocol is not simply a physical science; it also has formal qualities and is a type of distributed management system for both human and nonhuman-agents. Galloways analysis consists of not only examining the potentials of protocol, but also the ways in which it is articulated through technocultural networks. That is, technological potentials have to be examined in terms of the ways in which they are realized or not through their embedding within actor-networks. In particular, Galloways conclusion that there have been failures of protocol in that its potential has been limited by organization such as ICANN. However, Galloway does not conclude that institutions have the upper hand in defining what a technology is. Rather, the possibilities embedded in protocol can be both beneficial and dangerous. For that reason, protocol can be rearticulated to fulfill other political goals that the transformation of the Internet and


the Web as commercialized and privatized spaces of surveillance. Both Lessig and Galloway show that there is no simple way of analyzing the relationship between technology and culture. One has to proceed through a mapping of the agencies that are distributed within technocultural networks, and among institutional actors, physical objects, codes and protocol. Their political projects of redeploying code and protocol to serve more progressive political ideals aim at developing new networks to redistributed flows of agencies and potential. There is thus a broad body of research focused on the question of transmission, although the focus has been primordially on computer communication in general and the Internet in particular, with the World Wide Web being considered as a subset of the Internet. While this is a valid approach to the Web from a transmission perspective, examining the Web as a medium also requires an analysis of its specific characteristics. While there is an extremely relevant body of work on the interface (Manovich 2000, Bolter and Grusin 1999, Johnson 1997) and on software (Fuller, 2003) from a cultural perspective, these works tend to focus on new media in general and not specifically on the World Wide Web. For instance, Bolter and Grusins Remediation (1999) represents an attempt to study the cultural characteristics of new media through a medium theory approach. In particular, their concept of hypermediacy as the effects through which new media are made present rather than transparent offers a critical vocabulary for understanding the aesthetic presence of new media. Bolter and Grusin draw on McLuhans argument that the content of a medium is another medium in order to develop a genealogical approach to the aesthetic of new media (1999, p. 47). Their approach is to


examine the ways in which old and new media imitate and compete with each other (p. 189). Video games can thus refashion cinema, while the TV screen of CNN, for instance, mimics the multimediality of the Web. In so doing, one of Bolter and Grusins conclusions is that new media are old and familiar, that they promise the new by remediating what has gone on before (p. 270). Bolter and Grusin efficiently demonstrate the ways in which new media rely on the form of older media in order to be accessible. At the same time, Bolter and Grusins approach tends to fall into another extreme; that of erasing the particular characteristics of new media through a constant focus on the presence of older media behind the new. This research aims to fill in some of the gaps in the analysis of the Web interface, but also has a broader scope. With regard to the question of transmission, the literature review presented above shows that there is already a rich body of work. Thus, questions about the effects of networks, the concept of instantaneous communication, the conjuring of the world as data, for instance, are not central research points, but are rather considered as part of the context within which the Web is developed as a medium. It is expected that these questions will surface, but they are not the primary object of investigation. The main research proposition is that there has not been sufficient attention paid to the articulation between the code layer and the interface layer - between the different languages of the Web and the software that allow for the representation of information. Thus, the case studies explore the genealogy of specific discursive characteristics of the Web that are encoded and decoded by Web software in order to examine the rise of new communicational and cultural practices, and of the new social realities for the human and


non-human actors involved in these communicational practices. However, undertaking such an analysis poses theoretical and methodological challenges, particularly as the focus is not simply on examining the relationship between technology and culture, but on examining how specific technologies of expression interact with cultural processes to create the web as a medium establishing new social, hermeneutic and cultural realities. In short, the focus is on software that shapes data and informational input into representations, and on the cultural dynamics that emerge through this process. As argued throughout this chapter, ANT offers a first step towards examining the role of technologies in the cultural process. As a methodology, ANT is designed to focus on specific technico-social events, and proceeds by following the actors of a specific actor-network. ANTs descriptive process aims at analyzing how intentions are materially transcribed through technical actors. In do doing, the description of technical actors proceeds by examining how these actors act either as intermediaries that faithfully transmit original goals and meanings, or as mediators that translate, distort and change these meanings. As Latour puts it, ANT is focused on examining material objects when they are visible, that is, when social ties are built through them (2005, p. 80). However, ANT focuses on communication technologies as technological actors but not as media actors promoting both specific rules of transmission as well as specific representational, semiotic systems. Thus, whereas ANT is extremely useful in revisiting medium theory so as to correct its essentializing tendency and offer an analytical framework that takes technocultural articulations into account, it needs to be supplemented with a framework capable of examining the relationships between


technology and language. Even medium theory fails in offering a framework for analyzing these relationships, as it has been established on the assumption that the medium and the message should be separated, and that the medium is more important than the message. In so doing, questions related to language and how technologies of communication have an influence on the shaping of meaning are ignored. There is a need to turn to theories of language and meaning in order to define a framework capable of encompassing the technocultural elements that participate in the shaping of meaning.


Chapter 2 Web Technologies, Language and Mixed Semiotics The first chapter argued for an understanding of the role played by technologies in cultural contexts departing from a model founded on the tacit separation between the technological and the cultural. Revisiting medium theorys focus on examining the characteristics of medium through Actor-network theory allows for the deployment of an analytical framework taking into account the continuity between technology and culture the technocultural junctures, articulations, mediations and translations where characteristics and agencies are defined. What is the kind of framework needed for the examination of technocultural networks at the level of language? This question fails to be answered by either medium analysis or material analysis, as they tend to focus on the effects of media, be they physiological, social, political or psychological, but not on the impacts of media technologies on language, and on the processes through which meanings can be constituted and communicated. The separation between medium and content, as well as that between medium theory and semiotic analyses need to be critically assessed in order to establish a semiotic framework that goes beyond an analysis of signs and meanings. There is a need to incorporate an analysis of what Deleuze and Guattari call regimes of signs that constitute semiotic systems that are based on assemblages and networks that are not primarily linguistic and involve an entire field of power relations that cross through technological, social, political and economic domains (1987, p. 111). It is then possible to analyze the production and circulation of meanings through 60

technocultural processes with a methodological framework that takes into account not only linguistic processes, but also the non-linguistic processes from which representations, and the meanings carried by these representations, can emerge. Examining the semiotic process can thus lead to a mapping of knowledge and power relationships to discover not only the rules of expression, but also how they are constructed through technocultural flows of agency present in the process of mediation. This requires a critique of methodologies focused on language, meaning and discourse, particularly through the work of Deleuze and Guattari on mixed semiotics and the development of an a-semiotic model. 1. The Technocultural Dimensions of Discourse While material analyses of communication and medium theory are useful for pointing out some of the blind spots in current research on the Web, it is arguable as to whether technology and the message being transmitted through the use of technology can be separated. Wise (1997) offers an important argument when he states that the problem with technologies of communication is that: they appear to embody both technology (the device) and language (the content being broadcast or transmitted). This makes them often difficult to analyze in these terms - though crucially important - because they seem to slip to one side of the other like a watermelon seed. (p. 72) That is, the problem with communication technologies is that technology and language are not distinct spheres, but part of a continuum - the message being produced involves the deployment of a technological and technocultural apparatus, as well as it is a carrier of cultural meanings. In that sense, the point made by Hansen (2000) in separating


technology from technesis, or the putting into discourse of technology, becomes problematic in the case of communication technologies. There is a difference to be made between technologies to produce objects and technologies that are designed to produce and transmit information and meanings. Arguing for a separation between the experiential impact of communication technologies and the cultural meanings transmitted through messages fails to acknowledge the continuum through which this experiential impact resonates in the circulation of meanings and discourses. The message, in that sense, carries traces of the medium. By drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, Wise aims to abolish the difference that can be felt in other theoretical approaches to communication between technology as having real, material consequences and content as taking place on an insubstantial plane of meaning. On the contrary for Wise, both technology and language have material effects. Technology concerns the direct manipulation of real elements (the use of tools), and language (the use of symbols) refers to a regime of signs and by extension to the distribution of certain discourses in social space (1997, pp. 62-63). Both technology and language have material effects in that they manipulate and establish relations between social actors (1997, p. 63). The question, then, lies in the examination of how technology and language are articulated. Wises discussion of language as the distribution of discourses is based on a Foucauldian definition of discourse. Discourse understood in that sense is the ability of distributing effects at a distance, not just meaning and signification (1994, p. 63). Following Foucault, discourse analysis is not only focused on what meanings are propagated in specific sets of texts, but more importantly on the ways in which these texts


embody, transmit, produce and materialize social relations of power. Whereas posthermeneutic, material critics cited in the previous chapter criticized the focus on the purely linguistic aspects of texts, Foucaults definition of discourse allows for a reintegration of the material within the space of language. For Foucault, discourse is the space where power and knowledge are joined together (1980a, p. 100). By power, Foucault means a productive network (1980b, p. 119) through which are defined relationships that establishes specific roles for and relationships between subjects. Analyzing specific sets of texts to examine their discourse means defining discourse as a set of practices that define subjects and create and form the objects of which they speak (1993, p. 48). Discourse produces and defines objects of knowledge, the legitimate methodology through which one can talk meaningfully of objects and construct representations, and the subjects who can legitimately transmit discourse. The point of discourse analysis, following Foucaults framework, consists of studying not only the expressive value and formal transformation of discourse, but its mode of existence, and the manner in which discourse is articulated on the basis of social relationships (1977, p. 137). As Kittler (1990) puts it, Foucault aimed to analyze discourse from the outside and not merely from a position of interpretive immanence and defined discourse analysis as a reconstruction of the rules by which the actual discourses of an epoch would have to have been organized in order not to be excluded as was, for example, insanity (p. 369). Discourse is material in that it creates social relations of power. Through discourse analysis, it becomes possible to examine the ways in which hermeneutic frameworks come into being.


The articulation between technologies of communication and discourse is explored in Kittlers Discourse Networks (1990) and Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1997). Kittler defines discourse networks as networks of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store and process relevant data (1990. p. 369). Kittler expands Foucaults concern with the processes of establishing social relations through language, but reintroduces media technologies as key components in the establishment of discursive formations. His critique of Foucault lies in the failure to take into account the specificities of media systems as modes through which information, knowledge, values and identities are mediated and therefore shaped. Kittlers approach does not separate the medium from the message. His framework offers a complement to the question of interpretation in that it allows for an extension of the effects of media to the formation of subjectivities, and it offers ways to examine how specific conditions of meaning production are created through the assemblage of communication technologies, cultural processes and institutions (Gane, 2005, p. 29). Kittlers theoretical richness lies in his detailed analyses of discourse networks as complex formations. Technical analysis, discourse analysis, historical consideration and textual analysis are all combined to examine the ways in which technological possibilities, subjectivities and specific meanings are circulated through networks of discourses. Wellbery uses the term mediality to describe Kittlers approach. Mediality is the general condition within which, under specific circumstances, something like poetry or literature can take place (1990, p. xiii). Kittlers approach to the role played by technologies of communication in


defining discourse and participating in the construction of media systems is of methodological importance in that it reconciles the content being transmitted and technologies of communication by conceptualizing them as part of the same network. Furthermore, Kittler demonstrates in Discourse Networks (1990) and Film, Gramophone, Typewriter (1997) that the analysis of texts can take place alongside social, political and technocultural analyses. Throughout numerous analyses of specific texts produced through different media, Kittler expands the concept of mediality through a detailed analysis of the traces of specific media present in the texts being analyzed. The text, then, becomes a valuable tool for defining the characteristics of a medium - characteristics that are not only aesthetic, or cultural, but also experiential. The analysis of a discourse network, including the texts produced by that network, allows for a critical reflection on the genealogies of media systems. Kittlers approach can be seen as a happy medium that reintroduces the question of meaning, and particularly of meaning formation, in the analysis of the technocultural deployment of media systems. In particular, Kittler's analyses extend Foucault's concerns with the production and circulation of specific regimes of power, knowledge and subjectivity by arguing for a greater attention to the processes of information storage, transmission and manipulation that create new subject positions, new power dynamics and new hermeneutic horizons. Furthermore, Kittler's mix of technical, archival and textual analyses provides a kind of multi-methodological framework allowing for a recognition of the multiple imbrications and articulations between media and culture. Kittler's approach is thus extremely useful, but it falls short of offering a satisfying


analysis of new media. As argued in the previous chapter, Kittler's essentialist move towards a reduction of new media as pure electrical signals and his erasure of the human within these new communication channels tends to ignore the complexity of technical layers on which new media, and the World Wide Web, are built. Manifestations of the media can thus be found in the content being transmitted. In that sense, the point is not to reject content as useless for understanding the impact of a medium, but to focus research questions about the manifest characteristics and properties of a medium onto texts that have usually been analyzed within a hermeneutic framework. Gumbrechts approach is theoretically similar to that of Kittler, in that it aims to define a posthermeneutic analysis of texts that would be complementary to interpretation (2003, p. 2). As Gumbrecht (2003) recalls: Our main fascination came from the question of how different media different materialities - of communication would affect the meaning that they carried. We no longer believed that a meaning complex could be kept separated from its mediality, that is, from the difference of appearing on a printed page, or a computer screen, or in a voice message.(p. 11) How meaning can emerge is, however, only one of the questions that needs to be asked by a posthermeneutic framework. For Gumbrecht, the material aspect of any communication is that it produces presence, that it produces effects of tangibility (2003, p. 16). It is not simply a question of analyzing meaning-effects anymore, but one of analyzing the oscillation of meaning effects and presence effects (2003, p. 2). Gumbrechts argument that media produces specific presences is important on several counts, and particularly as another way of seeing the inseparability of content and medium. Gumbrecht defines production of presence in spatial terms - presence is what is


before our eyes. There are several presences that are produced through acts of communication. One effect of presence is what McLuhan (1995) and Hansen (2000) would describe as the physical and psychological impact of media at the experiential level. Another type of presence could be the production of subjects and subjectivities as defined by Foucault, and by extension, social, economic and political relations. Finally, the production of presence can also be taken in a self-reflective manner as the presence of the medium itself. The production of presence understood in that sense helps refocus the concept of mediality as the feedback loop between text and technology through which specific characteristics of the medium are called forth. 2. Reconsidering Linguistics There is a need for a reconsideration of media as producers of meanings. The question is not about examining the meanings of media as objects regardless of the representation they produce. On the contrary, it becomes necessary to develop another way of analyzing the representations, or what comes to be called content. Media are primarily focused on the production and transmission of signs. It is this specific role of media as part of specific economies of meanings and significations that are transmitted through representations that need to be further analyzed. In so doing, the purpose of this study is not to undertake an actor-network analysis of the two case studies by examining the different assemblages and networks within which specific codes and languages are deployed. Rather, the goal of this study is to examine the ways in which specific codes and languages participate in the production of specific sign-systems. Thus, the question that drives the two case studies is about what a sign is in different media contexts how 67

is it presented and how users are supposed to interpret and use it. In so doing, the goal of this study is to look at the deployment of regimes of signs that are based on technocultural processes. That is, I am interested in looking at how processes of signification are created through specific technocultural environments, and what their effects are in this technocultural and discursive context. Developing a methodological framework to answer this question demands a critique of mainstream linguistic analysis as it has been developed in communication and cultural studies. Without doubt, the most popular linguistic theory stems from Saussure's Cours de linguistique gnrale, which established linguistics as a discipline and a science. The most popular element of Saussure's work is the analysis of signs as the elements through which language can exist. Saussure's presentation of signs as being made of a signifier and a signified presents us with the assumption that a sign is made up of a concept (the signified) and a sound-image (the signifier). The sign is thus that which bridges a universal (the concept) and a specific (the word), a meaning and the soundimage that comes to be associated with it (Burns, 2001, p.8). Furthermore, as Samuel Weber (1976) recalls in his presentation of Saussure's linguistic theory, Saussure was interested in studying la langue, that is, the homogeneous system of rules within which signs can be deployed. As Weber explains, the move to study la langue (the system of language) rather than le language (language in general) or la parole (speech) represents a move towards establishing the legitimacy of a scientific approach to language (1976, p. 915). La langue, then, is homogenous; it represents the social aspect of speech in that it is created through collective consent, and it is concretized as a system of signs (1976, p.


916). At the theoretical level, the important aspect of Saussure's linguistic theory lies in the move towards establishing the independence of linguistic processes from other processes. At a general level, Weber usefully underlines that such a move is part of a structuralist conviction that the laws which govern the functioning of a sign system are independent both of the individual subjects participating in it and of the specific material embodiment of the sign (1976, p. 917). Weber traces the implications of this structuralist move for the actual theory of the sign that Saussure develops. First of all, Saussure moves away from the representation-denominational conception of language (1976, p. 920). Seeing language as a process of representation implies putting more importance on the signified (that which is being represented) than on the signifier. The signifier thus exists as a mean to refer to a reality, concept or object that is outside of language. Thus, the signified, which is being represented, enables us to delimit the signifier, which represents it. Meaning is ontologically and linguistically prior to the linguistic entity, which it 'authorizes' (1976, p. 920). Saussure's conception of language throughout the Cours de linguistique gnrale progressively departs from the model of language as representation to a model of language as a self-referential, closed and autonomous system (1976, p. 925). In order to arrive at this conclusion, Saussure introduces a distinction between the concept of signification and that of value. As Weber explains, signification designates the representational, denominational, referential and semantic aspect of language (1976, p. 926). The value of a sign, on the other hand, is not based in representation or in


relation to something outside of language, but on the differences that exist between a sign and other signs. Thus, mouton has the same signification as sheep, but its value is different in that there is the word mutton in English, which does not have any equivalent in French. For Saussure, the question of linguistic value points out a new relationship between the signifier and the signified that is not covered in the framework of language as representation. As Weber argues, Saussure's radical conclusion is that the identity of a sign is a function of the position of a sign with regards to other signs (1976, p. 920). Saussure thus reverses the assumption that meaning exists outside of language by concluding that meaning is produced through the semiotic process itself without references to an outside reality. Thus, there are no preestablished ideas and nothing is distinct before the apparition of the language system (Saussure, in Weber, 1976, p. 922). Saussure's theory of linguistics plays a central role in explaining the divide in communication studies between medium and content. According to Saussure, the study of the production and circulation of meaning can only be made through the study of signs. Furthermore, these systems of signs are cut off from a reality out there: the referent the actual object designated through a sign disappears completely, as well as the signified, which links the object to its conceptual representation. Meaning appears through the play of signifiers through the relationships and differences that delineate the meaning of signifiers. Furthermore, questions related to the materiality of the medium (the sound of a word, for instance), are evacuated from Saussure's linguistic theory. The linguistic value of a sign is rooted in conceptual differences, not in material ones. Finally, Saussure's theory of linguistics is established as an autonomous, self-sufficient system.


Any questions related to the relationship between linguistics and the social are thus ignored. While Saussure's model can be considered as the foundational model for analyzing the production of meanings, its limits have been pointed out. In particular, as Klaus Bruhn Jensen argues, the problem with Saussurean semiology in communication studies has been a tendency to give much attention to signs as such, less to society, and hardly any to the 'life' of signs in social practices (1995, p. 3). Saussurean linguistics fails to focus on the social context within which signs are deployed and meanings constructed. In some ways, discourse analysis, especially the kind of discourse analysis stemming from the works of Foucault, can be seen as a way to correct this shortcoming. While discourse analysis helps contextualize the production of meaning and allows for a mapping out of its articulations with more general social phenomena, pragmatic approaches to language have allowed for a reconnection between sign and the social by presenting signs as not only shaped by social and cultural norms, but also as having an impact, an effect on these norms. Recognizing that signs have a social life (Jensen, 1995) demands an exploration of the ways in which signs exist not in absolute, conceptual modes, as Saussurean linguistics would have it, but circulate through everyday life. The study of signs, then, requires seeing the deployment of specific signs and representations as instances of social action, as acts conveyed with specific purposes in specific contexts (Jensen, 1995, p. 11). For Jensen, Peirce's pragmatic approach to the study of signs through semeiosis offers a way of bridging questions regarding content and meaning with the problematic of the audience as active participants and builders of meanings and signs. However, it is not simply a question of reassessing the links between language


and the social, but to see how technologies participate in the shaping of language. Thanks to Foucault, as Kittler argues, there is a decentering of the human through the refusal of an instrumentalist view of language. Thus, for Kittler, so-called man is but a production of a specific discursive situation that is undermined by the appearance of new electronic media. Language as discourse does not simply transmit; it shapes our relationship to the world and positions us within a specific knowledge/power system. However, language is not the only actor in producing discursive change it itself is influenced by material, technological and cultural conditions. Thus, the challenge lies not simply in considering the relationships between categories of the social, the linguistic, the cultural, and the technological, but to examine how these aspects emerge in relation to each other. Furthermore, the question that drives this research is not only about how specific discourse networks on the Web shape and translate power/knowledge relationships, but also to see how the status of language itself is affected by these technocultural contexts. This stems from the consideration that language should not be considered as an abstract differential system such as Saussure's concept of langue (Bishop and Phillips, 2006, p. 53), but as a lived, evolving system that is articulated on specific technocultural processes. This demands a reassessment of the categories of signification. In particular, this conception of language raises the question as to what exactly a sign is depending on the medium and cultural contexts within which it is deployed. Radio, film, television, the Web all use something that we would call language, but their different materialities (sound, image, electric signals) cannot be considered to be creating the same language. In that sense, it becomes necessary to examine how signs are formed through media


technologies. Such an analysis of language would allow for a finer exploration of the question of discourse networks through an examination of how specific media languages play a role in shaping relationships of power and knowledge. In so doing, one of the central questions is about representation. Representation, in that sense, is not to be understood as the presentation of some reality through language, but as the shaping of a so-called reality through a specific media situation. Such a research question echoes some of the analyses developed by renowned new media scholars such as Manovich, Bolter and Grusin, Cubitt and Fuller. However, the present work argues that such focus on the question of the relationship between medium, language and representation, can benefit from a reconsideration of the problem of linguistics and of the problem of language. By first asking what a sign is in the context of the case studies, the present study aims to examine how the assumption that language is connected to processes that might not be linguistic might help in defining the significative and discursive impact of a medium. The remainder of this chapter argues that a robust methodological framework can be developed from Deleuze and Guattaris work on linguistics and glossematics. 3. Mixed Semiotics The influence of Deleuze and Guattari on communication and cultural studies is far-reaching and impossible to present in a few lines. As Seigworth and Wise put it: just pick up many of the writings by Lawrence Grossberg, Dick Hebdige, Meaghan Morris, Stephen Muecke, Elspeth Probyn, McKenzie Wark, and others and you will find an ongoing and active engagement with the work of Deleuze and Guattari (2000, p. 139). Furthermore, Deleuze and Guattari are far from being unknown in the field of new media. 73

Deleuze's Postscript on the Societies of Control (1992) has been of great influence for understanding the new power dynamics that are made possible through new technologies of information and communication and that mark a shift from disciplinary societies to societies of control. Deleuze and Guattari's work on the rhizome and on concepts of territorialization and deterritorialization have also been used for examining the impact of new technologies and new media, from hypertext to protocol and decentralized networks (for instance, Galloway, 2004). The influence of Deleuze and Guattari is thus farreaching, in that it concerns not only the formulation of a theory and practice of cultural analysis (i.e. the relationship between practice and theory through Deleuze's notion of concept, the call for a pragmatic approach to culture rather than an interpretative one), but also, in the field of new media, the search for equivalencies between new technologies and Deleuze and Guattari's concepts of control, rhizome, territorialization and deterritorialization. There is a certain risk associated with the search for equivalences between concepts that were developed in a pre-Internet period and new media technologies, but this tension is useful for pushing forward the production of new theoretical and methodological frameworks. However, Deleuze and Guattari's work on linguistics, particularly their critique of Saussure's structural linguistics and the development of a-signifying semiotics to understand the construction of meaning does not seem to be widely known in the field of Internet and new media.4 Before attempting to present Deleuze and Guattari's work on semiotics, it is

See the Configurations 10(3), 2002, for a special issue on the study of the relationship between software and the body for examples of the use of Deleuze and Guattaris mixed


necessary to point out some of the key concepts in their works that are needed to understand the novelty of their approach to semiotics. As Brian Massumi explains it in his foreword to Thousand Plateaus (1987), the work of Deleuze and Guattari is a rebellion against traditional, modernist Western thought and philosophy that aims to not only critique the impact of capitalism and capitalist power relationships on subjectivity and the human psyche and to denounce the failure of Western philosophy, state philosophy or logos-centered thought, but also to undertake a positive exercise in developing new ways of understanding and undermining these power relationships (1987, p. xi). As such, one can find in Deleuze and Guattari's work a series of oppositional keywords: the rhizome versus the tree as a new model for building and distributing knowledge, the striated, hierarchized space of the state as opposed to the smooth, openended nomad space that does not respect the artificial division between the three domains of representation, subject, concept, and being; [that] replaces restrictive analogy with a conductivity that knows no bounds (1987, p. xii). Thus, Deleuze and Guattari develop a smooth space of thought, or a schizoanalysis and pragmatics that has for goal the invention of concepts that do not add up to a system of belief or an architecture of propositions that you either enter or you don't, but instead pack a potential in the way a crowbar in a willing hand envelops an energy of prying (1987, p. xv). With regard to contextualizing Deleuze and Guattari's work on language, one of their main characteristics is to offer a critique of Saussurean linguistics that is rooted in the refusal of a hierarchized, compartmentalized approach to language. Deleuze and semiotics.


Guattari's critique of Saussure's linguistics is particularly developed in Anti-Oedipus ( 1983) and Thousand Plateaus (1987). A central aspect of their critique concerns the tyranny of the signifier, that is, the problematic centrality of the signifier in structural linguistics for explaining meaning formations (1983, p. 242-243). Deleuze and Guattari attack the transcendental model developed by Saussure by arguing that meaning does not come from some sort of transcendental idea, but rather is immanent, that is, developed through multiple material, social and linguistic flows, conjunctures and relays. In so doing, Deleuze and Guattari proceed by reconnecting language to other non-linguistic processes. Furthermore, Deleuze and Guattari's work is not concerned with meaning in the traditional sense, in that they have a pragmatic approach to language. In particular, Deleuze and Guattari focus on the concept of order-word in the sense that language is the transmission of the word as order-word, not the communication of sign as information (1987, p. 77). As Porter and Porter explain it, the concept of order-word is meant to signify the immediate, irreducible and pragmatic relation between words and orders (2003, p. 139). Deleuze and Guattari's concept of order-word departs from the traditional research question of structural linguistics in that it argues that language is not simply about what things mean but the ways in which they order shape, hierarchize the world through words. Thus, for Deleuze and Guattari, a rule of grammar is a power marker before it is a syntactical marker (1987, p. 76). As Porter and Porter further argue, Deleuze and Guattari's pragmatic approach to language, their examination of the relationship between words and orders can be understood as being implicated in a social order or in forms of (...) social obligation that presuppose imperatives and as


performing an ordering function (by changing) the circumstances in which they are formulated (2003, p. 139). The first aspect of order-word refers to the socialinstitutional setting in which a communicative exchange takes place, which defines specific roles and action for this communicative exchange to function (2003, p. 139). The second aspect of the order-word is illustrated by words imperatively ordering, or creating new circumstances (i.e. You are free to go). This kind of pragmatic approach to language of focusing on the effects of language represents a departure from the kind of research questions that are at the core of Saussure's structuralist linguistics. As Guattari declares: We're strict functionalists: what we're interested in is how something works, functions finding the machine. But the signifier is still stuck in the question 'What does it mean?' (Cited in Elmer, 2003, p. 243). Deleuze and Guattari's approach to language is thus similar to Foucault's approach to discourse as the space where power and knowledge meet. As Wise describes it, language for Deleuze and Guattari is about the ability to have effects at a distance (1997, p. 63). Deleuze and Guattari's starting point is that a pragmatic approach is of central importance in that linguistics is nothing without a pragmatics (semiotic or political) to define the effectuation of the condition of possibility of language and the usage of linguistics elements (1987, 85). In that sense, Deleuze and Guattari's project is radically different from Saussure, as their study of language does not attempt to establish a selfsufficient, autonomous linguistic category, but to connect language to its specific uses, that is, to specific contexts. At the same, time, their framework for undertaking such an analysis demands a high level of abstraction in order to pursue (...) unusual if not


unnatural connective syntheses, generalizable in structural terms as unrestricted and unpoliced passages, meetings, and alliances at all levels and places (Genosko, 1998, pp. 177-178). The image used by Deleuze and Guattari to express their strategy for analysis is that of the abstract machine. As Wise describes it, Deleuze and Guattari's machine is what perceived regularities in the material are attributed to (1997, p. 64). The abstract machine helps mapping regularities without calling forth a macro-structure that determines all phenomena. However, there is a need to acknowledge regularities: what we then posit is an abstraction (that does not exist in the actual) that is machinelike in its function in that it produces regularities. We call this generally an abstract machine (p. 64). In terms of a study of semiotics and language, the abstract machine connects a language to the semantic and pragmatic content of statements, to collective assemblages of enunciation, to a whole micropolitics of the social field (1987, p. 7). In so doing, the main innovation in Deleuze and Guattari's approach is to present an analytical framework for the analysis of the conditions of possibility of language and the usage of specific linguistic elements anchoring language in non-linguistic processes material, social, technological ones (1987, p. 85). Deleuze and Guattari argue for a multiplicity of sites and processes of meaningmaking so as to free the question of meaning from the purely linguistic domain. Deleuze and Guattari offer a framework that is based on the reconciliation between the material and linguistic aspects of communication. In so doing, they offer a way to develop an analysis of language that answers the question of how (if at all) media and materialities of communication could have an impact on the meanings that they were carrying


(Gumbrecht, 2004, p. 15). Finally, the semiotic analysis developed by Deleuze and Guattari allows for a redefinition of the concept of meaning itself. Semiotics is still the study of meaning formation and circulation. However, divorcing meaning from Saussurean linguistics allows for departing from a strict focus on the concepts that are associated with words (the process of signification). The kind of semiotics developed by Deleuze and Guattari allows for a redefinition of meaning as the effects of language, effects that are not simply linguistic but also social, cultural and psychological. Consequently, the new semiotics that is developed by Deleuze and Guattari allows for a redefinition of the question of meaning and signification as not coming down from above or emerging from the nature of things, but as resulting from the conjunction of and friction between different semiotic systems (1977, p. 299).5 What kind of analytical framework can be used to study the crystallization of power in the field of linguistics (1996c, p. 141)? Deleuze and Guattari offer a new linguistic framework to understand semiotic-pragmatic processes, one that is deeply influenced by Hjelmslev linguistic theory glossematics. As Genosko describes it, Hjelmslev's glossematics consists of developing an algebra of language to calculate the general system of language in relation to which particular languages would reveal their characteristics (Genosko, 2002, p. 155-157). What is a sign according to glossematics? As Hjelmslev explains it, a sign is not an object, it is a semiotic function that establishes a connection between two planes: the plane of expression and the plane of

Il s'agit de redfinir la question du sens et de la signification, non comme tombant du ciel ou de la nature des choses, mais comme rsultant de la conjonction de systmes


content (Hjelmslev, 1971, p. 72). There are two levels at which content and expression can be analyzed: that of substance and that of form. Furthermore, the process of signification, as Genosko summarizes it, involves first an unformed amorphous mass common to all languages called purport (matter) [that is] formed into substance (Genosko, 2002, p. 161). Once a substance of expression and a substance of content are formalized, they can be further translated into a form of expression and a form of content through the semiotic function of the sign, which establishes a link between these two categories. The process of signification in glossematics can be represented as follows:6 Table 1: Glossematics Matter (purport) Substance Form

Expression Unformed amorphous Materials available for Actual assemblage of materials used to mass (unknowable until manifesting content structure content is formed into a substance) Content Content of the human Content of the human mind before any mind in a structured structuring intervention form

An example of the process of signification as presented through glossematics is a stop sign on the road. The substance of content stop could be expressed through different substances of expression (such as written letters, sounds, and colours). In order to structure the concept of stop into a form of content that is understandable by all, a form of expression that can be associated with it is the colour red. smiotiques confronts les uns aux autres. 6 The definition of matter is taken from Genosko (2002, p. 161). The definitions of expression and content are adapted from Gumbrecht, 2004, p.15.


As Deleuze and Guattari recall, a common understanding of expression and content associates them with the Saussurean concept of signifier and signified. However, for Deleuze and Guattari, Hjelmslev's glossematics (1983) is radically opposed to Saussurean structuralism as it is immanent rather than transcendent, and as it allows for a mapping of flows that goes beyond the relationships between signifier and signified. Thus: Far from being an overdetermination of structuralism and of its fondness for the signifier, Hjelmslev's linguistics implies the concerted destruction of the signifier, and constitutes a decoded theory of language about which one can also say an ambiguous tribute that it is the only linguistics adapted to the nature of both the capitalist and the schizophrenic flows: until now, the only modern and not archaic theory of language. (p. 243) Hjelmslev's glossematics is one of the central components of Guattari's psychoanalytic focus on understanding the formation of subjectivity as developed in Chaosmosis, La rvolution molculaire and other essays (Genosko, 2002). Central to Guattari's approach to semiotics is the notion that language has to be analyzed through an examination of power formations (1977, p. 308). Thus, for Guattari, linguistics cannot be separated from the study of political and social issues. One has to integrate the question of power with the problematic of meaning-making and representation (1977, p.242). Thus, the relationship between expression and content is not arbitrary it is realized through political and social structures (1977, p.241). What Saussure defined as an arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified in the process of representation is a manifestation of specific power forces. One of Guattari's main research questions concerns the examination of the many levels at which content and expression are articulated. This requires a redefinition of the categories of expression and substance. In 81

particular, the category of substance of expression involves not only semiotics and semiology, but also domains that are extra-linguistic, non-human, biological, technological, aesthetic, etc. (1995, p. 24). The substance of content also needs to be further developed to include not only the broad label of concepts, but also the social values, rules and the kind of thoughts that emerge from social processes. Thus, the process of signification intervenes through the articulation between a formalization of the content of a social field (social values and rules) and a machinery of expression that ultimately serves to automatize the behaviours, interpretations, and meanings recommended by the system (1977, p. 307).7 The links between expression and content are organized through social and political structures. What is involved in the production of a homogenous field of signification that correspond to the social, economic and moral dimensions of a specific power structure? From what Guattari suggests in Rvolution molculaire (1977, p. 307-308), the process of signification relies on two types of formalizations, one of which takes place at the level of content and the other at the level of expression. At the level of expression, the first type of formalization is a linguistic one, in that all the possibilities of language, of expression are reduced to specific syntaxes the proper rules for using language. The type of formalization that takes place at the level of content involves a recentering of power formations to establish semiotic and pragmatic equivalencies and significations in order

La signification, c'est toujours la rencontre entre la formalisation du champ social donn de systme de valeurs, de systmes de traductibilit , de rgles de conduite, et d'une machine d'expression qui par elle-mme na pas de sens, qui est, disons-nous, asignifiante, qui automatise les conduites, les interprtations, les rponses souhaites par le systme (1977, p. 307).


to produce signified content. Furthermore, Deleuze and Guattari see form and substance as part of the same continuum in that they are not really distinct, while content and expression are distinct and articulated so that between them (...), there is neither a correspondence nor a cause-effect relation nor a signified-signifier relation: there is real distinction, reciprocal presupposition, and only isomorphy (1987, pp. 502-503, cited in Wise, 1997, p. 61). What happens is that an abstract semiotic machine allows for the articulation of the linguistic machine (the proper language rules) with the structuration of specific power formations. For Guattari, this meeting point is important as it potentially allows for the reinforcement of a broader structure of power that goes beyond the production of specific, contextualized significations. Who has the right and legitimacy to articulate the linguistic machine with power formations is of crucial importance here, as Guattari argues that it is the centralization of that articulation within a broad economic and social machine (i.e. the state) that allows for the production of a system where the field of signification corresponds to social, economic and moral dimensions of broad power formations (1977, p. 308). For Guattari, then, there is no arbitrary relationship in signification, that is, between the categories of signifier and signified. On the contrary, the relationship between signifier and signified is a power manifestation, inasmuch as language is not any language, but the language of a dominant class or group (1977, p.272). Thus, the table representing the process of signification could be redesigned as follows:


Table 2: Guattari and Glossematics Substance Expression Form Linguistic Machine: Harnessing of expressive materials Ensemble of expressive materials: - Linguistic: signifying chain, batteries of signs. Sound, image, etc. (PS, 148) - Extra-linguistic domains: biological, political, social, technological, etc. Content Social values, social rules. Specific syntax Proper language rules Abstract Semiotic Machine: Process of articulation of the linguistic machine with power formations

Signified contents: establishment of specific equivalencies and significations. Legitimization of specific semiotic and pragmatic interpretations. Specific rhetoric

Recentering, rearticulation and hierarchization of power formations

Production of an ordered world: homogeneity of the field of production with the social, economic and moral dimensions of power. 84

Guattari's presentation of the process of signification as a process where power relations are defined and stabilized through a linguistic machine thus multiplies the sites where power processes take place. Power formations at the level of content are crucial in terms of determining how to properly interpret texts and the meanings they carry. At the same time, the level of expression is also a site of power struggle in that the processes at stake shape expressive materials into a set of rules. An example of the power struggles that can take place at the level of expression would be the invention of new techniques of using expressive materials. The impressionist movement in painting introduced a new way of using the material of paint and canvas, a revolution at the level of expression that went counter to the agreed-upon, legitimate model of expression that focused on precise description and mirroring of the object being painted. To go back to the main topic of this research the semiotics of the Web Guattari's model for understanding signifying semiotics is useful for defining some of the roles played by codes and protocols. At the level of expression, the harnessing of technical potential into specific codes and protocols echoes the kind of research questions defined by ANT regarding the relationships between human and non-human actors through processes of translation and mediation that are far from being neutral. Guattari's analytical framework makes it possible to reintegrate these questions within a semiotic framework. The level of expression thus allows for a reconciliation between the concepts of technology and language. Who defines the proper uses of technologies is the central question in the analysis of the role played by technology at the level of expression.


The above table, however, does not mention the category of matter, which plays a central role in Guattaris semiotic model. The kind of processes that take place between content and expression at the levels of substance and form are but one part of the problem. These relationships shape the signifying process. However, Guattari also defines an a-signifying process that involves matter, content and expression. The asignifying process is part of Guattari's broader reworking of Hjelmslev's glossematics. Indeed, Guattari's innovations are not limited to a redefinition of the levels of expression and content and an analysis of the processes through which the transition from substance to form is established. As Genosko summarizes it: Guattari defined signification as an encounter between diverse semiotic systems of formalization (a-signifying and signifying) on the planes of expression and content imposed by relations of power (2002, p. 161). For Guattari, the semiotic process that takes place at the level of expression and content between substance and form relies on signifying semiologies semiologies which are focused principally on the production of signs, or, as Guattari calls them, semiotically formed substances (1996b, p. 149). There are other processes at stake, and those involve a redefinition of the category of matter. For Hjelmslev, matter is defined as an amorphous mass that can only be known through its formalization as substance. For Guattari, on the contrary, matter can manifest itself without being transformed into a substance (Genosko, 2002, p. 166). This new understanding of matter is crucial for Guattari's model of mixed semiotics, as it allows for an examination of matter in terms of unformed, unorganized material intensities (Genosko, 2002, p. 166). In that sense, and as the multiple translation of the original Danish mening into both


matter, and purport, and especially in the French sens, matter makes sense, but this sense is not created through a process of representation it does not stand for something other than what it is. As Dawkins (2003) argues: Since matter is real, it does not presuppose form for its expression. In this respect, Guattari is not doing away with form completely, but he is reversing its precedence over matter (p. 156). As Guattari explains it, matter can also be divided along the lines of expression and content, with sens or purport as matter of expression and the continuum of material fluxes as matter of content. It now becomes possible to study the relationships between the five criteria of matter-substance-form and expression-content. These modes of semiotization are presented in table 3. Guattari's (1996b, p. 149-151) classification of modes of semiotization is as follows: Table 3: Mixed Semiotics Matter Expression purport (sens) Substance Form

a-signifying semiotics

Content Continuum of material fluxes

signifying semiologies

a-semiotic encodings


1 . A-semiotics encodings : an a-semiotic encoding is non-semiotically formed matter, that is, it is matter that functions independently of the constitution of a semiotic substance (1996b, p. 149). Guattari's example is that of genetic encoding, which is the formalization of material intensities into a code that is not an criture (1996, p. 149), or a signifying system. As Guattari further explains, a-semiotic encodings such as DNA are composed of a biological level, and an informational one. The biological - the material intensities - are encoded into an informational code that thus acts as a support of expression for these material intensities. As Genosko (2002, p. 167) further explains, genetic encodings can be transposed into signifying substances and in that sense can be semiotically captured and disciplined, but they are not in themselves formalized through semiotic substances. That is to say, DNA encodings can be captured by different interests that can impose genetic interpretation of genes with regards to, for instance, their desirability. The industry of genetic modification, in that sense, imposes a discipline onto encodings that originally do no signify anything, a discipline that is guided by specific interests and power relations. 2 . Signifying semiologies : this category concerns sign systems with semiotically formed substances on the expression and content planes (Genosko, 2002, p. 167). They are divided into two kinds. Symbolic semiologies involve several types of substances. Guattari refers to gestural semiotics, semiotics of sign language and ritual semiotics among others as examples of symbolic semiologies, as their substance of expression is not linguistic but gestural. Semiologies of signification, on the contrary, rely on one unique substance of expression a linguistic one, be it made


of sound, images, or other substances. Guattari defines this category as the dictatorship of the signifier (1996b, p. 150), in that the articulations that are established within semiologies of signification establish processes of semiotization that rely on representation that cuts signs off from the real and from material intensities, thus creating a signifying ghetto where a despotic signifier (...) treats everything that appears in order to represent it through a process of repetition which refers only to itself (Guattari, in Genosko, 2002, p. 168). Semiologies of signification involve the processes defined in table 2. 3 . A-signifying semiotics . As Guattari describes them, a-signifying semiotics involve a-signifying machines (that) continue to rely on signifying semiotics, but they only use them as a tool, as an instrument of semiotic deterritorialization allowing semiotic fluxes to establish new connections with the most deterritorialized material fluxes (1996b, p. 150). That is, a-signifying machines circulate the planes of expression and content and create relationships between matter, substance and form that are not primarily signifying. Guattari gives the example of physico-chemical theory, arguing that its goal is not to offer a mental representation of the atom or electricity, even though, in order to express itself, it must continue to have recourse to a language of significations and icons. This kind of abstract machine comes to create sign machines to support the setting up of an assemblage of experimental complexes and theoretical complexes (1996b, p. 151). As Genosko further explains, a-signifying semiotics establishes connections at the levels of form and matter (material intensities) that escape the overcoding functions


of signifying semiological systems (1996b, p. 169) and are unmediated by representation. In that sense, a-signifying semiotics produce another organization of reality (Seem and Guattari, 1974, p. 39). As Guattari describes it: The machines of mathematical signs, musical machines, or revolutionary collective set-ups might in appearance have a meaning. But what counts, in the theory of physics for example, is not the meaning to be found at a given link in the chain, but rather the fact that there is what Charles Sanders Peirce calls an effect of diagrammatization. Signs work and produce within what is Real, at the same levels as the Real, with the same justification as the Real. (...) In other words, what is real and what is sign short-circuits systems of representation, systems of mediation, let's call the systems of referential thought, whether they be called images, icons, signified, or mental representations, there is little difference. (1974, p. 40) Thus, a-signifying semiotics requires the deployment of a system of signs that is used to harness material intensities to shape what comes to be called reality. Different modes of semiotization are not mutually exclusive. For Guattari, there are mixed semiotics, that is, semiotics which participate in both a-signifying semiotics and signifying semiologies (1974, p. 40). That is, it is not so much that a given process corresponds to one or the other mode of semiotization, but rather that a process involving the formalization of material intensities and the deployment of signifying machines can be examined through these different perspectives. In La rvolution molculaire (1977, p. 294-295), Guattari gives an analysis of money according to the three kinds of encoding. The example of money as a phenomenon that involves multiple articulations between material intensities and signifying machines is useful for illustrating the novelty of Guattari's approach:


1 . A monetary system involves a-semiotic encodings through the mobilization of matters of expression that possess their own modes of encoding8, such as demographic fluxes, reserves of raw materials and geographic constraints (p. 294). 2. In terms of signifying semiologies, a monetary system deploys symbolic

semiologies in that it functions as an imaginary means of subjection9 (1977, p. 295). Being rich, for instance, can be expressed through non-linguistic substances of expression that act at the level of perception specific clothing and behaviours that differentiate between the haves and have-nots. These substances of expression are linked to specific formalized content they come to denote prestige and social status. Money is an imaginary means of subjection in that the symbolic semiologies that come to be linked with it codify relations of power. 3 . As encompassing semiologies of signification, money interacts with linguistic signifying encodings, for instance through a system of laws and regulations (1977, p. 295)10. A monetary system deploys machines of signification that imposes specific interpretations of money. It is not only that, for instance, state regulations impose a definition of who is rich and who is poor, but also that they literally define what money is worth. A five-dollar bill is only worth five dollars because a institutional machine has engraved that specific meaning onto a piece of paper.

Elle (l'conomie montaire) met en jeu des matires d'expression qui ont leur propre mode d'encodage (294) 9 Largent fonctionne comme un moyen d'asservissement imaginaire (295) 10 L'conomie montaire interagit constamment avec les encodages signifiants du langage, notamment travers le systme des lois et des rglementations (295).



When it is deployed as an a-signifying machine, money is not a means for

payment anymore, but a means for credit and financing (1977, p. 295).11 At a broad level, the a-signifying money machine allows for the shaping of specific lifestyles that are dictated by different instutional actors acting for state and market interests, for instance. Money as an a-signifying machine harnesses material intensities in the sense that it shapes a social and economic landscape. It is not that such a process is meaningless, but that signifying machines support the connections between material intensities and social and economic meanings and create a new reality. There are several levels at which power relations are deployed within a mixed semiotics. The first level of power relationships takes place at the level of signifying semiologies, and was explained above. More importantly for Guattari, the authority or dominant system also makes use of a-signifying semiotics in order to function. Science and monetary economy, for instance, as a-signifying semiotics are alone capable of putting to the use of the system of Power, the metabolism of signs, within the economy of material flows (1974, p. 40). Guattari's mixed semiotics allows for the examination of the abstract machine that shape the actualization of the diagrammatic conjunctions between sign systems and systems of material intensities (1977, p. 261).12 The image of the abstract machine as a diagram is central in Deleuze and Guattari's thought, as the diagram is not only a map of

L'inscription montaire fonctionne, en partie sur le mode d'une machine smiotique asignifiante, lorsqu'elle est utilise non plus comme moyen de paiement, mais comme moyen de crdit et de financement (295). 12 Ce machinisme abstrait 'prcde', en quelque sorte, l'actualisation des conjonctions diagrammatiques entre les systmes de signes et les systmes d,intensits matrielles


power relations, a cartography that is coextensive with the whole social field, but more importantly, it is an abstract machine (...) defined by its informal functions and matter and in terms of form makes no distinction between content and expression, a discursive formation and a non-discursive formation (Deleuze, 1988, p. 34). By examining how different semiotic machines function, Guattari's work aims towards a critique of power that is also based on the pivotal point between semiotic representation and the pragmatics of 'existentialization', to quote one of Guattaris comments on the influence of Foucault (1996a, p. 181). By recasting linguistic phenomena through a framework allowing for an analysis of their conjunctions and articulations with non-linguistic processes, Guattari's model of mixed semiotics reconciles questions regarding content and questions regarding media. Guattari's model thus allows for a technocultural framework to bridge questions linked with the issue of representation and material analyses that expresses a dissatisfaction with the central role played by language in cultural studies (Hansen 2000, Kitzmann, 2004). While Kitzmann is right in arguing that language is not the only medium for cultural analysis, and technology does more than just influence modes of representation (2004, p. 4), this should not necessarily lead to the abandoning of linguistic modes of analysis. The mixed semiotics model makes it possible to analyze technologies of communication not only in terms of the content they produce, but also in terms of their shaping of the real through the mobilization of actors and machinic processes. However, the mixed semiotics model as it is developed by Guattari, is not particularly adapted to the study of communication technologies and new (261). 93

media. Herein lies the theoretical and methodological challenge: adapting the model of mixed semiotics to analyze the relationship between materialities of communication and processes of signification in some specific case studies of the World Wide Web. 4. Mixed Semiotics and the Web Guattari's analysis of semiotic encodings was primarily developed within a specific psychoanalytic framework focused on critiquing the limits of traditional structuralist analyses and on shaping a new form of analysis schizoanalysis that could unearth new forms of resistance, new subjectivities that would resist the territorializing systems put in place by dominant power forces. However, Guattari seems to make few references to the media as such, except to point out that they can be analyzed through mixed semiotics. Cinema and television, for instance, put all sorts of materials of expression into play, independently of a production of meaning, with the overlapping of the semiotic of the image, a semiology of speech, a semiology of sounds, of noises, semiotics of corporal expression and then, on another side, these mixed semiotics are also signifying semiologies (1974, p. 40). Furthermore, technological machines of information and communication operate at the heart of human subjectivity, not only within its memory and intelligence, but within its sensibility, affects and unconscious fantasm (1995, p. 4). As such, media operate at different a-semiotic, signifying and asignifying levels, and their effects on the shaping of subjectivities are not only at the level of the production of signification, but also at the level of harnessing the formation of subjectivities through the flow of diverse components of subjectivation (1995, p. 16). Thus, watching television not only means being caught up in the signifying flows of the 94

narrative content of the program, but also the experience of a perceptual fascination provoked by the screen's luminous animation which borders on the hypnotic (1995, p. 16). The flows of subjectivation expressed through television thus involve both material intensities (the animations on the screen) and signifying semiologies (narrative content). How can Guattari's framework be used to analyze the semiotics of the World Wide Web? Guattari's model of mixed semiotics is useful for avoiding the divide between content and medium and for further analyzing the Web as a technocultural entity. The examination of a-semiotic, signifying and a-signifying processes allows for the mapping of the articulation of technologies, signifying spaces and cultural processes and as such makes it possible to analyze in detail the power formations expressed through a medium that give rise to specific organizations of reality - specific modes of existentialization of cultural practices, relations of power, subjectivities and identities. The mixed semiotics model is useful for furthering the problematic of the layer approach to the Web that was presented in the first chapter by making it possible to examine how technical components and cultural processes give rise to specific signifying and asignifying processes. By allowing for an examination of the elements constituting the interface as a semiotic space of interaction, the mixed semiotics model allows for a multifaceted analysis of the different technocultural levels that create the experience of the Web. At the a-semiotic level, the question of materialities that are encoded as nonsignifying information can be used to analyze specific forms of data processing on the Web. This, however, raises one central issue. It is necessary to acknowledge that encoded


data cannot be equated with a-semiotic encodings in a simple manner. As Guattari points out, the transmission of information through different channels, such as the transmission of a visual signal via cable that is then visually reconstituted on the television screen, is not an a-semiotic encoding (1977, p. 253). Signifying semiologies are involved in the process, which is one of translation from one mode of expression to another. What we understand as digitization then, is not a form of a-semiotic encoding. Guattari describes the a-semiotic process as one through which material intensities are encoded as information. Guattari further adds that a-semiotic encodings cannot directly be transposed within another encoding process. Within the framework for this research, I suggest that these characteristics - material intensities transformed into a specific informational code that is not directly transformable into a signifying system - offer a new way of looking at the informational dynamics of the Web. Indeed, it is important to realize that the Web is not simply a representational space, but functions through the circulation of information that is captured and reshaped by signifying and a-signifying systems. While there are physical materials involved in the shaping of the Web, such as hardware and electric signals, there are also the informational fluxes of content and users that represent a category of a-semiotic encodings worth studying, especially in their relation with adaptive software. Informational fluxes are not simply data circulating through computer networks, but processes put in place to measure the movements of users and information as they circulate on the Web. The movements of users and information are a-semiotic in the sense that the processes of tracking and measuring these movements do not directly lead to signification, or meaning. Rather, and as will be the shown in the case studies,


these processes are captured within specific signifying and a-signifying power formations. These movements are the very materials through which dynamic software, and software that supports content production, can be deployed thanks to processes of interpretation of those material intensities. With regards to the signifying level, the mixed semiotics model offers a way of mapping processes of transcoding (Manovich, 2001) as the translation of a message across different modes of expression, and from computer code to cultural signs. This is central to understand how cultural meanings are translated and mediated onto Web interfaces through their reconfiguration within different signifying systems. Combined with an actor-network approach, the mixed semiotics framework allows for a mapping of the agency of different signifying actors - in particular software and users - as they are articulated on the levels of content and expression. Guattaris mixed semiotics framework is useful for examining the articulation between different substances and forms of content and expression. This is not limited to analyzing the ways in which different programming languages come to be formalized at the level of expression, or the ways in which preferred readings and textual subject positions are deployed at the level of content, but also for examining how the articulation between expression and content give rise to specific cultural perceptions of the signs that make up the Web interface. As such, the mixed semiotics framework allows for further examination of the knowledge processes present on the Web - the ways in which users understanding of content is shaped through the definition of specific technocultural modes of perception. As will be made clearer in the case studies, the question of the cultural perception of signs highlights the need to


examine the specific values attributed to signs. The construction of these signifying values (social distinction, cultural attributes) results from the articulation of technical and cultural processes at the levels of content and expression. The a-signifying level allows for an examination of power formations on the Web that make use of the data gathered at the a-semiotic level and of the regimes of signification present on Web interfaces so as to produce specific modes of existentialization. The organization of reality through a-signifying processes thus makes it possible to see how the technologies of the Web are articulated within specific contexts to define specific modes of communication, cultural roles and subjectivities. For instance, an a-signifying analysis can be used to answer questions related to the subjectivities that are created on Web interfaces and the processes of actualization and existentialization of Web users within the specific technical, commercial, political and cultural constraints of a web space. The analysis of a-signifying processes also allows for an exploration of the articulations that allows for the definition of specific technocultural formats that actualize commercial, cultural, political interests and power formations. The purpose of this research is to examine the role played by Web codes, languages and protocols in allowing for the deployment of a-semiotic, signifying and asignifying processes on the Web. Thus, processes, programs and protocols devoted to the question of transmission or hardware will be ignored. The focus of the research is on the software that supports content production by allowing for the shaping of data into culturally readable information. The mixed semiotics model can be used to further understand the informational dynamics of the Web, that is, the ways in which content is


embedded within specific informational modes that articulate themselves onto power formations. The goal of this research is to show how the mixed semiotics model can be used to enrich current research questions in the field of Internet studies. In particular, the broader research concerned expressed by Rogers (2004) informational politics model can benefit from a mixed semiotics approach. The mixed semiotics framework, by allowing for the mapping of technical and cultural processes that shape a-semiotic, signifying and a-signifying encodings, makes is possible to identify the processes that make use of the front end and the back end in order to actualize specific perceptions and uses of the Web. In that sense, the mixed semiotics model allows for an extension of actor-network theory to questions related to media and semiotics at the signifying and a-signifying levels. Indeed, the two methodologies are complementary: Latour, for instance, defines the concept of network as similar to the concept of the rhizome. At the same time, the concept of the machine allows for an understanding of regularities that produce homogeneity through the stabilization of power relations something that, as Wise recalls, is missing in ANT (1997, p. 70). Furthermore, the diagrammatic processes through which material intensities are harnessed and shape realities through a-signifying machines allows for a deeper understanding of the effects of media as that question has been framed by medium theory. This includes not only the physiological effects of media, but also the ways in which the conjuncture of different technical components allows for the shaping of new sensitivities and affects. Furthermore, the examination of asignifying processes allows for the mapping of power relations as they capture the


material intensities present in media and reshape them into dominant models of communication, such as commercial television, radio as a one-way mass communication system, and the Internet as a data-minable source of large amounts of information. Finally, the mixed semiotics model creates a robust framework for the analysis of questions related to discourse and discourse networks: what are the characteristics of subjects and objects as they are mobilized through flows of signifying semiologies and asignifying semiotics? How are users defined and created through the articulation between cultural norms and technical artifacts (Chesher, 2003)? 5. Introducing the Case Studies Examining the role played by technology in creating conditions for meaning production on the Web is a task that is too broad for the purpose of this research. As a way of testing theoretical frameworks such as Guattaris mixed semiotics, it is necessary to proceed by focusing on specific case studies. The approach to the case studies of this research proceeds from an instrumental (Stake, 2005 p. 437) perspective, in order to provide the grounds for more in-depth theorizing about the production of discursive machines on the Web. That is, there is no pre-defined theory as to the characteristics of the World Wide Web as a medium that will be proven through the case studies. Rather, the case studies, through testing this new analytical framework, will serve to build theories for future research. Case studies have traditionally been used to analyze a specific event through an examination of the interplay of all variables in order to provide


as complete an understanding of an event or situation as possible.13 As such, case studies strive to be holistic. What is different with the case studies in this research is that they are focused primarily on technological actors, not human ones. In terms of methodologies, the approach to the case studies will follow Stakes argument (2005) that a case study is not a methodological choice, but a choice of what is to be studied. By whatever method, we choose to study that case (p. 435). The choice of having multiple case studies to analyze the role played by web representational technologies in the development of regimes of signs on the Web involves the use of several methodologies. The mixed semiotics model provides a framework within which research questions stemming from various methodologies such as ANT and Foucauldian discourse analysis and focus on the relationships between technology and language can be examined: 1. The shaping of the agencies of software within specific assemblages of human and non-human actors creating the conditions for the production and circulation of meaning. 2. The role played by software in the processes of formalization to create specific regimes of signs. It is not simply a question of studying the rules of communication in specific web environments, but more importantly of tracing how specific rules emerge from technocultural potentialities. 3. The discursive and material relationships suggested through the deployment of regimes of signs, among which are the delimitation of the agency of users, and the ways
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in which content is supposed to be approached, not only at an interpretational level, but also at the level of affect. 4. The ways in which these regimes of signification delineate the possibilities offered by the medium, that is, the communicational and cultural characteristics of representation on the Web. 5. The ways processes of signification circulating through mixed semiotics processes give way to specific modes of existentialization of power relations and subjectivities. Whereas the first case study examines the relationship between the interface and the production of consumer subjectivities through adaptive technologies on, the second case study examines how techno-discursive rules are rearticulated with regards to the use of the MediaWiki software package by Wikipedia and other Wiki websites. Case study 1: Adaptive interfaces and the production of subjectivities - the case of Amazon The first case study examines the strategies put in place to represent consumers and commercial goods through the production of adaptive and automated hyperlinked and hypermediated environments. Founded in 1994, the Amazon website ( demonstrates the ways in which technical tools, which automatically process users surfing and reading preferences, aim to create a qualitative environment through quantitative, statistical analysis. The automatization and quantification of the traditionally qualitative process of recommending books and other cultural products 102

highlights the interplay between different technocultural layers. At the social level, the experience is both commercial (buying books) and cultural (as it is a search for meaningful artifacts). The hypertextual characteristics of the website adds a multi-level experience that is specific to the Web: the user can search by using trails of association that can follow a specific theme, author, Amazons recommendations, or other users recommendations. The technical layers register users clicks, enabling this entire cultural experience to be increasingly customized the longer the user surfs on the website. In the end, the user is interacting only with a set of machines processing both personal and social behaviours so as to produce something culturally relevant. The software processes surfing behaviour in order to define the correct cultural answer. In that sense, the software processes users in order to represent them within the cultural space of the website. It thus becomes necessary to analyze these different technical processes as actors and mediators that construct objects and subjectivities by mimicking qualitative processes. The technical layers are not simply the tools that allows for interactivity among human actors, but become the silent actor with which human actors have to dialogue. Case Study 2: Mixed Semiotics and the Economies of the MediaWiki Format While is an instance of the commercial use of dynamic content production techniques on the Web, MediaWiki (initially released in 2002), and Wikipedia (founded in 2001) as its most popular embodiment, stand as symbols of a noncommercial model of collaborative knowledge creation. While the case study focuses on the circulation of the book as a cultural object as a starting point of 103

analysis, the MediaWiki case study explores the circulation of a technocultural format: the Wiki format. The Wikipedia model is not only cultural, but also technical as collaborative knowledge production relies on a suite of software tools - the wiki architecture - that enable these new discursive practices. At the same time, the Wikipedia model relies on the cultural shaping of technologies through active intervention by human actors in order to assign specific proper uses of technological tools. The mutual shaping of technological capacities and cultural ideals and practices puts into question any model that would attempt to explain the Wikipedia technoculture as the simple transposability of culture into technology. The Wikipedia model is the result of a set of articulations between technical and cultural processes, and the case study examines how this model is captured, modified and challenged by other websites using the same wiki architecture MediaWiki - as Wikipedia. In particular, the case study examines how legal and technical processes capitalize on user-produced content as a source of revenue, thus revealing how technical and commercial processes on the Web appropriate discursive practices.


Chapter 3 Cultural Objects and Software-Assisted Meaning Creation - The Case of Books on 1. and Mixed Semiotics is often referred to as one of the most important success stories of the Web. As a pioneer in e-commerce, amazon has managed to survive the dot-com curst of the late 1990s and is ranked as one of the top 50 most visited sites on the Web ( The reason for its success are multiple, from the size of its catalogue to its lower prices and fast delivery system. Yet, the reasons for the success of are not simply linked to its commercial infrastructure. What distinguishes the online experience of, in comparison to other online bookstores such as Barnes & Nobles in the United States or Chapter-Indigo in Canada, is that it is also a unique cultural space where users are offered ways to make sense of the many books and other cultural items that are presented to them. articulates the cultural and the commercial as the experience of surfing on the website is one of exploring the meanings of books so as to select the ones that are most appropriate to ones interests. Indeed, the experience of searching on the Amazon website cannot be compared with the experience of using a search engine such as Google, because the core of the experience on is one of browsing. That is, while it is possible to search for specific titles on, the main experience is one of exploring, of broadening ones horizon of cultural expectations rather than narrowing it down to limited selection. Furthermore, the uniqueness of the model is that this process of finding 105

meanings is not done by users only, but requires that users interact with a recommendation software. The more users interact with the recommendation software on the amazon website, the more the software can get back at users with customized and tailored suggestions. In so doing, the recommendation software sends back not only meanings to users, but also, through its specific modes of translating information about users as cultural meanings, shapes subjectivities and consumer identities. The circulation of meanings on amazon needs to be acknowledged through the analysis of the articulations and exchanges between users and software on the website. The networks of users and software needs to be further described by taking into account the interactions between users and software, and the ways in which the software can be used by users at the same time that it shapes specific user agencies that are unique to It is of particular interest to examine how these articulations and exchanges translate, in Latours sense of the word, the cultural search for meanings into a commercial incentive. The goal of the present chapter is to analyze the actor-networks on involved in the production of meanings at the interface level through Guattaris mixed semiotics framework. In terms of looking at the a-semiotic, signifying and a-signifying processes of content production on, there are three central articulations between users and software that can be identified. At the a-semiotic level, the information gathered about books and users constitutes the basis for a-semiotic encodings. A-semiotic encodings concern the processes for gathering, storing and formalizing data. In that sense, tools used to gather data, such as cookies (Figure 3) are sites of analysis, along


with other processes for transforming data into useable information as they are defined through the architecture. Figure 3: Cookies - Screen Capture of Mozilla Firefox Cookie Window

At the signifying level, the interface can be analyzed as resulting from a process of capturing a-semiotic encodings within signifying semiologies, and of articulating signifying rules and discourses with broader a-signifying power formations. In that sense, the processes that shape the interface are a central site of analysis (Figure 4).


Figure 4: The Interface (Cookies Enabled)

The central site of analysis at the a-signifying level concerns the existentialization of users. At that level, the Hello, Ganaele (Figure 5) appearing each time I log onto the website does not simply acknowledge successful connection, but also recognizes me as a user within a specific framework. The work of the software, then, is not only to offer meanings, but also to interpret which meanings are the most appropriate for my profile. In that sense, the recommendation software, along with other features present on the website, is in charge of shaping the cultural perception of users. That is, in the process of articulation between software and human actors, the software shapes the identities and subjectivities of users. It becomes indispensable, then, to analyze how the software, through the existentialization of the category of the user, serves to translate economic goals as cultural subjectivities and practices within the commercial environment of 108

Amazon. Figure 5: Personalization on

The remediation of books in an online environment such as represents a fundamental change of status in that books, on the website, are textualized. As such, the process of selling books on Amazon requires a temporary transformation of books into Web pages that act as repositories of cultural meanings and associations about the content of the book itself and the broader cultural context within which the book is inscribed. It is this transition from the physical to the virtual through textualization that allows for the deployment of multiple ways of creating meanings, and for the definition of specific techniques for exploring the meanings associated with books. In ANT terms, it is the translation of books from cultural objects to textualized online pages that is the starting point for analyzing the a-semiotic, signifying and a-signifying networks present on the interface. There are several modalities for analysis that need to be examined. Following Guattaris framework for examining the process of signification, one has to acknowledge that the actors participating in the production and circulation of books as signs on shape a machinery of signification. Thus, the starting premise for the analysis is that the platform is an abstract semiotic machine as it allows for the articulation of linguistic, software and cultural processes to form a coherent space of 109

cultural and commercial consumption. As Table 4 shows, Guattaris framework can be used to represent the process of signification on At the level of expression, the shaping of expressive materials to formulate signifying practices specific to involves the creation of an interface with set elements with which users can interact (e.g. hyperlinks, search boxes, rating boxes, review spaces). These linguistic elements allowing for the formulation of representations are articulated with specific extra-linguistic domains, in particular the software layers in charge of processing user behaviour (i.e. the recommendation system and the profiling system), as well as commercial interests. At the level of content, the production of cultural meanings that are associated to specific book titles is dictated by discursive values that delineate the sphere of legitimate activity for users, as well as broader values related to the formal production and consumption of meaning. As will be explained in this chapter, these cultural sensitivities towards meaning production and consumption can be explained through Lipovetskys analysis of the different processes of signification, and the different cultural perceptions of meanings as described in his book The Empire of Fashion. While the representation of the process of signification is useful for understanding the specific status of books as cultural signs on, there are some new categories of discourse and new power relations that need to be explored through Guattaris mixed semiotics framework. The goal of analyzing is not only to understand the translation of books into cultural signs that articulate users with specific textual and social values, but also how this process of signification reflect new discursive relations as well as new power relations. The figure of the user of the


website is central, as the machine creates links between users and books as signs at both the level of meaning production and the level of meaning circulation. That is, there is a dynamic process whereby users create meanings and are further shaped through the processing of their behaviours by a software machine. Furthermore, users represent a new discursive category, as they are present in both the sphere of authorship and that of readership. Conventional discursive categories have then to be revisited in order to examine users and their practices as instances of articulation between cultural and software processes. Thus, while Table 4 represents the processes at stake in developing signifying semiologies on, an analysis of the production of the category of the user requires the deployment of a-semiotic encodings and a-signifying semiologies (Table 5). The level of a-semiotic encoding represents the articulation between user behaviour, book information and the layers of software in charge of creating databases. That is, the a-semiotic encoding stage represents the transformation of different kinds of information into data. These databases are then captured by signifying semiologies and a-signifying semiotics through the processing of data by the recommendation system and the profiling system. At the level of signifying semiologies, data is captured by amazon.coms recommendation system and is subsequently translated into meaningful recommendations for a selection of book titles. The profiling system assists the recommendation system in identifying the cultural interests of users and in further defining meaningful suggestions. At the level of a-signifying semiotics, the production of the cultural category of the user is made through the formulation of a whole series of disciplinary and cultural processes designed to shape the sphere of activity of


users. In that sense, user behaviour is processed into new behaviours that are further integrated within the machine. This shaping of practice takes place not only at the level of imposing rules to users, but also at the more productive level of channeling practices and actions within a specific sphere: the production of signifying semiologies through collaborative filtering. The above framework offers a starting point for examining the technocultural processes at stake in the production of meanings on This chapter builds on Guattaris framework by examining the production of books as cultural objects, the production of the articulation between users and books through social personalization, and the production of users through a process of profiling and collaborative filtering. By way of anchoring the analysis of the articulation between signifying and a-signifying semiologies, two examples will be used throughout this study. The first one is Gilles Lipovetskys Empire of Fashion (Figure 6). Lipovetskys analysis of fashion serves as a basis for analyzing how cultural interpretations of signs and objects are shaped by specific ideals that are not only related to social status, but also to the individualist ethos of contemporary society. The Empire of Fashion serves a dual purpose in this study, as the articulation between signifying processes and cultural perception described by Lipovetsky can, as will be argued in this chapter, be successfully applied to understand the types of cultural interpretations that are created through Amazons recommendation process. This book will serve as a point of comparison with the second title used - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Figure 7). Not only is Harry Potter a different genre (a novel) and a different category (childrens fantasy) than Empire of Fashion, it is also


subject to intense marketing. Importantly too, the book did not exist as a mass publication when the data collection was done for this study, yet it was the number one bestseller on It was therefore entirely virtual and its presence on the website illustrates the new cultural practices around book consumption that are developed online.


Table 4: Amazon.coms Signifying Semiologies

Substance Form Linguistic Machine Ensemble of expressive materials: - Linguistic domain: the interface, including a range of visual and auditory signs (words, images, numbers, symbols such as stars, posdcasts). -Extra-linguistic domains: Recommendation software, commercial forces (i.e. advertising, sponsored recommendations, authoritative reviews), profiling tools. Content Social values and rules: - Amazon.coms rules of discourse - what can be said by who as expressed in Amazon.coms guidelines and in the design of the interface. - Broader values related to the consumption of meaning, in particular the articulation of meanings with cultural desires (Lipovetskys Empire of Fashion). Signified contents: - Production of book as signs that channel cultural meanings. Legitimization of specific semiotic and pragmatic interpretations: - The recommendation system interprets the behaviours of users as cultural meanings. Specific syntax and language rules: - Range of signifying practices available to users (i.e. write a review, rate items, tag items). - Range of signifying practices available to the Web Service layer (i.e. hyperlinks).


The platform is the abstract semiotic machine that articulates the linguistic machine with power formations.

Ordering of discursive power formations


Table 5: Mixed Semiotics on Matter

Expression Purport (sens):



A-signifying semiotics: production of the user as a discursive category with a circumscribed range of actions and expressions that articulate themselves on discursive and non-discursive rules. Signifying Semiologies: Symbolic semiologies: definition of specific practices and repetitive gestures following the articulation between discursive and social and cultural rules.


Semiologies of signification: book as cultural sign.

Continuum of material fluxes: - User behaviour - Book information

a-semiotic encoding: Creation of a database through the processing of users behaviour into data.

The a-semiotic encoding is captured by signifying semiologies (through the recommendation system and profiling system) to create new cultural meanings


Figure 6: The Empire of Fashion


Figure 7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows


2. The Architecture of Data Processing as A-semiotic Encoding

With regard to building a cultural experience, the most important feature of the bookstore is not the millions of titles that its catalogue offers, but the ways in which users are assisted by software programs in their search for books so that they are not inundated by the volume of information available on the website. That is, the core of the process lies in deploying techniques so that order can emerge and meaningful links can be established to answer to users cultural interests through the production of recommendations. At the technical level, this requires a specific architecture that makes it possible to process a large amount of data - not only book titles, price information and order processing forms (e.g. adding items to a shopping cart), but also the different categories of meanings as expressed through texts (e.g. customer reviews) as well as actions (e.g. click-through rate). The structure of is what is called a service oriented architecture composed of two levels: a back-end, offline level that includes databases and the systems in charge of processing data to find links and correlations, and an online service level using software components. The software components process data from the databases to produce interface and services. As Amazon CTO Werner Vogels explains it, the development of as a service oriented architecture was necessary for the processing of data in a fast manner: the big architectural change that Amazon went through in the past five years was to move from a two-tier monolith to a fully distributed, decentralized services platform serving many


different applications.14 This includes the services and applications that make up the amazon platform, the services that create an interface with retail partners, and Amazon Web Services, which are software components that amazon sells to its network of affiliates and to other websites15. The process for publishing content on the amazon website is complex. As Vogels explains: If you hit the gateway page, the application calls more than 100 services to collect data and construct the page for you. Thus, it is not simply a question of human or commercial actors entering comments about a book and of the technical architecture of the website being able to publish these comments in almost real time. Rather, the production of content on amazon, and in particular the production of recommendations, requires several steps. First there needs be a collecting of data. Information about books such as price, availability, etc. is required in order to create Amazon web pages that can be updated and customized in almost real time. Information about users is also necessary, and includes several aspects such as age, geographic location, past items bought or consulted. Surfing patterns are also recorded through surveillance devices such as cookies. In reference to Guattaris mixed semiotics framework, the collecting of data constitutes a first step in the formation of a-semiotic encodings. Information stored in databases is formalized through data processing by different services and is then used by specific applications to produce customized
14 15


recommendations and Web pages.16 The service applications capture a-semiotic encodings in order to produce signifying semiologies. Information about users and the books they have bought, for instance, serves as a basis on which to create meaningful and culturally relevant recommendations. The service layer in charge of formalizing content uses specification such as WSDL (Web Services Description Languages), which, using XML (Extensible Markup Language), allows developers to describe the functional characteristics of a web service - what actions or functions the service performs in terms of the messages it receives and sends (Weerawarana, 2005). The amazon interface that users have access to is thus the product of numerous services and applications that adapt web pages to the preferences of users. Those services use a language (WSDL) that describes functions, not semantics: a WSDL document tells, in syntactic or structural terms, what messages go in and come out of from a service. It does not provide information on what the semantics of that exchange are. That is, while those services give form to a Web page, they do not do in themselves any kind of interpretation of the content of that page. Services and applications serve as delegates, in Latours words (Latour, 1999, p. 187) that can process vast amount of information - that is, material intensities - through algorithmic processing. This type of processing is designed to translate the qualitative search for meaning into quantitative processes. Results from the data processing are transformed into representations on the interface. Thus, the Amazon services and applications articulate a-semiotic encodings and signifying semiologies. As we will see later in the chapter, the service layer plays an important role



in stabilizing the cultural experience of by providing a discursive and practical framework (through defining the types of interactions user can engage with among themselves and with the software layer) that ensures the experiential stability needed for the deployment of the amazon.coms meaning production machine. Figure 8: A-semiotic and Signifying Processes on


3. Signifying Semiologies on Shaping the Cultural Perception of Meaning The production of content is realized through the interactions between three different categories of actors. The first category includes users who, for instance, write reviews and tag and rate items. The second category of actors includes commercial actors, for instance those using sponsored advertising and paid placements. The third category of actor includes software, for instance programs designed to produce content through mining databases. Those programs include amazon.coms own recommendation system, which is a central component of the cultural experiences created by the interface. To understand the machinery of meaning production and circulation on, it is necessary to examine how the three categories of actors can intervene in the signifying process. In particular, one has to acknowledge the omnipresence of software as a technical mediator of user-produced and commercialproduced content and as an active participant in the production of meanings. In that way, it is useful to first look at the different software actors active in the signifying process in order to understand the technocultural shaping of users perception of the meanings that are offered to them. The search for meaningful cultural objects on represents both a link and a point of departure between the existence of books in physical bookstores and on, especially as deploys a new category of technical actors to produce content. As a starting point, it is useful to reflect on the difference between the cultural practice of finding books online and that of finding books in a physical


bookstore. The problem online commercial environments are faced with is that they can only partially approximate tangible cultural objects through the virtual representation of books, such as title web pages on There is a need to make up for the loss of physicality of the book as an object and of the practices associated with it - holding a book, flipping through the pages - through the implementation of processes that are designed to mimic these physical practices. Thus, it is possible on the amazon website to browse sample pages - to look at a table of contents and read excerpts. However, the innovative features of the website are not so much related to how best it can imitate a physical bookstore as they are focused on assisting users in defining the meanings of a book within a discursive network. Some of these features literally surpass the possibilities offered in the physical world. For instance, amazon.coms search inside the book feature is transcendent of print books insofar as it can deliver salient content that would have otherwise been unnoticed (Marinaro, 2003, p. 4). Thus, imitates and reproduces existing practices of looking for and buying books but also creates new ones, and, in the process, redefines what books stand for. From an ANT perspective, it could be said that the mediation of books in a virtual environment requires a detour in that the physicality of the book is replaced by informational practices that are supposed to stand for specific practices. This detour, however, also creates a change with regards to goals. As Latour (1999, p. 179) explains it, the translation of one set of practices through technologies results in goal translation. In the case of Amazon, the goal is not simply to imitate physical books and the practice associated with them, but also to create new practices of searching for content.


Books are not simply remediated on; they undergo a change from being a particular type of referent that contains multiple signs and signification about a range of topics to becoming signs in that they are transformed into web pages. Furthermore, the process of turning books into signs does not simply mean that web pages represent a physical object, but that they express the cultural meanings associated with that object. These meanings are related to the position of a book in a network of other books. This positioning is produced through the articulation between users practices and software processes. The representation of books in online environments reveals a shift in the status of books so that they become nodes on a network consisting of other books, commentaries and various kinds of meta-information (Esposito, 2003). The new possibilities offered by the digitization of books are related to the possibility of creating and searching for information and, by extension, to the cultural meanings of specific books. The formation of these cultural meanings, in the case of is co-constitutive with the new status of books as not only signs, but also as mediators between a selling entity ( and users. There are several components of the architecture that are devoted to producing content and meanings. Some of those are conventional systems of ordering information into categories, for instance, through themes. Of the two book titles discussed in this chapter, J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows belongs to the Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and Horror section of the Childrens books category, while Gilles Lipovetskys Empire of Fashion can be found under of the Cultural Anthropology section of the Social Sciences category. This categorization


indicates that both titles are related to all the other titles in their respective categories as they focus on similar topics (e.g. fashion for the Empire of Fashion), or genres (e.g. childrens literature for Harry Potter). Furthermore, offers multiple ways of searching for items, including common online features such as a search box to search by title, author or keywords, and the option to browse through categories. Most importantly, has developed its own recommendation system, called item-to-item collaborative filtering (Linden, Smith and York, 2003). The principles of item-to-item collaborative filtering have been patented by The difference between amazon.coms recommendation system and other filtering and collaborative systems is that rather than matching the user to similar customers, item-toitem collaborative filtering matches each of the users purchased and rated items to similar items, then combines those items into a recommendation list (Linden, Smith and York, 2004, p. 78). That is, amazon.coms recommendation system proceeds by establishing correlations through the analysis of purchasing, viewing, rating and search patterns. In its official documentation, asserts that this recommendation

For recommendations based on items bought, see: Hanks, Steve and Spils, Daniel. (2006). For recommendations based on items viewed, see: Linden, Gregory; Smith, Brent; Zada, Nida. (2005). For recommendations based on actions recorded during a browsing session, see: Smith, Brent; Linden, Gregory and Zada, Nida. (2005) and Bezos, Jeffrey; Spiegel, Joel; McAuliffe, Jon. (2005). For recommendations based on shopping cart content, see: Jacobi, Jennifer; Benson, Eric; Linden, Gregory. (2001). For recommendations based on ratings, see: Jacobi, Jennifer; Benson, Eric. (2000). For recommendations based on terms searched see: Whitman, Ronald; Scofield, Christopher. (2004), Ortega, Ruben; Avery, John and Robert, Frederick. (2003), Bowman, Dwayne; Ortega, Ruben; Linden, Greg; Spiegel, Joel. (2001), Bowman, Dwayne; Ortega, Ruben; Hamrick, Michael; Spiegel, Joel; Kohn, Timothy. (2001), Bowman, Dwayne; Ortega,


system produces better results than other collaborative filtering techniques: our algorithm produces recommendations in real-time, scales to massive data sets, and generates high-quality recommendations (2004, p. 77). Furthermore, according to, the click-through and conversion rates - two important measures of Webbased and email advertising effectiveness - vastly exceed those untargeted content such as banner advertisements and top-seller lists (2004, p. 79). Item-to-item collaborative filtering works by analyzing the similarities between items. These similarities can be defined through identifying which items customers buy together, which items are placed in a shopping cart, which items are viewed in the same browsing session and which items are similarly rated. In so doing, can provide a seemingly infinite number of recommendations, because those recommendations change as the browsing patterns and list of available titles change on the website. The difference between recommendations established on items bought rather as opposed to items viewed are supposed to be complementary: Another benefit to using viewing histories is that the item relationships identified include relationships between items that are pure substitutes for each other. This is in contrast to purely purchase based relationships, which are typically exclusively between items that are complements of one another. (Smith, Brent; Linden, Gregory and Zada, Nida, 2005). Thus, any item purchased, placed in a shopping cart or viewed is accompanied by a list of recommendations (image 9).

Ruben; Hamrick, Michael; Spiegel, Joel; Kohn, Timothy. (1999) and Bowman, Dwayne;


Figure 9: Recommendations featured on the Empire of Fashion page.

These recommendation features include links to pages listing what customers who have bought or viewed an item have also bought or viewed (Figure 10), recommendations on the shopping cart webpage, as well as recommendations on ones personal Linden, Greg; Ortega, Ruben; Spiegel, Joel. (2006).


Figure 10: Recommendations by Items Bought for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

The personal (Figure 11) serves as a personalized entryway to the website where users can refine their recommendations by rating and tagging items, as well as by making it possible to create wish lists, post a profile and find communities of users with the same interests. These pages encourage users to be proactive in getting more up-todate recommendations through rating and tagging items.


Figure 11: My Profile page on

These ratings and tags, as well as information about which items a user currently own


allow for an extremely personalized set of recommendations to emerge (Figure 12). Figure 12: Personalized Recommendations Based on Items Rated.

The example in Figure 12 shows that the recommendation software establishes a link between Deleuze and Guattaris Thousand Plateaus and Jamesons Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. As other users have bought or viewed and highly rated both books, the recommendation software considerers them as meaningfully linked with each other and therefore complementary. The link between Thousand Plateaus and Jamesons Postmodernism is easy to see from a conventional perspective. Both books can be categorized as cultural studies works focused on developing a post-marxist critique of capitalism. In the same way, the recommendations that are listed from the two example of


this study include titles where the cultural links is readily apparent. The recommendations based on items bought for Empire of Fashion include Hypermodern Times, another of Lipovetskys books. Most of the other recommended titles focus on a cultural analysis of fashion, such as, for instance, Roland Barthess Language of Fashion . The recommendation list based on items bought for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows lists related Harry Potter Material (e.g. the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire DVD) as well as fantasy and kids fiction (e.g. Eldest and Lemony Snicket). Figure 13: Recommendations Based on Items Viewed for The Empire of Fashion

The affiliations between recommended items seem to be fairly straightforward. However, amazon.coms recommendation system differs from traditional recommendation systems in that by processing the buying and viewing patterns surrounding an item, it aims at measuring the probabilities of an item being similar to another one regardless of the


categories within which these items are placed. As founder Jeff Bezos argues, amazon.coms recommendation system offers radically novel suggestions: We not only help readers find books, we also help books find readers, and with personalized recommendations based on the patterns we see. I remember one of the first times this struck me. The main book on the page was on Zen. There were other suggestions for Zen books, and in the middle of those was a book on how to have a clutter-free desk. Thats not something a human editor would have ever picked. But statistically, the people who were interested in the Zen books also wanted clutter-free desks. The computer is blind to the fact that these things are dissimilar in some way thats important to humans. It looks right through that and says yes, try this. And it works. (Wired, January 2005) Bezos suggests that there is an element of meaningful incongruity that is at stake in the recommendation process in that the recommended titles might not make sense from a conventional perspective, but could potentially bridge different types of interests by transcending cultural categorization. For instance, the list of recommendations based on items viewed includes items that should not be related to the original item from a conventional perspective. According to the recommendation list based on items viewed, there is a link between Lipovetskys Empire of Fashion and the DVD of a theatre adaptation of Jane Eyre (Figure 14). The list of recommendations based on items viewed for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows list Harry Potter related titles and items, but also Rhonda Byrnes The Secret, another bestseller on (Figure 15).


Figure 14: Recommendations based on Item Viewed for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

The production of recommendations that ignore cultural categorization is more visible with an in-depth visualization of the recommendation network. The images presented below were provided by Touchgraph ( - a visualization software that maps the recommendations linked to a specific title on The Touchgraph software is useful for providing a software-based perspective rather than a user-based perspective. That is, the Touchgraph visualization represents potential hyperlink paths from one recommendation to the next in their totality. The Touchgraph visualizations do not represent the surfing pattern of a specific user, but rather depicts the overall organizing pattern of the recommendation software. The Touchgraph visualization software thus offers a way to examine the informational architecture of the


recommendation system. As is made apparent with the visualizations, the recommendation system, by bypassing thematic boundaries, operates through a cultural logic of ever-expanding inclusion. Unfortunately, the Touchgraph visualization software does not include all the recommendations as it does not crawl the different recommendation pages but only looks for the titles mentioned under the customers who bought this item also bought... box on a title page. The process for producing the networks of recommendations for Empire of Fashion and Harry Potter involved doing a search for both Empire of Fashion and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on the Touchgraph interface. The two titles were then crawled for their recommendations. There were 11 recommendations for Empire of Fashion and 10 recommendations for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Figures 15 and 19). Those recommendations were then crawled, thus going to a depth of two (Figure 17 and 21). The visualization software also maps the links between all these items and is therefore useful for identifying to what extent a cluster of recommendations is circular and the degree to which, on the contrary, it reaches across from the original cluster of recommendations. As can be seen, the Touchgraph software also automatically identify thematic clusters by using different colours. As the network visualization shows, the recommendation system allows for the existence of clusters of tightly linked items as well as cross-cluster links. The recommendations for the Harry Potter book, for instance, include other Harry Potter material, but also related fantasy clusters such as the one surrounding Christopher Paolinis Eldest cluster as well as items that are not as obviously related to the series, such as a mystery novel from Janet Evanovich and the Casino Royale DVD. The first


layer of the recommendation network around Empire of Fashion is mostly made of cultural analyses of fashion, but there are also other clusters of titles focused on a historical approach to fashion, graphic arts as well as new economy related books (such as Wikinomics) in the cluster around Hypermodern Times. The set of visualization by subjects also shows the ways in which the recommendation network extends itself outward (Figures 16, 18, 20, 22). For instance, the recommendation network around the Empire of Fashion includes economics, while the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows network includes feature films. The Touchgraph visualizations reveal that some recommendations are going to be culturally relevant to a specific title as they are thematically related to that title. However, there are new suggestions that might seem to be completely unrelated to the original title from a conventional perspective, but because they are analyzed by a recommendation system that looks for similarities, they are presented as culturally relevant in a new way. The important aspect of the recommendation system is that it is suggestive rather than authoritative. For instance, the new kinds of recommendations it produces might indeed be the result of different users using the same computer with the same IP address. However, because there is the possibility of an actual match, the recommendation software will present what could be anomalies as culturally linked to each other. Furthermore, the production of cultural meanings through amazon.coms recommendation software proceeds through suggestions. Rather than providing a set of authoritative explanations about why a title can be linked to another one, suggests affiliations. The rationale for these affiliations is, to some extent, quite artificial


in that it is based on the assumption that there are always potential links, but in so doing, it also provides the basis for infinite surfing and viewing possibilities.


Figure 15: Recommendation Network for the Empire of Fashion (depth 1). 28.March 2007.





recommendations associated with T h e Empire of Fashion. The recommendations at this level are thematically linked to the original title as they include mostly books on fashion, as well as another of Gilles Lipovetskys book


Figure 16: Recommendation Network for the Empire of Fashion (depth 1 - subjects). 28 March 2007.

This visualization represents the same network as the previous visualization. It also lists the subjects under which all the recommendations are categorized. Those subjects are also relatively homogenous, covering the category of fashion (fashion, Grooming, Beauty, etc. ), as well as social sciences and humanities (i.e. cultural studies, history, social history, sociology, art)


Figure 17: Recommendation Network for The Empire of Fashion (depth 2). 28 March 2007. This visualization shows the

recommendations for Empire of Fashion, as well as their recommendations. The recommendations are not as thematically linked as in previous visualization. The red and turquoise cluster are about fashion, while the blue and green cluster show a more eclectic selection, from books on Internet and economics (i.e. Wikinomics and The Wealth of Networks) to movies (i.e. Marie-Antoinette).


Figure 18: Recommendation Network for The Empire of Fashion (depth 2 - subjects). 28 March 2007.

This visualization shows the subject categories in the recommendation network. The recommendation

software works by extending the network of recommendations, and thus there is a greater variety of subjects.


Figure 19: Recommendation Network for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (depth 1). 27 March 2007.





recommendation network for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Compared with The Empire of Fashion, we see a greater range of cultural products, including DVDs (Happy Feet, Cars). While there are some thematic links with Harry Potter , in particular other Harry Potter books and childrens fantasy (Lemony Snicket, Eldest), the recommendations also include items that have little thematic relevance (i.e. Plum Lovin, Casino Royale).


Figure 20: Recommendation Network for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (depth 1; subjects). 27 March 2007.

The subjects for the recommendations for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows covers a broader range of categories (movies, action, children, adventure). In comparison with Empire of Fashion, the Harry Potter network is less thematically coherent. The recommendation software does not offer any qualitative differentiation - it cannot understand that some items might have been purchased for different purposes (i.e. gifts for different people). In so doing though, the recommendation system suggests to users that there is a possibility that what might at first seem like disparate items have a cultural link.


Figure 21: Recommendation Network for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (depth 2). 27 March 2007.

With this second-level recommendation visualization, it is possible to identify in the red cluster some items that are directly related to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows , such as other Harry Potter and Childrens books. The purple and olive clusters also list fantasy title. It is more difficult to see the conventional links between Harry Potter and the items listed in the other clusters.


Figure 22: Recommendation Network for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (depth 2; subjects). 27 March 2007.

Visualizing the subject categories highlights further that the

recommendation system works through a logic of never-ending expansion rather than trying to narrow down a search to specific titles. In so doing, the

recommendation system aims to engage users in browsing rather than searching. The recommendation software multiplies the possibilities of consumption.


The omnipresence of a list of recommendations when surfing on creates a sense of infinite possibilities, especially as the more pages are viewed, the more the recommendations can change. In that sense, it is useful to analyze the type of meanings produced through the amazon.coms recommendation system by using Derridas concept of diffrance. The concept of diffrance expands Saussures argument that the meaning of a sign is not established through a process of reference to something out there, but through a process of differentiation among signs. As Derrida (2002) explains it, the concept of diffrance is useful for further examining the ways in which meaning emerges through the differences among signs: Essentially and lawfully, every concept is inscribed in a chain or in a system within which it refers to the other, to other concepts, by means of the systematic play of differences. Such a play, diffrance, is thus no longer simply a concept, but rather the possibility of conceptuality, of a conceptual process and a system in general (p. 148). Using such a concept for this case study does not mean that there can be a direct equation between diffrance and meaning production through amazon.coms recommendation software, but that the recommendation system operates by looking for differentiations among book titles that are at the same time complementary. Thus, the recommendation system does not use radical differences, but small differences within a continuum of similarities. One could understand diffrance as encompassing the play of opposites. For instance, good is the opposite of bad and takes its meaning from radically differentiating itself from the concept of bad. The system of differentiation on is not one that makes use of the play of opposites, but one that mainly articulates similarities and chain connections. That is, the 145

differences between items are delineated and circumscribed by the similarities that exist among items as they stand for similar users interests. For instance, a title that is recommended when viewing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is Christopher Paolinis Eldest. The similarity between these two items is easy to identify - both are usually recommended for children and both belong to the fantasy/magic genre. While these two items are not identical, their differences are circumscribed within the notion that they complement each other. In the same way, most of the titles that are recommended for Empire of Fashion are not only books on fashion, but also academic books on fashion. It is this process of differentiation within similarity that constitutes the horizon of cultural expectations on and that serves to rationalize recommendations that could seem incongruous from a conventional perspective. It is through this experience of differentiation within similarities that recommended items that at first do not seem to be related to a selected title can be interpreted and presented as linked. In that sense, the recommendation system imposes a specific signifying semiology that shapes the meanings of books and, in that process, suggests a specific process to users in terms of how they can construct the cultural meaning of books. This process can be represented as follows:


Table 6: Mixed Semiotics and the Recommendation System on Matter Expression Substance Ensemble of expressive Materials: Existing data about a book: Title, price, order, reviews from publishers and users. Data on user behaviour: Page viewed, items bought, searched for, rated collected through the profiling software. Content User behaviour Values and rules embedded in the recommendation software: Relationship among books: - The software looks for similarities among book titles regardless of traditional cultural categories. Interpretation of user behaviour: - Users who share some similar consumption and viewing patterns have similar interests and therefore similar cultural desires. The continuum of material fluxes on which the recommendation software is built is user behaviour, which is captured and categorized in terms of pages viewed and items bought, searched for and rated at the level of substance of expression. The correlation between a catalog of titles with user behaviour proceeds by following specific rules of 147 Form Syntax and Rules: Similarities are established in terms of interchangeability (items viewed) and/or complementarity (items bought). The recommendation system only expresses differentiations within similarities. Signified content: - List of recommendations

interpretation. For instance, the recommendation software focuses on finding similarities regardless of whether the books belong to different cultural categories and starts with the premise that users who have some titles in common in terms of their buying and viewing patterns share the same cultural interests. These rules are embedded at the level of substance of content. The syntax and rules at the level of form of expression refer to the algorithmic processes whereby links are established following the differentiation within similarities rule. Thus, users are invited to interpret a list of recommendations in a specific manner, acknowledging that the items presented have the possibility of expressing cultural desires that were previously untapped or unseen by other recommendation systems and, perhaps, unrecognized by users themselves. Consequently, amazon.coms recommendation system does not only concern the production of cultural meanings, but also the shaping of the perceptions of users by producing a specific kind of meaningful links which works by suggesting differentiations through similarities, be it in the form of interchangeable or complementary items. It is useful to consider the recommendation system as a signifying actor with which users have to interact. There is a communicative exchange that takes place between users and the recommendation software as the software attempts to create new meaningful links and therefore new cultural desires. Thus, it is not simply the recommendation system that is at the core of the cultural experience of, but the interactions between a non-human actor - a signifying system that embodies both a cultural and commercial imperative - and human actors. Describing this particular actor-network and its effects requires a consideration of how the signifying semiologies produced by the


recommendation software are articulated with and encapsulated into other kinds of signifying and a-signifying semiologies, in particular the ones that involve users. 4. User-Produced Content: Meaning Proliferation and Cultural Homogeneity The system of differentiation put in place by is one that is delineated by similarity. The question that is raised, in turn, is about how this form of meaning production shapes modes of interpretation and decoding. The play of difference - of suggesting new meanings that are similar to each other - can be further examined through a comparison with Gilles Lipovetskys argument in the Empire of Fashion that contemporary Western society can be characterized by its infatuation with meaning. While Lipovetskys arguments were developed before the rise of the Internet, his analysis is nevertheless helpful in that it describes how mass consumption (the universe of fashion) produces a graduated system made up of small distinctions and nuances so that the consumer age coincides with (a) process of permanent formal renewal, a process whose goal is the artificial triggering of a dynamic aging and market revitalization through a universe of products organized in terms of micro-differences (2002, pp. 137139). Lipovetskys analysis echoes some of the processes at stake on, especially those that were identified through the analysis of the recommendation network of The Empire of Fashion. The small distinctions and nuances among titles are similar to the play of differentiation within similarity that constitute the recommendation system. The permanent formal renewal does not only include the addition of new titles, but also the algorithmic processing of the countless actions of users in terms of pages viewed and items bought and commented upon. An example of this 149

feature of the website is the patented Increases in Sales Rank as a Measure of Interest. This patent document argues that the increase or decrease in sales rank of an item can be interpreted as an increase or decrease in interest about that particular item. The document compares this new measure of interest to traditional best-selling lists and argues that sales rank lists are better because they reflect real-time or near-real-time change, whereas bestsellers list are slow to change. According to, the sales rank list makes it possible to identify popular items earlier than conventional bestseller lists. This is clearly seen as an advantage for, in that by constantly adjusting the representation of the actions of users to users, users are encouraged to regularly visit the site. The perpetual novelty of the site is not limited to lists of popular items, and is also generalized through Amazon.coms recommendation system, where recommendations are always changing since they are based on processing the actions of users. offers a space where users are actively involved in meaning creation through new kinds of practices and actions, such as writing customer reviews and rating and tagging items. Furthermore, the combination and analysis of these new verbal (e.g. writing reviews, tagging) and non-verbal practices (clicking through, putting items in a shopping cart) through the deployment of algorithms to find similarities creates new sites and new networks of meaning production. That is, works by processing and analyzing the actions of users and in so doing creates a new form of software-assisted sociality, that is, a network of social actors where the cultural meanings of books is partly constructed by a software layer. While both the software system and human actors can also engage in the production of meaningful links, the anchoring of these meanings into


something more articulate and in-depth than a hyperlink is entirely within the sphere of human activity. Within the circulation of meanings on, certain types of customer actions serve to create a sense of depth. As opposed to the image of the network, which was used to represent the recommendation system at work on, perhaps this type of user activity can be best defined by its verticality. Whereas the action that can be identified with the recommendation software is that of clicking on a link, accessing the content produced by users is essentially an act of scrolling down a page to get to more detailed meanings. Thus, the particularity of the system is that it offers multiple ways - both horizontal and vertical - of exploring the cultural relationship among books. An Amazon product page contains up to 31 categories to provide more information about a title and support users: Table 7: Surfing Paths on Search Functions Search Box A9 Search Box Search Listmania Search Guides Askville Information about the selected title Recommendations based on the selected title Book information Better together/Buy (author, price, this book with... availability) Customers who Editorial reviews bought this item also bought Product details Citations: books Look inside that cite this book feature What customers AmazonConnect ultimately buy after viewing this item Spotlight reviews Help others find Customer this item reviews Other Make it available as an ebook (if you are the publisher or the author) Sponsored links Sponsored advertising Feedback (customer service)


Customer discussion Product Wiki (Became Amapedia as of February 2007)

Tag this product

Rate this item to improve your recommendations Lismania: Products you find interesting So youd like to... (guide) Your recently viewed items Look for similar items by category Look for similar items by subject Your recent history

Of these 31 categories, 18 are designed to create networks to identify titles that could be of potential interest to users. These categories are placed within the Search Functions column and the Recommendations Based on Selected Title column of the above table. The nine categories in the Information about the Selected Title correspond to potential ways of accessing more in-depth information about the book. Three of the categories in the Information about the selected title (customer reviews, customer discussion and product wiki) are sites of user activity in that, for instance, users can both read customer reviews and write a review themselves. While there was no review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at the time of the study because the book had not been published, there were two reviews for Lipovetskys Empire of Fashion (Figure 23). The first review tries to summarize the main argument in 152

the book: The basic idea of his thought is that fragmentation of society does not, in the way it is thought commonly, means destruction of morals or democracy. On the contrary, democracy is formed by the powers that are able to join fragmentation and continuity. The second review provides a critical context for the book by arguing that Empire of Fashion is all and all, an outstanding and entertaining rejection of the tedious, reductive Marxist explanations of fashion. Both reviews thus give more in-depth information about the content of a book. The Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows page feature a list of discussion topics (Figure 24) focused on the potential content of the book (for instance, which character is going to die next) and on the Harry Potter series in general (for instance, a discussion title is: Top 119 moments in Harry Potter and about author J.K Rowling. The study of the customer reviews of both the Empire of Fashion and the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows recommendation networks reveal that there was no correlation between the list items produced by the recommendation software and the content of the customer reviews in that none of the customer reviews mentioned The Empire of Fashion or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This does not mean that customers never compare items, but rather indicates that the practices of writing customer reviews seems to be geared mostly toward analyzing the content of a selected title.


Figure 23: Customer Reviews for Lipovetskys Empire of Fashion

Figure 24: Customer Discussions for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Another sphere of activity for users concerns the production of recommendations


through tagging, rating and producing listmanias and So youd like to guides. These features work alongside the recommendation system and follow the same pattern of creating networks of recommendations. However, whereas the recommendation system cannot spell out the links between items other than as the processing of browsing patterns, the recommendations produced by users have a more explicit approach, especially in the case of creating listmanias and So youd like to guides. As explained on the website, a listmania: ... Includes products you find interesting (...) Each list can cover all kinds of categories, and can be as specific (Dorm Room Essentials for Every freshman) or as general (The Best Novels Ive Read This Year) as you like.18 So youd like to guides are similar to listmanias, but are described as: ... A way for you to help customers find all the items and information they might need for something they are interested in. Maybe there is an indispensable set of reference materials that youd recommend to a new college freshman wishing to study literature. Maybe there are several items you think are necessary for the perfect barbecue. 19 The listmania and So youd like to guides allow for the formulation of meanings that are designed to help users choose products by explaining the functions these products fulfill and the kind of consumer group (i.e. the college freshman) they are most relevant for. In that sense, these two features allow for the positioning of a title within a network of other titles, whereas the recommendation software can only shape the network within which a title is embedded. That is, the listmania and So youd like to guides allow for
18 19


the positioning of items according to a range cultural variables defined by the users producing those recommendation lists. The listmanias on the day in which the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows page was recorded (Figure 25) include a list of Great Sci/Fi Fantasy for Teens, Young Adults, thus placing the Harry Potter book within the broader category of science fiction. Similar to the recommendation software, though, listmanias can go beyond categorization. This includes, for Harry Potter, lists such as Book Ive Read or Plan to Read and Cracking Good Read for 2007. The same process multiple positioning of the Harry Potter books appear in the So youd like to guides, which includes the general Turn the Pages Late into the Night and Enjoy Powerful Writing! Mixed Genres! as well as the more category-focused Read Books Featured on TWEEN TIME bookshelf. There were no So youd like to guides associated with Empire of Fashion, but there were three listmanias that focused on some of the central themes of the book. The Unabashed Social Climber lists books on the question of social mobility and social status. Corpography II focuses on the question of embodiment, and Ultimate Secrets to French Fashion and Style lists items related to French fashion. The recommendation lists produced by users thus represent instances where users themselves bring a sense of cultural order by positioning a book within a network of other books through the use of a range of cultural variables. The paradoxical aspect of those recommendation lists is that they are produced by specific individuals, yet, at the same time, they intend to reflect general interests, such as an interest in fashion or an interest in fantasy for teenager. In that sense, the user-generated recommendations 9443228?ie=UTF8&nodeId=14279691


are inscribed within a continuum between the individual and the community. Figure 25: Listmanias and So Youd Like To guides - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The cultural position of a selected item is not only reflected in the title of a listmania, but can also be present in the ways in which the author of the listmania presents him/herself. For instance, the listmania Books Ive Read or Plan to Read looks fairly general in its scope at first sight, but the author describes herself as a 3RS business solution owner. This type of identification serves to further position a list of items within a more specific social field. The general scope of the list is thus narrowed down through the identification of social status and class, and the list of items can be interpreted as representing the interest of a particular social group. In that sense, there are two processes of signification at stake on The overarching process of signification is the one in which meanings are produced through the dynamic of


differentiation within similarity. Within this overall process, users can assign what Baudrillard in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981) described as the sign-value of an object, that is the social status and social rank associated with an object. This form of signification can potentially contradict the dynamic of differentiation within similarities in that it inscribes books within social boundaries. At the same time, those instances of differentiation through opposition are integrated within the differentiation through similarity system, in that the recommendation software is always omnipresent and, at the level of the interface, literally wraps the content of user-generated recommendations. While users can attribute sign-values to objects, they are not limited to this type of signification. As the listmania titles show, the dimensions of pleasure (Turn the Pages Late into the Night) and practicality of use (Great Sci/Fi Fantasy for Teens) are also present. This type of signification is one of the main arguments in Lipovetskys Empire of Fashion. Furthermore, while Lipovetsky sees a historical difference between Baudrillards concept of sign value and a new trend in which consumption has been desocialized, in which the age-old primacy of the status value of objects has given way to the dominant value of pleasure (for individuals) and use (for objects) (2002, p. 145), it appears that on, those two systems of signification can coexist because they are articulated and inscribed within a broader system of small differentiations within similarity. Whereas the recommendation guides produced by users reintroduce more conventional cultural and social aspects into the production of culturally meaningful links among items on, the other two categories of rating and tagging items


operate through different channels. Rating and tagging are brief labels imposed on items, as opposed the more verbal practices of producing guides and reviews. Rating on is presented as useful for users in that they can get a quick visual clue about the perceived quality of a book. Rating is also used for the personalization and customization of recommendations on the website in that the ratings submitted by a user are then correlated with other rating, buying and viewing patterns so as to produce a list of recommendations. Thus, as seen previously, Jamesons Postmodernity is recommended to users who have highly rated Deleuze and Guattaris Thousand Plateaus. Tags are described by as keyword or category labels that can both help you find items on the Amazon site as well as provide an easy way for you to remember or classify items for later recall20 Tagging thus allows for the creation of a new form of recommendation process by allowing for the creation of networks of items sharing a common descriptor defined by users. Tagging as a semiological practice allows for the imposition of meanings onto titles. While Empire of Fashion did not have any tags associated with it, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had 118 tags (Figure 26). Some of those tags, such as harry potter or harry potter book 7 are descriptive. Others, such as snape is innocent express the opinion of a reader about future plot development. Tags can also be used in a critical manner as, for instance, when the Harry Potter book is tagged as overpriced. Tags not only inscribe a title within different discursive spheres and cultural interpretation about the title itself, but


also position the title in relation to other elements. A common tagging practice involves creating recommendations by using the title of a book as a tag. The Harry Potter book, for instance, is tagged as eragon and abacar the wizard, and these tags refer to two fantasy titles. The idea is to suggest to users that Harry Potter and Eragon or Abacar the Wizard share common features and thus answer to similar cultural interests. Out of the 250 items that have the tag harry potter, for instance, 50 are not Harry Potter related and include, apart from other fantasy novels, candy, cosmetics and toys. Figure 26: Harry Potter Tags.

Users thus have a range of semiological activities that are offered to them on the website. Those activities can differ from the recommendation system as in 160

the case of customer reviews in that they are meant to formulate the cultural meaning of a specific title in more depth in terms of how the book fits within a range of cultural considerations. Others, such as user-created recommendation guides, ratings and tags, complement the recommendation software in that they produce different types of networks of titles that use a range of cultural factors, from literary genres to social status. Those networks translate users interpretations of the status of a book. These different types of practices can be summarized using Guattaris framework in the following manner: Table 8: Mixed Semiotics and Users on Substance Ensemble of Expressive Materials: Form Syntax and Language Rules:



The spaces on the Range of signifying practices interface devoted to user expression. available to users: rate, tag, write a review, start a discussion, contribute to the Wiki. Social Values and Rules: Signified content: Imposition on a specific book of Rules of discourse as directed by multiple meanings that reflect a range of users cultural The users experience of a book interpretations about a book. and the cultural interpretations that accompany it and can be dictated by This leads to the production of the broader cultural context within books as signs and channels for which the user and a specific title cultural meanings. are located. The content produced by authoritative sources, such as editorial reviews. The content produced by the recommendation software. The content produced by commercial forces.


As the table shows, the level of expression in terms of the semiological practices available to users is fairly straightforward in that it involves the spaces on designated for user expression and a range of syntactic tools, such as numbers (for rating) or words. At the level of content, it is important to notice that the process of producing content is not simply one of a user expressing his or her interpretation of a book as indicative of a specific cultural conjuncture, but involves the circling of users by the machine. There are rules of discourse on in terms of, for instance, how long a review can be. There are also editorial reviews, located above the customer reviews on a product page, that, because they come from institutional sources such as Publishers Weekly or, in the case of Empire of Fashion, the Library Journal (Figure 27), act as a more authoritative set of information and cultural meanings about a selected title. Furthermore, because the recommendation software is omnipresent on the website, it is possible that users are influenced by it in terms of how they further interpret the content of a book in relation to a network of other titles. The commercial forces present on also play an important role in attempting to shape users cultural preferences. allows publishers to buy paid placements for titles on the website that replace the better together section of the website with a best value section. The paid placement works in the following manner: if title A is a bestseller and title B is related to title A, the publisher of title B can pay to say that titles A and B are a best value pair that can be bought at a discount. In this way, commercial interests can override the recommendation software. Another form of commercialization on the website concerns the placement of products on the

162 homepage and sub-categories homepages (Figure 28). This increases the chance of users clicking on those titles, thus making those titles more prominent in the recommendation lists produced by the recommendation software. Finally, and this was particularly prominent with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the marketing of a bestseller involves the marketing of other titles and items as well (Figure 29). All the Harry Potter books are automatically listed on the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows page, thus increasing the chance that those items will be viewed. As well, there is a section on the page devoted to J.K. Rowlings favourite books. Figure 27: Editorial Reviews for The Empire of Fashion


Figure 28: Product Placement on Homepage

Figure 29: Harry Potter Product Placement on the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Page

In terms of the signifying practices that users have access to, it is also important to notice that the signified content produced does not only consist of a range of meanings and


interpretations, but also concerns the production of books as a particular type of sign that can be defined as channels of cultural meanings and discourses. This last characteristic is not only produced by users, but also through the articulation between users signifying semiologies and the signifying semiologies produced by the recommendation software. This process of creating multiple channels for meanings works to undermine any sense of authoritative meaning production on While there are editorial reviews that are authoritative, these do not stand the comparison with the multitudes of meanings circulating through the recommendation software and user-produced recommendations. The interface thus offers suggestive paths of signification. In that sense, the website does not seem to have any boundaries in terms of the possibilities of following hyperlinks of recommendations. However, the circulation of meanings on the website might seem infinite, but it is far from being chaotic. The paradox of is that the openness of meanings it provides is accompanied by processes designed to foster a sense of stability and closure. Those processes partly belong to a commercial imperative, in that users are constantly encouraged to buy items or to at least place items in wish lists and shopping carts, especially as those features are located next to the product information at the top of a page. But those processes of designing stability and closure are also part of the very specific production of signification that produces - the idea that differentiation happens within similarities, that items can always potentially be linked to each other through the very proliferation of meanings. This seeming contradiction between openness and closure can be best explained by Lipovetskys analysis of the paradox of the multi-channel TV universe (2002).


Lipovetsky (2002) argues that audience fragmentation and mass homogenization are not incompatible, but rather the result of the interplay between the form and the content of TV as a medium: If we grant that the media individualize human beings through the diversity of their contents but that they recreate a certain cultural unity by the way their messages are presented, we may be able to clarify the current debate on the social effects of fragmented television. (p. 194) Lipovetsky argues that the fragmentation of the audience through the proliferation of content and therefore cultural meanings is stabilized through a common formatting. This analysis can be applied to the case of in that the proliferation of meanings on is expressed by the overall format of differentiation within similarity. Oppositions and negations are never expressed through the recommendation software, and the user practices of tagging, rating and producing recommendations follow the same format, in that users can only express links between items. This leaves only customer reviews as potential sites of disagreement about the merit and quality of a book. The overall format, then, is one that is always inclusive and where exclusion is relegated to the margins. The formalization and homogenization of meaning formations is but one of the processes at stake in the stabilization of the websites. In order to examine those other processes, it is necessary to look at the a-signifying semiotics that delineate and articulate user-generated and software-generated signifying semiologies.


5. A-Signifying Semiologies: Shaping Sociality and Individuality within a Commercial Space As Guattari argues, a-signifying semiotics involve a-signifying machines (that) continue to rely on signifying semiotics, but they only use them as a tool, as an instrument of semiotic deterritorialization allowing semiotic fluxes to establish new connections with the most deterritorialized material fluxes (1996b, p. 150). In that sense, a-signifying semiotics produce another organization of reality (1974, p. 39) by using signifying semiologies and harnessing material intensities to create new economic, social, cultural and political dynamics and relations of power. In that sense, a-signifying machines are not separate from signifying semiologies, but they organize signifying semiologies to create relations of power. In the case of as described in figure 2, the a-signifying semiologies represent processes of shaping users and their sphere of activity through constant profiling (the harnessing of material fluxes) and the delineation of signifying semiologies (the articulation between software-generated and usergenerated content and practices). The core of the a-signifying dynamics on is to articulate the cultural search for meanings with a commercial imperative. On that level, there is a process of composition (Latour, 1999, p. 181) whereby the human actors on the website have to delegate their search for cultural meanings to specific software layers. In this process, the goal of looking for cultural meaning is articulated with the broader purpose of the amazon website of selling items. A-signifying processes represent a site of articulation between signifying processes and the shaping of consumer practices and subjectivities so that the cultural and the commercial are inseparable on the

167 website. The a-signifying semiologies of operate at two levels: at the level of locating users through a process of restriction and at the level of granting a specific site of agency to users that is centered exclusively on the production of meanings. Within the scope of this case study, a-signifying semiologies can be seen as operating at the level of the articulation between discourse, technology and social and cultural relations of power. Foucaults notion of discourse is useful for examining the rules that govern the activities of authors and readers and, by extension, users. Discursive rules establish legitimacy - who has the right to write, use or read a text - as well as specific methodologies - how to write, read and interpret a text. Through these discursive rules, texts can be seen as expressing the articulations between broader narratives or ideologies and power relations among actors within a specific context. The advantage of Guattaris framework is that it allows for a strong analytical grounding that does not separate a broader context from a particular textual situation, but rather shows how social relations of power are defined through the disciplining of human and non-human actors and through the shaping of specific materialities and signifying systems. Furthermore, Guattaris framework makes it possible to see that signifying semiologies are inscribed within technocultural a-signifying machines in that meaning production systems are dependant upon specific cultural sensitivities, affinities and disciplines. In the case of, the cultural shaping of users is mediated through cultural as well as technological factors. The a-signifying framework is therefore useful for examining the hidden pedagogies, that is, the law-like codes regulating online behaviour and access


to information (Longford, 2005, p. 69). The a-signifying semiologies deployed by to control the practices of users on the website require constant surveillance. The shaping of users requires the deployment of a system for tracking user behaviour. In that sense, as Humphreys argues, consumer agency (is) shaped by techniques of surveillance and individuation (2006, p. 296). Some of the more common forms of surveillance on include the use of cookies to store information about users so that web pages can be customized. At the time of this study, installed five cookies on users computers, two of which with an extremely distant expiry date (1 January 2036), thus ensuring the tracking of users over the long-term. Furthermore, personalization and customization on are such that, as Elmer argues, consumer surveillance is predicated on the active solicitation of personal information from individuals in exchange for the promise of some sort of reward (2004, p. 74). The reward offered by is a customized access to the website and the cultural experience it provides. At the same time, maintaining a level of privacy by refusing to accept, for instance, cookies, is described on the website as detrimental to users. As Amazon declares: you might choose not to provide information, even if it might be needed to make a purchase or take advantage of such features as Your Profile, Wish Lists, Customer Reviews, and Amazon Prime.21 The freedom of choice offered to user here is quite illusory, in that it becomes impossible to use the website without accepting


amazon.coms surveillance tools. tracks geographic, demographic, psychographic and consumer behaviour data (Elmer, p. 79) through cookies, invitations to give information on the My Profile pages of the website, and the recording of items bought and viewed. As explained in the amazon.coms privacy notice, collects different kinds of data on users, including information given by users through, for instance, their wish lists and profile pages; what calls automatic information that is collected by the website without asking the permission of users (i.e. cookies); e-mail communications, including the capacity to know whether a user opens e-mails received from; and finally information from other sources such as merchants with which has agreements and subsidiaries (i.e. Alexa Internet).22 was also criticized in 2005 for its proposal to track not only users, but also item recipients through the recording of gift-giving habits. In particular, patent 6,865,546: Methods and Systems of Assisting Users in Purchasing Items offered a method for determining the age of an item recipient, such as a gift recipient so as to, a year later, remind user of an impending birthday and offer recommendations based on the age of the recipient. Users are thus constantly monitored on, and this monitoring is accompanied by a set of rules on how to behave on the website. For instance, has a limit of 1000 words on customer reviews with a recommended length of 75 to 300 words and does not accept reviews or discussion posts with profanities,


obscenities or spiteful remarks.23 Altogether, surveillance tools and the rules of participation present on serve to not only transform the user into an object of knowledge, as Humphreys argues, but also to discipline users into adopting specific behaviours. At the same time, the a-signifying machine on does not simply employ processes for restricting user activity within specific frameworks of discourse, but also creates channels through which users can be productive. That is, cannot simply be seen as a repressive system, but also as a creative and productive system that fosters specific kinds of user activities as well as new cultural practices and values. Acknowledging that a-signifying semiologies on stabilize a cultural and commercial experience based on specific signifying semiologies makes it possible us to further examine the paradox of the homogenization of the proliferation of meanings. This takes place in particular at the level of the shaping of the cultural affinities of users. That is, the web architecture distributes spheres of activities for users and software machines act as agents of cultural stabilization. This process of stabilizing the experience of users requires the definition of a specific horizon of expectations. Lipovetskys argument that the plurality of meanings that circulate within Western democracies is made possible through acceptance of specific principles is useful here. As Lipovetsky (2002) argues: Here is the paradox of consummate fashion: whereas democratic society is more and more capricious in its relation to collectively intelligible discourses,


at the same time it is more and more balanced, consistent and firm in its ideological underpinnings. Parodying Nietzsche, one might say that homo democraticus is superficial by way of depth: the securing of the principles of individualist ideology is what allows meanings to enter into their merry dance (p. 204). Lipovetsky usefully points out that the play of meanings expressed in contemporary consumer society is dependent on accepted and unquestioned cultural values, among which the claim to individuality. The pursuit of individualism as expressed by Lipovetsky includes not only the quest for social status and social legitimacy, but also the pursuit of personal pleasure through psychological gratification (2002, p. 145). As seen above, assigning meanings to books on represents an instance where those elements of individuality are expressed. Processes of individualization on are included within a process of cultural homogenization and stabilization. That is, the individuality of users as expressed through reviews, listmanias, etc. is always inscribed in a process of homogenizing individualities within the community. Individualism can only exist on but through the homogenization and careful definition of the channels through which individualities can be expressed. The legitimacy of individuality is partly expressed on through processes of personalization and customization. In particular, the recording of surfing and viewing patterns on is made for the purpose of identifying the interests and desires of users so as produce lists of items that might correspond to those desires and interests. In that sense, the cultural experience provided by proceeds through a dual dynamic of not only supporting users in their search for meaningful items, but also of predicting desires (Humphreys, 2006, p. 299) through the software machine. The


recommendation software, for instance, interprets users behaviours and translates them into interests and desires through personalized recommendations that are, in turn, further inscribed within user-generated networks of meanings. In that sense, there is a (self) revolutionary and spiritual power of consumer profiling technologies - the ability of hypercustomized products and services to unearth the real self (Elmer, 2004, p. 7). In The Consumer as a Foucauldian Object of Knowledge, Humphreys argues that the process of individuation through the documentation of the users every move serves the purpose of chronicling past and future tendencies and essentializing them to the individual, in the service of predicting future tendencies (2006, p. 298). Humphreys underlines that the individuality promoted on is one that is centered on a commercial imperative. Indeed, cultural tastes and interests are always expressed through lists of either software-generated or user-generated recommendations - through commodities to be bought. Furthermore, the process of recommendation as the constant production of new meanings is delineated on by a commercial imperative. The omnipresence of the shopping cart on the interface, the encouragement to buy several books in order to receive discounts on the price of the books or on the shipping costs, the push towards buying items within a certain time frame in order to have them delivered within 24 hours all act a reminders to users that temporary closure in the form of buying an book is the goal of the experience of the proliferation of meanings. Last but not least, not all users of the website can write customer reviews - only users who have previously bought something on the website are allowed to participate. Legitimizing oneself as a producer of content on the website requires active


consumption. Furthermore, any form of community exchange and communication created on serves as a reinforcement of the shaping of users as consumers. This process can be best understood as social personalization, which involves both the process of shaping a users individuality through constant comparison with other users and the process of individualizing any form of sociality. The user profile page on, for instance, looks like a typical social networking page with a few add-ons. A user can post his/her picture and keep track and get in touch with friends. As declares: Your Profile page is where your friends and other people find you and learn more about you. Its also where you access and manage your community content, recent purchases, reminders, friends and other people on You can see what your friends are up to, add new friends and favorites, create new content, and update your public information.24 This description seems at first to provide users with forms of sociality that are commonly offered on Web 2.0 sites such as MySpace or Facebook. However, the kind of information that users can provide to their network of friends on includes what calls public activities such as reviews, search suggestions, product tags, important dates, listmanias and Wish Lists. The network of sociality offered on is therefore one that is exclusively centered on objects already bought or to be bought, either for oneself or for ones friends. For instance, as Humphreys argues, the Wish List represents the sum and essence of the individual on (2006, p.


298). Publicity on therefore means the representation of oneself as a consuming actor. In the same way, any form of sociality on is one that is directed towards the consumption of objects. For instance, the rules for writing customer reviews strongly encourage users to focus on objects rather than on the content of other reviews. Thus, one should not comment on other reviews visible on the page because other reviews and their position on the page are subject to change without notice. Thus, a customer review should focus on specific features of the item and your experience with it. 25 The signifying semiologies offered to users on do not simply deal with the production of meanings but are designed, through an a-signifying system of discursive rules and social conventions, to promote books as objects of consumption and users as consuming actors. Users are not only tracked on, they are also encouraged to participate in their own individualization and socialization as consuming agents through writing comments, tagging, rating, etc. Thus, the stabilization of signifying semiologies on is done, at the a-signifying level, through the development of commonalities not at the level of content, but at the level of form. For all its diversity of content, the interface offers a narrow range of interaction to its users: search for titles, build content so that titles are inscribed within a process of consumption or buy items. The seeming infinite activity of users at the level of content is thus counter-balanced by a narrow set of practices offered to users. In that sense, users are integrated within a lp/002-1675217-0578427?ie=UTF8&nodeId=16465241 25


commercial model and it becomes impossible to conceptualize a sphere of activity for users that is not already articulated with a software machine that translate commercial imperatives into a quest of individuality. The integration of users within a commercial system is not limited to but is also central to any online commercial system that uses user-generated content to build cultural meanings. Thus, this process is not only related to book reviews on a website such as, but also to information about social networks on sites such as Facebook, or user-generated gaming content on spaces such as Second Life. As Coombe, Herman and Kaye declare: participatory culture exists in an uneasy but dynamic relationship with commodity culture. The former continually appropriates and remakes what is produced and articulated by media corporations, while media corporations continually try to incorporate consumer productivity and creativity into profitable commodity forms (2006, p. 193). The difference between and the gaming space described by Coombe et al. is that the dynamic relationship between user productivity and commercial forces is integrated within the machine so that any form of resistance such as, for instance, poaching, or using the software for other means, is impossible. Similarly, any kind of ironic use of content on would be limited, insofar as the overall process of meaning production on the website operates through the integration of specific users within a larger social group. Individual resistance, for instance, would not be immediately visible on a website that proceeds by examining similarities and excludes strong differentiations from its internal logic. Along 0578427?ie=UTF8&nodeId=16465311


with a strong history of patenting all aspects of its architecture, amazon.coms conditions of use grants users limited license to access and make personal use of this site and not to download (other than page caching) or modify it, or any portion of it, except with express written consent of Furthermore, users do not even own intellectual property of the content they produce through interaction with the recommendation software or through writing customer reviews and producing other forms of communication. As the conditions of use on the amazon website state: has the right but not the obligation to monitor and edit or remove any activity or content and takes no responsibility and assumes no liability for any content posted by you or any third party. 27 Users are therefore made responsible for the user-produced content posted on the website, but are deprived of their intellectual property of that very content: If you do post of submit material, and unless we indicate otherwise, you grant and its affiliate a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sublicensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, and display such content throughout the world in any media.28 The shaping of user practices and the commodification of user-generated content thus transform users into delegates of the a-signifying machine. This, in some ways, is a reversal of Latours definition of delegates as object that stand in for actors, that is, of delegates as technical delegates (2004, p. 189). In the case of, users as human actors are folded within a system, they are shaped so that they translate a
26 27 Ibid.


commercial imperative into action, so that they become not only the subjects but also the agents of the process of commodification on This process of delegation also operates through the dynamic of disciplining users as well as granting them open spaces of agency through access to signifying semiologies. As Humphreys suggests (2006, p. 304), there is a process of internalization of the marketing gaze (i.e. the profiling and recommendation software) so that users internalize the discipline of consuming that is imposed on them by being constantly encouraged to gaze at objects of consumption and to gaze at other users through engaging with user-produce content. However, this process is accompanied by a more productive one whereby user can fulfill their sense of individualization - their quest for social status and well-being. It is only by acknowledging the forms of freedom allowed on that it is possible to understand the attraction of a space built on the erosion of privacy and the commodification of intellectual property. As Humphreys usefully points out (2006, p. 300), does not evaluates user-produced meanings - it simply translates them into commodities. That is, doe not judge the user-produced content. On the contrary, it is designed to plug that content into the appropriate channels so that cultural tastes can be realized through the consumption of commodities. In that sense, provides freedom from cultural and social evaluation, thus not only shaping users as consumers, but also as free individuals liberated from the social gaze. The process of defining users is not simply limited to the space of, but is also extended through a network of affiliates. has partnership with



giant off-line and online retailers such as Target and Office Depot. As well, has developed a network of associates so that websites can feature links to amazon products and services and receive up to 10% in referral fees in doing so.29 The associate network thus serves to further advertise on the Web. More recently, has been marketing the services that constitute the level of expression of the platform as well as licensing the data (or content) recorded on Amazons Web Services was started in 2006 and operates by selling services developed for the amazon platform for a fee. Amazon Web Services are similar to APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), which are smaller programs and functions developed primarily using XML. For instance, amazon.coms Simple Storage Service is designed to store and retrieve data and gives any developer access to the same highly scalable, reliable, fast, inexpensive data storage infrastructure that Amazon uses to run its own global network of websites.30 In the same way, amazon offers solutions for building a shopping cart and order forms. In terms of selling content, does not only provide the possibility for third-party websites to use the content of the catalogue,31 but also, through the associates network, of offering tailored content.32 For instance, when a user goes on an associate website, the cookies on that users computer are activated so as to offer personalized content. The marketing of both the layer of expression and the layer of
29 30 31


content by on the broader Web serves as a means to export amazon.coms asignifying semiologies, and therefore the specific cultural affinities (of individualization through consumption) that are associated with it. Through those strategies, adds another mode of being for Web users, which, for instance, departs from the kinds of use that are no centered on notion of social status acquisition or well-being. This multiplication of modes of being for users are thus expressed through the juxtaposition of multiple networks - not only a network of websites produced by user surfing, but also networks of commercialization that superimpose themselves onto Web flows. Applying Guattaris mixed semiotics framework to the case of meaning production on thus reveals how signifying semiologies operate through a specific cultural mode (the meaning of books is established through differentiation within similarity) and shape, through their articulation within a-signifying semiologies, the cultural affinities of users as consuming individuals. The platform thus homogenize the production of meanings not at the level of the content of the meanings being produced, but at the level of the format of expression of those meanings, that is, through the shaping of the cultural perception of meanings. While the consequences of these new types of power relationships will be examined in more detail in the synthesis chapter of the dissertation, it is important to underline here the need to reconsider the role of user activity in an environment such as As seen throughout the last section of this chapter, does not simply restrict users, it also offers some sense of freedom to pursue meanings and explore cultural tastes. In that sense, there is a


level of indeterminacy on the website in that, for instance, users are not forced to buy products, but simply encouraged to buy products. Such a space of indeterminacy allows one, for instance, to simply search for a reference or compile a list of books to be borrowed from the public library or ordered from an independent bookstore. These instances of indeterminacy, however, should not be confused as possibilities of resistance, as users are always interpellated as consuming individuals on the amazon website. Rather, it is necessary to examine the multiple layers at which political and cultural interventions could take place but do not. This will be done in the final chapter of this dissertation. The examination the remediation of the book as a cultural object within an online environment reveals the complexity of the networks that allow for a specific mixed semiotics dynamics to emerge. Examining as an actor-network requires acknowledging the complexity of a-semiotic, signifying and a-signifying articulations as they redefine the agency of actors. The agency of human actors in particular is located within the signifying sphere, with specific a-signifying constraints, under the form of the commercial imperative, put upon them. In that sense the production and circulation of meanings on can only be done through an actor-network analysis of the software, commercial and human actors that remediate books within an online environment. The tracing of the roles played by different actors in the remediation of books as the circulation of meanings on the website leads to acknowledging the role played by a-semiotic and a-signifying processes in the shaping of specific signifying semiologies. The articulation between the cultural search for meanings and a commercial


imperative on can thus be studied through a focus on the circulation of cultural objects, such as books. However, the expansion of Amazon onto the broader Web highlights the need to examine the circulation of not only cultural objects within specific online spaces, but also of specific a-signifying formats within the broader Web. While Amazon expands itself through making its services available and giving some restricted access to its database to third-party sellers, it is not the only model of format expansion that exist on the Web. The case of Wikipedia, in that sense, provides another perspective through which one can examine other articulations between a-semiotic, signifying and a-signifying processes.


Chapter 4 Mixed Semiotics and the Economies of the MediaWiki Format The case study revealed how cultural practices within a commercial environment are shaped through their mediation by layers of software and systems of signification. The discursive and cultural practices of being a user on are important not only because is one of the most popular online retailers of cultural entertainment, but also because it has been extremely active in promoting its model on the Web, both in terms of exporting a technocultural format (the Web services) and a brand (i.e. amazon search boxes that can be integrated into a website). The duplication of web architectures on the Web highlights the importance of analyzing the relationships between cultural forms and technical formats. While the circulation of the format is focused solely on a commercial model, other technical platforms exist can be adapted to a broader range of cultural goals. The Wikipedia model is one of those. Wikipedia makes use of a specific wiki architecture to produce content. Wikis first appeared in 199533 and were designed to allow multiple users to add, delete and edit content. Wikipedia has been developed by the Wikimedia foundation as one of their projects to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.34 To achieve this goal, the Wikimedia Foundation has not only created free-content projects, but also developed the


wiki platform to support those projects - MediaWiki. MediaWiki is an open-source project licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL) and as such can be downloaded freely and can be modified and distributed under the same licensing conditions. How a cultural ideal of creating and storing knowledge and a technical platform such as MediaWiki can be articulated with each other to create a cultural form such as Wikipedia is the starting question for this case study. The technical layer enables multiple users to participate in the building of content, and thus creates new discursive practices of collaborative authorship. It is important to ask, in turn, how these technical features enabling specific types of discursive practices are articulated with the broader technical, commercial and cultural networks of the Web to become cultural forms. Wikipedia is an exemplar of the articulation of a Wiki platform with a cultural desire to create the largest repository of the worlds knowledge. While there is a significant body of research on Wikipedia as a new cultural form, there has not been much in the way of a critical exploration of the adoption of the MediaWiki software package on the Web. This case study is intended to examine the circulation of the MediaWiki Web architecture and its articulation with commercial, cultural and discursive values and practices. This requires an examination of the links between Wikipedias technical features, discursive practices and cultural form. This serves as the basis of comparison for examining how other online projects use the MediaWiki platform. Furthermore, using Guattaris mixed semiotics framework allows for an analysis of not only the changes in discursive rules and cultural


practices in a sample of MediaWiki websites, but also for an exploration of the ways in which MediaWikis technocultural capacities are captured and channeled within commercial and non-commercial webs. 1. Technodiscursive Mediations and the Production of Wikipedia as a Technocultural Form The examination of the articulation between technical features, discursive rules and cultural forms in the case of Wikipedia first requires an acknowledgement of the complementariness between Guattaris mixed semiotics framework and Foucaults notion of discourse. Foucaults notion of discourse encompasses a body of thoughts, writings and institutions that have a shared object of study. Discourse is also to be understood as the space where power and knowledge are joined together (1990, p. 100). This includes the relations among subjects and between subjects and objects as well as the legitimate methodology or rules through which one can talk meaningfully about objects and construct representations. In that sense, discourse is the ensemble of processes and dynamics through which a reality is created. In relations to Guattaris analysis of signifying semiologies, discursive rules can be seen as articulating the levels of expression and content - defining the proper rules of expression and who can use these rules (i.e. the rules of authorship and readership), as well as the values to be expressed. In that sense, examining discursive rules means mapping out the agents and processes through which the linguistic machine is articulated with power formations, that is, how the field of signification is articulated with the social, economic and moral dimensions of power in order to shape a homogeneous reality, or, in the case of Wikipedia, a 185

homogenous cultural form. As seen in the first chapter, the missing dimension in Foucaults examination of discourse is the technical dimension - the role played by media in enabling and restricting discursive rules and roles. Subsequently, the question that is raised is about how to reconsider the question of discourse through its shaping within technocultural processes. In relation to Guattaris mixed semiotics framework, Foucaults notion of discourse does not explicitly recognize the importance of the category of matter, and as such the a-semiotic and a-signifying processes that involve matter. Nevertheless, the question of discursive rules constitutes a starting point for examining the constitution of cultural forms on the Web. The circulation of a cultural form such as Wikipedia requires a critical reexamination of the theoretical framework behind the notion of discourse. This was made clear with a study realized by Greg Elmer and I on the circulation of Wikipedia content on the Web (2007). The idea behind this study was to assess the legitimacy of the Wikipedia model by tracking how Wikipedia content was being used on the Web whether it was cited as a source, criticized or plagiarized. In so doing, our expectations where to gather texts using Wikipedia content in order to do a discourse analysis of how content was reframed through being re-inscribed within new textual environments. We entered two sentences lifted from two Wikipedia articles in the Google search engine and analyzed the top eleven returns. Our findings showed that Wikipedia content was used for purposes of information and argumentation only in a minority of sources (three out of 22). The rest of the time, Wikipedia content was copied identically into websites that generally presented themselves as encyclopedias. Undertaking a discourse analysis of


those websites was unnecessary, since the content of the websites was made up of free content from Wikipedia and other open source content sites. The textual context within which Wikipedia content was relocated thus did not vary. However, this did not mean that there were no changes in the discursive status of Wikipedia content. Our findings revealed that Wikipedia content was used first for purposes of commercialization through the framing of content with advertising, and second for purposes of search engine optimization where Wikipedia content was used so that a website could be listed on search engine listings and thus attract traffic to be redirected to networks of advertising. This change in the discursive status of Wikipedia from freely accessible knowledge to traffic magnet within a commercial network is done through a series of technical interventions to reframe content. The websites under study used some form of dynamic content creation, so as to automatically format the content and form of a website, and thus automatically frame content with advertising. With regards to Guattaris mixed semiotics framework, such a discursive change takes place through an intervention at the level of expression. That is, the ensemble of expressive materials available on the Wikipedia website is replaced by another ensemble composed of programs acting at the linguistic level - programs that shape data into a user-readable Web interface - and programs intervening in an extra-linguistic dimension - for instance, commercial software to insert sponsored and targeted advertising. In turn, these series of interventions at the expression level change the content of the Wikipedia text not in terms of what is being signified, but in terms of the value of the signified content, from free content to commercialized content. This operation is part of a broader a-signifying


machine that involves not only materials for signification, but also the material intensities contained within the category of matter. In particular, the reduplication of Wikipedia content onto other websites serves to manipulate specific kinds of material intensities, such as the size of a website and user traffic. The a-signifying machine through which the online commercialization of Wikipedia content can be achieved thus uses signified content to create new material intensities. Furthermore, the use of Wikipedia content takes place through a series of possibilities that are not only technical, but also legal, as Wikipedia content is under a copyleft license and can thus be reduplicated for free as long as it is kept under the same license. The a-signifying machine for commercializing Wikipedia content thus encompasses technical, commercial and legal processes in order to transform the status of Wikipedia content. This study of the circulation of Wikipedia content on the Web through the mediation of the Google search engine revealed that the concept of discourse needs to be critically reexamined to take into account its technical mediation. The conventional methodology of discourse analysis could not have been usefully applied in this online context, and the mixed semiotics framework allowed for a more comprehensive framework to trace the technocultural networks at the basis of such online commercial machine. However, this study of Wikipedia content was limited in that it used only two articles from Wikipedia and focused exclusively on the question of content and not on the question of the Wikipedia platform - the MediaWiki software package. Indeed, if the circulation of Wikipedia content on the Web is mostly dominated by processes of reformatting the same content, the dynamic that needs to be further studied concerns the


circulation of form through the articulations between software and commercial, cultural and political interests. As such, the present case study expands a previous analysis of the circulation of Wikipedia content by examining the circulation of the Wikipedia format on the Web. Examining the circulation of the Wikipedia format requires a comparison between the techno-discursive practices present within Wikipedia and those that exist on MediaWiki websites not officially related to Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects. The internal logic of Wikipedia is a starting point for examining how discursive rules and cultural values are mediated and embodied through technical layers. However, before it is possible to map the effects of the techno-discursive networks produced on Wikipedia through Guattaris mixed semiotics framework, it is necessary to analyze the relationship between cultural values, discursive rules and technical layers through an Actor-network theory approach. That is, in order to study the mixed semiotics of Wikipedia, it is necessary to examine how a technical platform - the wiki format - has been designed to embody a cultural form - Wikipedia. The articulations, delegations and translations between the cultural and the discursive need to be identified in order to recognize the range of discursive actions made available by the system. The genealogy of Wikipedia as a free-content encyclopedia project is complex, as it involves long-standing cultural concerns about creating, storing and transmitting knowledge as well as the revival of those concerns within the ideal of freer and better communication that have been associated with the growing popularity of the Internet and the World Wide Web in the late 1990s. Central to Wikipedia as a cultural model is the


idea that new communication possibilities such as hypertextual communication and collaborative authorship can create new and better models of organizing knowledge production and circulation. Wikipedia was launched in January 2001 as a complement to an online peer-reviewed encyclopedia project - Nupedia. Wikipedias popularity has grown exponentially since its creation and it now boasts more than 7.5 million articles in 253 languages.35 The first characteristic of Wikipedia is the new mode of knowledge production it implements. As Yochlai Benkler (2006, p. 70) describes it, Wikipedia has three characteristics: - Wikipedia is a collaborative authorship project where anyone can edit, where changes to texts are visible and all versions are accessible. Anybody can thus add content to Wikipedia in a transparent manner. - The process of collaborative authorship departs from a traditional model of producing knowledge by relying on authors with credentials or through a peer-review process. The goal of Wikipedia is to strive for consensus on a neutral point of view whereby all significant views must be represented fairly and without bias.36 - Finally, Wikipedia content is freely accessible through its release under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL). According to the GFDL, Wikipedia content can be used by third parties if they comply with the following requirements: Any derivative works from Wikipedia must be released under the same license, must state that it is released under that license and reproduce a complete copy of the license in all copies
35 36


of the work, and must acknowledge the main author(s) (which some claim can be accomplished with a link back to that article on Wikipedia).37 There is a direct affiliation between Wikipedia as a project for knowledge production and the production processes adopted by the free software movement. In particular, collaborative authorship and making products freely available through copyleft have been the core characteristics of the free software movement. The open source software movement is based on the idea that progress depends on making resources available for free and that improving on those resources can best be done through a commons of volunteers (Benkler, 2006; Jesiek, 2003). This finds a direct echo in Wikipedias reliance on anonymous volunteers to build content and on their nonproprietary approach to content circulation. Furthermore, the technical platform for Wikipedia - the MediaWiki software package - has also been released under a GNU General Public License (GPL). Thus, anybody can modify the original software package as long as the source code is made available under a GPL. Wikipedia can be seen as another instance of the high-tech gift economy (Barbrook, 1998) where the commodification and privatization of information and communication technologies is replaced by free exchange of information and communication technologies. The characteristic of Wikipedia as an extension of the free software movement is that it deals not only with technical layers, but also with the content layer. By making content available under the GFDL, Wikipedia represents an instance where processes put in place for the development of open source software are exported onto the level of content in


order to produce new discursive rules and cultural values of knowledge production. The affiliation between the free software movement and the Wikipedia model thus shows a first series of translations of ideals of knowledge production onto the technical field and then onto a discursive one. As suggested by Latour (1999, p. 311), the translation of ideals of collaborative non-proprietary production about a technical platform (i.e. Linux) to another one (MediaWiki), and from a specific type of object (software in the case of MediaWiki) to another one (signified contents on Wikipedia) represents an instance where cultural interests are displaced and modified. Because there is a shift from the field of the technical to the field of the techno-discursive in the case of Wikipedia, the cultural impact of the Wikipedia model also challenges a longstanding principle of authorship. In the case of software, collaborative work is envisioned as a process whereby people work in common in a voluntary and free (as in not in exchange of a salary) manner in order to achieve a better product than what would be produced in a private and proprietary context. However, when collaborative work becomes collaborative authorship as in the case of Wikipedia, it puts into question the very model of encyclopedic knowledge that Wikipedia is attempting to enhance. As it relies on collaborative authorship rather than on the credentials of experts to produce articles, Wikipedia puts into question the model of legitimizing truth claims as it has traditionally been developed in modern Western societies. As Tom Cross (2006) puts it: Our society has developed a certain expectation of what an encyclopedia should be. We expect it to be an authoritative, reliable reference that provides basic information about a wide variety of subjects. Encyclopedias have traditionally been produced by companies with teams of subject matters experts who compile information and fact check its accuracy. The idea that comparable authority could come 192

from a resource that can literally be edited by anyone, regardless of their level of expertise, seems to defy logic. While the encyclopedia model of authorship is different from the discursive function of the author within a fictional context as described by Foucault (2003), both types of author function nevertheless share the same characteristic of presenting the figure of the author as defining the specific status and discursive function of a text. Knowledge production in the conventional encyclopedic context does not so much requires a recognizable figure as it does involve a set of scholarly credentials that demonstrate expertise on a given topic. Those credentials validate the truth claims that are made in an encyclopedic article. By contrast, Wikipedias model is such that anybody can participate in content creation. There is not a single recognizable author with a set of credentials on Wikipedia, but an anonymous stream of volunteers whose credentials are not listed or recognized in the genealogy of an article. Furthermore, by offering a model of knowledge production that operates outside of the traditional model of authorship, Wikipedia also puts into question the conventional dichotomy between authors and readers. Instead of a strong separation between knowledge producers and receivers, the broader category of the user emerges, from the lurker who only reads content to contributors modifying content on the Wikipedia platform and exporting content onto other online and offline formats (i.e. websites, academic papers, news sources). Knowledge production and circulation are thus part of the same continuum on Wikipedia. As Ito (in Cross 2006) points out, the authority of a Wikipedia article does not come from the expertise of content producers but from the capacity of an article to remain unchanged as it is being viewed by thousands of users who have the ability to edit the content they are reading. Thus, the 193

production of Wikipedia content in a collaborative setting distributes the discursive function of authority across a spectrum of users as opposed to locating it within the category of the author as distinct from that of the reader. The cultural and discursive changes brought about by Wikipedia not only concern the category of the user and the ways in which the authority of a text is established, but also how knowledge circulates in a hypertextual environment. Wikipedia relies heavily on embedding hyperlinks within textual entries as a way of navigating its websites.

Figure 30 - The Wikipedia Homepage

This hypertextual organization can be seen as linking the cultural ideal of making the sum of all human knowledge38 accessible and the new cultural possibilities offered by


hypertext technologies. Indeed, the encyclopedic model offered by Wikipedia is reminiscent of Vannevar Bushs concept of the Memex (1945) as a way of accessing vast amounts of information through trails of association crossing through conventional boundaries and categories. Nelsons work on hypertext as non-sequential writing as well as the collaborative aspect of his Project Xanadu (1965) can be seen as a cultural influence on Wikipedias hypertextual organization. Furthermore, the fluidity of the circulation of information on Wikipedia also changes the discursive status of encyclopedic texts. Because of the constraints of print in terms of the slowness at which text can be modified or created, traditional encyclopedias present texts as stable units, where the information contained in the text is supposed to be valid for a long period of time. On the contrary, Wikipedia text is subject to change in an instantaneous manner as Internet technologies make textual changes easy and cheaper to produce than with paper technology. The process on Wikipedia for creating content proceeds by calling for participation through the creation of a stubs that describe a given topic in a general manner. Users are then invited to contribute and content can always be added or modified to include the latest events. There is a fluidity of meaning that is built into Wikipedia and thus a new modality of social production of knowledge enabled by the contribution of social software, digital media and peer-to-peer collaboration (Alevizou, 2006). As Alevizou (2006) further argue, Pierre Lvys notion of collective intelligence as universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time thus finds an echo in Wikipedia. Indeed, constant progress rather than stabilization is the norm on Wikipedia. This fluidity of meaning represents an articulation between the dynamics


of the free software movement and the new cultural status of online encyclopedias. Constant changes are at the core of the free software process, with a constant stream of beta versions, updated versions, patches to fix bugs and add-ons to create new features. Constant upgrading of free software is thus a norm and this process can be characterized as one of fixing all the bugs that keep appearing as the software has to fit into new environments (i.e. a new operating system, other software). Displaced onto the encyclopedic model, the process of constant amelioration goes against the convention of freezing meaning into a stable text capable of enduring change without loosing its accuracy. The genealogy of Wikipedia as a cultural model is thus complex, and represents the articulation of different cultural ideals of knowledge production and circulation as they have emerged within or been reformulated by the new processes made available by information and communication technologies and by the free software movement. There is thus a series of translations that take place in the formation of Wikipedia from longstanding cultural concerns about creating a repository of the worlds knowledge to the new ideals of democratic and collaborative knowledge production as they are envisioned with the rise of new communication technologies. The Wiki format used by Wikipedia can first be seen as a means to embody those cultural and discursive values. As explained on the MediaWiki website,39 online publishing makes information easily accessible because of the low cost of adding new information. Collaborative knowledge production and collaborative authorship are made easier through not having to login to


edit content, the ease of editing and changing content through the implementation of a simplified syntax that is more user-friendly than HTML coding, and through the tracking of all edits and versions as well as the ease of reversal to previous versions. Such a system makes it possible to have discussions about the content of an article in order to reach consensus and to reach the discursive ideal on Wikipedia of a neutral point of view that represents fairly, and as far as possible without bias, all significant views that have been published by reliable sources40. Finally, as there are multiple users changing the content of a wiki, thus making change a common feature, the traditional hierarchical navigation menu is not able to integrate all those changes. Hyperlinks, search tools and tags are thus the preferred modes of navigation and organization. It would be too simple, however, to see a direct equivalency between cultural ideals and the implementation of the discursive rules stemming from these cultural ideals through new technologies of communication. The question that is raised by Wikipedia is about how the discursive and the technical are articulated so that they shape a stable cultural form. In the case of, such articulations were explained through the mapping the different kinds of semiotic, a-semiotic and a-signifying machines and the question of the stability of the system did not appear. Indeed, as the architecture is entirely private, the articulations between the level of expression and content are made by a sole entity - Amazon. In the case of Wikipedia, the very openness of the system makes stability a recurrent issue. As anybody can edit content, multiple
39 40


articulations are made possible. Thus, the use of Guattaris mixed semiotics framework is different in the case of Wikipedia than it is in the case of In the original formulation, Guattari presents the mixed semiotics framework as allowing for the identification of the actors who have the right and legitimacy to articulate the linguistic machine with broader power formations so as to establish a homogeneous reality. Guattari identifies the state as a central actor in this articulation and invites us to use the mixed semiotics framework to identify the spheres of influence of those central actors. In the case of amazon, the central actor was itself, as the agency granted to users on is orchestrated to fit into the broader commercial machine defined by Amazon. In the case of Wikipedia, it becomes problematic to try to identify a central actor in charge of articulating the level of expression with that of content, since the Wikipedia system is collaborative and includes the possibility of change at the content and software levels. That is, anybody can change content on Wikipedia, and anybody can use and change the MediaWiki software package for their own particular uses. A common problem on Wikipedia is vandalism, a famous example being the alteration of a Wikipedia article on John Seigenthaler - a former aid to U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy to suggest that he was a suspect in the murders of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy (Langlois and Elmer, 2007). Vandalism is an instance where the stability of the Wikipedia model is put into question. That is, the articulation between the level of expression - the linguistic and technical tools made available by the Wiki format - and the level of content - the discursive status of text as collaborative knowledge propagating valid truth-claims - is undermined through vandalism.


While the case study focused on examining how a commercial actor defined specific semiotic, discursive and cultural rules, the main research question about Wikipedia concerns knowing how a range of actors can rearticulate the levels of expression and content, as well as the discursive and technical domains. In that sense, the mixed semiotics framework can benefit from the methodological insights provided by Actor-network theory and, in particular, Latours exploration of the processes of mediation whereby human and non-human actors are assembled in order to realize a specific program of actions (1999, pp. 178-193). The four meanings of mediation as defined by Latour are particularly relevant to the case of the stabilization of content production and circulation on Wikipedia. The first meaning of mediation as goal translation, whereby an original goal is modified as more actors are enlisted to realize that very goal highlights the need to examine the minute changes that are produced when a technical device is created to embody a cultural ideal. In the case of Wikipedia, this takes place especially in specific uses of Wikipedia as a real-time communication platform, which go beyond the domains of knowledge traditionally covered by encyclopedias. As Holloway, Bozicevic, and Borner (2005) show in the case of the most popular categories for new articles on Wikipedia and as Anselm Spoerri (2007a) demonstrate in the case of the most popular Wikipedia pages in terms of readers, the category of entertainment (i.e. film, actors, television show, sport, video games) is the most popular category on Wikipedia. Thus, 43 percent of the most visited pages on Wikipedia are related to entertainment, followed by 15 percent of politics and history pages, 12 percent of geography pages and 10 percent of sexuality pages (Spoerri, 2007a).


The kind of uses that are being made of Wikipedia in terms of content creation and readership thus depart from the traditional goals of an encyclopedia. Furthermore, as Spoerri (2007b) shows, patterns of information search on Wikipedia closely follows pattern of information search on major search engines such as Google with regards to the most popular search terms. Thus, the goal of Wikipedia as an encyclopedia is changed through a series of mediations that take place both at the level of the cultural uses of Wikipedia and the level of the cultural practices of the Web. Latour also explains that the process of mediation can involve a process of delegation where the introduction of a second (non-human) actor to realize a goal or meaning changes the very nature of that meaning through a modification of the matter of expression (1999, p. 187). Latour gives the example of the speed bump as opposed to a slow down sign on the road as an instance where the goal of having cars drive slower is realized through a series of shifts at the level of matter of expression (from a linguistic sign to a material bump) and at the level of the meaning expressed (from slow down so as to not endanger people to slow down if you want to protect your cars suspension). Latour points out how the same program of action can take place in different technocultural settings depending on the actors being enlisted. Such a process can be applied to Wikipedia, particularly in the ways Wikipedia not only extends its domain of knowledge to cover categories usually minimized or ignored by the traditional encyclopedic format, but is transformed into a new cultural form altogether. As the Wikipedia platform does not only enable collaborative authorship but also real-time publishing, it has been used as a real-time media for current events. As Cross (2006)


argues, Wikipedia fills in the time gap between real time news media and the slow publication of authoritative encyclopedia sources by providing a central collection data point about a recent event that is available immediately. As such, Wikipedia is not simply an encyclopedia, but can be considered as possessing some elements of participatory journalism (Lih, 2004). Furthermore, a common criticism against Wikipedia has been that the ease with which it can be manipulated by special interest groups and thus become a site of ideological struggle. Such possibility is made possible by the easiness of adding content on Wikipedia. This fundamentally questions the encyclopedic model, as texts published on Wikipedia are not stabilized and free of bias. The ultimate goal as stated by Wikipedia is to represent a neutral point of view, but the process to achieve such a goal can mean constant editing and long discussions to resolve ideological struggles. Through these new technocultural possibilities, Wikipedia is thus mediated into a new mode of representation - one that is dynamic as opposed to the rigidity of traditional encyclopedia models. This is illustrated by the study and visualization done by Bruce Herr and Todd Holloway (2007) of the power struggles in Wikipedia articles.41,42 In the visualization, the large circles represent articles with a high revision activity due to vandalism, controversy or evolution of the topic that requires a change in content. As Herr and Holloway (2007) show, the top 20 most revised articles included controversial figures such as Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein, as well as controversial topics
41, 19 may 2007. 42 For a full picture of the visualization:


(anarchism) and important events (Hurricane Katrina, 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake).

Figure 31: Power Struggles on Wikipedia (Herr and Holloway, 2007)

Latours two other understandings of mediation as composition, whereby actions are produced by a collective of non-human and human actors that form a network cannot be attributed to a single actor, and reversible blackboxing as the process through which the collective of actors is punctualized, or integrated into a single entity, are crucial for


understanding the processes of goal translation and delegation. In terms of composition, it is the articulation of technical features with discursive rules and cultural values that makes Wikipedia possible. With regards to Wikipedia itself, it is important to recognize that the main signifying machine that is implemented does not only articulate a level of techniques such as automated formatting and open content production and a domain of production of signified discourses, but also a metadiscursive levels. That is, all the efforts at making technical possibilities and new ideals of discourse coincide also include an extensive set of metadiscursive rules that need to be implemented on Wikipedia. Wikipedias extensive guidelines about what an article should look like, processes of conflict resolution and the hierarchy of roles involved in regulating changes in content (Vigas, Wattenberg, Dave, 2004) are designed to support the goal of making the technical and the discursive coincide. This leads to acknowledging the specific process of reversible blackboxing at stake in Wikipedia, which is characterized by transparency and openness, as opposed to the kind of blackboxing of the dynamics at stake at both the level content and expression that took place on The openness of Wikipedia makes it so that it can never fully be blackboxed as a homogenous technocultural entity. The openness of a fluid level of content that can potentially be changed at any time through addition or reversion to previous versions is also accompanied by a technical openness with regards to making the level of expression (the wiki platform) available to anybody. That is to say, reversible blackboxing is constantly at play on Wikipedia, with the articulation between technical and discursive actors being always open for interventions. As such, the constant reversible blackboxing available through the


openness of the Wikipedia platform multiplies the possible mixed semiotics frameworks that can be applied to it, both at the levels of Wikipedia itself and in terms of the MediaWiki software. For instance, political actors have been enlisting Wikipedia to further political goals, as in the case of the editing of the entry on then Montana senator Conrad Burns by his own staff,43 or in the case of the 2007 French presidential debate where the Wikipedia entry on the French nuclear industry system was changed during the debate so as to support the argument of one of the candidates. Other examples of intervention that rearticulate Wikipedia to a new a-signifying machine to reshape a truth claim made by a specific actor include Microsoft offering financial incentives to work on certain Wikipedia articles.44 Finally, Wikipedias constant fight against vandalism reveals the ways in which human and non-human actors on Wikipedia can be rearticulated for radically different goals. Latours four understandings of mediation are thus theoretically important in order to understand that several a-signifying machines can be grafted onto Wikipedia, thus producing difference mixed semiotics systems. The mapping of these interventions is crucial for understanding the circulation of the Wikipedia format on the broader Web. As such, one of the differences between the MediaWiki case study and the case study is that while the production of articulations to produce specific semiotic and a-signifying machines on could not really be analyzed because of the proprietary secret system developed by, analyzing Wikipedia can reveal the ways in which articulations are produced between technical, discursive and
43 44


social actors. The goal of the study is to explore the production of specific machinic constructions, to use Deleuze and Guattaris vocabulary. The question is not to find a causal hierarchy among heterogeneous elements such as the technical, the discursive and the metadiscursive, but to study how they get articulated to produce new contexts. Identifying the abstract machines that articulate these heterogeneous elements to produce cultural forms that offer variations on the Wikipedia model is central to the examination of Wikipedia format on the Web. 2. The Circulation of the MediaWiki Software and the Rearticulation of Technical, Discursive and Cultural Domains The examination of the circulation of the Wikipedia format on the Web can take place at both the level of content and the level of format. At the level of content, the practice of reduplicating Wikipedia content is encouraged by Wikipedia through its use of GFDL licenses and by making content available for download on the Wikipedia site ( As seen in the study of the circulation of Wikipedia content through the Google search engine (Langlois and Elmer, 2007), a common use of Wikipedia content is for the purpose of attracting traffic on specific websites and redirecting it through sponsored advertising networks such as Google. This is only one way of measuring the impact of Wikipedia content on the Web, and it is limited by the use of a search engine using a proprietary algorithm. As a counterpoint, Wikipedia itself keeps tracks of its citations in the media:45


Wikipedias content has also been used in academic studies, books, conferences and court cases. The Canadian Parliament website refers to Wikipedias article on same-sex marriage in the related links section of its further reading list for Civil Marriage Act. The encyclopedias assertions are increasingly used as a source by organizations such as the U.S. Federal Courts and the World Intellectual Property Office - though mainly for supporting information rather than information decisive to a case. Wikipedia has also been used as a source in journalism, sometimes without attribution; several reporters have been dismissed for plagiarizing Wikipedia.46 Such tracking of the circulation of Wikipedia content in the media demonstrates its acceptance as a reliable source of knowledge, despite numerous criticisms about the ease of vandalizing Wikipedia articles and of propagating false information.47 For instance, the study done by scientific journal Nature in December 2005 examined differences between scientific entry articles on Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica and did not find significant differences in errors in both sources. Debates about Wikipedias reliability demonstrate the problematization of the trustworthiness of Wikipedia and thus the need for new practices of reading and writing and using open-content texts as opposed to more traditional encyclopedic texts that tend to be accepted at face value. Wikipedia text requires a critical and more engaged approach through fact checking with other sources and invitations to improve on the Wikipedia article itself. Overall, the new practices of creating and using Wikipedia texts as opposed to traditional print encyclopedic sources has been the main focus of scholarly debate about Wikipedia. As opposed to Wikipedia content and the practices involved in producing
46 47 See for instance La Rvolution Wikipedia, by Pierre Gourdain, Florence OKelly, Batrice Roman-Amat, Dephine Soulas, Tassilo von Droste zu Hulshoff.


Wikipedia content, the analysis of Wikipedia as a cultural form through a focus on its format has not been central to a cultural studies approach to the Web. While the technical specificities of the Wiki format have been acknowledged, the role played by Wikipedia as a reference within the wiki community has not been studied. Such an analysis would make it possible to examine the circulation of discursive practices and technocultural ideals as they circulate from Wikipedia onto websites that adopt a similar technical infrastructure: the MediaWiki software package. An analysis of the circulation of the Wikipedia format makes it possible to see the rearticulations of a technical infrastructure within cultural processes that might or might not differ from the ones present on Wikipedia. As such, the examination of the circulation of the cultural values embedded in Wikipedia - the ways in which the technical is made to coincide with the discursive and metadiscursive levels to produce a new form of creating, storing and propagating knowledge - can be done through a study of the adoption of the MediaWiki software package. As the MediaWiki website explains, the MediaWiki package is built using PHP language and a relational database management system. The data, and the relationship among the data is stored in the database management system and is retrieved through a script written in PHP in order to be presented as Web page. As opposed to static Web pages, which always comprise the same information in response to all download requests from all users,48 a dynamic Web page created through the PHP/database system makes it possible to have tailored Web pages automatically produced according to


different contexts or conditions. In the case of Wikipedia, the database system greatly simplifies the management of all the content created on the Website. Instead of having to format a Web page any time content is created, the MediaWiki system makes possible, once the format of the website is implemented, for users to add content with minimal formatting requirements such as embedding images, hyperlinks and text. Users do not have to format a whole new Web page, which simplifies content production. In reference to Guattaris mixed semiotics framework, dynamic content production makes it possible for technical actors to be included at both the levels of content and expression in ways that were not possible before. At the level of content, it could be argued that the technical plays an important role in transforming signified content into material intensities (data) that can then be shaped and recombined to produce new signified content depending on specific contexts. With regards to the level of expression, technical actors simplify the process of authorial production by making it possible for users to focus on the linguistic level only - on the production of coherent sentences. Other formatting issues at the level of expression - where to locate content, which content to select and how to format content - are the responsibility of technical tools. This delegation of content production tasks to technical actors represents an important shift in that it makes it possible to produce websites with large amounts of information that are relatively easy to maintain. An analysis of the importance of those new dynamic content creation tools has not yet been done. While the importance of HTML as a hypertextual language has been acknowledged, the new changes brought by dynamic content production techniques have


not yet been analyzed to the same extent. Dynamic content production is one of the technical processes that enable new discursive practices and cultural values to be realized on the Wikipedia website. It is important in turn to examine how such technical possibilities are rearticulated when they are taken out of the Wikipedia context and distributed onto other wikis that use MediaWiki. The MediaWiki website has a page about websites using MediaWiki49. It also provides a link to a list of the largest MediaWiki sites in terms of number of pages50. This list is the primary source of data for this study. It would be difficult to fully analyze all the MediaWiki websites, as a comprehensive list is not available. For instance, the MediaWiki software package can also be used to create intranets on private networks that are not published on the Web. The list of the biggest MediaWiki websites might also be incomplete in that websites have to send in a request with their traffic statistics in order to be listed. However, this voluntary participation makes it so that websites participating want to showcase their importance both on the Web and in the Wiki community. The list of biggest MediaWiki websites was retrieved on June 6, 2007 and listed a total of 855 websites. 264 of these websites were Wikimedia related projects, including Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Wikisource, Wikiquotes and Wikibooks. Those websites were not included in the data to be analyzed, as since they are developed by the Wikimedia foundation, it is assumed that their discursive rules and cultural values related to knowledge production would be similar to those implemented on Wikipedia. The list of biggest MediaWiki
49 50


websites identifies the umbrella organization that produces some of the websites. For instance, the different language versions of Wikipedia are listed under Wikipedia, and the websites that do not belong to a family of projects are listed under MediaWiki. The other two main families of projects listed in the sample were Richdex, which presents itself as hosting and developing 61 wikis, and Wikia, which lists 139 sites. There were inconsistencies with the websites listed as developed by Richdex in that they were duplicates of websites listed in the sample. Although requests for more information were sent to the administrator of the list, there were no explanations as to the reason for this anomaly. It is not possible to know whether this bug in the listing was due to problems on the side of the administration of the list, or whether Richdex submitted other wikis as their own. Because of this, the Richdex sample was not included in the study. Wikia represents a particular instance of rearticulating the Wikipedia format because it has close ties with Wikipedia. There was also a problem in the Wikia sample in that the page used by the software compiling the data was outdated, as Wikia changed its URLs. It was not possible to do a website analysis of those faulty URLs, but Wikia is still studied separately in the last section of this chapter. The current focus of analysis is on the 232 MediaWiki websites in English that were collected from the original list of biggest MediaWiki sites. In terms of methodology, these 232 websites were coded so as to reveal the ways in which they were related to the original Wikipedia model. First, the websites were coded in terms of skin resemblance with the original Wikipedia model. The skin of a website is its appearance - the use of logos, images and specific fonts and the placement


of horizontal and vertical menu bars. The assumption was that the more the skin of a website resembles the original Wikipedia skin, the more the website directly affiliates itself with it. While by no means a complete indicators of the extent to which a website is influenced by Wikipedia in terms of discursive rules and cultural values, skin similarity has an effect on users perception of a website as a new online space or as a recognizable browsing space. The second coding dimension concerned the focus of the website: whether it was a general encyclopedia or focused on a specific topic. This revealed how these websites characterize themselves in terms of knowledge production. Thirdly, the format of the website was also identified, for instance an encyclopedia, a dictionary, or a guide. This shows the range of uses of the MediaWiki software outside of the Wikipedia format. Fourthly, the content of the website was examined in order to determine whether it was original or poached from the Wikipedia websites. This was done through doing a search for specific terms and comparing results from the MediaWiki website and Wikipedia website. Fifth, the licensing of the content of the websites was analyzed, from copyrighted content to GFDL-licensed content. This indicates the degree to which websites are upholding Wikipedias value of freely accessible content. Sixth, the degree of openness for modifying content was determined through the absence of login or obligation to login to change content. Finally, the websites were analyzed in terms of the presence of sponsored advertising, such as advertising banners. 2.1 Cultural Formatting as the Rearticulation of Discursive Rules The first set of findings concerns the production of content and discursive rules on the MediaWiki websites and their variations from the original Wikipedia model. By 211

analyzing variations at the level of content and at the level of the discursive rules offered to users, the focus is on interventions at the level of signifying semiologies rather than asemiotic encodings and a-signifying semiologies. The main question for this section is about how the MediaWiki software enables discursive changes that reflect a series of cultural rearticulations of the original Wikipedia model. Overall, while the Wikipedia model of encyclopedic knowledge repository is a central reference for most of those websites, there is a minority of websites that refashion the discursive possibilities offered by the MediaWiki software to create cultural forms that are radically different from Wikipedia. The first set of variations concerns the format of the MediaWiki websites, and their departure from the encyclopedic model put forward by Wikipedia. 44 percent of the websites present themselves as encyclopedia, that is, as focused on producing knowledge about a specific or general range of topics.


Largest Mediawikis - Format

120 100 80 60 40 20 0
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Figure 32: Largest Mediawikis - Format

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The predominance of the encyclopedic format shows that Wikipedias model is partially reduplicated through the use of the MediaWiki software. A common format that departs from the specifically encyclopedic model but is still built on the idea of creating a repository of knowledge is that of the guide, be it a location guide (7 percent) about a real physical space (e.g. Saint Louis in the case of or Iowa State University with or a gaming guide (16 percent), as with, for instance,, a World of Warcraft strategy and gaming guide, or IT support guides (9 percent). The guides are designed to help users navigate real and virtual spaces. They differ from the encyclopedic model in that they focus on questions of practicality and usage. The IT


ar ed












support wikis, in particular, are devoted to providing resources for developers and users. The MediaWiki software is also used to produce spaces of shared resources (13 percent). Some of the websites that fall into this category define themselves as wikis, and in general, their focus is on encouraging the creation and circulation of resources on a particular topic. Their goal is not encyclopedic, as these websites aim at fostering operating solutions through propagating strategic knowledge. For instance, about the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is described on its about page as a wiki put together by ICANNWIKI Volunteers with the belief that a public wiki can be a real benefit to the ICANN community. Another website of interest is, which is produced by the Center for Media and Democracy to document the PR and propaganda activities of public relations firms and public relations professionals engaged in managing and manipulating public perception, opinion and policy. Other variations from the encyclopedic model include websites that present themselves as dictionaries (1 percent), directories (4 percent), databases (5 percent) or calendars (1 percent). Overall, all the MediaWiki websites have knowledge organization as one of their core goals. The goals for creating repositories of knowledge vary from one website to another and define the different cultural formats that they adopt. Only one website in the sample does not use the MediaWiki software to build a repository of knowledge, and that is, which presents as the open debate you can edit.


Figure 33:

While the main discursive characteristic of the other MediaWiki websites is the possibility of creating navigationable spaces containing large amounts of knowledge, Wikimocracy puts forward another characteristic offered by the MediaWiki software collaborative participation - as its central discursive principle. Thus, while the skin of the website is similar to that of Wikipedia, its function as a space of debate where disagreement are encouraged differs from Wikipedia model of knowledge repository where the end goal is to resolve disputes and disagreements about the content of articles. In terms of the aesthetic of the websites, 193 of the websites have a skin that is similar to that of Wikipedia, with sometimes a change in background colour and logo. The font, the placement of the menu bar and of the presence of different navigation tools (edit, view source and history buttons, for instance) remain the same. Eight of the websites have mixed skins in that some elements such as font or design of the menu varied from the original Wikipedia skin. 29 of the websites have skins that are radically different from that of Wikipedia.


Figure 34: A Wikipedia Skin Clone

Figure 35: A Mixed Skin Model


Figure 36: A MediaWiki Site with a Different Skin than Wikipedia

Skin difference or similarity with Wikipedia is a partial indicator of the cultural affiliations between MediaWiki websites and Wikimedia projects such as Wikipedia. Radically different skins indicate a separation from Wikipedia as a recognizable cultural model from a user perspective. However, changing or designing a new skin requires considerably more effort and skill than using the default MediaWiki skin, so there are multiple reasons to explain skin similarities. In correlation with other factors such as focus and format, skin variations can help point out cultural differences between Wikipedia and other MediaWiki websites. All but one of the websites that have a radically different appearance from Wikipedia have a different focus, format and model than Wikipedia. Examples include the Mozilla Firefox website in the IT category and the


Marvel Universe website in the entertainment category. In those instances, the technical infrastructure is used to create a completely different website that does not reduplicate the Wikipedia format. The only exception is, which is a general encyclopedia, but has a skin that is different from that of Wikipedia. The MediaWiki websites have a wide range of focuses. There is only a minority of websites (8 percent) whose focus is general and that present themselves as encyclopedias, dictionary or directories. Therefore, a minority of websites has the kind of general scope that Wikipedia offers. In particular, seven websites51 have a general scope and present themselves as encyclopedias similar or complementary to Wikipedia with some variations in terms of cultural goals. Indeed, all but one these seven websites - have completely original content. Presenting itself as the freest knowledge depot on the Net that can be used for storing any kind of information, and surrounded by sponsored advertising, is an instance of the reinscription of open-source knowledge within techno-commercial networks that will be explored in more detail in the final section. acknowledges that it originally used Wikipedia content but declares that it diverged from Wikipedia and claims that some years ago Wikipedia tried to force some kind of copyright.52 All but one of the general encyclopedia wikis ( have the same skin as Wikipedia, with some variations in colour (i.e. Some of the other general-scope encyclopedic websites acknowledge their link to either Wikipedia or the Wiki philosophy and discursive rules, thus presenting


themselves as complementing Wikipedia or reformulating some of the discursive possibilities offered by open-content creation. The website, for instance, presents itself as intended to complement and augment Wikipedia, and ultimately surpass it as an information resource and declares that dictionary definitions, links to websites, quotations, source texts and other types of information not acceptable on Wikipedia are welcome.53 In terms of editorial policy, differs from Wikipedia as it asks that a topic should be presented in a positive light and that alternative or critical perspectives should be placed in linked articles, thus departing from the Wikipedia process of attaining a neutral point of view representative of a variety of positions within each article. Other general encyclopedia websites develop the idea of open collaboration from an anarchistic perspective., for instance, declares on its homepage that it is a non-hierarchical geek contents disorganization by uncensored, decentralized, transglobal multi-user hypertext editing without restrictions that uses an anarchistic publishing tool. This reinscription of the ideals of open, non-hierarchical collaboration promoted by Wikipedia within open source cultural ideals (nonhierarchical geek disorganization) enforces the articulation between the free-software and free-content movement and anarchism and anti-capitalism. The website further elaborates on this articulation by presenting itself as a collaborative project sponsored by and the Alternative Media Project (...) rest(ing) on the principles of free software and wiki software that publishes and builds information from
52 53


an anarchistic perspective. Discursive practices and political ideals are thus articulated and mediated through the use of the MediaWiki software. Finally, two of the general encyclopedia wikis also depart from the Wikipedia model through a declared intention of being spoof or humoristic encyclopedias. The featured article on Roger Federer on the main page of, for instance, starts by describing Federer as tennis star par excellence and fashion icon for blind people. The homepage news section of asserts that the seventh Harry Potter book (is) reportedly based on (the) Sopranos season finale. These spoof encyclopedias play on the main concerns raised about Wikipedia - vandalism and veracity of content. By making false information and parodies their core discursive principle, these websites take discursive possibilities that Wikipedia aims to extinguish and give them a prominent role. This reversal of discursive rules thus refocuses some of the discursive possibilities offered by collaborative authorship on wiki platforms. The main rearticulation of the Wikipedia format for those general encyclopedia websites thus consists of shifting discursive practices through a redefinition of cultural ideals and metadiscursive rules. The technical opportunities offered by the software remain unchanged - it is their articulation with new discursive (the ways content should be presented) and metadiscursive rules (i.e. open collaboration leading to the fulfillment of an anarchistic ideal) that produces discursive variations on the Wikipedias model. Those new articulations do not take place at the level of expression - the formatting remains the same - but rather at the level of content, particularly at the level of substance of content: the social and discursive values and rules that shape the formulation of signified contents.


Figure 37: Largest MediaWikis - Focus

Largest MediaWikis - Focus

geography sexuality history education social sciences politics arts institutions science other location guide religion general computers entertainment 0 20 40 60 80 100 120

Apart from the eight general encyclopedia wikis that share a direct cultural affiliation with Wikipedia, the rest of the websites differ from Wikipedia through a narrower focus. The most common focus for MediaWiki websites is entertainment (45 percent), followed by computers (13 percent) and religion (8 percent). There is a total of 11 percent of the websites that focus on conventional encyclopedic categories such as sciences, social sciences, history, geography, politics and religion. The institutions category, which represents 3 percent of the total websites, includes projects sponsored by specific institutions on specific issues. This includes the One Laptop per Child wiki,54 the United


Nations Development Program knowledge map55, and the Youth Rights Network


. The

categories of Politics and Religion do not only include political science or encyclopedias about specific religions, but also religious and political groups and communities. These engaged communities include communities wanting to establish their presence on the Web through collaborative knowledge production. Examples include, which is devoted to propagating a creationist perspective on science, and the Canadian Christian Workers Database. In the Politics category, groups include a Republican encyclopedia - and dKsopedia, the Daily Kos community liberal encyclopedia. The importance of the category of entertainment (i.e. film, television, gaming, sports, music, pop culture) echoes the most popular sections of Wikipedia in terms of most visited pages and popular categories for new articles, as seen in the first section of this chapter. Gaming dominates the entertainment section, with 40 websites devoted to computer games out of the 100 websites categorized as entertainment. This predominance of new information and communication technologies is also apparent with the 13 percent of all websites focused on computer-related issues, from hardware to software and IT support. The predominance of information and communication technologies indicates that Wikipedia is not only an important actor in terms of knowledge production, but is also a central tool for communities of technology-savvy users as a way to organize information about IT. Furthermore, out of the 40 gaming websites, 35 are gaming guides
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devoted to both offline and online games such as Oblivion, World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy and Guild Wars. The main characteristic of these games is the complex environment they offer - from the multiple storylines of Oblivion to the massive multiplayer spaces of Warcraft and Guild Wars. This complexity has spanned a series of official and non-official guides, among which the gaming guides that appear in the sample of largest MediaWiki websites. There is continuity in using wiki technology to help users navigate complex virtual spaces such as video games. After all, the process of creating video games involves the production of a series of small units of challenges to the user. Creating a wiki rather than a traditional website or a paper gaming guide allows for a collaborative effort in a form of reverse engineering, where complexities are broken down to more manageable units. Here, there is a translation from the production logic of the video game to the user logic of the gamer, from the organization of the gaming system to documentation about this organization and logic. The wiki system allows for the mediation of gaming content as a specific kind of signifying semiology (image and sound-based) into another kind of signifying semiologies - a wiki-formatted signified content that is primarily text-based. The wiki format plays a pivotal role in enabling this mediation through offering the possibility of collaborative authorship, without which it would be extremely difficult to create a comprehensive guide, and a hypertextual organization where complex processes can be broken down into smaller units such as articles and still be linked to each other and organized in multiple manners through hypertext. The same process takes place with the wikis focused on computer-related issues. Out of the 29 MediaWiki sites about computers, 19 are IT support websites. This


includes open-source software (i.e. Linux Man, OpenOffice) as well as private software (i.e. C# by Microsoft, Fastmail). This common use of the wiki format to create support websites demonstrates the close ties between software development and the documentation of software development in the form of collaboratively produced articles. Again, those mediations between system and signified content are made possible through the wiki format, which enables collaborative hyperlinked knowledge production. Also notable is the fact that 19 of the 29 computer-related websites are more specifically focused on open-source issues and non-proprietary software. This includes not only support websites, but also techno-libertarian websites on peer-to-peer software and issues57 as well as hacker resources

and spaces devoted to the gift economy and

cyberliberties59. The affiliation is not only technological, but also cultural in that the wiki format is used by diverse IT communities and in particular, cyberlibertarian communities that focus on developing a link between technological possibilities and political ideals. The final dimension in terms of the discursive and cultural rules that operate at the level of content concern the degree of openness of participation. Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects are open-collaboration project where users can participate in content creation. The particularity of Wikipedia is that there is no login required to post content, therefore anonymous participation is possible. By contrast, only 83 of the 232 websites have the same degree of openness with regards to who can post content. Login is required for 149 of the websites, and this can be explained by several reasons. Wikipedia is unique
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in that it has access to an extensive number of administrators- 1,276 in July 200760 - to monitor changes in content and block vandals. By comparison, the largest MediaWiki websites generally have a lower number of administrators. While the Youth Rights Network wiki tops the list of number of administrators with 1143 administrators, the next ranked website is OpenNetWare with 106 administrators and Uncyclopedia with 47 administrators. On average, the websites in the sample have 13 administrators with 179 websites having 10 administrators or less. Policing a wiki with fewer administrators can be time consuming, and the reason for having a login is that it is a deterrent against vandalism. Thus, there are practical reasons for disabling anonymous content production, and it is not possible within the scope of this study to know the reasons why MediaWiki websites are set up with or without login requirements. Overall, the rearticulation that takes place at the level of content and discursive rules between Wikipedia and other websites through the use of the MediaWiki software shows that Wikipedia plays an important role as a cultural format for a diverse range of communities. That is, it is not simply the encyclopedic model put forward by Wikipedia, but also the ways in which Wikipedia is embedded through different communities - the IT community of technology-savvy Internet users, local communities using the wiki format to create guides about a specific locale, and politically engaged communities. Overall, these rearticulations and remediation of the Wikipedia model through the use of MediaWiki take place at the level of signifying semiologies, as human actors select
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specific technical possibilities to reduplicate or create new discursive possibilities, thus operating a series of transformations that represent a shift from the Wikipedia model to mixed models that involve cultural goals specific to diverse communities of users. This, however, is but one level at which the Wikipedia cultural format can be articulated and mediated. 2.2 A-signifying Processes and the Channeling of Cultural Formats The formulation of new cultural goals can also take place at the a-signifying level. This surfaces in the analysis of the MediaWiki websites with the political and religious websites using the MediaWiki software to propagate specific political - be they anarchistic or conservative - or religious points of view. The difference between, for instance, the Buddhist Encyclopedia ( and, which focuses on propagating a creationist perspective on science is that one operates through the collaborative encyclopedic principle of building knowledge about a religion while the other targets a specific domain (science) to propagate religious beliefs. Websites such as are not representative of the cultural communities that are usually affiliated with Wikipedia and its open source model that locates itself outside of for-profit cultural production. One of the reasons behind the creation of such websites is that collaborative authorship allows for comparatively faster content production than traditional HTML websites by making it possible to have many authors instead of a few. Furthermore, the bigger a website is in terms of content, hyperlinks and referral links, the greater its presence on the Web and on search engine listings. While this kind of logic is present on all the websites of this study to varying degrees, it becomes more apparent 226

with wikis that are developed to propagate a specific message. This type of logic is located at the level a-signifying semiotics rather than signifying semiologies. That is, the underlying logic is to transform signifying semiologies such as content into a mass of data, that is, into material intensities that can then be noticed by other websites and search engines and thus further integrated into different the technodiscursive networks that cross the Web. In do doing, the discursive status of the website evolves as it gains prominence in these technodiscursive networks. Analyzing the a-signifying processes at stake in the deployment of the MediaWiki software on the Web thus requires an examination of other technical, cultural and political layers that shape specific discursive statuses. This goes a step further than exploring the new discursive rules and cultural content of MediaWiki sites presented above in that rather than comparing internal discursive rules, the analytical process deals with broader technocultural dynamics shaping the different facets of the Web in terms of access to content and commercialization. In that sense, the websites are integrated in these a-signifying flows and become instances of some of the new technocultural transformations of content and discourse on the broader Web. Although it is not noticeable in the sample, content can be rearticulated within asignifying machines through processes of reduplication as seen in the study of the circulation of Wikipedia content (Langlois and Elmer, 2007). Wikipedia content can be used to make websites more visible and thus attract traffic. This is another instance where content is used as a way of manipulating material intensities such as data and traffic within commercial networks of sponsored advertising.


Figure 38: Largest MediaWikis - IntellectualProperty Property Regimes Regimes Largest MediaWiki Websites - Intellectual

N/A 23% other 0% mixed open/private 1% private copyright 10%

open content 66%

The second level at which a-signifying processes come into play in terms of defining the discursive status of the MediaWiki websites is content licensing. The Wikimedia projects are licensed under the GFDL, whose purpose is to make a manual, textbook, or other functional and useful document free in the sense of freedom: to assure everyone the effective freedom to copy and redistribute it, with or without modifying it, either commercially or noncommercially.61 There exist other free content licenses designed to offer other possibilities of use of content. The Creative Commons licenses, for instance, are based on combinations of four conditions - Attribution, Noncommercial, No Derivative and Share Alike. Attribution allows for copying, distribution, performance and creation of derivative work if attribution is given to the original author. Noncommercial requires that content can be used for non-commercial purposes only, a condition that is


not possible with the GFDL. No Derivative Works means that only verbatim copies are allowed and Share Alike requires that derivative works must have an identical license to the original work.62 Content licensing plays a central role in revealing how content is allowed to circulate on the Web and through other media. The majority of MediaWiki websites - 66 percent - uses open content licenses or release their content under the public domain. 10 percent of the websites use private copyright and 23 percent of the websites did not have any indication as to the type of content licensing they were using on their websites. The GFDL is predominant (37 percent) in terms of open content license, thus showing the influence of the Wikipedia model. It is also not uncommon that some of the MediaWiki sites use the original licensing text from Wikipedia, sometimes without replacing the name Wikipedia with their own. Creative Commons licenses are the second most popular type of open content licensing. There are 54 websites using five different kinds of Creative Commons licenses. The most common license is the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license, which differs from the GFDL in that it forbids commercial use of content. There are 33 websites using a Creative Commons license that include the Noncommercial clause, thus revealing an intention to further develop free content spaces on the Web as opposed to privatized content. Figure 39: Largest MediaWikis - Intellectual Property Regimes Breakdown

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Largest MediaWikis - Intellectual Property Regimes

GFDL, open content license (OCL) other mixed open/copyright open content GFDL, CC public domain copyrights to original authors copyrights to site owners N/A CC GFDL 0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90

It is noticeable that 10 percent of the websites use copyrights, with 4 percent of the websites declaring that copyrights go to the original authors and 6 percent claiming copyrights or full rights for publishing content to the site owners. The websites that give copyrights to the original author show that they define themselves in terms of a publishing role rather than an authorial role. The websites that claim that the site owners own the copyright to all content published on the website or have full rights operate under a different logic - one that privatizes collaborative content. These websites are predominantly encyclopedias (9 out of 14 websites) and have a wide range of focus, from entertainment to religion, art, computers and taxes. Two of those websites and - have no login requirements to create or modify content. is an interesting example of a website that looks like Wikipedia with a similar skin, structure and discursive rules that encourage users to find, post, and edit the facts and photos here on your favorite structures of all kinds,


from your own cottage to the latest skyscraper to your nations capitol.63 On its General Disclaimer page, states that while users retain copyright to their contributions, they grant full rights to Artifice, Inc. to publish those contributions through a perpetual non-exclusive license to Artifice and our assigns for publishing at Archiplanet and in any other publications in any media worldwide. The website is sponsored by the magazine ArchitectureWeek, thus showing how user-produced content can be reintegrated into a private publishing network. This type of provision circumvents the restriction imposed by the GFDL that derivative works must be released under the same GFDL license. This privatization of collaboratively produced content is also present on the Marvel Universe website, which was built with the MediaWiki software. Marvel Universe is a subsection of and is described as a dynamic, communityfueled online encyclopedia of all things Marvel. (...) In order to ensure that Marvel Universe is the best online resource for Marvel bios, we turned it over to the experts: you.64 The skin of the website is completely different from that of Wikipedia and the Terms and Conditions page stipulates that users submitting materials grant Marvel and its affiliates: A royalty-free, unrestricted, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive and fully transferable, assignable and sublicensable right and license to use, copy, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such material (in whole or in part) and/or to incorporate it in other works in any form, media, or technology now known or later developed, including for promotional and/or commercial purposes.
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Marvel thus makes use of the discursive possibilities offered by the Wiki format with regards to collaborative content production, but radically departs from the open-content model by privatizing it for its own uses and benefits. The a-signifying process that operates at the level of the licensing of content thus channels content into specific discursive networks - from the copyrighted commercial spaces of the Web and other media to, on the contrary, free-content spaces that operate outside of the commercial Web, in the case of the non-commercial licenses. User-produced content can be articulated to larger processes of commercialization, thus contradicting some of the ideals of the gift economy usually associated with the wiki format. As Terranova (2000) argues, while the high-tech gift economy described by Barbrook (1998) has been seen as being autonomous from capitalism and leading the way towards a future of anarchocommunism, the reality is that the digital economy has been able to function through the very use of user-produced content. This form of free labour, according to Terranova (2000), is a characteristic of the digital economy. As Terranova (2000) describes it, the mechanism of internal capture of larger pools of social and cultural knowledge (...) involves forms of labor not necessarily recognized as such: chat, real-life stories, mailing lists, amateur newsletters, etc (p. 38). As the licensing of MediaWiki websites shows, collaboratively produced knowledge could be added to that list. As Terranova further describes, the processes of incorporation of user-produced labor as free labor is not about capital descending on authentic culture but a more immanent process of channeling collective labor (even as cultural labor) into monetary flows and its structuration within capitalist business practices (p. 39). A-signifying processes that involve commercial


interests and intellectual property schemes allow for the channeling of collaborative content into private business. These a-signifying processes do not operate at the level of the signification of content, but transform its status so that it can be oriented and channeled within specific commercial or non-commercial flows. The intellectual property regime of MediaWiki websites is but one of the component that can be used by a-signifying processes. Another characteristic of commercial channeling is the use of sponsored advertising, which is more visible in the sample than the privatization of content through copyrights and full licenses. Sponsored advertising, such as advertising banners, appeared in 37 percent of the websites and is not about the direct commercialization of content, but about the use of content to attract and redirect traffic within broader commercial channels.


Largest Mediawiki Sites - Advertising Breakdown

Amazon 1% other 15% Yahoo 1% Bidvertiser 1%

Figure 40: Largest MediaWikis - Advertising Breakdown

Google/Google and other 82%

The most popular sponsored advertising program is Google AdSense, which is used by 82 percent of the websites using advertising, either by itself or in combination with other forms of advertising. The other recognizable online advertising solutions offered by Amazon, Yahoo!, and Bidvertiser represent only 1 percent each of the total number of websites using advertising. Google AdSense departs from traditional advertising banners by using software that tailor the content of the advertising banner depending on the content of the website. As is explained on the Google AdSense homepage: AdSense for content automatically crawls the content of your pages and delivers ads (you can choose both texts or image ads) that are relevant to your audience and your site content - ads so well-matched, in fact, that your readers will actually find them useful.


Google AdSense is popular as it is automatically customizable and can thus offer a higher click-through rate and higher revenues than other non-contextualized advertising solutions. It seems that there are a range of reasons why some websites choose to use sponsored advertising. Sponsored advertising might provide a revenue to pay for the existence of the website, such as server costs. It might also be part of a more elaborate business plan to make money out of attracting traffic and redirecting it through sponsored links. The Marvel Universe website, for instance, uses Google advertising, thus creating further revenues based on redirecting traffic to supplement the commercialization of userproduced content. The type of a-signifying process that takes place with sponsored advertising proceeds by identifying correlations between the content of a website and a list of advertisers. This process is similar to the process of recommendation seen with the case study, where the goal was to create a smooth chain of signification that links users to commercial networks. There is a further similarity in the attempt to translate the practice of reading and accessing content into a set of needs and desires that can be fulfilled by commercial entities. The a-signifying process is not only about reinscribing content within the seamless channel of commercial sponsoring, but also of retransforming that content into material intensities capable of attracting users. That is, the integration of the wiki websites within commercial channels also requires that content be seen not only in terms of signified content, but also in terms of material intensities capable of attracting another type of material flow: user traffic. The a-signifying process thus imposes new signifying practices on content and mediates content as material flows to be connected with traffic flows in order to create networks of sponsored advertising.


This type of a-signifying process reveals the ways in which open-source content can be rearticulated and channeled within online commercial networks. The Wikia sample that was not included in this study because of faulty URLs further demonstrates the multiple commercial channels within which open collaborative content can be articulated. While independent from the Wikimedia foundation, Wikia was co-founded by Jimmy Wales, the main founder of Wikipedia and Wikimedia. Wikia offers hosting services for wikis and describes itself as: ...supporting the creation and development of over 3000 wiki communities in more than 70 languages. Part of the free culture movement, Wikia content is released under a free content license and operates on the Open Source MediaWiki software.65 One of the main differences between Wikia and Wikimedia projects is that Wikia is a Wiki hosting service - users wanting to create a wiki do not have to download the MediaWiki software, but can use the Wikia interface. The creation of a wiki is thus simplified. Furthermore, Wikia is free for users, but uses Google sponsored advertising to generate revenues. Wikia is also partly financed through investments from While Wikia is built on an open-content model and thus shares a cultural link with Wikipedia, it is built on the idea of generating revenue from the content and traffic on the website. That companies specializing in customized marketing for users such as show interest in financing Wikia is revealing of the ways in which open content can further be reinscribed within commercial models. In some ways, this process of commercializing open content is similar to the commercialization of open65


source software. As Terranova recalls, open-source software plays an important role in the development of a digital economy: you do not need to be proprietary about source codes to make a profit: the code might be free, but tech support, packaging, installation software, regular upgrades, office applications and hardware are not (p. 51). The process of commercialization of open-source content does not take place through the direct imposition of fees on users to publish or access content. Rather, processes of commercialization take place at the level of mining content and developing solutions to translate behaviours and content into desires and needs that can be commercially fulfilled. Content might still be perceived as free in terms of users not having to pay to access it, but it is used to channel those users of free content within commercial networks. Moreover, through the rearticulation of open, collaborative content within commercial networks, there is a transformation that takes place from creating content as an activity located outside of the sphere of commodified culture to the redefinition of such practices as free labor in the digital economy. Communities of interest are created and provide both the resources (content) and the audiences (the users) to allow for the sustenance of those new commercial networks. As Terranova puts it: late capitalism does not appropriate anything: it nurtures, exploits and exhausts its labor force and its cultural and affective production (p. 51). However, examples such as Wikia demonstrate that the process is not one of exhausting but rather of constant nurturing and exploitation through data mining. The constant nurturing of users as cultural workers through free perks such as user-friendly platforms and the possibility of harnessing a community of


users sharing the same interest and cultural ideals of accessible knowledge and communication gives way to a parallel system of exploitation of users and their cultural production. The uniqueness of this parallel system is that it does not directly infringe on users. Rather it is presented as opportunities and possibilities that are not imposed on users practices but coexist with them. The examination of the a-signifying processes at stake with the propagation of the MediaWiki software reveals the existence of the different channels that constitute the Web. In some ways, it becomes necessary to talk about different coexisting webs that articulate commercial, cultural and technical processes. There are multiple processes that take place to transform systems of signification into material intensities in order to build new a-signifying processes. These flows of articulation have an impact on the discursive and cultural models put forward by the wiki platform and Wikipedia by enabling a series of technocultural readjustments. Those readjustments do not intervene at the level of discursive practices - which are primarily shaped through the translation of technical possibilities into cultural goals - but make use of discursive practices to create new commercial and non-commercial networks.


Chapter 5 Conclusion: Meaning, Subjectivation and Power in the New Information Age Examining the technocultural dimensions of meaning involves analyzing how meaning is constituted through both material (i.e. technical) and cultural constraints and possibilities. As such, this research aimed to demonstrate that questions regarding the relationships between meaning, or the content of text, and the social, political, cultural and economic dimensions of communication technologies have too often been ignored within the field of communication studies. The traditional separation between the medium and the message has created an artificial boundary that needs to be overcome if we are to pay true attention to the ways in which the production and circulation of meanings within technocultural environments such as the Web serve to organize a social order and a cultural context characterized by specific relations of power. In that sense, Guattaris mixed semiotics framework proved invaluable for locating the ways in which processes of signification are articulated with a-semiotic and signifying processes. It became possible to study meaning in its articulation with specific technocultural contexts and to examine the ways in which strategies developed for meaning production and circulation serve to define specific modes of agency and thus, specific power relations among the human and non-human actors involved in the case studies. In that sense, Actor-network theory also proved invaluable in providing a vocabulary to understand the articulations between a-semiotic, signifying and a-signifying processes and to trace the ways in which cultural ideals, processes, power relations and subject positions are created and redefined through networks of human and software agents. 239 and the adoption of the MediaWiki software were used, within the scope of this research, as sites of analysis for understanding how software in charge of supporting content production and circulation can be understood as a pivotal actor that articulates a-semiotic, signifying and a-signifying regimes, as an actor that links content with the technocultural production of a social order. Software for content production and circulation, then, can be analyzed as creating new material possibilities and constraints, and as translating cultural ideals and becoming a delegate for an a-signifying machine that imposes regularities in order to existentialize specific power formations. With regards to synthesizing the case studies, it is useful to further reflect on the articulation between meaning-making and the formation of a technocultural order through the deployment of software. First, there needs be a reflection on the ways in which the informational dynamics present in the deployment of software force us to reconsider meaning-making and to identify a new framework for analyzing meaning-making from a communication and cultural studies perspective. The second site of synthesis concerns in particular the other category of actor involved in the content production and circulation: the user. The case studies make it apparent that the user is a problematic site as both standing in for human actors, but also as shaped by software and technocultural milieus. It is possible to examine a particular set of the articulations between a technocultural milieu and human agents that produce users, and these articulations concern the ways in which the technocultural context imposes specific modes of agency and processes of subjectivation on human actors. For the purpose of this particular research, it is useful to adopt a narrower definition of the


user that does not encompass the play of subjectivities, identities, agencies, and potential modes of resistance as they are expressed by actual human actors interacting with the or MediaWiki architecture. Such characteristics of the user cannot be studied within the scope of this research. Rather, it is possible to examine the user as a site where technocultural processes define specific modes of being online. This particular definition of the user stems from the recognition that online mixed semiotics networks delineate a specific range of communicational practices and as such express a vision of what users should be. This ideal - from the point of view of the software - version of the user as deployed through technical capacities, discursive positions and communicational practices constitutes an important first step for understanding processes of subjectivation on the Web. Subjectivation can be understood as a process of becoming, as encompassing the modes of existentialization that arise in relation with a technocultural context. Subjectivation takes place through the articulation of human actors with diverse technocultural components that, in the case of the Web, express specific modes of calling human actors, that is, specific possibilities of existentialization within technocultural power formations. With regards to understanding the role played by technologies, the concept of subjectivation invites us to consider how technocultural networks participate in the complex process of translation and negotiation through which human agents are in turn invited or forced to articulate themselves with specific agencies and subject positions. In that sense, software creates potential modes of existence that participate in offering human actors specific user-positions within technocultural power relations. Reassessing the politics of usership makes it possible to develop another


perspective on the question of the link between meaning and the creation of a social order. In particular, the definition of the sphere of agency of the user and the multiplication of the modes of usership offer a way to further examine how the technocultural production of meaning serves to existentialize specific power relations and modes of subjectivation. 1. Rethinking the divide between Information and Meaning Production and Circulation through Mixed Semiotics Networks The theoretical framework that was used for the case studies focused on locating processes of signification in their articulation with non-linguistic and technocultural dynamics. These articulations required different perspectives as signifying processes, asemiotic and a-signifying dynamics mutually shape each other. The implications of the mixed semiotics framework for cultural studies of communication include the need to further acknowledge the informational aspect of communication. The main critical reassessment in the study of signs and meanings on the Web concerns the shift from meaning itself to the conditions of meaning production. That is, both case studies were not centrally focused on the ideological and representational dimensions of meaning. For instance, the meaning of Harry Potter as the most popular contemporary childrens book in the world was not the primary focus of the case study. This does not mean that questions related to meaning are unimportant. On the contrary, they are central questions but in order to fully explore the constitution of meaning within online spaces, it is necessary to examine how specific meaning conditions are shaped within technocultural contexts. The theoretical shift that takes place 242

consists of examining the power relations at stake in the formation of meaning, and in particular the power relations that shape a particular language or means of expression, delineate specific modes of decoding meanings, and define the sphere of agency, legitimacy and competency of the actors involved in meaning formation and circulation. The study of the technocultural wrappers that make meaning possible within online spaces includes a consideration of the relationship between informational processes and meaning formation. In that regard, informational dynamics (Terranova, 2004, p. 51) play an important role as communication and information technologies are gaining in popularity, and in particular in creating both the conditions and the context within which meaning formations can appear. While the question of meaning relies on Halls encoding-decoding model (1980), informational dynamics have emerged from the Shannon-Weaver model of sender-message-receiver (1980), where the central focus is on the transmission of messages with the least noise, or confusion, possible. As argued in the introductory chapter, the study of the role played by software in setting the technocultural conditions for meaning production and circulation bridges questions regarding the informational processes of Web technologies and the cultural process of representation. The Web can be considered from both a cultural and an informational perspective as a space of representation and an ensemble of techniques to transmit informational data over a vast computer network. Guattaris mixed semiotics framework makes it possible to examine the articulation between informational and cultural processes as they are expressed through a-semiotic, signifying and a-signifying processes. While informational dynamics and the question of meaning have traditionally been seen as separate fields of


inquiry with their own theoretical questions and methodologies, there is a need to consider how meanings are shaped through informational processes within the technocultural context of the Web. The mixed semiotics framework shows that it is necessary to examine how informational processes have an impact on the encoding and decoding of messages by providing the means for meaning formations and enabling practices of knowledge production and circulation. In that regard, the mixed semiotics framework proved invaluable, in particular by identifying the deployment of a-semiotic processes of data gathering and their circulation through a-signifying and signifying networks. For instance in the case of, a-semiotic encodings were translated into recommendations (signifying semiologies) which were organized through an endless chain of signification. The endless chain of signification offered specific modes of cultural interpretation, and those modes of decoding participated in the shaping of a specific consumer subjectivity that took place at the a-signifying level of existentialization. The shift consists in examining the technocultural dimensions of online spaces, that is, the moments when informational dynamics are translated into specific cultural processes, and vice versa in order to produce a stable context. Thus, the case studies focused on exploring the ways in which meaning formations, or signifying semiologies were implemented through their articulation with a-semiotic encodings and a-signifying machines. Such a process involves acknowledging that technocultural stability is achieved when the processes of translation and delegation between informational processes and cultural dynamics is blackboxed. Such an approach makes it possible to


identify the machinic regularities, as Deleuze and Guattari would describe them, at stake in the shaping of meaning, and thus the systems put in place that define the agency of human and non-human actors as well as the processes of subjectivation of users. With regard to establishing specific formats, and MediaWiki are important as they are emblematic as models of some of the technocultural forms that circulate on the Web. is a reference as an online commercial space that deals with the shaping of desires for products through the implementation of specific semiotic systems designed to interpret and reveal the needs of users. Wikipedia as the most famous embodiment of MediaWiki is an exemplar of a radically different model of conceptualizing users within a collaborative format as active knowledge producers. Both Wikipedia and are important models for the broader Web. Amazon has been exporting its features through its offers for Web services, and the Wikipedia model and MediaWiki software have been exported onto other wikis and collaborative websites. and cannot be simply considered as online spaces, but also as online formats designed to be used by third parties. The format, as seen in Chapter Three, circulates on the Web through the Amazon Web Services. In that way, grants other developers the right to use aspects of, such as the shopping cart, or the recommendation system. still maintains control of the database, and by multiplying the contexts of use of Amazon Web services, can further enrich its database. While the circulation of the format on the Web is almost meme-like with parts of the technocultural logic being delivered to third parties, the circulation of the MediaWiki software follows a different logic. As seen


in Chapter Four, the circulation of the MediaWiki software package allows for a greater range of rearticulations, with websites making use of the MediaWiki package for different purposes. Another common characteristic of both models is the way in which they are embedded within the broader flows of the Web, for instance, networks of advertising. Thus, Wikipedia and Amazon are important both as models and as instances of the articulation of online spaces with other informational, technological and discursive networks through the deployment and integration of signifying semiologies within asignifying and technocultural networks. Signifying semiologies are thus not only important in and of themselves but also because of the processes by which they are captured to hierarchize and define users and commercial and cultural entities and thus create a social and cultural order through the stabilization of a horizon of cultural expectations and practices to shape a social reality. The analysis of the mixed semiotics of and the MediaWiki software revealed how informational dynamics that do not operate at the level of cultural representation nevertheless shape the conditions for meaning production. The articulations produced machinic regularities are sustained through the deployment of layers of software. In order to study the actor-networks that makes the articulation between asemiotic encodings and signifying and a-signifying semiologies possible, it was necessary to focus on the layers directly involved in the formation of meaning. A central actor in this particular network is the software layer, whose complex role of linking informational dynamics with cultural ones should be acknowledged. The software layer is not simply an actor within signifying and a-signifying networks, but a mediator that


bridges different spheres and stands in for different types of actor. The software layer acts as a mediator between the technical and the cultural, enabling the transformation of signal and code into human-understandable symbols and signs. Furthermore, the software layer acts as a delegate that stands in for other actors, such as commercial actors and users. The sphere of agency of software reflects a translation of commercial, political and cultural ideals and concepts into technical features. As seen with the MediaWiki case study, there is a process of translation from a cultural ideal of collaborative knowledge creation to the implementation of a collaborative wiki platform. In the case of, the informational space defined by the software articulates the practices of users within the commercial imperative behind the very existence of Software is thus a site where different kinds of meanings are shaped and formed, from the symbolic meanings created through the interface to the cultural meanings that give form to software itself and define the practices of users. As a mediator, software stands in and involves other entities within the assemblage of human and non-human actors. In particular, software stands in for programmers who have a specific range of commercial and cultural goals in mind when designing Web interfaces. Software is also what allows for the inclusion of users within the network. At the same time, users are defined by software through the cultural and commercial parameters set up by the programmers. Combining an actor-network approach with Guattaris mixed semiotics framework is useful for mapping out the a-signifying network of actors through an examination of the processes and flows that make meaning possible. The examination of the symbolic and representational elements and practices available at the level of the


interface through a mixed semiotics approach makes it possible to identify the articulation between technical, cultural and commercial flows and thus to go beyond the level of the interface. While the starting point of analysis was the formation of meaning at the level of the interface, the mixed semiotics framework allowed for a critical exploration that goes beyond the level of the website. This was especially apparent with the MediaWiki case study, where the capturing of meanings within commercial networks revealed a picture of the Web different than the one accessible from a conventional user perspective. The commercial dynamics that capture meanings to capitalize on them show the existence of other informational webs that graft themselves onto websites and search engines to regulate flows of traffic and advertising revenues. While these flows do not intervene in the ideological shaping of meaning, they nevertheless have an important impact on the shaping of the commercial and discursive aspects of the Web. The case studies thus underline the existence of cultural and commercial flows of information that play a role in both defining and utilizing meaning formations. This has theoretical and methodological consequences for our conventional understanding of the Web. The analysis of the case studies used as a starting point the interface as a way to examine the relationships between software, users and programmers and website owners. The goal of the analysis, however, was not only to study the a-signifying machines that operate with and MediaWiki websites, but also to identify the a-signifying flows and informational dynamics that embed signifying semiologies into the World Wide Web. The circulation of signifying semiologies within broad a-signifying flows reveals a need to go further than the conventional user perception of the Web as a


hyperlinked collection of websites. There are broader processes at stake that are not immediately visible but nevertheless cross through the Web. Networks of targeted advertising and recommendations reveal the existence of economies of the Web that are not designed to be entirely visible to users. Or rather, those new flows reappear to users in a quasi-magical manner as instantaneous advice and recommendations, through targeted advertising, for instance, or recommendation systems. There exists an economy that uses meaning and user behaviours and whose logic is invisible to the users and yet has important consequences in the technocultural shaping of meaning formations. Such processes reveal that it is necessary to critically assess conventional perceptions of the Web that are limited to the Web interface in order to include a better awareness of the flows that cross websites boundaries and are not directly mediated through other conventional modes of seeing the Web, such as search engines. In the case of targeted advertising, for instance, commercial entities exist in the background and use the signifying logics of the Web to capture flows of traffic. Thus, at the methodological level, understanding the Web requires new models, such as the mixed semiotics framework, to uncover the informational flows that are not visible from a user perspective. Meaning formations are captured within informational dynamics that encompass a-signifying machines. One shared characteristic coming out of the and Wikipedia case studies is the new treatment of meaning formations through informational dynamics. Informational dynamics, be they the recommendation system or the advertising flows crossing through the wiki sphere, only partially deal with meaning at the conventional level of the cultural value of meaning. Informational dynamics are


only partly concerned with formulating a judgment about the validity of the meanings being produced in online spaces. As seen with the MediaWiki case study, the discursive status of text changes through its technocultural mediation as collaboratively produced knowledge. The new practices made available by informational dynamics have an impact on the discursive status of text. Yet, discursive changes are but one of the levels at which to study the articulation of meaning formations within informational dynamics. Rather, the capacity of meaning formations to be recaptured by new commercial and cultural processes is also important. On, the reinscription of user-produced meanings within a commercial recommendation system illustrates a series of articulations of meanings onto other informational flows. With Wikipedia, the reinscription of meaning within networks of targeted advertising shows that meaning formations are captured in order to produce new commercial and cultural spaces and flows. Thus, those specific online informational dynamics operate in the same way as the global informational dynamics described by Terranova (2004): This informational dimension does not simply address the emergence of new hegemonic formations around signifiers (...). The informational perspective adds to this work of articulation another dimension - that of a daily deployment of informational tactics that address not simply the individual statement and its intercultural connections, but also the overall dynamics of a crowded and uneven communication milieu... (p. 54) Informational dynamics as a-signifying machines focus primordially on the channeling of signs across different commercial and cultural systems. The integration of meaning formations within informational processes thus reveals the existence of new a-signifying regimes on the Web that both provide the space for the production of signs and create new a-semiotic and signifying processes to integrate those signs within other cultural and 250

commercial flows of information. Rethinking the formation of meaning in online spaces through Guattaris mixed semiotics framework thus highlights new dynamics about the place of meaning within informational spaces. Guattaris framework is useful for identifying other processes that make use of meaning and signifying systems as means rather than goals. The importance of integrating an analysis of the processes taking place at the a-semiotic level in order to understand a-signifying processes has been a constant in the case studies. The articulation of meaning with other material and informational processes is central for understanding how informational dynamics shape meaning formations on the Web. The notion of asemiotic encodings helps understand the processes that take place at the level of data, and their integration within an a-signifying machine makes it possible to see how the question of meaning formation goes beyond questions of ideology or hegemony. As seen with the recommendation system on, there is a circulation and translation of data into meaning and meaning into data. Cultural uses are turned into statistics that can then be compared with other statistics and retranslated into new cultural needs. In so doing, the asignifying machine proceeds by translating signifying semiologies into a-semiotic encodings in order to reorganize a social and cultural order that fits with the perceived cultural affinities of users. This process echoes Terranovas statement (2004) that: Information technologies have helped make the complexity of the socius manageable by compressing variations in tastes, timetables and orientations, bypassing altogether the self-evident humanistic subject, going from masses to populations of subindividualized units of information (p. 65) Furthermore, the movement at stake with informational dynamics, such as that of the recommendation system on, is not simply about translating the social into 251

manageable data, but also of translating data back as a new social ordering. There is thus a new process of representation of users at stake with the dynamic production of signs on As Terranova argues, there are thus two sides to information (2004): On the one hand, it involves a physical operation on metastable material processes that are captured as probabilistic and dynamic states; on the other hand, it mobilizes a signifying articulation that inserts such description into the networks of signification that make it meaningful. (p. 70) With the MediaWiki case study, the importance of a-semiotic encodings surfaced with the commercial processes of capturing flows of meaning to turn them into traffic magnets. Another instance of a-semiotic encoding that concerns both and Wikipedia, and by extension any websites using dynamic content production, is the use of software to automatically publish content. With dynamic content production, cultural stabilization takes place through the delegation of part of the process of meaning formation to the software layer rather than the human layer. Meaning is further incorporated as regularities produced through the interaction between the software layer and users. Informational dynamics thus act at different levels of meaning formations - from enabling specific kinds of knowledge production practices that give meanings a specific discursive status to the processes that do not act at the level of the ideological formation of meaning, but through the reinscription and circulation of meaning within new asignifying cultural and commercial flows. In that sense, the analysis of a-semiotic, signifying and a-signifying processes allows for a mapping of the articulation between the informational dynamics and cultural processes. Informational processes act as wrappers that do not only intervene in the articulation of the ideological content produced 252

through the production of signs, but also at the discursive level in terms of defining the cultural status of meanings and the social order and power relations that make specific meaning formations possible. 2. Mixed Semiotics and the Politics of Usership A common theme emerging from both case studies concerns the user as a site that invites human actors to articulate themselves with technocultural power formations. The examination of the mixed semiotics present on the website and through the circulation of the MediaWiki software package was primordially focused on analyzing the role played by software in articulating a-semiotic, signifying and a-signifying processes. The main idea was to examine software as an actor that can create meanings. As seen in Chapter One, exploring software as a signifying actor leads to acknowledging that the development of the Web has made the analysis of the technocultural production of meaning more complex. With new technologies such as dynamic software, technology comes to stand in for what used to be human activities. If software can become a signifying actor, the question that is raised in turn is about whether new conceptions of usership appear in that process. In the early days of the World Wide Web, the question of usership was less problematic as users were human agents who produced meanings such as content, images and hyperlinks, that were then published on the Web interface thanks to specific languages (e.g. HTML) and programs (e.g. Dreamweaver). The main site of analysis from a communication and cultural studies perspectives focused on developing a new understanding of the discursive roles of the user as covering both the sphere of authorship and that of readership. With the deployment of software that can in turn 253

produce content - software that can engage in a communicational exchange with human actors - the situation is different. As seen throughout the Amazon and MediaWiki case studies, software, by articulating signifying and a-signifying processes, works to define specific modes of subjectivation and spheres of agencies for human actors. The main conclusion to be taken from the articulation of human actors within the technocultural contexts of and MediaWiki concerns the need to develop a new critical framework to examine the politics of usership. In particular, the question of usership does not simply concern changes at the signifying level, where the production and circulation of meaning has to be done through a specific set of articulations between software and human actors as two communicative actors. The question of usership also appears at the a-semiotic level in that there is an encoding of human behaviour and characteristics as information through profiling. In the case of the circulation of the Wikipedia format, the process was one of capitalizing on the articulation between meaning and flows of people in order to produce, for instance, targeted advertising. Furthermore, the question of usership appeared at the a-signifying level through the definition and delineation of the sphere of agency, and therefore of the potential processes of subjectivation. That is, the asignifying level organizes modes of usership along a-semiotic and signifying processes. As such, the examination of the circulation of flows of usership within mixed semiotics processes requires an analysis of technocultural power formations, and their consequences for a critical analysis of the category of the user. The goal throughout the case study analysis was to see how Guattaris mixed semiotics framework could be used to identify the processes and dynamics that make use


of semiotic systems and meanings to create new realities and practices of consumer subjectivities, in the case of, and new processes of capturing and capitalizing on the practices associated with the free software movement in the case of the circulation of the MediaWiki software. The case study revealed how the commercialization of cultural products takes place through the articulation of two semiotic systems - a human-produced one that defines the cultural meanings of products and a software-based recommendation system that inscribes meanings within an endless chain of interpretation. On, the complementariness between closure and openness of meaning is stabilized through the constant subjectification of users as consumers within a commercial environment. The MediaWiki case study offered a different set of inquiries mostly dealing with the appropriation of the semiotic systems and practices developed within an open source, free-software context. The circulation of the MediaWiki package showed how the cultural model embodied by Wikipedia can be changed through a rearticulation of cultural goals and discursive roles. The main finding of the case studies, however, does not only include the shaping of the user as a discursive category, but also, and more importantly, the shaping of the user as a site of power formation and articulation of technocultural processes with human actors through a-signifying processes. As seen through the case studies, the channeling of informational flows within commercial and non-commercial flows outlined the importance of new economic and technical actors in articulating signifying practices within specific a-signifying power formations. In particular, a common theme related to the definition of the user within a-signifying processes concerned the shaping of specific


discursive practices so that they are constantly articulated with commercial dynamics. In this process, the sphere of agency of human actors becomes extremely restrained. That is, human actors as Web users can mostly intervene at the level of signification, and it is impossible to refuse the existentializing a-signifying flows of consumer subjectivation that are deployed at the a-signifying level. in particular offered a telling illustration of the paradox of usership. It could be argued that there are uses of that escape the consumption imperative; for instance, looking up bibliographical information or searching for a book to buy from another bookstore or to borrow from the library. However, the very act of surfing produces values in that it is going to be encoded as more information to produce recommendations. The consumer imperative is difficult to evade altogether. With the case of the rearticulations of the MediaWiki packages, the imposition of targeted advertising, for instance, shapes a system whereby human agents can mainly act at the signifying level of producing content while there exists a commercial network that they cannot control. The paradox of usership, is that freedom of expression is encouraged, but this very freedom of expression at the signifying level is channeled into specific modes of existentializing users. At the level of the interface, such processes are difficult to examine. The process of producing recommendations on is never visible to human actors - it appears as instantaneous feedback and as such presents itself as unproblematic. In the case of targeted advertising in the MediaWiki case study, the articulation between signifying and a-signifying flows is hidden as targeted advertising and relegated to specific boxes on the Web page, and as such as parallel processes that are imposed on the user. Yet, the a-


signifying level makes use of signifying semiologies, both as a source of data and as a site of existentialization. As such, a central finding that emerges from the case study concerns the shaping of the category on the user through the articulation between signifying and a-signifying processes. With regards to the shaping of users through a-signifying power dynamics, Maurizio Lazzaratos elaboration on the concept of the machine and the production of subjectivities (2006) is useful for examining the rise of the user as the articulation of human actors within a technocultural milieu. In The Machine (2006), Lazzarato identifies two processes of subjectivation, one that is about enslavement and the other of subjection. Enslavement is about the process through which users become cogs in the machine. As Lazzarato describes it, this process takes place at the molecular, preindividual and infra-social level and concerns affects, feelings, desires and nonindividuated relationships that cannot be assigned to a subject. This process of subjugation, of transforming users into elements and parts of the machine is present in the online environment through the treatment of the information provided by users. Userproduced content and behaviour feed the technocultural machine in charge of producing customized representations. The process of subjection, on the other hand, deals with the molar dimension of the individual according to Lazzarato: the social dimension and social roles of the individual. In that particular process, the user is not somebody who is used by the machine, but an acting subject who uses the machine, according to a predefined technocultural context, in the case of online environments. Such a perspective on the production of users as communicative agents in an online environment can serve to


add a more critical dimension to the celebration of freer expression through the deployment of software to support content production. In that regard, Guattaris mixed semiotics framework and analysis of processes of subjectivation are important tools for understanding the formation of actions and agents within a technocultural context that relies on the production of representational systems. Examining how users and userproduced content are embedded through a-signifying and informational dynamics requires a better awareness of the politics of code, and of the need to develop a vertical approach to the Web (Elmer, 2003) so as to examine the contextualization of content and users not only from a socio-cultural perspective, but also from a techno-cultural one. The concept of the abstract machine plays an important role in analyzing the articulation of signifying semiologies and discursive rules within a-signifying existentializing networks. As Guattari explains it, the abstract machine articulates discursive and non-discursive fields. Guattari insists that the analysis of an abstract machine includes both what he calls a discursive field, which is the field of meaning formation, and the machinic level that provides a process of existentialization. With abstract machines, then, the question switches from being one of representation to what Guattari calls existential intelligibility (1985). The abstract machine makes meaning formations possible through a process of existentialization; that is, by giving existence to and actualizing the practices through which meanings can be produced. This existentializing function is what produces users as producers and receivers of meanings. As Guattari (1987) argues, the analysis of the constitution of subjectivities leads to the acknowledgement that elements at the level of expression or content do not simply act at


a conventional discursive level. Discursive elements become existential materials through which subjectivities can be defined. As such, the meanings themselves are not as important as the specific articulations of discourses with other cultural, economic, political, institutional, biological and technical processes to delineate the agency of subjects. In Guattaris words, the discursive materials serve to enable processes of autoreferential subjectivity. That is, discursive materials are used within an assemblage to produce effects of stability and regularity, thus allowing for the shaping of recognizable and identifiable collective and individual subjectivities. This exploration of the process of auto-referential subjectivation, as Guattari further argues, functions alongside the power formations and knowledge processes as originally described by Foucault. While power formations acts from the outside through either direct coercion or the shaping of a horizon of imagination and knowledge formations articulate subjectivities with technoscientific and economic pragmatics, auto-referential subjectivation produces a processual subjectivity which reproduces itself through the mobilization of existentializing materials, among which, discourses and meaning formations (1987, p. 3). While the scope of this study is quite modest compared to Guattaris discussion of processes of subjectivation, it is nevertheless possible to use the analysis of online asignifying systems to identify the processes through which the user is defined as both a discursive category and a cultural entity. Subjectivation in the context of this study can be defined as the process of shaping a horizon of possible actions that serve as the basis for the expression of subjectivities. As an illustration of the three kinds of processes of subjectivation present online, it could be said that power formations and knowledge


formations are present when a system of surveillance is put in place. Hidden pedagogies (Longford, 2005) about how to behave on a website represent an instance where users are coerced into adopting specific practices. As Elmer argues in the case of the case of privacy: users who opt to maintain privacy are punished by being denied access to various sites, or they face increased inconvenience for having to continuously turn off cookie alerts (2004, p. 77). This kind of coercion was present in the case of with the obligation to accept cookies in order to use the website. On Wikipedia, power formations take place mainly through the establishment of rules of collaboration. Here a meta-discourse about the goal of the Wikipedia project suggests a new horizon of reality to users. The kind of coercive processes of surveillance present on are tightly linked with knowledge formations. Forcing users to give up their privacy is a process of subjectivation that also takes place through the analysis of users behaviours. Power formations give way to knowledge formations that further integrate users within a system that can predict customized desires. Furthermore, as pointed out by Guattaris discussion of the three modes of subjectivation, there exists a process of auto-referential subjectivation that actualizes specific subjectivities through the reduplication of specific practices. In the case of online spaces such as and Wikipedia, a central existentializing material is produced through the interface as a space of meaningful representations. The software layer defines the agency of users - what they can do, how they can express themselves and use the websites - and defines the range of practices that are possible to manipulate signifying materials. The regularity and stability of websites as constructed through the software layer constitute the basis for auto-referential


subjectivation. The specific range of practices available to users ensures the stability of the use of existentializing materials, and thus the range of practices available for users to express their subjectivities. Software, in that sense, is the mediator that articulates practices and meaning formations. In particular, the notion that software builds the technocultural stability needed for the production and channeling of meanings highlights its role as a producer of technocultural regularities. The processes of auto-referential subjectivation in the online context have thus to include the role of software in producing the technical and cultural continuity within which subjectivities can be defined through stabilization of the technocultural context, as well as the repetition of a specific range of practices that give existence to the subjectivities of users. Furthermore, it can be argued that software acts on the definition of a collective of actions that assign a broad collective identity. On, for instance, the principal mode of subjectivation is that of creating a consumer identity shared by all users. The recommendation softwares main function is to articulate individual meanings within a shared cultural horizon. The social personalization that ensues makes it possible to have individual subjectivities defined within a collective of other human actors, that is, within a reconstituted social order defined through an informational logic of statistical correlations. In the Wiki sphere, the practices available to users are such that users are made constantly aware that they function through a collective of other users that monitors online behaviours and discursive participation. Individual subjectivities are socially shaped through the goal of reaching a common agreement and a neutral point of view. The practices made available


to users through the software thus define the category of the user as always included within a collective human actors. In terms of defining a critical politics of usership, it is important to acknowledge the multiple modalities of users, and consequently their different modes of articulation with human actors. The direct equation between human actors and users is problematic in that it fails to acknowledge the technocultural mediations that assign a narrow range of agencies to human actors at the signifying levels, while other processes of existentialization of users along commercial dynamics are imposed on human actors. As such, there is a need to argue for a multiplicity of sites of usership. The mixed semiotics framework forces us to reconsider the question of the user beyond its discursive manifestation at the interface level, and how it functions as a site of articulation of asignifying, a-semiotic and signifying processes. The shaping of users as shifting cultural agents that can be reintegrated within different a-semiotic, signifying and a-signifying dynamics is part of the process of social ordering of online spaces. This social ordering, in the case studies, took place through the disciplining of users into customers on, and through allowing users to collaborate in producing knowledge within commercial and non-commercial spaces, as in the case with Wikipedia. The analysis of the shaping of users practices in online spaces is important, especially as users have become a new kind of techno-discursive agent that cannot fully be studied through reference to traditional discursive roles, such as that of the author and the reader. As seen throughout the case studies, users are extremely important for both and in the circulation of MediaWiki because they provide


the knowledge through which those online spaces can exist. At the same time, they are also essential components of a-signifying systems as both providers of information and as embodying processes of commercial subjectivation. In terms of using a mixed semiotics analysis to study users, the most apparent site of usership is at the level of the interface, and as such it is an important site of analysis. Yet, an examination of the politics of usership invites us to analyze users on the interface not only as discursive agents, but also as products of unseen a-signifying dynamics. The critical mixed semiotics framework that can be developed, in that sense, concerns in particular the ways in which software acts as a mediator that links human actors with communicative possibilities. Embedded in those communicative possibilities are processes of existentialization: a-signifying processes make use of specific signifying possibilities in order to define specific modes of usership. As seen in the two case studies, the agency of users at the interface level important as it is part of the social reordering that is put in place in order to create specific signifying semiologies within a-signifying machines. As a starting point, there is a need to identify discursive rules and their role in articulating the semiotic domain with social processes and power relations. However, it is central to then examine the different networks within which the shifting category of the user is embedded. Indeed, the category of the user shifts in relation to the different kinds of mixed semiotics articulations that are being considered. In particular, the case studies showed that at the signifying level, the user is a producer and receiver of meaning, at the a-semiotic level, the user is a source of data, and at the a-signifying level, the user is existentialized through the articulation between technological and commercial dynamics.


3. Mixed semiotics and Software Studies

The main research question guiding the case studies analysis was: what are the social, cultural and communicational realities constructed through the semiotics of online spaces? To answer this, this project used a multiplicity of theories, from actor-network theory to medium theory, and from software studies to Guattaris mixed semiotics framework. In so doing, the aim was to demonstrate how the field of software studies how the study of the impact of software on culture - could benefit from a renewed attention to the context of semiotic practices. If software is to be studied at the level of its intervention in the process of mediation and of meaning production and circulation, then there needs be a framework taking into account the ways in which software articulates itself with other technical and cultural processes, and with other human and non-human actors. The characteristic of software as being that which allows for the bridging of the technological and the cultural with regards to online modes of expression forces us to abandon frameworks prioritizing one field over another - the medium versus the message, discourse versus technology, language against the social. In that regard, the mixed semiotics framework proved invaluable in showing how the study of semiotic processes can become the study of the articulations between processes of meaning-making and other technological and cultural processes and practices. These articulations, and the study of the assemblages and networks crossing through linguistic, economic, political, technical and cultural fields are what shape social realities and constitute the context of communication. Locating software as it participates in processes of articulations and negotiations of these networks offers great potential with regards to defining the 264

technocultural power relations that frame practices, agencies and a horizon of subjectivities. The overall conclusion emerging from the two case studies is that questions regarding the formation of meanings, and consequently of processes of subjectivation and power relations to define the category of the user, need to be critically reconsidered within the dynamics of online informational spaces and flows. In particular, the question of meanings and semiotics has to be critically assessed not only with regards to the semiotic systems available on the Web, but also in terms of the articulation of those semiotic systems within new power relations, or a-signifying machines, that define new processes of subjectivation and capitalization of users within informational flows. Combined with Actor-network theory and cultural studies attention to the mutual shaping of technology and culture, Guattaris mixed semiotics framework offers a robust set of methods to analyze the constitution of communicational spaces, and the multidimensional articulations of processes of communication with power formations. In that sense, Guattaris framework offers ways to reassess the question of representation by examining the technocultural realities that are constructed through specific modes of production and circulation of meanings. The mixed semiotics framework can be used not only to examine the articulation between discursive practices and modes of existentialization, but also to further understand the politics of usership through the deployment of software that dynamically adapts content to the behaviour of users. The complexity of the category of the user as a hybrid between a technocultural system and human actors is an important site of analysis for further understanding the cultural impact


of the contemporary Web spaces, particularly social networks. In that regard, the choice of Amazon and MediaWiki as case studies was not simply done because one is a popular website and the other a popular Wiki format. Amazon and wikis such as Wikipedia have been described and heralded as at the forefront of the Web 2.0 movement. Web 2.0 is defined as facilitating user-produced content so as to build large spaces of knowledge that can be dynamically mined to create further information. Web 2.0 functions exclusively on the mining of user-produced content and has been presented in the mainstream as spaces of democratic communication. Time Magazines Choice of You as 2006 person of the year epitomizes a utopian vision of Web 2.0 and social networking sites as harnessing the wisdom of the crowd and allowing for all voices to be heard. The mixed semiotics analysis of the politics of usership on amazon and through the circulation of MediaWiki offers a way to critically question such rhetoric of democratic communication. In particular, mixed semiotics analysis shows that the user cannot be fully equated with a human actor. Rather the user as a hybrid between a technocultural mode of existentialization and the particular intention of a human user has to be analyzed as a site where different processes of subjectivation are articulated. The power dynamics that are established through these articulations need to be further studied, especially in the case of Web 2.0 spaces used for political communication, such as Facebook or YouTube. A critical assessment of the politics of usership forces us to reconsider the broader concept of communication in online spaces. Generally, the notion of better or more democratic communication is equated with a greater freedom of expression for human actors, be it in expressing ideas or having access to more tools that facilitate the


communication process, such as tools that offer instantaneous communication or simplify content production processes. A mixed semiotics analysis of commercial Web 2.0 platforms, however, would point out that current understandings of better communication are limited to a specific set of signifying practices tightly regulated by signifying agents such as software. Furthermore, a-semiotic processes cannot usually be changed by users, who, on commercial Web 2.0 platforms, have to accept Terms of Use depriving them of any agency with regards to controlling processes of surveillance. In a similar manner, a-signifying processes, especially those related to commercialization and marketing are imposed on users as a part of the meaningful feedback given to them by software layers. The mixed semiotics framework thus offers ways to critically assess the power dynamics regulating communicational practices and distribute delineated spheres of agency. In order to fully understand the politics of social networks and commercial Web 2.0 platforms, it is necessary to develop a multi-dimensional, mixed semiotics approach to examine what is made apparent, what is hidden, and what regulates technocultural practices and uses on technocultural networks. In closing, this research project has attempted to provide a grounded methodology to unravel the dynamics linking code, software and culture. The politics through which these dynamics are established and accepted as the normative are central in understanding the play of power relations on the Web. The adaptation of the mixed semiotics framework to the study of Web makes it possible to trace the unfolding of cultural practices of meaning-making and ways of being on the Web. In so doing, the mixed semiotics framework redefines software studies as an essential approach to understanding


the evolution of the social and political implications of the mainstream Web.


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