Revealing the underside of our technology-laden world

Reverse Engineering Social Media

Software, Culture, and Political Economy in New Media Capitalism

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Robert W. Gehl

Nancy Baym Book Award, 2015

"Reverse Engineering Social Media is a smart book on a hot topic. Gehl presents original and substantive advances in theoretical approaches that are unique and fruitful and that enable the development of software studies in a useful critical direction. His close reading of the software architecture of social networking sites is distinctive and insightful, as is his combination of critique and solution. This book is an important contribution to the field of digital media studies."
Mark Andrejevic, University of Queensland

Robert Gehl's timely critique, Reverse Engineering Social Media, rigorously analyzes the ideas of social media and software engineers, using these ideas to find contradictions and fissures beneath the surfaces of glossy sites such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

Gehl adeptly uses a mix of software studies, science and technology studies, and political economy to reveal the histories and contexts of these social media sites. Looking backward at divisions of labor and the process of user labor, he provides case studies that illustrate how binary "Like" consumer choices hide surveillance systems that rely on users to build content for site owners who make money selling user data, and that promote a culture of anxiety and immediacy over depth.

Reverse Engineering Social Media also presents ways out of this paradox, illustrating how activists, academics, and users change social media for the better by building alternatives to the dominant social media sites.



Read the Introduction (pdf).



"In a world dominated by graphic interfaces and slim screens, Robert Gehl implores us to dig deeper into software platforms to rethink the values embedded in their underlying code. Drawing on the work of software designers and engineers, Reverse Engineering Social Media rejects the default settings of software criticism, summoning us to reengineer the past into a more politically engaged future."
Greg Elmer, Ryerson University, author of Profiling Machines: Mapping the Personal Information Economy

"Bored with Vice, the Daily Dot, and Reddit? Finally there is a study that leaves aside the depressed user cultures and positions social media as an integral part of computer science instead. Gehl successfully connects cybernetics and European thinking with contemporary Internet culture. Using the theory of abstraction failure, he explains how socialbots emerged, how the rough Myspace was wiped out by the standardized templates of Facebook, and how Wikipedia eventually became a nonprofit. Instead of moralizing about usage or preaching offline romanticism, Gehl concludes that we must team up with emerging social media alternative platforms."
Geert Lovink, media theorist, Internet critic, and director of the Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam

"Gehl’s [book is an] incisive critique of the political economy of social network sites and crowdsourced media platforms.... Reverse Engineering Social Media makes its substantial contribution to existing social media criticism by offering a detailed look at how social media operate, as well as a concrete vision for realizing alternatives.... [It's] real strength is its innovative theoretical framework for analyzing the political economy of social media.... I highly recommend Reverse Engineering Social Media for anyone interested in social media criticism. In addition to the novel theoretical framework and a number of valuable insights into the work of social media platforms, the book is simply well-written. It maintains a high level of clarity even while employing difficult concepts from computer science and critical theory."
Computational Culture

"[The book is] a political economic critique of social media software engineering.... Gehl argues that software architecture and implementation shape the division of labour on social media sites... For Gehl, social media are contradictory because they simultaneously empower and exploit users. The idea of hegemonic technological architecture is certainly not new; but he eloquently places it within a theoretical framework—the theory of heterogeneous engineering."
Global Media Journal, Canadian Edition

"Reverse Engineering Social Media is another good example of the maturity of the field of social media studies. In it, Robert Gehl builds a careful argument to consider the cognitive and affective exploitation behind social media. Its main asset is its turn to a Marxian analysis of culture and economics in search of a solid theoretical ground on which alternative proposals can grow…. Gehl’s main contribution lies in the introduction of Marxian perspectives in order to help us contextualize the study of social media as part of global capitalism. By integrating technological and sociological analysis, Gehl manages to situate and explain the complex processes of reification that are affecting users of social media."
Culture Machine

"Gehl uses the 'reverse engineering' metaphor as a framework for analysis, arguing that we can start with an established social media site and then work back with whatever tools are at one’s disposal to determine its logics, constraints, and incentives.... Gehl takes on central elements in the political economy of media, including ownership and advertising. The contradictions of social media—the dubious rhetoric of user control while in a corporate-controlled and monetized site—are deeply troubling for democracy and agency to Gehl. Gehl’s book has strong empirical components.... [E]specially valuable sections of the book [are] focused on Gehl’s formidable insights about the commercialization of social media and its noxious effects."
New Media and Society



Introduction: Looking Forward and Backward: Heterogeneous Engineering of Social Media Software

1. The Computerized Socialbot Turing Test: Noopower and the Social Media State(s) of Mind
2. The Archive and the Processor: The Internal Hardware Logic of Social Media
3. Architecture and Implementation: Engineering Real (Software) Abstractions in Social Media
4. Standardizing Social Media: Technical Standards, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, and the Rise of Social Media Templates
5. Engineering a Class for Itself: The Case of Wikipedia’s Spanish Fork Labor Strike
6. A Manifesto for Socialized Media



About the Author(s)

Robert W. Gehl is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. He is the co-editor (with Victoria Watts) of The Politics of Cultural Programming in Public Spaces.

Subject Categories

Mass Media and Communications
Cultural Studies



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