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Angèle Christin: Algorithms in Practice

March 13, 2023 @ 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm

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Algorithms in Practice


Technology evangelists often argue that algorithms and artificial intelligence make decision-making more informed and objective — a promise hotly contested by critics of these technologies. Yet, to date, most of the debate has focused on the instruments themselves, rather than on how they are used. Against the rhetoric of algorithmic determinism that permeates Silicon Valley, both among evangelists and critics, I argue that it is essential to study how algorithmic technologies are used on the ground, rather than merely how they are designed. I call this research program the study of “algorithms in practice.” Drawing on multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork, I compare how algorithms are used and interpreted in three institutional contexts with markedly different characteristics: online news; criminal justice; and social media creation. I conclude with a call for further ethnographic work on algorithms in practice as an important empirical check against the dominant rhetoric of computational power.



Angèle Christin is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and affiliated faculty in the Sociology Department, the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and the Center for Work, Technology, and Organization at Stanford University. She studies how algorithms and analytics transform professional values, expertise, and work practices.

Her award-winning book, Metrics at Work: Journalism and the Contested Meaning of Algorithms (Princeton University Press, 2020) focuses on the case of web journalism, analyzing the growing importance of audience data in web newsrooms in the U.S. and France. Drawing on ethnographic methods, Angèle shows how American and French journalists make sense of traffic numbers in different ways, which in turn has distinct effects on the production of news in the two countries. She discussed it on the New Books Network podcast.

In a related study, she analyzed the construction, institutionalization, and reception of predictive algorithms in the U.S. criminal justice system, building on her previous work on the determinants of criminal sentencing in French courts.

Her new book project, Follow Me: Influencers and the Contradictions of Platform Labor, is an ethnographic study of content creators on social media platforms. The book examines the experiences of influencers as “platform laborers,” whose work is dominated by digital platforms. Drawing on case studies ranging from vegan YouTubers to “dad” influencers and influencer marketers, it shows how structural forces reproduce precarity and inequality in social media careers, while also nudging influencers toward interpersonal “drama” and sometimes the production of problematic online content.

Angèle received her PhD in Sociology from Princeton University and the EHESS (Paris). She is an affiliate at the Data & Society Research Institute, the Center on Digital Culture and Society (University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg School for Communication), and the Médialab (Sciences Po Paris).


This talk is sponsored by the Center for Ethics, Society and Computing (ESC). ESC is generously supported by the School of Information; the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research; and the Department of Communication & Media in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan

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