Seminar looks at ethical work of optimization in Web search engines, April 2

A person is using a computer
A computer

Come to the final research seminar, Black Hat, White Hat: The Ethical Work of Optimization in Web Search Engines, hosted by York’s Department of Science & Technology Studies in the Faculty of Science.

The seminar will take place Tuesday, April 2, from 12:30 to 2 p.m. at 203 Bethune College (Norman’s), Keele Campus, York University.

In this seminar, Professor Malte Ziewitz, a Mills Family Faculty Fellow in the Department of Science & Technology Studies (STS) at Cornell University, will explore the practices and politics of optimization in the specific case of web search engines.

When measures come to matter, those measured find themselves in a precarious situation. On the one hand, they have a strong incentive to respond and look their very best to score a favorable rating. On the other hand, too much of an adjustment runs the risk of being flagged and penalized by system operators for an attempt to “game the system.”

For measures, the story goes, are most useful when they depict those measured as they usually are – and not how they intend to be for purposes of measurement.

Drawing on materials from ethnographic fieldwork with search engine optimization (SEO) consultants in the United Kingdom, Ziewitz shows how those whose job it is to maximize a website’s visibility in search results navigate the shifting boundaries between “good” and “bad” optimization. Specifically, he is interested in the ethical work that is performed as SEO consultants artfully arrange themselves to cope with moral ambiguities provoked and delegated by the operators of the search engine.

Building on work in STS that has begun to rethink ethics as a practical accomplishment, Ziewitz suggests that the ethicality of optimization has itself become a site of governance and contestation. Studying such practices of “being ethical” does not only offer opportunities for rethinking popular tropes like gaming the system, but also draws attention to the often overlooked struggles for authority at the margins of contemporary algorithmic systems.

All are welcome. Refreshments will be provided.