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Renee Hudson

Graduate Student, English, UC Los Angeles

Renee Hudson

Renee Hudson received her BA in English at Stanford University and is currently a PhD student in English at UCLA. She specializes in twentieth century American literature. Her research interests include media theory, terrorism, and political violence.

Links: CV

Affiliations: UC New Media Directory | UCSB Transliteracies Project

Contributions to Transliteracies Project:

  • Amazon Kindle

  • The Lost Experience

  • Sophie

  • CommentPress Research Paper

  • TimesPeople

  • Social Book Cataloging: Humanizing Databases

  • Academia.edu

  • Freebase

  • Zotero

  • Research Sample: “Freebase Research Report”

    While RoSE can benefit from Freebase’s approach to presenting data as clusters of information with user friendly visualizations to illustrate connections, the social networking aspect of Freebase offers an interesting departure from RoSE as currently conceived. In short, because RoSE seeks to create fine grained relationships among people and documents in a socially networked environment, RoSE needs to decide on the relationship between users and data. For Freebase, because the emphasis for users is on adding to the already vast body of knowledge on the website, users exist in the service of data rather than vice versa. As such, Freebase privileges information above personhood to such an extent that, as evidenced by the example of “My topic,” persons become converted into data.

    The persistence of statistics on sites like Freebase recalls what Mark Seltzer has elsewhere referred to as “statistical persons.” While Seltzer uses the phrase in relation to the realist novel, which for him is defined by the desire to “account for” persons (Seltzer 93), within the context of sites like Freebase, the desire to account for accounting emerges as the dominant modus operandi. By this I mean that one’s social identity becomes statistically constituted such that one constantly surveils one’s own statistical constitution on the micro level, which in turn is repeated on the macro level as part of a larger system of accounting performed by the creators of Freebase itself.

    Playing off what Kathleen Woodward has referred to as “statistical panic,” an emotional state in which a fear of one’s own mortality arises because of the proliferation of probabilities that signal one’s demise, sites like Freebase give rise to a sort of “statistical anxiety” caused by the recognition that one is only socially constituted insofar as one is statistically constituted. The choice to be “reduced” to a statistic recalls what Jaron Lanier has recently referred to as the creation of “standardized presences” on social networking sites, in which identity is constructed based on a limited number of options provided by whichever social networking site used.

    However, the creation of a standardized presence on Freebase is expanded by the ability to add new pieces of information for categorization. While one could argue that categorization still forces the user to think of information and her/himself in terms of categories, this also contributes to the existence of more fluid ontologies within the site. As Tim O’Reilly notes, by allowing users to create their own types rather than focusing on the W3C “approach to the semantic web, which starts with controlled ontologies, Metaweb adopts a folksonomy approach, in which people can add new categories (much like tags), in a messy sprawl of potentially overlapping assertions.”4 Freebase’s approach thus focuses on fluid ontologies created collaboratively, which, “if Metaweb gets this right, this bottom up approach will build new connections between data, new categories and ways of thinking . . . [which then builds] new synapses for the global brain.”5 By likening Freebase to a “global brain,” O’Reilly foregrounds the capacity for the database to not only make connections between data, but also to “learn” connections between new relationships and pieces of information such that rather than outgrowing categories, the database can evolve. The statistical unease generated by the site coupled with the metaphor of Freebase as an evolving brain significantly reduces the human to a number and anthropomorphizes the database (“information wants to be free”6), which no doubt sparked the allusion to Skynet in one of the early reviews of the site: “This is cool, unless it achieves consciousness and kills us all.”7

    While likening Freebase to Skynet sensationalizes the capabilities of Freebase, the analogy is relevant to RoSE in that the allusion points to a need to unpack the ontological implications of RoSE features. Are people treated equal (or even subject) to data? What does it mean to weigh texts and people equally? Such equality is not inherently a bad thing, but the ways in which this equality is framed determines the extent to which the human figures in RoSE.

      tl, 02.12.08

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