Shady Cultures

Search engine optimization (SEO) consultants do not have the best of reputations. Variously called spammers, evildoers, and opportunists, they help their clients rank in search engine results pages for specific keywords. Securing a spot in what one of my interlocutors called the “war zone of the ten blue links” has become a key goal not just for brands and online businesses but also for political campaigns and advocacy groups. SEO consultants take advantage of this situation by offering a range of services, including editing on-page text to foreground certain keywords, restructuring entire websites to make them “search-friendly,” or building links from other websites to increase a page’s ranking. In 2014, Forrester Research estimated SEO spending in the United States alone at $2.74 billion and predicted growth to $4.08 billion by 2019 (VanBoskirk 2014, 11).

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The “war zone of the ten blue links.” Screenshot of a Google search, August 26, 2016.

I have come to call this industry a shadow industry. Shadow, because it operates in the shadow of a seemingly coherent system and because it tends to be viewed as using somewhat shadow-y or shady techniques. Similar to lobbyists, doping doctors, and college application tutors, SEO consultants help their clients perform in settings with seemingly straightforward standards of what is good, or at least marginally better. In doing so, they have to navigate an ever-shifting line between legitimate optimization and illegitimate manipulation. While search engine operators generally tolerate this kind of work, they do not hesitate to penalize or drop a website from their index if they think that it has gone too far. Always on the verge of gaming the system, SEO professionals thus continuously try to figure out what works and what might not. So what, if anything, can students of evil learn from shadow industries like SEO?

At first sight, studying the cultural practices of these consultants appears to be a second-best approach at best. If we want to understand the politics of evil in, say, algorithmic systems, conventional wisdom tells us to focus on the inside first. What counts as inside is of course not clear. Usually, it takes the form of calls for transparency and the disclosure of some “secret sauce” that can help us open up so-called black boxes. While some scholars have explored new ways of examining code, others have suggested that we focus on the work of engineers as a contemporary way of “studying up.” Yet in practice these strategies are hard to operationalize. Many researchers have failed in their attempts at even entering a platform operator’s offices, getting stuck in a thicket of corporate lawyers, nondisclosure agreements, and assurances that “it’s all online anyway.” Still, the choice to study people at the margins of a system is often regarded as a mere convenience for those who did not get to where the action (and potentially the source of evil) really is.

Yet there might actually be good reasons to engage with shadow industries and rethink our fascination with interiority. While the urge to locate power along the lines of spatial metaphors at an imaginary top or center is widespread, this kind of reasoning assumes a rather clear-cut boundary between the inside and the outside of a system. As especially the case of SEO consultants shows, this distinction is not innocent, providing as it does the basis for a series of claims that regulate what counts as good and evil in algorithmic systems. For example, in order to label an activity as “gaming the system,” one needs to make intelligible what lies within (paying to build an audience that links to a website) and what beyond (paying for links to a website) the bounds of proper participation.

The shady practices of uninvited participation allow us to problematize this boundary and challenge our reliance on systemic metaphors. Looking beyond the corporate narratives of platforms forces us to think about how ideas of good and evil are enacted, sustained, and subverted in the everyday work of those who deal with them. It also addresses some of the research-practical concerns outlined above. Following a long history of ethnographic studies (e.g., Turner 1967; Gusterson 1996; Mahmud 2014), we can rethink problems of access as a formidable topic of inquiry in its own right.

In his reflections on the figure of the parasite, Michel Serres (2007, 13) made the observation that a system “works because it does not work.” Casting evil into infrastructure is great for dramatization, but less so for understanding the cultural practices that enact it in the first place. Taking seriously shadow industries as gateways into worlds that we assume to be inscrutable does not mean to subject oneself uncritically to the status quo. Rather, it allows us to be specific about how these questions figure in the lives of those who try to answer them. The challenge, then, is not one of debunking, but rather one of re-specification: how can we rewrite systems not in the key of “pre-established harmony” (Leibniz 1985, 65), but in a way that recognizes dissonance and noise as features of its operation?

References

Gusterson, Hugh. 1996. Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Leibniz, G. W. 1985. Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil. Edited by Austin Farrer and translated by E. M. Huggard. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court. Originally published in 1710.

Mahmud, Lilith. 2014. The Brotherhood of Freemason Sisters: Gender, Secrecy, and Fraternity in Italian Masonic Lodges. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Serres, Michel. 2007. The Parasite. Translated by Lawrence R. Schehr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Originally published in 1980.

Turner, Victor W. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

VanBoskirk, Shar, with Nate Elliott and Collin Colburn. 2014. U.S. Digital Marketing Forecast, 2014 to 2019. Cambridge, Mass.: Forrester Research.