Book Review: Metrics at Work: Journalism and the Contested Meaning of Algorithms by Angèle Christin
In Metrics at work: journalism and the contested meaning of algorithms, Angela Christin explores how the introduction of metrics and algorithms has affected the working practices and professional identities of journalists. Show how metrics can work to exacerbate existing divergences and gaps between and within organizations, this book will appeal to those interested in the social studies of technology, the sociology of work, and critical data studies, written Lucas stiglich.
Metrics at work: journalism and the contested meaning of algorithms. Angèle Christin. Princeton University Press, 2020.
Find this book (affiliate link):
Algorithmic-mediated metrics increasingly permeate all aspects of social life. Likes, views and the number of subscribers are metrics we are used to seeing when we look at our phones, laptops or tablets. This is also true in the workplace. From drivers who are constantly subject to customer reviews, to logistics workers who need to pay attention to pickup and drop-off times, to office managers who can track worker behavior and performance remotely through Microsoft Workplace Analytics, metrics and algorithms play a central role in the organization of work.
In Metrics at work, Angèle Christin is interested in how the introduction of metrics in the workplace interacts with professional fields, identities and work practices. To do so, she examines the role of metrics in newsrooms through a comparative ethnography conducted over five years in two online media organizations, one in the United States, called “The Notebook” by the author, and the other in France, nicknamed ‘LaPlace’.
In the academic literature, metrics and algorithms at work have been studied both critically as tools for monitoring and control and from a more optimistic perspective as drivers of l economic efficiency. Christin argues that favorable reviews and critical views on metrics and algorithms tend to be wrong by being too deterministic. By viewing them primarily as technical characteristics and taking for granted their effectiveness and power, these views overlook the fact that labor measures always depend on institutional, political and cultural factors. In the book, she proposes to move away from deterministic accounts of the metrics at work by conceptualizing them as complex symbolic and cultural resources. According to this view, metrics always represent something greater than themselves, and their meaning can be contested and mobilized for different purposes and perform different functions in different contexts.
Photo by Israel Andrade on Unsplash
Metrics at work addresses this problem by examining how the ability to track and measure what readers are doing online has transformed the relationship between mass media and their audiences. Traditionally, the mass media has been viewed as an industry where the capacity of the public to respond was limited. However, over the past two decades, journalists and editors have had access to more information than ever before about their audiences’ relationship to their work. Some argue that this has led newsrooms to a reckless competition for clicks, in which journalistic values and editorial criteria are downplayed in favor of commercial imperatives. Rather, Christin argues that while click-hunting is a real phenomenon, the role of metrics in newsrooms is more nuanced and exists in constant tension between different imperatives. These, in turn, are linked to the cultural and institutional contexts of each newsroom.
The first two chapters of the book set the context for the argument by describing the trajectory of the national journalistic fields of the United States and France until the emergence of the commercial internet in the 1990s. In the mid-twentieth century, journalists in the United States and France developed different approaches to their dealings with audiences, which were shaped by divergent economic and regulatory contexts within each national journalistic field.
However, in the 1980s and 1990s, some global trends indicated a trend towards convergence. First through a global process of financialization and commodification of media organizations in the 1980s, then through the adoption of the Internet and the utopian ideals of a networked public sphere associated with it. However, Christin’s work shows how, even in the face of an apparent technological and politico-economic convergence, there have been persistent points of divergence in terms of the relationship and use of new technologies by different organizations.
This argument is developed in the following three chapters focusing on how analyzes are used and interpreted differently in the two outlets, how these uses and interpretations relate to different institutional contexts and how they have different impacts on the market. editorial production and remuneration. While the two newsrooms studied use the same set of analysis software to learn more about their readers, reporters and editors in the two newsrooms attach different meanings to their results.
At ‘The Notebook’, metrics were primarily used by publishers and managers to measure business success and therefore kept at bay by journalists who viewed these goals outside of their role. On the other hand, in the French editorial staff, journalists maintain an ambivalent relationship to metrics, which they consider both as a reflection of the relevance of their work for the public and as indicators of market pressures that threaten the quality of their work. job. Examining how journalists and editors rationalize their use of metrics, Christin draws attention to the tension between “click-based” and “editorial” assessments of journalistic work.
Different interpretations and effects of metrics are linked to the historical trajectories of the journalistic field in the United States and France, but also to the organizational dynamics in each editorial office. At ‘The Notebook’, the roles and hierarchies of journalists, editors and directors were mostly delimited, authority was centralized and the rules by which they were to play were clear. At ‘LaPlace’, on the contrary, the hierarchy was diffuse, the roles were less compartmentalized and each journalist was more or less responsible for determining what constituted a good performance. In this sense, while the American drafting relied on a form of bureaucratic power, characterized by strong borders, clear responsibilities and defined rules, the French drafting developed a form of disciplinary power, in which the workers constantly tried to find ways to self-assess. and regulate their performance.
However, the relationship to metrics is not consistent across each newsroom. The position of journalists within newsroom hierarchies and work regimes is also related to how they make sense of metrics. Journalists working in sections considered less “serious” and journalists with atypical working relationships had to constantly rely on metrics to prove the value of their work. Conversely, journalists in the more “prestigious” sections and those in a more stable position within the organization were more likely to disguise metrics as irrelevant business metrics and assess their own work only in terms editorial quality.
While most of the contemporary literature studying the use of information technologies in the workplace is concerned with their use for the purpose of monitoring or automating management tasks, Christin’s study focuses on the symbolic dimension of these technologies and on the way in which the work they perform is contingent on the culture, institutional and organizational contexts in which they are deployed. In an era of growing technological and politico-economic convergence, the contribution of Metrics at work lies in highlighting the divergent cultural dimensions of the metrics. Far from proposing a deterministic approach to algorithms and metrics in the workplace, Christin shows that different cultural, professional and institutional contexts can produce different rationalizations and uses of these resources. Thus, the book sheds light on how metrics, far from being an equalizing force, can contribute to exacerbating existing divergences and gaps between and within organizations.
Metrics at work is relevant for those interested in studying news production and how it is transformed by new technologies. However, his contributions go beyond the realm of journalism studies, as he offers an innovative approach to examine how technologies are shaped by and shape organizational dynamics, power relations and professional identities. In this direction, Metrics at work may also be of interest to those interested in the social studies of technology, the sociology of work, and the emerging field of critical data studies.
Please read our feedback policy before commenting.
Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, or the London School of Economics.
Shortened URL for this article: https://bit.ly/3A2uGWe
About the Examiner
Lucas stiglich – LSE Media and Communication
Lucas Stiglich is a graduate student in Media and Communications (Data and Society) at LSE. His research interests include digital platforms, platform work and critical data studies.