What are web-based objects, or what might they be? Since objects are culturally constituted, it is interesting to ask how the increasingly digital and internet-oriented world that we live in today challenges what we understand to be “objects”. How are—or could we be—handling those “things of interest” differently on the web? To give an insight into this issue, two verbs will be discussed in this essay: collecting and liking. Their etymology is taken into consideration from pre- or non-digital use to their use in a web context.
This research starts from the field of museum studies. A great deal has been written about what constitutes objects, and how “collecting” takes a crucial role in this constitution. From a western perspective, the object and collecting are intertwined, and the museum is understood as the institution that represents and puts forth this relation. This dynamic seems almost natural. But, of course, there are many other culturally constituted ways to structure “objects.” The museum conveys what constitutes a collection and what constitutes an object. Hence, it trains its audiences discursively on what is valuable and what may be ignored.1
When we look at scholarship on digital objects and digital collections, it is clear that the museum—(un)knowingly—influences our ideas of what collecting is and what objects are.2 It becomes relevant to look into how museums have related themselves to digital artifacts. The answer here is barely. Digital objects are generally not considered to be collectible. Below, three points are listed that are persistent with regard to the museum, collecting, and digital objects:
- Digital objects do not possess the material conventions of traditional museum objects.
- Because of that, digital objects are exclusively regarded as representational of non-digital objects.
- By that, digital objects are irrelevant and secondary to “real” objects. They moreover exist in flux and are not conventionally “locatable.” Thus, they also are not “ownable.”3
So, can we question what digital objects are? How to avoid this fallacy of material conventions and representational status? The remainder of this essay will cover instances of object creation on media platforms, which will be referred to as web objects. Namely, it covers new ways of handling “things of interest” online that challenge traditional notions of collecting and objects. Two verbs are focal within this essay for investigating such new ways of making sense and sense-making in a web-specific context: collecting and liking. This discussion is framed by the work of Walter Benjamin and Bruno Latour on the meaning of the “original” and its “aura” with the widespread use of mechanically reproducible media.4 As well as the work by Lev Manovich that compliments Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life in a web context, arguing that the distinction between strategies and practices is often blurry within the web, and sometimes seems reversed.5
Many people’s primary sources of information and entertainment are now online. This is a more common reality than it was two decades ago. When comparing web media consumption to analog media consumption, there are significant distinctions to point out. With social media platforms, blogs, wikis, and other sites with user-generated content, users can produce and share their own content, comment on and respond to the content of others, and engage in conversation and exchange. In this sense, all online “objects” are in a state of perpetual flux, as they may always be edited and transformed through interaction with their “maker” and “viewer.” Creator and viewer are enclosed in apostrophes since these words appear to be obsolete. Individuals are developing and literally working on large platforms. The consumer works as a “prosumer,” both consuming and producing information and content.6
Do you, then, as a producer, collect your own “works”? What is collected are the tidbits of engagement that matter to you. Think about the Instagram user’s profile. Its “photo collection” is an active narrative rather than a passive documentation of memories.7 Although Instagram profiles are often redundant in their subject matter, a significant deal of collecting takes place in their making. An Instagram page can be likened to a “mini-museum” that typically tells a story about a particular individual through the collection of carefully selected photos and other mementos.
On the other side, data is “collected” by the platform that you are working with.8 This is a different kind of collecting than the more museological understanding of it. Collecting is a process of consciously selecting and presenting objects for a specific intent or common thread. The question of whether data collection falls under this category is a whole other one.
For a second example, collecting on music streaming platforms are considered in the following paragraphs. The place of music in society has undergone a significant transformation. This began with the mechanical reproduction of songs via recording technologies, which made it possible for music to be listened to on demand without the need for it to be a live happening. Today, the popularity of streaming platforms makes for the largest distributor of music in the industry.9 The next example focuses on the move from the digital library with downloaded copies of music, such as the (already obsolete) iTunes library to the use of streaming platforms in relation to “collecting music.”
Music recordings have always been associated with collecting. However, recordings are fundamentally reproducible. On iTunes, a digital version is given of a physical copy of a piece of music. On CDs, there would be a download link that offered a digital copy of the work in addition to the physical copy. Compiling a digital music library is a similar process as traditional collecting: You search for pieces to add to the collection, whether or not the pieces were downloaded via torrent or via a link purchased from a record store that you select for different—usually personal—reasons. The discovery of a new artist or song is followed by the same procedure, namely, acquiring a recorded piece.
With streaming music, this process of collecting music gains more than it loses. Streaming services offer a new environment for discovering new music via the manipulation or selection of algorithms. You can create a playlist with ease and distribute it among your friends or other intended audiences. These two aspects extend the scope of music collection with the use of streaming platforms. It provides new experimentation in the discovery of music. It also provides for new ways of social interaction with the shared display of music collections.
Whereas these two examples of Instagram and music streaming services have highlighted positive aspects of collecting on the web, its drawback would be the “illusion of ownership.” There typically is no direct control over the organizational structure of online platforms with regard to the way content is distributed and what is being kept online and what is removed. Instead, the companies behind such platforms have the authority over whatever “objects” we may engage with. This turns whatever we interact with online on platforms into fleeting indefinitely. Work and behavior are “collected” and turned into profit without material retroactivity.10
In the last two decades, the definition of the verb “like” has undergone significant change. It is now being used frequently in relation to social media. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a total of eighteen definitions for the often ambiguous verb “to like”. The sixteenth of which is as follows:
16. transitive. Using a specific icon to signify support or agreement in the context of social networking.Oxford English Dictionary
On social media, the term “liking” now denotes interest in anything, regardless of whether the topic of your interest is humorous or difficult to swallow. In the near past, the term “liking” more specifically referred to feelings of pleasure, attraction, or adoration.11
Liking on the web is a way to discover and pursue your interests. Usually, a page is provided where you can view an overview of your likes, making for a reflection on what you “like”. Through liking, more content is found that is par with your current patterns of interaction. Since liking “annotates” a piece of content, as well as bringing it into one place, it can also be viewed as a form of collecting.
A significant modification that liking has taken up since the internet is that the act of liking has changed from being passive to being active. Take a visit to a museum for instance. When we visit a museum, we generally keep our admiration to ourselves. In a social media environment, this admiration can be easily expressed. Not only that, but the expression of it changes the form of the object of your liking. The number of likes given to the object, for instance, impacts its distribution. In this sense, liking on the web takes on a political dimension. The objects of liking are no longer functioning as static, passive receivers but are driven and moving, and actively changing.
A web-based object, that is, one that is not solely representational of a non-digital variant, is possibly much more socially significant due to its active nature of distribution. However, this active nature is subject to the organization of the platforms on which it acts. In the web of today, its users are largely funneled into a few large platforms that are authoritative over the work that is produced on it.
Difficult subjects, however much they require spread due to their humanitarian importance, are often capsized for their “graphic” content. They do not succumb to the streamlined “happy” place that platforms seek to offer—the more enjoyable something is, the more likely profits will follow. “To like” is right in the midst of these pulls between on the one hand the mobilization of content for the purpose of humanitarian awareness and on the other hand the soft-polishing intent of platform companies.
To summarize, this essay has problematized museological object research by arguing that new ways of interacting with and handling objects have emerged in a society that is becoming increasingly internet-focused. Collecting has been taken into consideration as a verb that traditionally defines our understanding of objects. By discussing online collecting that not simply defines objects of interest by a non-digital representation, different affective understandings of objects come into play. Web-based objects are open-ended, subjective, and multi-dimensional. They are the sum of subjective interaction. This turns collecting from a subjective pursuit, into a hyper-subjective activity.
1. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge, Heritage (London: Routledge, 1992); Sharon Macdonald, ed., “Collecting Practices.” in A Companion to Museum Studies, Blackwell Companions in Cultural Studies 12 (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2006), 81–97; John Potvin and Alla Myzelev, eds., “Introduction: The Material of Visual Cultures,” in Material Cultures, 1740-1920: The Meanings and Pleasures of Collecting, 1st ed. (London: Routledge, 2017), 1–17. ↩
2. See, for example, Rebecca Mardon and Russell Belk, “Materializing Digital Collecting: An Extended View of Digital Materiality,” Marketing Theory 18, no. 4 (2018): 543–70, Zachary O. Toups, Nicole K. Crenshaw, Rina R. Wehbe, et al., “‘The Collecting Itself Feels Good’: Towards Collection Interfaces for Digital Game Objects,” in Proceedings of the 2016 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play (Austin, TX: ACM, 2016), 276–90, and Rebecca D. Watkins, Abigail Sellen, and Siân E. Lindley, “Digital Collections and Digital Collecting Practices,” in Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Seoul: ACM, 2015), 3423–32. ↩
3. This is not exhaustive, but describes a general consensus. ↩
4. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 217–51; Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe, “The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original through Its Facsimiles,” in Switching Codes: Thinking through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts, ed. Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 275–97. ↩
5. Lev Manovich, “The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production?,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 319–31. ↩
7. See, for more context, John Lechte, Genealogy and Ontology of the Western Image and Its Digital Future (London: Routledge, 2014), and Catherine Russell, “Collecting Images,” in Archiveology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 97–140. ↩
8. The term “data collection” is now widely used. ↩
10. David B Nieborg and Thomas Poell, “The Platformization of Cultural Production: Theorizing the Contingent Cultural Commodity,” New Media & Society 20, no. 11 (2018): 4275–92; Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism, Theory Redux (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2017). ↩
Ball, Matthew. “Framework for the Metaverse.” MatthewBall.vc, June 29, 2021.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, 217–51. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.
Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge. Heritage. London: Routledge, 1992.
Latour, Bruno, and Adam Lowe. “The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original through Its Facsimiles.” In Switching Codes: Thinking through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts, edited by Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover, 275–97. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Lechte, John. Genealogy and Ontology of the Western Image and Its Digital Future. London: Routledge, 2014.
Macdonald, Sharon, ed. “Collecting Practices.” In A Companion to Museum Studies, 81–97. Blackwell Companions in Cultural Studies 12. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2006.
Manovich, Lev. “The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production?” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 319–31.
Mardon, Rebecca, and Russell Belk. “Materializing Digital Collecting: An Extended View of Digital Materiality.” Marketing Theory 18, no. 4 (2018): 543–70.
McCourt, Tom. “Collecting Music in the Digital Realm.” Popular Music and Society 28, no. 2 (2005): 249–52.
McGurl, Mark. “Everything and Less.” Modern Language Quarterly 77, no. 3 (September 1, 2016): 447–71.
Nieborg, David B, and Thomas Poell. “The Platformization of Cultural Production: Theorizing the Contingent Cultural Commodity.” New Media & Society 20, no. 11 (2018): 4275–92.
Potvin, John, and Alla Myzelev, eds. “Introduction: The Material of Visual Cultures.” In Material Cultures, 1740-1920: The Meanings and Pleasures of Collecting, 1st ed., 1–17. London: Routledge, 2017.
Russell, Catherine. “Collecting Images.” In Archiveology, 97–140. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.
Srivastava, Shashank, and Kevin Downs. “How Streaming Is Changing the Music Industry.” Deloitte Insights, June 11, 2020.
Srnicek, Nick. Platform Capitalism. Theory Redux. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2017.
Taylor, Chris. “The ‘Like’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means.” Mashable, June 19, 2019.
Toups, Zachary O., Nicole K. Crenshaw, Rina R. Wehbe, Gustavo F. Tondello, and Lennart E. Nacke. “‘The Collecting Itself Feels Good’: Towards Collection Interfaces for Digital Game Objects.” In Proceedings of the 2016 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play, 276–90. Austin, TX: ACM, 2016.
Watkins, Rebecca D., Abigail Sellen, and Siân E. Lindley. “Digital Collections and Digital Collecting Practices.” In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 3423–32. Seoul: ACM, 2015.