SELECT * FROM USER: infrastructure and socio-technical representation

Jed R. Brubaker and Gillian R. Hayes. 2011. SELECT * FROM USER: infrastructure and socio-technical representation. In Proceedings of the ACM 2011 conference on Computer supported cooperative work (CSCW '11). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 369–378. DOI:

Databases are imperfect representations of the real people they are representing. Brubaker and Hayes examine Facebook and craigslist Missed Connections through Agre's eight "features of the actual practice of computing" (ontology, standards, instrumentation, authentication, interpretation, selection, bias, and performance). They highlight practices in the "real world" that have arisen out of the constraints of technical representations. Infrastructures highlight the relationship between offline life and user experiences with a system. For example, the "friending" process on Facebook shapes relationships differently than the offline world. It requires an explicit approval process and applies the label of "friend" evenly across all friends, particularly, it seems, at the time of this publication (e.g., you can not have friend lists). craigslist, on the other hand, has no formal profiles or history of user interactions. Posts are situated by geographic channels, which are larger than real world interactions might naturally occur in. Authentication of posts occurs unstructured by the system but between user interactions, asking for detailed information to prove they were the intended audience of a Missed Connection.

Features of Computing Practice


Ontology is "a formal representation of conceptual entities and the relationships between those entities within a specified domain" (pg. 374). The ontology of a system is focused on representing elements of the physical or social world. Some aspects of an ontology are more flexible (e.g., freeform text), while others are rigid (e.g., gender selection menus).


Data standards make information manageable and the system interoperable. Standards are created for every entity in the ontology. APIs, for example, create standards for things as simple as how dates are formatted.


Technologies for capturing and recording data, both manual (e.g., forms) and automatic (e.g., geolocation). Data capture can organize how users interact with a system, like when Facebook's major mode of communication was once on semi-public "wall" posts (rather than private messenger).


By authentication, Agre means whether people accept data as valid representations. The authors' earlier example of users on craigslist requiring descriptions to validate their encounters represents this.


Interpretation is "focused on synthesizing information into a form that is amenable to computation" (pg. 375). This might include automated interpretation in trying to synthesize activities for targeted advertising. It may also include user activity like reporting craiglist ads as miscategorized.


Systems have limitations and thus cannot capture and represent everything. Systems designers thus select which data is most relevant "relevant to the representations they are building" (pg. 376). As new features of a system are built, it may require the selection of new data.


All systems encode biases. In Facebook and craigslist at the time of this paper, gender was a good example - where both systems only allowed male and female. This eliminates the possibility of correct identification for many users, and reinforces a specific perspective on gender.


"Once people become aware of and accustomed to having their activities presented to others through representational systems, Agre argues that people will alter their activities with the consequences of those systems in mind" (pg. 378). This might include determining what comments are appropriate for friends to post on their profile.