© 2017, © The Author(s) 2017. Algorithms, as constitutive elements of online platforms, are increasingly shaping everyday sociability. Developing suitable empirical approaches to render them accountable and to study their social power has become a prominent scholarly concern. This article proposes an approach to examine what an algorithm does, not only to move closer to understanding how it works, but also to investigate broader forms of agency involved. To do this, we examine YouTube’s search results ranking over time in the context of seven sociocultural issues. Through a combination of rank visualizations, computational change metrics and qualitative analysis, we study search ranking as the distributed accomplishment of ‘ranking cultures’. First, we identify three forms of ordering over time – stable, ‘newsy’ and mixed rank morphologies. Second, we observe that rankings cannot be easily linked back to popularity metrics, which highlights the role of platform features such as channel subscriptions in processes of visibility distribution. Third, we find that the contents appearing in the top 20 results are heavily influenced by both issue and platform vernaculars. YouTube-native content, which often thrives on controversy and dissent, systematically beats out mainstream actors in terms of exposure. We close by arguing that ranking cultures are embedded in the meshes of mutually constitutive agencies that frustrate our attempts at causal explanation and are better served by strategies of ‘descriptive assemblage’.
- descriptive assemblage
- digital methods