Going down the Rabbit-hole - A Research methodology

By ooorg

Created 13 May 2020  (Edited 05 May 2020 )


Going down a 'Rabbit-hole' (or pipeline) is one online research methodology. Watching a video on youtube, for example, and then another that is presented to you as a related topic, and then another in turn is one way of getting deeper into a subject or group of subjects. However because of the breadth of available content and lack of structure you can find yourself getting 'deeper and deeper underground' - a metaphor for moving further and further away from established ideas and consensus and into very niche theories. Hence the (pejorative) Alice in Wonderland reference, where Alice falls down a hole and enters into another world where nonsense prevails.

It is a methodology in a very loose sense because of its lack of structure but it is a method nonetheless, however arbitrary. Such free exploration of the content on the internet used to be called surfing. That term may still be in use or not (the shelf-life of technology-based words are another matter), but when surfing, in the metaphorical sense, you remained above ground, or, more acurately, above water. It was a more lateral metaphor for a more lateral way of using the internet. Usually because content wasn't constantly being presented to you (in a dynamically changing way). Instead you might equally click on a link within a page as return to a search engine to find something else, tacking your sail-board across the surf. (Even perhaps the notion of the metaphor itself, subconsciously, of complete freedom and of remaining in the sunlight might still yet inform the kind of content you will peruse). Going down the rabbit-hole as a metaphor is dark, claustrophobic and leads to a strange place. It has a destination. Surfing really has no destination at all.

As a method, you can decide to go down the rabbit-hole for example. Whilst rabbit-holing I have seen videos of people who have fallen down the rabbit hole (in their own words) link to the extent that they fell victim to an ideology presented to them eg. 'alt-right' conspiracy theories and had become radicalised. They had been there and came back (in a Campbellian sense1, which correlates with Alice's Journey) as, somehow, they had also been deradicalised. You could, for example, pursue this route as a way of researching the experience, that others might have also taken unwittingly. You could call it climbing down the rabbit-hole, rather than falling down it. Although he did not willingly go down the rabbit-hole in this case, Faraday Speaks' (from the link) experience could inform a method of purposely undertaking such a journey in the name of sociology, although it would never really replicate the genuine experience.

Of course, as the viewer of the content you have agency in deciding what to click on, but only inasmuch as you are choosing from what is presented to you. Each click informs the next cluster of choices, each step helps to build the path ahead.

That (limited) agency is shared with the other agent in this relationship - the big bad algorithm!! That which decides which content to present to you based on its knowledge of your behaviour and at the very least on what you are looking at presently. To continue with the fantasy fictional metaphors you hold hands with the big invisible monster who leads you down the path into the dark woods. Or something like that. Without ever tugging at your arm, or showing too much coercion, it, however, magically rebuilds the path ahead at each step you make, learning about what paths you might take and tempting you all the time. The Algorithm will never offer you something it thinks you won't want, rather something you might want, and if you accept that, then maybe something that you might like now, when previously it could have spooked you.

Who really knows what the deciding factors are for the Algorithm? The executives and programmers at youtube, perhaps. But in the new world of AI, an algorithm given over to neural networks is its own thing. Anthropomorphised in this way, with the power it has, it truly is metaphorically a fairy tale monster for today.

Faraday Speaks calls the rabbit-hole also a 'pipeline' or a 'sales funnel', where

it takes customers, potential customers [...] in a broad general sense, and tries to funnel them down to a point where they buy a product. And the funnel acts in two ways - it educates and motivates the buyers that will buy, and it expels the potential customers that won't buy. And this is what this ideology did.

Faraday Speaks mentions that he has some 'marketing experience' before he describes this to us, and it is fitting perhaps that it is framed as a customer experience. As within the Neo-Liberal paradigm, where, as people who are experiencing culture, we are described and treated as customers in a marketplace. This is the paradigm, of course, that has demanded the technology that has allowed us to undertake this journey down rabbit-holes so easily. What we are 'buying' here is not a commercial product but instead an idea, an ideology: typically an experience associated with postmodernism, late-capitalism and neo-liberalism.

But Faraday Speaks gives ever more agency to the architects of the funnel (rabbit-hole) in his experience than I previously had. Although the technology (the algorithm) was initially created to market products to buy (by recommending similar products in a shopping website), it is now also used to recommend cultural products (experiences), ie. the videos. Clicks and time spent on youtube generates revenue through advertising so keeping you engaged should be all that matters in the economic sense here. However, Faraday Speaks describes a funnel that is designed to pull you further down until you have fully bought in to an ideology. I'm not sure how useful it would be for this agent to "expel the potential customers that won't buy", because every click is a penny/cent made, other than to prevent eyes and ears that would raise the alarm bells once confronted with the stronger material.

Perhaps. But he suggests that the creator of his metaphorical funnel has purposely created a trap to radicalise. It is likely he means the creators of the content, as there are many 'content creators', who are 'selling' the ideology of which he speaks, in this case a far-right one, and who are both expert in manipulating the algorithm which recommends them and are numerous and in harmony with their particular views (and keywords). However he could in the same way be talking about the algorithm itself, which in turn is a reflection of the paradigm which created it (a conspiracy theory here might be that the creators of the content and the manipulators/programmers of the algorithm are actually conspiring). So he could also be referring to this capitalist/neo-liberal paradigm. I believe the former, with a conflation of the latter two: that, really they are all the same thing and do not need to conspire to act in accordance. [Perhaps a case of magical thinking in that seeing two or more things that are similar, the assumption that they are working together is made.] However, by acting only as a partial agent in his interactivity with the youtube site, he gives agency to either the algorithm, the content creators who might be manipulating the algorithm, the whole market-based arena in which this all takes place in, or indeed all three.

I am interested in the metaphorical journey (or non-journey) as a way of experiencing culture / or even researching culture. Alice's journey down the rabbit-hole is one, and surfing another. It is the structure of experience as much as the content of that experience which informs us (as in Structuralism). Perhaps a way of journeying down the rabbit-hole without getting 'sucked in' would be to create some kind of 'anchor' or guide-rope to help you. A clear idea and a critical, detached mind might help, but that is not necessarily available to all of us.

1. The Hero's Journey, A Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell