The Mass-Customization of Places: Peer Production, Data-mining, and the Experience of Place

March 24, 2008

Web based services, many of which are available on mobile devices, now mediate the experience of place, culture and heritage for tourists and even professional researchers.  Recommendation systems increasingly filter and optimize destination choice and perception, while social media platforms give tourists new ways to participate in the co-creation of narratives and histories about places.  This co-creation augments reality by making destinations more vivid, fanciful and immersive with rich overlays of information. Ubiquitous access to knowledge offers new opportunities for tourist “self-fashioning” by making it easier to learn about, evaluate, rate, and judge background histories and processes previously hidden from the tourist gaze. This dynamic landscape alters relationships between tourists and the objects of tourism, sometimes encouraging greater reflexiveness in understanding the staging of experiences. However, new power inequalities in online media impact the representation of people and places. Aggregation and data-mining algorithms relating to search and recommendation services tend shift power toward centralized providers (Google, Amazon). Such services derive from opaque processes, but are increasingly taken-for-granted starting points for understanding and experiencing places. These services extend beyond popular tourist media. They draw upon and help shape peer-review, impact assessments, and other aspects of professional scholarly communication. Thus, many communities, be they popular or academic, now discuss, experience, and understand “culture” via online social mechanisms (collaboration, review, and ranking) and machine services (data mining techniques and ranking algorithms). Taken together, the new media landscape of tourism offers a fascinating zone for anthropological inquiry.


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