Abstract and Keywords
Information visibility refers to the degree to which information is available and accessible. Availability focuses on whether people could acquire particular information if they wanted. Accessibility focuses on the effort needed to acquire available information. In scholarly, industry, and popular press, people often conflate information visibility with transparency, yet transparency is generally a valued or ideological concept, whereas visibility is an empirical concept. Growing interest in studying and managing information visibility corresponds with the rapid growth in the use of digital, networked technologies. Yet, interest in information visibility existed prior to the introduction of networked information and communication technologies. Research has historically focused on information visibility as a form of social control and as a tool to increase individual, organizational, and social control and coordination. As a research area, information visibility ties to classic communication and interdisciplinary concerns, as well as core concerns of contemporary society including privacy, surveillance, transparency, accountability, democracy, secrecy, coordination, control, and efficiency. An emerging research area with deep historical roots, information visibility offers a promising avenue for future research.
Information visibility refers to the degree to which information is available and accessible (Treem & Leonardi, 2012). Availability focuses on whether people could acquire particular information if desired: That is, was behavior recorded and stored in a way that allows people to access the information? Accessibility focuses on the effort needed to acquire available information. Accessibility describes the degree to which specific information can be easily acquired and understood. Information becomes more accessible if:
1. People know the information exists and where to find it;
2. The information is cataloged or structured in some organized way;
3. People have the mechanical and cognitive skills to acquire and interpret the information;
4. Less effort is required to access information from a particular available source as compared to other available sources (Stohl, Stohl, & Leonardi, 2016).
For example, a digital birth certificate in a centralized online registry may provide more universally visible information than a paper birth certificate stored in a local office. Assuming both digital and paper records are available, the digital record is often more easily accessed than the paper record, insofar as people know digital records exist and have the Internet access and relevant skills to acquire information from digital sources. This is especially the case if the person seeking the information is outside the local jurisdiction where the birth occurred. Thus, accessibility, and by extension visibility, may be local or universal. In countries where birth records are rarely recorded by the government or other central agency, birth information might be invisible because it was not recorded or stored; or birth information might be relatively invisible because of the difficulty of accessing information from religious, family, or less structured records. Thus, the degree to which information is visible depends not only on the characteristics of the information and its context—namely, whether and how information is recorded, stored, and organized (i.e., availability)—but also on the characteristics of people seeking particular information, including their knowledge, skills, and abilities, and the temporal, material, and cognitive resources available when seeking particular information (i.e., accessibility).
People often use the term information visibility interchangeably with data visibility. Among some scholars there is a long-running debate about whether information and data should be considered distinct, if related, concepts. On one side of the debate, scholars argue that information and data are distinct; traditionally, arranged as a part of a hierarchy from data, to information, then knowledge, and ultimately, wisdom. From this perspective, information is often described as data that is organized and structured, presented to inform a particular audience in useful ways; whereas data refers often to raw, organized facts that have yet to become meaningful for a particular audience (Case, 2012). Another side of the debate argues that the distinctions between information and data and, correspondingly, between information visibility and data visibility remain muddy and do not offer pragmatic value for understanding, evaluating, predicting, or managing visibility. As with much of the current interdisciplinary scholarship, the second approach is taken here: rather than determining whether the visible content is information or data, the focus is on what mechanisms, behaviors, affordances, motivations, and characteristics affect the degree of visibility of specific information or data of interest. Therefore, the term information visibility is used broadly here to encompass considerations of the availability and accessibility of content, whether the content is defined or labeled as data, information, or knowledge.
Along with accessibility and availability, some scholars consider approval the third attribute of information visibility. Approval refers to different ways gatekeepers allow audiences to view specific information. Approval may occur via individuals or via laws, norms, and social consciousness (Stohl et al., 2016) that operate as gates that admit or refuse entry of certain pieces of information into specific channels or conversations (Zelizer, 2004, p. 52). Approval is not a defining attribute of information visibility because approval does not describe the degree to which information is visible. Rather, approval describes one set of mechanisms by which information becomes visible. Consider editorial control in the context of news media. Information becomes “news” based on a series of decisions: “Since we cannot register everything, we have to select and the question is what will catch our attention” (Galtung & Ruge, 1965, p. 65). Editorial decision-making within the context of news media provides a classic exemplar of the information approval process by which people determine which information is available to which audiences: For example, if a news story is published, is it on the front page above the fold, or is the story published in a more subordinate, and therefore, less visible position to readers or viewers? Which information is selected to support the news story? Which information is left out? Information decisions (or selections) are informed by various cultural values, norms, and criteria as to what constitutes “news” at a particular time, in a particular newsroom, by a particular journalist or editor, for a particular audience. Information approval also can occur in relatively informal and ad-hoc ways with less conscious awareness of the approval process. Consider information visibility through Goffman’s (1959) classic notion of impression management: When posting on social media, individuals may intentionally “give” or unintentionally “give off” information about themselves or others. Such information may be disclosed with or without a formal approval process or clear ownership of the information. Thus, even though approval is not a defining characteristic of information visibility like availability and accessibility, understanding different types and levels of approval offers insight into whether information becomes visible, by which approvers and approval mechanisms, and to which audiences.
Although approval is not a core characteristic of information visibility, focusing on approval highlights a number of debates related to information visibility. Scholars and the general public continue to wrestle with issues of information ownership and control, and correspondingly who should be able to grant approval to make particular information visible to audiences. There continues to be a lack of social agreement on issues such as: (a) Who counts as a co-owner or the owner of particular types or pieces of information versus who is a controller, manager, possessor, gatekeeper, or steward of that information? For example, is the person or entity who possesses the information the owner? Or is the referent of the information the owner? Or both? Does it depend if the information counts as “newsworthy” or “public”; (b) What rights and responsibilities does information ownership grant in contrast to the rights and responsibilities related to information control, possession, management, gatekeeping, or stewardship, and, correspondingly; (c) Which individuals or institutions should be able to grant approval for making particular information available and accessible, and under what conditions?
Various information, contextual, and technological factors complicate ongoing debates about who should be allowed to make information visible in what ways and to what degree. For example, people need to consider the potential for collective or fractional information ownership and control. Context also matters. Imagine how ownership, control, and approval processes may differ depending on whether one was considering journalistic coverage of political campaigns, credit reporting, intimate or sexual interpersonal relationships, healthcare, or myriad other contexts in which information visibility, and correspondingly approval, are consequential? Existing and emerging information technologies, including the computational algorithms that underlie such technologies, also affect information visibility, often in unintended ways and with unintended consequences. Thus, although approval is not necessary for understanding what information visibility is, ongoing public and scholarly debates suggest that approval encompasses an important set of mechanisms to consider when understanding whether and how information becomes visible, and to what degree.
Focusing on approval also helps situate the importance of information visibility for understanding three broader, overlapping, and major research traditions in communication: agenda setting, framing, and propaganda. Agenda setting refers to the process by which communicators—especially news media—set the public agenda because of their choices of what information to make visible. That is, the news media does not tell the public what to think; however, the news media does tell the public what to think about based on the amount and timing of news coverage on a particular topic (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). As an extension of agenda setting research, framing describes the processes by which communicators consciously or unconsciously select or highlight some bits of information to increase their salience (Entman, 1993). By definition, framing simultaneously involves not selecting, de-emphasizing, or ignoring other bits of information. In making some information more salient—that is, available and accessible—frames “promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (Entman, 1993, p. 53). Like agenda setting and framing, propaganda also involves how communicators make certain information more (or less) visible. Propaganda additionally focuses on deliberate attempts to indoctrinate audience members into a particular belief system through the strategic use of information and misinformation campaigns (Lipmann, 1922). Much of the research on agenda setting, framing, and propaganda does not explicitly use the term information visibility when considering the effects of information availability and accessibility. However, ongoing discussions in these research areas illustrate how crucial information visibility is for understanding how agenda setting, framing, and propaganda work in sociocultural, organizational, and interpersonal contexts.
Information Visibility versus Information Transparency
In scholarly, industry, and popular press contexts, people often conflate information visibility with information transparency; however, the two terms are distinct, although related. Transparency has gained value as a proxy, and even the proxy, for ethical action and character particularly in Western cultures. In contrast, information visibility remains a more neutral term in popular and scholarly conversations (Stohl, Stohl, & Leonardi, 2016). Even as discussion continues within and across disciplines, scholars generally consider transparency a valued, ideological, and normative concept and goal, whereas scholars consider visibility an empirical concept (Stohl et al., 2016). That is, transparency is prescriptive whereas visibility is descriptive: transparency focuses more on estimating the ethics or worth of information disclosure, whereas visibility focuses on the degree to which information is disclosed. To oversimplify for the sake of illustration, transparency focuses on what information should be disclosed, whereas visibility focuses on what information was disclosed, and to what degree. Although information visibility is differentiated from information transparency here, scholars and practitioners should be sure to identify whether different terms within and across research or conversations reflect similar or different conceptualizations.
The tendency to conflate transparency with visibility likely arose for numerous reasons: both terms are ambiguous, both terms relate to one’s ability to see or to observe information; both terms tap into classic and ongoing social debates about public accountability through information disclosure; and both terms can be considered core aspects of the contemporary digital workplace and work (Bernard, 2010, p. ii). Because greater information visibility is often considered the crucial measure by which one evaluates the ethical goals of transparency, people tend to conflate the taken-for-granted, and often oversimplified, process of making more information visible with achieving the ethical goal of transparency.
The relationship between the degree of information visibility and the achievement of transparency’s normative ideals is more complex that typically considered. A commonly accepted premise is that making more information visible demonstrates that the institution, organization, or individual is more transparent, and by extension is more accountable and ethical (Oliver, 2004). On the surface such an approach seems intuitive; however, the relationship between increased information visibility and increased transparency is not linear. Rather, the relationship between transparency and visibility appears to be paradoxical and curvilinear (Stohl et al., 2016). Increasing the visibility of information may help individuals or organizations realize the ethical goals of transparency, to a point. However, too much information can strain people’s capacity to find the information and to understand it. When too much information is available and accessible, it strains cognitive limits such as attention, creating information overload or triggering interpretive blinders. Such cognitive strains contribute to functional invisibility because of the amount of effort people need to identify, acquire, or understand relevant information as information receivers (Stohl et al., 2016). From the information provider’s perspective, temporal, financial, and attention constraints can also limit how much information can be made available and accessible.
In considering the relationship between information visibility and the ideals of transparency, practitioners and scholars benefit from considering the practices and motives for disclosure and concealment. Information providers may disclose information intentionally and strategically, to accomplish various goals (e.g., developing intimacy, engaging in impression management, fulfilling legal or organizational obligations, demonstrating transparency). Information providers may also disclose information unintentionally. Correspondingly, withholding information may happen intentionally and unintentionally. Functional invisibility or de facto invisibility can result inadvertently from good-faith efforts that reflect a naïve understanding of information disclosure (Stohl et al., 2016); a lack of control over competing or conflated information (Berkelaar & Buzzanell, 2015); unconscious awareness of the frames they typically use to acquire, evaluate, and present information (Entman, 1993); or even poor communication or technology design. Yet functional invisibility can also result from strategic and deliberate information management behaviors: Information providers can work to hide information in plain sight while officially fulfilling legal, ethical, or other normative obligations (Stohl et al., 2016). For example, the strategic use of functional invisibility or information overload is illustrated in the political and business practices of the late Friday news dump or document dump in which relevant information is delivered with a large quantity of potentially unsorted information, making the information less accessible, and therefore less visible. Alternatively, an information provider might strategically curate and frame information to manage impressions by foregrounding desirable information and backgrounding undesirable information. Such strategic management of information and impressions allows organizations or individuals to claim the reputational benefits of transparency without realizing the ideals that transparency laws and norms espouse.
When considering the relationship between information visibility and transparency, Gabriel’s (2005) glass metaphor can prove useful: Even as glass allows people to see, glass also distorts what is seen. In part, this is because glass frames certain information as important, drawing attention toward a particular focal point, and away from other foci. Although one can see through glass, glass remains a boundary between information providers and information receivers, distorting how people see and make sense of available information. So, too, is information visibility limited in its ability to accomplish the functional and ethical goals of transparency. Simply making information visible does not lead to the ethical results transparency promises. Thus, in considering how to manage information visibility—whether to accomplish the normative goal of transparency or some other purpose—attention should be given to who is disclosing what information, to whom, in what ways (how), when, for what purposes, with what degree of accuracy, and with what consequences for which intended and unintended audiences.
Tracing the History of Information Visibility
Growing interest in studying and managing information visibility corresponds with the rapid growth in the use of digital, networked technologies. The influx of information technologies into organizations in the 1980s and, more recent, rapid use of networked information and communication technologies like the World Wide Web and social media afforded increased opportunities to make different and more types, sources, and amounts of information available and easily accessible, that is, visible. Yet, interest in the causes and consequences of information visibility existed long before the introduction and proliferation of network technologies. Research that explicitly addresses information visibility has been fueled by two primary, interrelated goals that consider how information visibility might encourage accountability, specifically: (1) How might information visibility operate as a form of social control and (2) How could information visibility increase coordination and control at work?
Information Visibility as a Form of Social Control
Scholars and practitioners have long been interested in the deliberate use of information visibility as a form of social control—namely, how people’s behavior and attitudes can be controlled or influenced by strategically managing which information is available and accessible to which parties, at what times, and to what degree. Many contemporary ideas and critiques regarding information visibility’s role in social control are rooted in the now popularized notion of the panopticon, a word derived from the Greek for “all seeing.”
The central idea of the panopticon is that differential visibility between those controlling and those being controlled provides the foundation for social control. Introduced in the late 18th century by social philosopher and theorist Jeremy Bentham, the panopticon is Bentham’s (1843) design for a circular building that allowed all the inmates to be observed by a single watchman without the inmates knowing when they were being watched. Even though the single watchman could not see every inmate at the same time, inmates acted as if they were being watched because they did not know when they were being watched. Consequently, an inmate’s behavior was controlled by the perception that his or her actions could be visible at any time. As Bernard (2010) summarizes: “in a panoptic system . . . the basis of control and power is visibility both in the ones that exercise power and in the mind of those who are controlled. In such a system, an asymmetry exists because ‘to see’ and ‘being seen’ are dissociated” (pp. 20–21). Even as Bentham’s most developed and recognized use for the panopticon was a “perfect prison,” Bentham regarded the panopticon as a model for how society could function. Bentham considered his panopticon model equally applicable to schools, day-cares, nursing homes, factories, hospitals, asylums, and other institutions where control could prove valuable. By using visibility strategically and asymmetrically, Bentham believed the panopticon offered a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind” (p. 39). Twentieth-century philosopher Michel Foucault (1995) extended Bentham’s panopticon. Foucault emphasized how the people who are being watched—that is, people within the perceived “field of visibility”—engage in their own subjugation. Essentially, people control themselves based on what they think the watcher thinks they should be doing. Consequently, the power of those watching is exercised through their own invisibility, even as those being watched experience compulsory visibility (Foucault, p. 187).
Concerns about the consequences of such information asymmetries between the less visible watchers and the more visible watched have inspired substantial social commentary and critique of the contemporary surveillance practices of governments, organizations, and individuals. Yet, the question of who watches the watchers is an old one. Often quoted in its original Latin—“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”—the phrase was originally used by the satirical Roman poet Juvenal, in reference to the impossibility of controlling the moral behavior of women when the enforcers are corrupt. Contemporary meanings in scholarly and popular writing tend to use the question to embody the philosophical challenge of how to hold power to account. This question of accountability was of considerable concern to Plato in his Republic, to John Stuart Mill in his Considerations on Representative Government, and more recently in the development of the modern occupation of journalism as the fourth estate (Schudson, 1995). Although Plato believed it was better for human beings to rule themselves, he acknowledged that outside agents should be employed if necessary. The modern profession of journalism argues that holding power to account could be accomplished through the increased visibility provided by the news media. One of the classic tenets of democratic journalism is that even if few people watch or read the news, the potential of information being made more visible via the news media encourages political actors to behave as if the public is watching (Schudson, 1995). This classic tenet builds on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis’s 1933 assertion that: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” To Brandeis, publicity—then defined as making all relevant information widely available and accessible to the public—could help control public officials’ behavior in beneficial ways by subjecting their actions to broad public scrutiny (Stoker & Rawlins, 2005).
Unfortunately, information visibility does not necessarily guarantee an informed public nor accountability. As public relations grew as a profession, some public relations specialists wielded information visibility as a narrowing of disclosure rather than as a means of public accountability. Public relations professionals used selective information visibility so that positive information became more visible and negative information became less visible to the public and more difficult for journalists to obtain (Stoker & Rawlins, 2005). Aspeople realized that information was not simply a transmission but a social construction shaped by the perspectives and assumptions of journalists, the lack of demographic diversity in the newsroom became important. Members of the public and the profession called into question the lack of visibility about who reported on the news and who made editorial decisions about what counted as “news,” because journalists and editors decide which information gets selected and included in which news stories (Schudson, 1995). Thus, the modern newsroom itself became increasingly subject to greater expectations of information visibility in efforts to achieve the transparency goals that journalism presumably offers to democratic societies.
Information visibility requires resources and public commitment. Decreasing public interest in the news alongside growing pressures for infotainment compete for the public’s attention and advertising dollars. Consequently, fewer news organizations invest in the investigative reporting that helps make information about public organizations and officials visible. Such concerns over public accountability manifest differently in countries where specific political interests or leaders control information sources or deny independent news media access to relevant information. However, state-controlled news and social media increase the potential for information gaps and misinformation. Such strategic control of information visibility, combined with strategic silence and misinformation campaigns is often epitomized by the Nazis’ use of propaganda via controlled news media during World War II to influence public sentiment and behavior (Herf, 2006). Although such national or political control of information continues to be linked to more autocratic countries (e.g., Russia’s and China’s stringently controlled news media and social media), the resurgence of nonmainstream news media and the growing use of social media as people’s primary source of information and news suggest the possibility of growing information gaps, information asymmetries, and misinformation campaigns in democratic societies as well. Such examples help illustrate the complicated, nested, and myriad ways in which strategic use of information visibility may afford opportunities for social control as accountability or as propaganda within or across social, cultural, and political levels, as well for individuals and organizations.
Contemporary research on social media and other Internet technologies continues to draw on Foucault’s concerns about the problematic consequences of the information panopticon, as well as philosophical ideals of public accountability. Whereas much of the classic research focused on the accountability of public, corporate, or institutionalized figures, much of the contemporary research focuses on how asymmetrical information visibility affects the public as networked technologies enable a persistent information panopticon for individual citizens. Scholars argue that the contemporary “surveillance society” is made possible by the increasing proliferation and use of networked technologies, epitomized in the use of social media and social network sites (Lyon, 1994).
Recent research on the relationship between information visibility and social control focuses on information visibility as a core affordance of networked technologies, namely, social network sites and social media (Treem & Leonardi, 2012). Affordances refer to the cues a specific technology gives about its potential and intended uses. That is, a doorknob suggests the potential of turning whereas a door handlesuggests pulling or pushing. Similarly, social media encourage people to make greater amounts and types of information available to greater numbers of people, while also making information more easily accessible because of information storage, aggregation, indexing, and search functions. Social network sites also afford the opportunity to make additional information available to other people and organizations because online behaviors are often more easily recorded and aggregated as compared to offline behaviors. Formative research on social media affordances asserted that social network sites increase the replicability, persistence, scalability, and searchability of information and also create present and future invisible audiences (boyd, 2007). By making information more available and accessible for use by a broad range of individuals, organizations, and institutions, boyd’s work laid the foundation for arguments that visibility “is a root affordance of the digital age”—making other affordances like persistence, editability, and association possible (Stohl et al., 2016, p.101).
The use of information visibility as a form of social control continues to be controversial—especially when it comes to using social media information about members of the general public. As summarized by legal scholar Daniel Solove (2007), people who advocate the value of visible social media information argue that the increased visibility of formerly “private” aspects of people’s lives provide a do-it-yourself background check and can operate as a deterrent to aberrant, immoral, and unethical behavior. Such positions extend classic accountability arguments asserted by journalism. Whereas journalists argued that the potential for news to be published about a public official, government agency, or corporations encouraged better behavior, some members of the general public now argue that the potential for information to be published on social media encourages better behavior by all individuals—namely, making information visible operates as a form of social control. Advocates for the value of greater information visibility argue that individuals and organizations are responsible for controlling the relative visibility of their online information, and can do so by not posting information online they do not want others to see or removing information that becomes visible.
Critics disagree. Simply because information is visible does not necessarily make it accurate, sufficient, or relevant. For example, as social media become increasingly popular sources of information and news, misinformation campaigns also increase (Del Vicario et al., 2016). Online information is notoriously persistent, and difficult to delete or control, even when there is evidence that the information is inaccurate. The use of visible, and often decontextualized, information as fodder for public shaming can destroy the reputations, careers, and well-being of individuals or organizations over perceived slights or misinterpretations rather than substantial wrongdoing. People often make information visible without the permission of others to humiliate or harm individuals via nonconsensual digital disclosures such as doxing and revenge porn. Doxing occurs when someone researches and publicly posts personally identifiable information about an individual such as their name, address, phone number, or schedule with the goal of harming or harassing that person, encouraging harm or harassment or both. Revenge porn describes the posting of nonconsensual pornography online with the goal of humiliating or punishing an ex-partner or other target. Besides the substantial personal and professional, physical, and psychological consequences associated with doxing and revenge porn for the targeted individual, others connected to the individual—including partners, children, and friends—often suffer collateral damage. Other types of (mis)information campaigns may not seem as extreme as the examples offered; however, (mis)information is consequential for individual lives, organizational viability, and the integrity of democratic political processes. Although the advent of social media has contributed to growing interest in misinformation campaigns targeted around the lives of everyday citizens, there is a long history of using information visibility strategically, in political contexts, as part of propaganda and disinformation campaigns to accomplish less-than-democratic goals (Edelman, 2001). Social media offer a new medium by which such politically motivated misinformation can be propagated. Even if information is accurate, people like Justice Brandeis—famous for encouraging making information about public officials increasingly available—advocate that well-functioning societies have a need for privacy; that is, certain information should not be made easily available and accessible (Plaisance, 2007).
Given the complications of information visibility, contemporary discussions focus on identifying more nuanced perspectives on when and how information should be made visible and to what degree. Although Bentham’s initial work explicitly addressed the benefits that come in using visibility as a form of power and control, more recent work suggests that the relationships between information visibility and control are less linear, less deterministic, and more complex than initially thought. There are limits on the extent to which making information visible influences opinions, attitudes, and behavior. Factors such as human information-processing capacity, level of trust in and attachment to information sources and authorities, message content, appeal, and presentation, as well as influence from one’s personal network and the environment, all influence the degree to which visible information, misinformation, and missing information affects human attitudes and behavior (McQuail, 2010). Yet, empirical research also highlights how perceived and actual information visibility can shape and influence people’s online and offline behaviors, as well as their attitudes and beliefs which is why people continue to use information visibility as a tool for coordination and control.
Information Visibility as a Tool for Business Coordination and Control
A second, interrelated, area of research is motivated by the ways in which information visibility could operate as a tool to increase coordination and control in business contexts. In the workplace, information visibility ostensibly can help employers and owners accomplish business goals by making work practices and outcomes more visible. However, such outcomes are neither guaranteed nor without costs for workers and society. In addition to providing a context for examining the implications of information visibility on work, research on information visibility in employment organizations has provided insights relevant to other, intertwined, social contexts.
The value of information visibility for business process improvements finds its roots in classical approaches to management. Fredrick Winslow Taylor’s (1913) Principles of Scientific Management helped lay the foundation for the business value of information visibility.
“Taylorism,” or scientific management, focused on making information about work practices and outcomes visible to managers. Scientific management expanded researchers’ and managers’ focus from a primary emphasis on organizational structure as a route to productivity to a focus on micro-level assessments of each employee’s work as a route to productivity. Taylor believed that identifying the “one best way” to perform any job offered a means to improve efficiency in daily tasks, which cumulatively would improve organizational productivity. To accomplish this goal, Taylor used time and motion studies as a tool for measuring efficiency by carefully observing and quantifying each employee’s performance and outcomes at specific tasks in minute detail. Such detailed accounting helped make work practices and outcomes more visible. For Taylor, making work information visible was the first step toward improved organizational productivity by reducing “our larger wastes of human effort” because:
We can see and feel the waste of material things. Awkward, inefficient, or ill-directed movements of men, however, leave nothing visible or tangible behind them. Their appreciation calls for an act of memory, an effort of the imagination. And for this reason, even though our daily loss from this source is greater than from our waste of material things, the one has stirred us deeply, while the other has moved us but little.
Making work information visible via time and motion studies, could fuel extensive training of workers and allowed managers to take strategic action, ostensibly to move individual workers and, correspondingly, the organization, toward greater, systematic efficiency. Ideally, by making information visible—that is, accessible and available to management by minute quantification of tasks, identification of best practices, and constant observation of employee performance—organizations could maximize productivity and profitability. Such efficiencies were not guaranteed, though, as workers demonstrated the ability to resist these forms of control, to varying degrees, by engaging in collective work slowdowns to avoid overwork, unnecessary fatigue, and the continued ratcheting up of expectations. Many of Taylor’s contemporaries and current scholars and practitioners critiqued scientific management for ignoring human agency and dignity and because of its likelihood of inciting tensions between workers and management; however, interest in making work visible continued as the Industrial Economy gave way to the Information and Knowledge Economies that dominate contemporary work.
Within the contemporary workplace, managers and business process engineers continue to leverage the promise of information visibility to achieve strategic organizational goals by increasing the coordination and control between people, organizations, and machines. In business contexts, a substantial proportion of research continues to focus on improved information visibility in supply chain management and business process engineering. There is also interest in leveraging information visibility to accomplish managerial goals in knowledge organizations.
Research on strategic information visibility in supply chain management focuses on optimizing interrelated information flow and workflow to increase coordination and control in business networks. Supply chains are the networks of companies (e.g., suppliers, manufacturers, retailers) and the sequence of steps needed to get a product or a service from a supplier to the customer. Most business leaders consider supply chain optimization a crucial business process because effective supply chain management can lead to lower costs and greater profitability. Much like Taylor’s goal for scientific management, a primary goal of research on supply chain engineering is the ongoing effort to make the “right” information visible at the right place and the right time to increase workflow efficiency and productivity (Delen, Hardgrave, & Sharda, 2007; Joshi, 2000; also see lean or agile manufacturing). In recent years, the advent of cost-effective information and communication technologies that allow tracking encouraged growing attention to real-time information visibility. Implementation of technologies like RFID (radio frequency identification) chips allows managers to track the movement of individual goods through supply chains (e.g., knowing when items leave shelves or are close to expiration dates). Such real-time data streams can complement or replace costly and less accurate manual inventory processes. Similarly, mobile apps allow real-time tracking of when and where people use particular services. Research on information visibility in supply chain management assumes that having the right real-time information present will help business leaders make more informed, intelligent, agile, and coordinated decisions. However, the challenge of what to make visible to whom, when, and how remains complex. Organizations must consider what information can be or should be created; what information can or should be made available and accessible; and how people are likely to understand and use the newly visible and aggregated information in expected and unexpected ways.
Information visibility has also shown promise for coordinating knowledge work. For example, enterprise social media provide the opportunity to make information workflows, project management, and communication available and accessible in new ways (Leonardi, 2014, 2015). Enterprise social media are internal social media tools that allow organizational members to communicate with one, a few, or all members of an organization; to post, edit, or sort texts and files; and to view the messages, connections, texts, and files shared by others when they choose (Leonardi, Huysman & Steinfield, 2013, p. 19). Because enterprise social media are networked technologies, they record social behaviors, including which coworkers are communication partners. When communication networks and communication content are more visible, people have a more accurate sense of who knows who, who knows what, and who is doing what (cf: cognitive social structures). Increasing people’s knowledge and accuracy of connections, expertise, and task activity can help knowledge workers become more efficient in requesting information and avoiding unnecessary redundancies in work efforts (Leonardi, 2014, 2015). Such efficiencies are made possible by the increased visibility of communication information afforded by enterprise social media. Ambient awareness of communication information helps streamline much everyday knowledge work by helping people coordinate formerly invisible work—in particular, communication activities. Such communication visibility, as Leonardi (2014) labels it, can be considered a specific subtype of information visibility. Communication visibility focuses on whether information about communication practices, connections, channels, and content is available and accessible.
Workers also use information visibility to communicate expertise and craft their careers: Visible knowledge is used to decide who is an expert in what and to assign tasks, For example, Treem and Leonardi (2009) found that workers strategically monitor what information they and others contribute to help-desk databases. Employees work diligently to position themselves as experts in specific content areas through strategic use of information visibility (e.g., by adding more specific and referenced content about a specific domain) and not others (e.g., by eliminating detail or content). Strategically, making certain information more visible and other information less visible increases the odds that employees will be assigned to tasks in their areas of interest, which can increase practical experience and increase the likelihood they will be considered an expert. Such selective information use provides an example of how the classic editorial processes often epitomized in journalistic context can be extrapolated to other areas of human activity.
Organizations also use visible information generated outside the organization to accomplish business goals. For example, since the early 21st century, employers have increasingly used information made visible by online technologies to inform hiring, promotion, or firing decisions. Cybervetting refers to the process of obtaining and using online information from informal, often unstructured online sites, to evaluate current or prospective relationships (Berkelaar, 2014). Employers sift through the information that is available and accessible online to make inferences about an individual’s suitability, credibility, personality, and professionalism, among other factors (Berkelaar & Buzzanell, 2015; Roth, Bobko, Van Iddekinge, & Thatcher, 2016). The uses and affordances of Internet tools (e.g., social media and search engines), as well as the collapsed contexts they create, make cybervetting a compelling avenue for employers’ information acquisition and use. Context collapse refers to situations in which information about an individual’s different identities or roles (e.g., parent, child, athlete, worker) is now visible to multiple actual and potential audiences that were previously segmented.
When new and different information is made visible, particularly in asymmetric ways, work changes. In her foundational book, social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff (1988) explains the potential of information technologies to do more than automate operations. Information technologies also informate, or create information. Coined by Zuboff (1985), informating refers to the process by which automation devices register data about activities, thereby generating new information or data streams. Such created and stored information can then become visible by being made accessible via reports or other communications. To illustrate informating, Zuboff (1988) offers the example of grocery store scanners: Even as scanners automate the checkout process for customers, scanners also create and provide data that can be used for inventory control, scheduling deliveries, and targeted marketing.
When highlighting the consequences of newly visible information made possible by the computer’s informating potential, Zuboff (1988) referenced Foucault’s (1995) notion of the information panopticon. Her book includes stories from managers thrilled to have information “at [their] fingertips” in efficiency reports described as “beautiful.” Managers valued the so-called objective oversight that this newly visible information offered because “I can track my people’s work. . . . What is his productivity? Before we had to judge people on hearsay. Now it is more black and white.” (p. 331). Yet, those same efficiency reports were unavailable to workers. Such reports also disadvantaged more experienced craftspeople, who tended to be labeled as less efficient because they were often assigned more complex tasks that required more time. Workers subject to the panoptic control of newly visible information found myriad creative ways to resist computational oversight, thereby undermining the very efficiency goals managers lauded. Differential information visibilities also widened the relational gap between managers and workers as the managerial role increasingly focused on information management rather than direct worker oversight and interaction. By making information work practices and outcomes visible via informating, new data streams can alter the control individuals have over their work and undermine worker recognition and need for expertise, thus changing employment relationships. As Zuboff concluded, the consequences of increasingly visible information and information asymmetries are not always intended or anticipated by those who create the system.
Although primarily focused on employment contexts, Zuboff’s (1988) conclusion was prescient of contemporary debates about human beings’ inability to anticipate and control the information made differentially visible to them or about them because of computers and the algorithms underlying computation. Computer algorithms are the step-by-step set of operations computers perform to accomplish a specific task. As computer algorithms become more complex, software developers are less able to anticipate the consequences of any particular algorithm or combinations thereof. Consequently, there is increasing recognition of the unintended, and often problematic, consequences that can result from computer algorithms and the big datasets such algorithms often process (Parmer & Freeman, 2016).
Researchers who study information visibility represent numerous disciplines, including communication, computer science, engineering, information sciences, journalism, philosophy, political science, psychology, sociology, and others. Consequently, research results often remain in disciplinary or sub-disciplinary silos with few citation links between disciplines. Yet some common research trends on information visibility exist. These trends can be loosely organized around Laswell’s classic communication model: who says what, in which channel, to whom, with what effects (Laswell, 1948), for what purpose, and under what circumstances (Braddock, 1958). In terms of information visibility, it might be more helpful to say: what is made available and accessible, to what degree, to whom, in which channel, by whom (or what), with what effects, for what purposes (if any).
What Information Becomes Visible
Understanding which content becomes visible is an ongoing question of interest to scholars and practitioners across specialties because different degrees of information visibility can affect individual, organizational, political, and sociocultural attitudes and behavior in consequential ways. For example, if people see more news stories about a specific social issue, they tend to consider that issue a more pressing problem than a social issue that receives less attention from the press (Iyengar & Kinder, 2010). The framing of news stories also influences how people are likely to interpret and respond to a news story (Schudson, 1995). Similarly, individuals searching for information online about an applicant may have access to information that was previously relatively invisible to employers. Such information may be irrelevant to the hiring decision, protected by employment law, or both; yet will likely influence the hiring or promotion decision if viewed: Because even when a person attempts to discount irrelevant information, such attempts make the information hyper-accessible (Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000). Thus, understanding which information becomes more (or less) visible can provide practical and ethical insights into how to encourage desirable information to become viral, to discourage undesirable information from spreading, and to help determine what counts as desirable versus undesirable and relevant versus irrelevant information to which audiences.
When discussing which information becomes visible, researchers often describe information types that are salient to a particular context. For example, researchers may classify information based on categories salient to the process studied (e.g., “good news” versus “bad news”; information versus misinformation; Schudson, 1995) or they may classify information more broadly using categories that can translate across contexts and processes (e.g., visual, textual, relational, and technological information; Berkelaar & Buzzanell, 2015; Treem & Leonardi, 2012). Thus, typologizing offers one avenue for further theoretical development, as well as informed and ethical practice.
Although scholars focus on what and how information becomes visible, questions about the accuracy or sufficiency of information are not always explicitly addressed in contemporary research on information visibility. Questions of accuracy and depth of information are essential questions in the practice and study of journalism (Schudson, 1995; Zelizer, 2004); however, explicit attention is rarely paid to information accuracy in business and social science contexts. For example, research on information visibility in supply chain management takes for granted that information should be accurate and sufficient in business contexts. This accuracy assumption makes sense given that the consequences of making inaccurate information visible to customers, retailers, distributors, manufacturers, suppliers, or transporters can theoretically be directly measured in bottom-line results. Social scientists who study information visibility may not emphasize accuracy because a substantial body of research in communication, information sciences, and psychology already focuses on the effects and perceptions of information accuracy and inaccuracy (see Case, 2012 for summary) and because in practice, people acquiring and using information do not necessarily concern themselves with accuracy or sufficiency of information. Employers and others often trust that visible social media information is credible, consequential, and relevant, but also more comprehensive than the data actually is. For example, employers may use connections from a social network site like LinkedIn™ to evaluate the quality of a relationship, not just the presence of a relationship (Berkelaar & Buzzanell, 2015), even though the person seeing the information may not know how or why that relationship was formed or may not have a clear view of the entire network and therefore the relative importance of a particular connection. Especially when the information is made visible by a third party, people tend to trust the information more, regardless of whether it is actually accurate or complete (Berger & Douglas, 1981). Yet, along with journalism’s historic emphasis on depth and accuracy of information, a rich body of research on the use of propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation campaigns in political systems (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2014) highlights the importance of explicitly considering and questioning the accuracy and sufficiency of information in other contexts. Because effective and ethical communication and coordination requires considering what information to make more visible and less visible, making more explicit connections between different disciplinary research contributions offers rich avenues for future research and practice.
What Information Becomes Invisible
Research on information visibility often focuses on what information is or should be made visible—that is, the focus is on the presence rather than the absence of information. Yet, the paradox of information visibility is such that increasing the visibility of certain information requires making other pieces or aspects of information less visible. Information invisibility refers to information that is unavailable and inaccessible relative to more visible information. That is, information visibility and invisibility exist on a spectrum of greater and lesser degrees of accessibility and availability, such that one can imagine that particular information could be relatively more visible, more invisible, or somewhere in between. Communication practices (e.g., framing, agenda setting), human processing limits (e.g., information overload, limited attention), and other factors can intentionally or unintentionally result in greater degrees of information invisibility. People may also cede control to the news media, social media algorithms, or other information sources because of the demands of selecting where to focus their attention. Such ceding of control may be relatively involuntary (e.g., in response to information overload).
The tendency to focus on information visibility rather than information invisibility is likely due in part to the greater ease of studying the presence of information rather than its absence. Contemporary Western society is also biased toward greater information visibility (Oliver, 2004). Yet, because visibility and invisibility are differences in degree, not in kind, understanding information invisibility and information visibility is critical to understanding the functional, ethical, and theoretical implications of information practices. For example, functionally, too much information can lead to distraction, information overload, and inefficiencies. In contrast, making unnecessary information invisible can aid focus and comprehension, much as white space in art focuses attention and influences perceptions (Pracejus, Olsen, & O’Guinn, 2006). Ethically, even if people could acquire and understand full information visibility, such comprehensive visibility would prove to be socially dysfunctional because some level of invisibility and privacy is necessary for groups and society to function well (Plaisance, 2007).
Notable information invisibilities have implications for a host of communication, organizational, and societal processes. Information invisibility can affect wide-ranging areas such as organizational efficiency, employment evaluations, information overload, information seeking, impression management, public relations, informed behavior, political processes, and romantic relationships. For example, research on personnel selection suggests that the absence of online information can be as important as the presence of a red flag when evaluating a worker’s employability (Berkelaar & Buzzanell, 2015). In part, this is likely because contemporary society conflates visibility with transparency and transparency with ethical behavior. In news contexts, where editors choose to place information in physical newspapers, on television shows, or on websites affects whether people are likely to access, see, and be influenced by the information (Schudson, 1995). Thus, burying information in less-frequented areas of the newspaper, website, or news programming, can create functional invisibility much like the Friday news dumps popularized in political contexts.
By focusing on information invisibility and information visibility in tandem, researchers can highlight how differences in the degree of visibility and invisibility operate as a dynamic, rather than fixed, attribute of information. For example, in online sites, where information tends to persist, information can become more or less visible as factors that influence accessibility and availability change. For example, computer scientists who measure information invisibility to improve search results have found that information visibility on the Internet can be highly unstable. Information visibility and invisibility are determined by websites’ changing interconnections, shifting information made available on local sites, whether site owners use page advertisements, and whether and how search engines index and order such information for search results (Wouters, Reddy, & Aguillo, 2006).
This dynamic interplay between information visibility and invisibility is also affected by sociocultural encryption and decryption processes. Different sociocultural lenses may provide a key that makes information visible to certain audiences while remaining invisible to others. For example, teenagers have engaged in creative encoding practices in social media (e.g., using movie quotes, song lyrics) to send coded private messages to peers, while keeping the true content of the message hidden from the watchful eyes of their parents (Marwick & boyd, 2014). Greater consideration of the layered, contextualized ways in which in which information becomes more or less visible to particular audiences could provide greater insight into how information (or lack thereof) influences attitudes and behaviors.
How Information Becomes Visible
A large body of research considers how particular pieces of information become visible to audiences via approval or gatekeeper processes. Substantial research focuses on how the news media—journalist, editors, and media owners—select the range and depth of information that becomes news, while also determining the connections made between different pieces of information (Schudson, 1995; Zelizer, 2004). Research suggests that market forces, journalistic assumptions, partisan commitments, audience choices, laws, sociocultural, organizational, and professional norms help determine whether and how information becomes visible as part of a news story (Hamilton, 2004). In The Power of News (1995), Schudson argued that the news media’s “capacity to publicly include is perhaps their most important feature” (p. 25). Early research on public opinion suggested that the news media told people what to think based on the information made visible via the press. Yet more recent perspectives on agenda setting suggest that: “[The news media] may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about” (Cohen, 1963, p. 13).
Formalized by McCombs and Shaw (1972), agenda setting focused on how the media shape political reality because of the choice and amount of information made visible about a particular issue. Namely, the news media set the agenda for public discourse among specific audiences by making certain information make more (or less) visible by controlling the amount, type, and timing of coverage. Because the news media can set the agenda for public discourse, the use or control of the media by political leaders for disinformation campaigns and propaganda has received considerable attention.
Research in business contexts also highlights how information and associated issues can become differentially visible because of intentional or unintentional framing choices made by leaders, managers, or employees. Differentially visible information refers to situations where a type or piece of information may be more available and accessible to one or more audiences than other types or pieces of information. Such differential availability and accessibility can alter perceptions and evaluations and affect behavior in positive and negative ways (Case, 2012).Despite evidence that differential visibility influences what people think about and what they do, how differential visibilities arise remains relatively under-examined, especially outside of journalistic contexts. As social media become the primary source of news and information for many people, scholars have started to examine how agenda setting and framing operate in social media where elite media may not have the same influence (Meraz, 2009). Moreover, computer algorithms interplay with human factors to create differential information visibilities.
One popular example of the unintended visibility consequences of algorithms is the filter bubble created by the personalized searches and recommendation tools of Web 2.0 (Pariser, 2011). Coined by Internet activist Eli Pariser, a filter bubble describes the intellectual isolation created when personalized web searches, aggregators, recommender systems, and other information filters prioritize results and recommendations consistent with people’s current viewpoints and past searches, and correspondingly avoid or de-prioritize information contradicting their viewpoints. Although scholars and activists continue to disagree on the extent to which filter bubbles occur and with what effects; related research on ideological “echo chambers” suggests that sites people choose to use and the behaviors on those sites interact with computational algorithms to encourage greater visibility of information that aligns with and reinforces people’s political views and less visibility of information contradicting their views (Garrett, 2009). Such echo chambers tend to reinforce and encourage more extreme versions of people’s existing worldviews and simultaneously make that worldview seem more universally accepted. By encouraging greater tribalism, echo chambers undermine the civil discourse necessary for democracy (Garrett, 2009).
Yet information (in)visibility operates as only one part of the equation: Even when algorithms expose people to diverse content, people still tend to be selective in how they choose information and how they process information. People often favor information that reinforces preexisting views, while avoiding contradictory information, a psychological theory known as selective information exposure (Resnick, Garrett, Kriplean, Munson, & Stroud, 2013). According to the selective information exposure hypothesis, people are more likely to click on news stories or select news outlets that align with their political views than stories likely to contradict their worldview, all else being equal. Yet, research on selective information exposure is contradictory—sometimes people prefer consistent information and sometimes people prefer inconsistent information. Counterintuitively, greater information visibility can actually exacerbate the problem of selective information exposure—that is, making more information visible can actually encourage people to engage in more selective exposure, even if half of the information is inconsistent with a person’s initial worldview (Fischer, Schulz-Hardt, & Frey, 2008). Thus, solutions to selective information bias that propose making diverse or contradictory content more visible will not necessarily encourage more disciplined thinking since “revelation . . . does not [necessarily] lead to action” (Birchall, 2016, para. 9). More research is needed on the interplay between human and technology factors that influence whether and how information becomes visible to and acknowledged by particular audiences.
Information and Communication Media and Channels
A large body of research studies how information and communication media affect information visibility. Media effects research focuses on whether, how, and to what degree a particular medium affects people’s perceptions and behavior. Although information visibility is not always the primary focus of media effects research, media effects research often assumes that different media can alter what information become visible. Consider how the advent of the camera increased the availability of photographic information, how the use of smartphones increased the availability of location information, and how social media and search engines made photographic, location, and other information more easily accessible.
Classic research on the role of information visibility in media effects often focused on media effects in political journalism. Researchers wanted to know how different communication media altered the available information about political candidates because making different types and amounts of information available about candidates could alter perceptions of political candidates, and consequently election results. Not only did studies suggest that different media (e.g., television versus radio) alter perceptions of political candidates and election outcomes (Druckman, 2003), scholars also found that when a medium made more information available, audiences felt that they were more informed even if they were not. In describing the advent of television news, and anticipating the eventual move to the 24-hour news cycle, Anastaplo (1986) argues that television not only fails to inform, but it also deceives people into believing they are informed—a sentiment some scholars might extend to contemporary social media.
Many contemporary scholars focus on how different types and amounts of information visibility are afforded by information and communication technologies, especially social media. Scholars’ disproportionate interest in social media is likely due to two primary reasons: First, the different information visibilities made possible by the uses and affordances of new technologies affect areas as divergent as government surveillance, democracy, work practices, personnel selection, relationship development, and supply chain efficiencies; Second, social media offer distinct information and communication characteristics and affordances, in particular, visibility. Since the advent of social media the available information (and misinformation) about individuals, organizations, and institutions continues to grow exponentially. Plus, information technologies help make information available by making it easier to record and catalog behavior. Information technologies also make information more accessible by allowing people to search for and acquire information.
Scholars recognize that information does not simply become visible via social media. Rather, the interplay between people and the involved technologies makes information available and accessible, whether intentionally or not. Information about a target individual may be provided by the target individual, by others, or by technologies and their underlying algorithms, which capture, aggregate, and identify traces to make them visible to other users. Similarly, organizations or institutions may also have information made visible about them by a designated representative, by others, or by technologies and their underlying algorithms. Understanding under what conditions people and technologies make information visible and to whom remains a strong research trend within and across disciplines, especially given ongoing and growing ethical concerns about information ownership and control. Unfortunately most of this research tends to focus on single information or communication channels rather than the broader information landscape. To date, less is known about how multiple information channels affect what information becomes visible with what effects. One notable exception is Leonardi’s (2015) research on information visibility and knowledge work, in which he illustrates how different technologies make different types of information visible. Such differential visibilities lead to new awareness of other people’s behavior in ways that impact work and work outcomes. For example, mobile devices enabled with GPS software make location information visible, letting workers see where other people are working, and therefore helping workers assess whether others are involved in a project and whether they are available. Workflow software makes task flow and activity status visible, letting workers see the sequence of activities, which can improve coordination.
Purposes and Consequences of Information Visibility
Scholars recognize that information visibility can serve varying purposes and result in varying outcomes. For individuals, the strategic use of information visibility promises to provide a means of demonstrating expertise or engaging in impression management. Making one’s behavior visible by recording it on paper or via an electronic tracker can help people take control of and change that behavior. For organizations, strategically visible information promises to aid in coordination, control, efficiency, and branding. For society, making information strategically visible promises to provide a means of accountability, social control, or safety (e.g., public salary disclosures, sex offender registries). Similarly, making information strategically invisible promises to help protect vulnerable populations (e.g., minor victims, research participants) or to encourage public health benefits (e.g., HIV testing).
Yet, the diverse ends to which strategic information visibility and invisibility can be used are not necessarily effective, nor necessarily ethical. Ethically, scholars who study propaganda highlight the strategic ways in which control of the news media, and more recently social media, can be used to propagate disinformation campaigns and make accurate information unavailable or difficult to access. Individuals may engage in extreme impression management that borders on deception. Organizations or institutions may bury relevant information in data dumps to claim ethical transparency while making it difficult to find information. Strategic information visibility or invisibility is not always as effective as desired either. For example, attempts to anonymize research data are limited by the growing capabilities of computational tools to de-anonymize (that is, re-identify) data sets. Moreover, simply because information is visible does not mean that the desired audience will view or attend to the information. Researchers and practitioners increasingly recognize the complex trade-offs and ethical considerations that need to be considered when attempting to use information visibility and invisibility strategically.
Thus, research on the purposes of information visibility often focuses on the importance of making the right information available at the right time to the right audiences (Joshi, 2000). Yet, it is not always clear what constitutes the right information, the right time, and the right audiences. Information visibility often has unintended, unanticipated consequences. Research on social media shows how information made visible for a particular purpose or audience may be used for another purpose and other audiences because of the collapsed contexts and invisible audiences afforded by social media (Marwick & boyd, 2011). People both give and give off cues when interacting with other people. When such cues are recorded they become information that can potentially become visible to others, even audiences outside of the original interaction or observation. Unanticipated uses of visible information are consequential: For example, the use of visible information to improve business processes and decisions can unintentionally alter employment relationships in problematic ways for workers and employers (Berkelaar, 2014; Zuboff, 1988).
Information visibility occurs within networked and nested systems. Thus, the unanticipated consequences of information visibility may be costly to individuals other than those targeted by the disclosure. Collateral information visibility considers how individual information or privacy violations can result from the disclosure of information intended to hold public or corporate institutions accountable (Newell, 2015). For example, in considering whether police officers should wear body cameras, commentators have suggested that the very cameras designed to protect citizens by holding police accountable may violate those same citizens’ privacy rights because citizens did not necessarily agree to be recorded. Thus, in considering the purposes for which visible information is used, scholars and commentators often address issues of information control because information may empower or may imprison people depending on how it is used and to whom it is made visible. At an individual level, social media often produce greater amounts of visible information that are not always intended or controlled by the individual who is the referent of the information. At a social level, research on mass communication and propaganda during World War II and the Soviet era suggest that controlling the visibility of news information can allow political leaders to control or manage large masses of people and societies, as can information visibility asymmetries. Moreover, the increasing availability of computational tools, computational power, and algorithms allow people and organizations to aggregate and assess information in new, sometimes unpredictable ways. Such changes in ability to process visible information have implications for business process improvements as well as contemporary understandings of privacy and control. Growing conversations among computer, data, and social scientists, engineers, and others reflect concerns that the algorithms used to process large data sets may create potentially problematic outcomes because the visible information from large-scale analyses may be based on assumptions and algorithms that even creators do not understand. Big data provides an excellent example of differential information visibility. Although the information is available, it is accessible only to individuals with the computational power and skills to access it—or to the public once it has been structured in an accessible way (e.g., via a publicly accessible online database). What has become increasingly clear is that information visibility is a complex phenomenon worthy of further study from communication and interdisciplinary perspectives.
The future of research on information visibility is promising. The topic of information visibility ties to classic communication and interdisciplinary concerns, as well as core concerns of contemporary society (e.g., privacy, surveillance, transparency, accountability, secrecy, coordination, control, and efficiency). Consequently, numerous avenues exist to engage in theoretically rich and practically relevant research.
First, information visibility remains tangled with other terms like transparency and privacy. Disentangling the constellation of terms related to information visibility can help clarify the characteristics, mechanisms, and processes that distinguish and connect the underlying concepts and ideas based on heuristic and practical value. In working to untangle information visibility from more valued or ethically charged concepts like transparency and privacy, research on social contracts (Skyrms, 2014), pragmatism (James, 1995) and everyday experience (Stroud, 2011) could offer helpful directions. As part of this process, scholars and practitioners could consider how information visibility might operate as different forms of social control and in what, if any, ways individuals or collectives might resist such control.
Second, additional research is needed on how to measure the degree of information invisibilities and information visibilities; and whether and how these interact within and across time to inform expectations, decisions, and behavior. Such an approach would suggest the need for research to consider information visibility as a continuum from full visibility to full invisibility that could differ over time, depending on one’s perspective and skills. Accuracy should also be considered. Differential, comparative, and nested information visibilities and invisibilities, as well as approval and editorial processes, should also be considered within and across sociocultural and research contexts.
Third, research on information visibility could benefit from more well-developed theoretical and practical frameworks that could transcend specific disciplines. Although Leonardi (2014) proposed a preliminary theory of communication visibility, well-established theoretical avenues that help provide broader insights into information visibility and invisibility are lacking. Theories matter because they can provide frameworks that can help explain and provide guidance for practical action, yet also transcend specific technologies or communication channels, contexts, and time. Theoretical development would benefit from considering and clearly explicating information visibility processes in terms of multiple perspectives and roles in (e.g., information provider, information seeker, information target, information owner, gatekeepers).Theory development should consider a diverse range of disciplines because different specialties have focused differentially on the varied roles, processes, and outcomes implicated in information visibility. Existing theories such as uncertainty management, affordances, signaling, impression management, communication privacy management, warranting, framing, and propaganda, as well as broader perspectives on editorial control, information seeking, information theory, and information manipulation offer promising avenues for future conceptual and empirical work focused on how to understand what information visibility is and how information visibility works, and to what degree particular information is visible or invisible, in which contexts. As part of this process, scholars should attend to the sociocultural contexts that influence norms and expectations about when and how information is or should be made visible.
Practically, there is a need to better understand the strategic use of information visibility to accomplish individual, organizational, or social goals. This includes considering under what conditions information visibility is likely to lead to specific attitudes, behaviors, and outcomes for specific groups or individuals over time. There is a need for more careful conceptualization and use of terminology, as well as an increased focus on information invisibility; and differential and asymmetric visibilities. Research on framing, agenda setting, strategic communication, and propaganda within the context of system and evolutionary perspectives could provide insights into how to communicate information effectively and ethically in the short-term and long-term.
The interdisciplinary nature of information visibility will be a key challenge and key opportunity for future scholarship. Within many academic institutions, the reward structure continues to privilege projects easily situated within a single disciplinary conversation, although changes are occurring. We encourage researchers interested in information visibility to find ways to creatively address organizational reward structures while simultaneously benefiting from the rich interdisciplinary roots of this research area, which often do not share the same terminology or central foci. Future work also needs to appreciate the nuances of (strategic) information visibility practices and outcomes while also engaging and developing rigorous theoretical understandings that allow scholars and practitioners to transcend particular situations. Such an approach would appreciate the complexities of information visibility. It would also allow for a cumulative, relatively parsimonious understanding and adaptive practice in the face of evolving technologies, legislation, communication practices, and sociocultural norms.
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