The Platform


After Elon Musk took over Twitter, the social media platform categorized a link that criticized Musk as “potentially spammy.” When several media websites highlighted this hypocrisy, content moderators removed the categorization. This incident is one example of when those with categorization power abuse it to serve their interests.

Categorizations are found everywhere around us: products on online shopping websites, when you are filling out your taxes, and when you are applying for a job. Human progress is broken into stages, such as infants, toddlers, teenagers, adults, and older adults. Countries are broken down into states, cities, towns, and counties.

Categorization could be for abstract entities, such as classifying facts, and natural numbers into odds and even, and mathematical equations into linear, radical, exponential, and rational.

Not all categorizations were designed to serve a technical end; some have real-world consequences. They reflect the bias and the interest of those who designed them. For example, the Nazis created a categorization that favored the Aryan race.

Other striking examples of how power can shape our perception of reality through categorization are found in history when the world is categorized into old and new. The categorization reflects the viewpoint of the invaders who came late and declared they discovered something new. It does not tell us anything about the native peoples who were there first.

Racial classification in the U.S. has changed over the years. Certain racial groups were added, others merged, and some groups, such as Middle Eastern, were suggested, but finally, the proposal was dropped. We can understand these frequent changes given that many vital policies rely on race. Categorization is thus an authority that has a profound influence on our daily lives.

Social media is also a perfect example of how its designers are influencing all of us through categorization. For example, emoji categorization has changed over time. Our emotions are limited by what the designers offered us.

The question of where this authority stems from and who owns it is valid. Examples of categorization authority are found across disciplines. For instance, taxonomists whose main job is to classify and sort out concepts, and lawmakers who create categories while enacting laws.

Some companies have also categorized their workers. Gig companies have opposed classifying their workers as independent contractors. Most recently, AI designers are categorizing information in society at scale. But even individuals have always organized themselves and others through social categorization.

Still, this process is not that objective, as it is sometimes accompanied by prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping. All these categorizations are usually embedded and not fully obvious to the public, and we are asked to adopt them because they were created by those who have authority in society. We assume these categories are always objective and forget humans make them with their own biases, limitations, and interests.

To improve our understanding of categorization, we can introduce it early in the educational curriculum and develop tools and methods to train us to deal with categorization. Some scholars admit categorization could go wrong, and we must be careful. The term miscategorization is introduced to explain when an entity is mistakenly added or excluded from a particular categorization. Still, in many cases, the problem lies in the categorization.

We should continuously work to expose this authority to the public. This could be achieved in various ways, such as by questioning the incentives behind any categorization and thinking about alternatives to any categorization presented to us.

In some cases, direct opposition to the categorization authority could lead to a radical change. For example, before the civil right movement in the U.S., buses were divided into white and colored sections. The person behind this categorization did that by exercising his authority to impose his will on society, and this categorization was considered legitimate until some revolted against it.

Mohamed Suliman is a senior researcher at Northeastern University and also holds a degree in Engineering form the University of Khartoum.