Cookie Conversation with Leon van Oldenborgh

IMPAKT Exhibition Reclaiming Digital Agency

Leon van Oldenborgh is an artist and game designer who explores the nuances and complexities of individual human behaviour. As a participant of CODE 2023, he co-created clickedy.click (Tracking for Love), a social experiment that addresses the way online platforms implement user tracking to inform their designs.

You attended the IMPAKT Festival 2023, and took part in the Prompt Battle. How was your experience of the festival? And what were your highlights?

My brief participation in the Prompt Battle, though sadly quite short-lived, was indeed much fun! I feel like the festival brought together such a nice mix of perspectives and topics concerning the way we choose to interact with our everyday tech. It definitely gave me enough food for thought for several directions I’m looking to explore in upcoming projects. It’s hard to choose a favourite, but if I had to it’d be the Entangled Networks series curated by Miranda Mungai. What I loved most about it was the way it was set up as a very open conversation in which the audience joined in talking about complicated topics together with the panellists following screenings of short films that gave less obvious approaches to these topics like the way players socialise in VRchat.

I also very much appreciated that not only artists and researchers were part of this festival, but that many politicians were very actively involved in the debate too and shared their perspective from a more practical administrative point of view on how we can actually get to create that world where we have Fair Tech instead of Big Tech.

clickedy.click (Tracking for Love) is presented as an online dating platform, even offering participants the chance to get in touch with matching profiles. Why did you choose to design it as a dating platform? And have you heard of anybody finding true love this way?

From the start of the project we (Lukas, Hennie, Robin and me) wanted to create an experience that is very approachable for anyone, something that would spike curiosity and would be something to tell your friends about. Dating is just sort of inherently a slightly awkward and funny thing to do and combining this with what some of my friends describe as the somewhat dry subject matter of behavioural online tracking just looked to be very fun.
Apart from this conceptually what we like about it is that online dating in many ways revolves around the question of what personal information you are willing to give up in return for a chance on finding love, be it the info you put on your profile to be seen by the company managing the app and the people you might get a match with, or the almost choreographed conversations leading to a moment you might give the other person your actual phone number.

The final (and I think most important) reason is that we make use of the visitors’ expected ways of interacting with dating platforms to guide the way visitors approach thinking about this behavioural tracking data. Every dating platform needs that one unique thing that sets it apart and this gives us an alibi to explain our unique thing: behavioural user tracking, what exactly is this type of data, how do we harvest it and how do we use it for analysis. During the selection process the visitor also inherently has this goal to find a person that they would want to match with. It makes visitors look at this quite abstract data and try to conclude any grasp of what kind of person would be behind it and thus try to answer what kind of assumptions they can actually conclude out of this data.

As for the last part of the question, the answer is that we don’t fully know. The main point of the work was always to have a fun excuse to let visitors look at this data in ways they probably have never done before. Our first iterations did not even have the functionality for actual matchmaking, but this also made it kind of a lame ending. I mean, if we’re going to take the medium of a dating platform why not make it a working one. However this also put us in a position to practise what we preach concerning the handling of user data. We do not use any data points for more than just barebones functionality, so the only way to know if it was successful at some point is to have these successfully matched people send us a message, which sadly has not happened yet (please don’t feel shy to do this, it would genuinely be very cool and exciting).

We did not have the aim to create a dating app that could be successful for dating, but the question remains: is this form that much less likely to be successful compared to something like Tinder? If it were to leak tomorrow that Tinder’s algorithm to find your match isn’t that smart at all and just some if-statements and randomness would it be difficult to believe? Isn’t finding love something you need some randomness for anyway?

You are a designer yourself, so thinking about interfaces and user interaction might not be a new experience for you. Nevertheless, has working on this project changed the way you look at online platforms?

It hasn’t as much changed the way I look at them, but it gave me more perspectives on explaining some dynamics happening within the designing of interfaces that aren’t super clearly something you take into account when designing them for some company, where most designers are more concerned with a certain look or the practicality of the design. In the end when designing an interface you are literally deciding what freedom of choice and expression the person using the interface has. I think this is important to keep in mind, especially in social media type platforms where those design decisions dictate how discussions take place and how our online and offline personalities are formed and changed.

In the theme of the festival, this year we created a series of Fortune Cookies with wishes for the future of technology and privacy. Currently, each visitor to the exhibition gets to take one with them. Which fortune cookie wish would you hope to find?

The cookies at the festival and some of the suggestions by the awesome people in the other cookie conversations set a high bar for me I have to admit. This is my addition: “Let’s nudge Big Tech back once in a while.”

Our other Cookie Conversation guests are Renske Leijten, Lotje Beek, Julia Janssen, Dasha Ilina, Caroline Sinders, Guillaume Slizewicz, Jeroen van Loon, Roel Heremans and Tomo Kihara.

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