reCAPTCHA challenges and the production of the ideal web user<!-- --> | <!-- -->Ben Pettis
Ben Pettis

reCAPTCHA challenges and the production of the ideal web user

December 13, 2022

A blank reCAPTCHA challenge. There is an empty checkbox next to the label "I'm not a robot." A logo of three arrows in a circle is toward the right.

In my dissertation, I consider how individual people are constructed as "Users" as they interact with the internet and access the Web. One of the case studies I use in my dissertation is the reCAPTCHA, a type of CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) challenge found frequently throughout the Web as a method to minimize automated spam submissions and other so-called non-genuine interactions.

This article emerged from some of my earlier thinking about reCAPTCHAs and the stakes of separating the people who use the internet into different categories of User. Google's development goals for reCAPTCHA, namely the collection of AI/ML training data, shapes how the category of "authentic user" is defined, which then creates barriers to access.

A user’s interaction with reCAPTCHA is an important record of the relationship between user and website owner, as well as evidence of the production of a normative web user. But while reCAPTCHAs are found frequently throughout the Web, they are not adequately preserved with full-page preservation tools such as the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. While writing this article, I began work on a project to archive and preserve individual interactions with reCAPTCHA elements throughout the Web: Capturing CAPTCHAs.

Article Abstract

The CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) is found throughout many websites. By challenging users to read a line of scrambled letters, identify crosswalks in an image, or some complete another task that is difficult for a computer to do, but comparatively trivial for a human user, a CAPTCHA verifies that the user is an actual human, and not software meant to interact maliciously with the website. This mundane and easily overlooked interface element is an important site where corporate interests and priorities act upon the people who encounter it. CAPTCHAs operate under the assumptions that difference can be detected and that it should be enforced. Because not all humans are able to solve a CAPTCHA, the test additionally enforces a boundary between humans and users. In this article, I analyze the discourses of Google’s reCAPTCHA and argue that this common interface element is a multi-faceted site of production where user labor is extracted every time they solve a reCAPTCHA. The products of this labor are threefold: (1) spam reduction, (2) artificial intelligence and machine learning training data and (3) an ideal of a normative web user. This last product is often overlooked but has wide-reaching implications. Users who solve reCAPTCHAs are producers but simultaneously are produced as users by the reCAPTCHA. The only humans who qualify as ‘authentic’ users are those who can perform this productive labor. Because Google’s reCAPTCHA operates as a site of invisible digital labor, this article works toward making such labor more visible so that users can become more aware of the work they are being asked to perform, and to what ends.

Access Online:

Pettis, Ben T., 2022. reCAPTCHA Challenges and the Production of the Ideal Web User. Convergence.