Capturing CAPTCHAs

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Google’s reCAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) is commonly found on online forms and throughout the Web and is used to minimize automated spam submissions and other so-called non-genuine interactions. One outcome of reCAPTCHA is the production of a normative user; only those who can solve a reCAPTCHA are considered “authentic” Web users. This category excludes many people, such as those who browse using screen readers and those with certain forms of neurodivergence. 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.

Preserving Ephemeral Web Interactions

Tools such as the Internet Archive’s WayBack machine or other web scrapers are good at targeting the web page or the website, but preserving individual web elements along with how users encounter them in their original contexts is more challenging. Drawing upon Niels Brügger’s analytical web strata of the “web element” and Richard Rogers’ “screencast documentary,” I have began to experiment with methods to detect and record User interactions with CAPTCHAs.

Why CAPTCHAs?

CAPTCHAs are commonly found on online forms and throughout the Web and is used to minimize automated spam submissions and other supposedly non-genuine interactions. Google’s reCAPTCHA is a multi-faceted site of production where users perform labor by providing valuable AI/ML training data. Though many users encountering a CAPTCHA may only spend just a few seconds solving the challenge, my work understands these interface elements as a site where the structures and relations of power that permeate the contemporary internet act upon the individual person as they are constructed into a User.

Becoming "User"

A CAPTCHA is a mechanism by which desirable types of use are articulated, and a means to limit the agency of the individual user to interact with the website in particular ways. Though many people are able to successfully complete a CAPTCHA challenge in just a few seconds, this is not universally the case. Such moments of friction can all be read as instances where the figure of the becoming-User is reshaped, a point where the various perspectives of what it means to be an acceptable User come into conflict with one another.

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