Module 2: Introduction to Digital Methods for Disability Studies
Digital methods clearly have a role to play in disability studies. Digital storytelling and communal projects like the inclusive campus map help to position disability studies as a discipline that can embrace and amplify a plurality of voices. Digital media provides an outlet for people to advocate from bed, from their wheelchairs, or from anywhere else.
But, the platforms that offer us a medium to practise digital methods and advocate or tell our stories online are complex. While people can accomplish critical advocacy and create vibrant community spaces on them, the platforms themselves are profit-driven. The stories and protests posted to platforms like Twitter and Facebook are, in the eyes of the company, profitable commodities that can be exploited to generate ad revenue or repackaged and sold as data about the user/advocate/storyteller (Burgess, 2021). We have praised the pace, responsiveness, and plurality of digital methods, but digital platforms – social media especially – deliberately encourage this speed. On social media, the fast pace of content creation, viewership, and engagement are used by the platform to maximize content, traffic, and revenue. The profit-driven nature of digital platforms prompts us to ask if such an environment truly encourages us to reflect, or act upon those reflections.
Understanding the online platforms that facilitate digital methods and media is critical to the responsible use of digital methods in disability studies. Focusing on specific ‘platforms’, such as Facebook (Meta Platforms, Inc.) or Google (Alphabet, Inc.), is worthwhile given that the vast majority of our online social activity occurs on a very small number of such platforms. As discussed in the section on Web 2.0, this relatively recent development marks a significant shift away from the internet of the late 90s and early 2000s, which was comparatively decentralized (Burgess, 2021, p. 21).
Platform studies offer us both a research method and practice with which to analyse a digital media platform like Instagram or Zoom. It is introduced by media studies theorist Jean Burgess (2021) as,
“An umbrella term for holistic approaches to those entities that are understood and represent themselves as digital media platforms. Platform studies concern the technologies, interfaces, and affordances, ownership structures, business models, media- and self-representations, and governance of these entities.”
It may seem abstract to think about and analyze digital platforms as we would other physical social spaces. In his book Disability and Other Human Questions, the philosopher Dan Goodley (2020) writes,
“…distinguishing between actual (physical) and virtual (digital) cultures is an old-fashioned hangover from an age of predigital thinking and what we really should deploy is the term ‘digital real’.”
Dan Goodley goes on to reject the idea that we, as users of and contributors to the Internet, are the ones shaping the landscape of our shared digital reality:
“However, it would be a mistake to suggest that we are the ones in control of our digital engagements: that we are making the decisions and driving our use of the digital. Like all cultures, digital ones subject their members to particular ways of being in the world.” (p. 95)
Analyzing digital platforms challenges us to try and distinguish between the role played by the platform’s community of users and the role played by the company which owns the platform in shaping the experience, content, and effects of that platform; or as Goodley puts it, in shaping the digital real that is formed upon these platforms.
Regarding this second point — the role played by the company that controls a platform — media theorists van Dijck, Poell and de Waal (2018) remind us that “social media platforms are never neutral ‘tools’: they make certain things visible, while hiding others” (p. 32). Van Dijck, Poell, and de Waal divide the “tools” that platforms use to fulfill certain goals, such as increasing traffic, monitoring use, or prolonging engagement, into 3 general categories based on what it is these tools seek to accomplish:
The concept of ‘identification’ from Van Dijck, Poell, and de Waal (2018) — or, the processes by which some content becomes visible on a platform and other content does not — is of particular interest to this course. On the one hand, challenging the authority of “experts and…professional norms” (p. 41) is fundamental to disability studies where ‘expert’ opinions, typically medical professionals, are challenged by the knowledges and experiences of disabled people. By amplifying the voices of ordinary people and communities, digital platforms are seemingly well-suited to disability studies. However, as we have just considered, these platforms are far from neutral, and we need to think critically about whose voices are being heard as well as how this ‘hearing’ takes place. As we think critically about the role of digital platforms in amplifying the voices of certain users, we need to remember that the underlying incentive for these companies is to increase engagement towards profit and growth.
Affordances and Constraints
One way of framing the questions of ‘who’ is being reached and ‘how’ they are being reached is by analyzing platforms in terms of what they allow us to do and also what they limit us from doing.
All platforms and technologies have limits. They allow us to do certain things and prohibit us from doing others. We can these limits by using different media platforms in our storytelling and communication and experimenting with length, formatting, audio, visuals, and audience reach. This part of the module will encourage you to think about what each platform allows or doesn’t allow us to do, and how we can use digital media as avenues for storytelling. Technology Affordances and Constraints Theory states that to understand how people use technology, we must “consider the dynamic interactions between people and organizations and the technologies they use” (Majchrzak, 2013).
are what the platform, technology, or site allows us to do.
are the limitations that the site and medium impose on us.
Every medium—digital or analog—has both.
Use the following form to fill in affordances and constraints for different digital media and platforms. Feel free to also add other platforms or mediums that are of interest to you. Take 3-4 minutes to jot down some ideas.
Before we go any further, take a moment to think about the relationship between ‘affordances’ and ‘constraints’ and the texts and topics we looked at earlier in this module—how do these terms relate to accessibility?
The early internet, characterized by the ability to access information online and connect via email.
What a digital platform, technology, or site allows us to do
The limitations that a digital site and/or medium impose on us