The rise of the platform—a bundled term that describes an economic model, a set of computational procedures, and a semi-public space from which to write and engage—has reconfigured the conditions of the web. That is, the increased “platformization” of the web (Helmond, 2015) has led to an environment where corporate platforms decide the conditions under which much public rhetoric and media content circulates. However, these money-making enterprises often downplay how their specific practices (e.g., algorithmic filtering, content moderation, data collection/selling, community guidelines, surveillance) shape digital–public life. Although digital platforms play a role in the construction of digital publics, the economic imperative for most platforms lies in the brokering of user data more so than the hosting of meaningful discursive exchanges (e.g., Beck et al., McKee, 2011; 2016; Reyman, 2013; Srnicek, 2017). Furthermore, the precise ways in which data are organized, circulated, and controlled often remain obscured from public view and routinely reinscribe cultural biases and oppressive conditions (see, for example, Edwards, 2018; Faris, 2018). Consider, for example, these recent headlines:
- Facebook sells data to police to help geolocate #Ferguson police
- Twitter fails to suspend accounts who are harassing queer and trans people
- Instagram censors body-positive images, but allows images of domestic violence
- Yelp reviews adversely affect minority business owners
Our webtext responds to these conditions—part of what we call the rhetorics of platforms (Edwards & Gelms, 2018)—by outlining a technofeminist approach to researching the often opaque practices of platforms. We argue technofeminism is a necessary methodology for researching the rhetorics of platforms, because technofeminism—especially if approached through an intersectional lens that pays attention to interrelational webs of oppression—calls attention to issues of power, justice, and ethics. As they become ubiquitous in our lives, we see the need for more methodological practices that deeply engage platforms—not as naturalized, static, or inevitable technologies, but as complex assemblages that affect the lived experiences of people all around the world.
This webtext outlines five key tenets for taking up technofeminist inquiry into how platforms—in their design, use, and governance—do rhetorical work. These include:
- social inequalities: how platforms re/create social inequalities along axes of gender, sex, race, sexuality, class, location, and disability;
- labor: how platforms reinforce inequitable global labor practices that adversely affect women, which are often concealed by logics of “sharing;”
- material infrastructures: how the material maintenance of platforms (e.g., data centers) compromises land, water, and community resources and are entangled in logics of colonialism;
- networks of support and activism: how counter-hegemonic discursive spaces emerge and ways we can (re)ascribe value to such populations, identities, and practices;
- lived experiences: how the lived experiences and emotional labor of researchers has bearing on the research process, especially in light of the researcher’s likely insider knowledge.
We present these key tenets for platform research from a technofeminist perspective—as a methodological framework for engaging digital platforms. This framework is by no means exhaustive or static. Indeed, it is our intention that the approaches outlined in this webtext are more generative than prescriptive, as there are certainly other research avenues worth pursuing. And while we separate these approaches for the sake of clarity, we see them as being fundamentally interconnected with many of the categories blending into the others.
In this webtext, we first explore how definitions of platforms reach across varied disciplines and stakeholders and turn to technofeminist methodology as an apt philosophical and theoretical approach for unpacking the social, economic, technological, and rhetorical complexity of platforms. Next, in the bulk of the webtext, we define and provide examples of the five tenets outlined above. Finally, we reflect on how this framework has informed our research and speculate how it might be put to use by others.