Platform Rhetorics and Technofeminist Methodology

What we need are theoretical and methodological approaches that allow us to intervene on the organization of social relations that are embedded in our digital technologies and that can foster a clearer understanding of how power relations are organized through technologies.
(Safiya Umoja Noble & Brendesha M. Tynes, 2016, p. 1)

In many ways, this webtext is a continuation of a research agenda we called for in a special issue we co-edited for Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society. In the introduction to that special issue, “The Rhetorics of Platforms: Definitions, Approaches, Futures,” we set out to “recognize the multidimensional suasive forces and effects of platforms” (Edwards & Gelms, 2018). We defined platforms as “complex and evolving assemblages of people, technologies, discourses, materialities, financial decisions, community practices, and more that shape the possibilities for social, civic, and political exchanges.” In short, we positioned platforms as rhetorical infrastructures that both host and shape content through various sociotechnical interventions. We qualified our discussion by drawing on a range of interdisciplinary scholars (Gillespie, 2010; Helmond, 2015; Montfort & Bogost, 2009; Srnicek, 2017; van Dijck & Poell, 2016), and especially noted the computational, economic, and social aspects of platforms.

Our point was that such overlapping—and sometimes competing—conceptions of platforms point to the difficulties in understanding their role in current technocultures. As media scholar Tarleton Gillespie (2010) has argued, competing meanings of the term itself often work to the advantage of commercial entities such as YouTube, Facebook, and others. Such corporate firms, Gillespie argued, “position themselves both to pursue current and future profits, to strike a regulatory sweet spot between legislative protections that benefit them and obligations that do not, and to lay out a cultural imaginary within which their service makes sense” (p. 348). For Gillespie, the notion of the platform depends on four semantic meanings: computational (pertaining to the technical infrastructures of code, software, and hardware), architectural (referring to a raised material surface), figurative (describing a sense of opportunity or optimism), and political (naming a set of ideological beliefs or principles). The polysemic character of a “platform” has thus lead to a complex terrain—not only for users but also for scholars attempting to unpack characteristics of sociotechnical configurations that have come to matter a great deal in realms of politics, education, finance, criminal justice, media circulation, and more.

Image includes a rectangular box with social media icons overlaying a networked grid.

Our discussion of the rhetorics of platforms was an attempt to explicitly name a trajectory of research for rhetoric and writing studies. In this webtext, we want to more directly point out how this trajectory is indebted to critical work in computers and writing, with much of its foundational threads knotted to what we understand as technofeminist in orientation. For example, Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe’s (1994) landmark article, “The Politics of the Interface: Power and Its Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones,” questioned how computer interfaces reinscribed cultural biases and legacies of domination and colonialism through “default” designs. Noting how computer interfaces privilege particular identities (e.g., white, male, English-speaking, corporate class), Selfe and Selfe pushed for the work of unconcealing the values and epistemological violences implicitly and explicitly embedded in digital technologies. More recently, scholars have promoted critical awareness about issues such as algorithmic surveillance (Beck, 2015, 2017; Beck et al., 2016), toxic online cultures (Sparby, 2017; Trice & Potts, 2018; Vie, Balzhiser, & Ralston, 2014), and researcher positionality (Gruwell, 2018) in an age of platforms. Taken together, such critical work has aimed to question the defaults, assumptions, biases, and erasures embedded in technologies and our everyday uses of them.

Similarly, technofeminist scholars have examined technologies and the role they play in our everyday lives through discussions of, for example, materiality (Reilly, 2004; Wajcman, 2004), design (Frost & Haas, 2017; Herbst, 2009), and use and interaction (Brady Aschauer, 1999; De Hertogh, 2015; Haas, Tulley, & Blair, 2002; Hidalgo & Grimes, 2017). Further, technofeminist approaches aim to uncover the assumptions, biases, and erasures that are oftentimes left covered by patriarchal research traditions (Blair, 2012; Takayoshi, 2000). Jen Almjeld and Kristine Blair (2012), for example, noted that feminist researchers regularly encounter questions of validity as they deviate from the patriarchal research traditions so commonplace in the academy. In short, feminist research and methodologies are at risk of being deemed not academic enough to “count” as “real” research.

Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch (2012), Adrienne Rich (1995), and Sarah Ahmed (2017) have all noted this problem as well, with Ahmed commenting on women’s movements in academic research by drawing on Nirmal Puwar’s (2004) notion of “space invader:” a figure who enters “spaces that are not intended for them” (Ahmed, 2017, p. 9). Given how research mechanisms of the academy are patriarchal in nature and therefore position feminist research questions and methodologies as inferior, feminist researchers must become “space invaders.” We can occupy this role simply by referring to the wrong texts or by “asking the wrong questions” (Ahmed, 2017, p. 9). Indeed, a key goal of technofeminism is to expose “how the concrete practices of design and innovation [of technology] lead to the absence of specific users, such as women” (Wajcman, 2010, p. 150). This goal can be serviced by asking the wrong kinds of questions. In this context, “wrong,” of course, refers to questions that confront structures upholding and sustaining systems of oppression on platforms—the kinds of questions that have guided work in computers and writing that argue technology is never neutral nor passive (Banks, 2006; Gruwell, 2015; Janangelo, 1991; Selfe, 1999; Wysocki & Jasken, 2004).

This line of scholarship is especially congruent for researching platform rhetorics via an intersectional approach (Crenshaw, 1989). Given the rhetorical nature of platforms and the capacity for the companies in Silicon Valley to privilege white (Noble, 2018), straight/homonormative (Faris, 2018), and middle-upper class identities (Eubanks, 2018), an intersectional technofeminist approach can bring to light social inequalities along many axes of difference. We firmly maintain that when we fail to recognize social divisions like race, class, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, ability, and age (Berger & Guidroz, 2009) in our work on platforms, we fail to understand how social injustices predicated on difference operate in the complex ways that lord power over marginalized groups. By extension, a failure to develop intersectional understandings of how platforms sustain systems of oppression is a failure of efforts to dissolve such systems.

Further, we contend throughout this webtext that inquiry into platform rhetorics should avoid the trap of understanding our digital spaces and practices as wholly optimistic or pessimistic. Instead, we take cues from Wajcman (2004), who offered “a way between utopian optimism and pessimistic fatalism for technofeminism, and between cultural contingency and social determinism in social theory” (p. 6). Like Wajcman, ultimately our goal in taking a technofeminist approach to platform rhetorics is to unmask and work to change how platforms structure and reproduce conditions that have great effect on marginalized populations. In the next section and its subsections, we detail five tenets of inquiry that further explain this approach.

Continue to Tenets