digital activism

Digital Spaces and Designing for Access, by Gabriel Morrison

AccessThere has been a lot of talk about how digital humanities scholarship has the potential to be democratizing, and the internet allows for connectivity that extends across cultural, geographical, and institutional boundaries. DH scholarship can directly reach the public outside of academia, and digital spaces allow for collaborative enterprises that have seldom been attempted by humanities scholars. But are all things digital inherently more accessible, or do we simply imagine them to be so? Are we designing for access or just assuming that access is no longer an issue?

Tara McPherson points out that exclusionary practices and ideologies (based on class, gender, race, sexuality, language, or ability) are often built into software in ways that are not always immediately visible to privileged users. This limits not only who has access to and ownership of DH work but also how diverse users can develop their work. One of these exclusionary ideologies is what disability theorist Tobin Siebers has termed the ideology of ability. This ideology assumes able-bodiedness as a “default” state. It either elides difference or else assumes that the disabled body must find a way to be “accommodated” rather than acknowledging any responsibility for designers to create spaces and environments that are inclusive to the diverse range of human ability.

Just as physical spaces are often inaccessible by design (e.g., stairs and stairsdoorways that do not permit wheelchair access or loud, brightly lit public spaces that can result in sensory overload for persons with autism), there are many ways in which digital space is constructed to include only the able-bodied, including text fields with small or difficult-to-read fonts, videos without captioning, podcasts without transcripts, images without descriptions that can be read by screen readers, web spaces that cannot be manipulated by users, and so-called “accessible” software that is built for the able-bodied and only retrofitted to “accommodate” diverse users when they complain.

Those engaging in digital humanities scholarship cannot hope to dismantle oppressive ideologies (something which is part of the core work of the humanities) while uncritically using technology that reifies these same oppressive structures. We must realize that part of digital humanities scholarship involves critical and intentional design. In order to truly encourage access, digital scholarship should include principals of universal design.

How can we do this? While it’s true that no design can be said to be truly universal, the Web Accessibility Initiative offers important guidelines for more inclusive digital publishing, and Yergeau et al. lay out a theoretical groundwork for accessibility in digital and multimedia work. The National Center on Universal Design for Learning, CAST, and Jay Dolmage address concerns specific to integrating digital media and technology for access in the classroom, and Composing Access advises on how to prepare for conferences. Here are a few tips for more accessible design:

  • Think critically about the implicit ideologies coded into the platforms you use, and consider the affordances of your technology before using it. As Johanna Drucker and Patrik BO Svensson point out, middleware incorporates various rhetorical limitations—do these constraints limit access?
  • Aim for commensurability across modes. While multimodality can be a great way for users to interact with your text in different ways and with different senses, if information is not presented redundantly through different modes, it increases the chance that users may not be able to access your text. For instance, if a video delivers information both visually and aurally but doesn’t include captioning and description, then it becomes inaccessible for both blind and deaf users. And of course, delivering information through more than one mode helps all Captions, for example, allow hearing users to access the text in a noisy place, on an airplane with someone sleeping in the next seat, or on a device without audio capability.
  • Digital projects are more accessible when they are easily manipulable by users. For example, text that cannot be copied/pasted, as is the case in an image or some publishing platforms, might not be easily read with assistive technologies such as screen readers or braille pads.

Though digital media can present accessibility issues, when used critically and conscientiously, multimodal affordances open up the possibility of creating content that is more accessible to all users, regardless of level of ability.

Gabe Morrison is a first-year doctoral student in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Connecticut. His research interests include multimodal writing and graduate student writing instruction. You can contact him at gabriel.morrison@uconn.edu.

Where is the Body in Digital Activism? By Bhakti Shringarpure

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-11-09-17-amDuring the recent protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, staged by the Standing Rock Sioux, Facebook users were asked to “check in” to the site of the protest taking place at the reservation. Ostensibly, it was meant to throw police surveillance off track since Facebook locations were being used to track and arrest protesters. As the post to check-in went viral, it generated a counterpoint response almost simultaneously. Blogs decrying social media solidarity that appears lazy and without any actual risk or effort involved sprung up within hours of the check-in going viral. “No, Checking In at the Standing Rock Pipeline Protests on Facebook Will Not Confuse the Police. It’s a waste of time,” wrote Mother Jones. Another friend cringed on social media: “Solidarity is great, and so is media attention, but if you really want to help protesters: donate to the Sacred Stone Camp Legal Defense Fund, call elected officials, or fly your ass over there if you’re able – your body is a lot more useful than your “check-in” at Standing Rock.” Elsewhere, an article mocking the phenomenon appeared: “ISIS Flees After Millions of Americans ‘Check In’ to Mosul on Facebook.” It had not even been 12 hours.

Debates about digital activism have always questioned the significance of the protester’s body. The Arab Spring was heralded as crucial in allowing for a “digital revolution” to take root. But in hindsight, the moment of cyber euphoria seemed to have yielded mixed outcomes. Though digital media was seen as a catalyzing force and has resulted in an extraordinary collective convergence in Egypt and Tunisia, it was also seen as having negative effects; most notably the counter-use by governments to intercept dissent and use the digital for amping up surveillance. More recently, the #BlackLivesMatter movement started as a hashtag on social media and has since been used 12 million times according to studies conducted by the Pew Research Center. That the hashtag became a movement and that the movement is now ushering in the most resistant and radical thinking around race in the USA is not debatable. Yet the actual role of social media is moot unless the physical impact of these hashtags eventually becomes apparent, and this can generally be gauged through the amount of actual protesters, or through shifts it may bring about in local or governmental spheres.

While digital activism has certainly become entrenched in individual and institutional realms, it seems to have also given rise to the narcissistic clicktivist. Detached from any real action and armed with no more than a do-gooder mentality, the clicktivist tends to like, share, tweet, tumblr and post generously but is seen as not necessarily showing up when it counts and when the going gets tough. It is argued that their contribution cannot be ignored and that if solidarity goes viral so does the cause. screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-11-09-31-amThe Dakota Access Pipeline check-in protests on Facebook were less interesting because of the virality of the phenomenon itself; but they were unusual because they illustrated how much we have come to dislike the online activist, how quickly there has come about an “obvious” knowledge that there is a real dichotomy between the body and the digital. In my opinion, the significance of this particular clicktivist is yet uncertain, and I hope we can arrive at more incisive understandings of this phenomenon.

This conversation will be taken up in some depth by the Digital Humanities reading group sponsored by the UConn Humanities Institute. We will meet on November 17th, Thursday from 12-2pm at the Homer Babbidge Library, 4th floor, room 4-153. We will be working through a variety of readings that include the Black Lives Matter syllabus, surveys that ask how social media users see, share and discuss race and the rise of hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, skeptic critics such as Robert McChesney, Micah White and Jessy Hempel who make strong arguments against online activism, and academics who have engaged in longer and sustained ways with the impact of these new media.

This meeting is open to all faculty and graduate students. Please email bhakti.shringarpure@uconn.edu for the full list of readings.

Bhakti Shringarpure is Assistant Professor of English and editor-in-chief of Warscapes magazine.