The Rhetorics of Platforms: Special Issue CFP

For this special issue of Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, we invite proposals that investigate, theorize, and/or analyze the rhetorical work of platforms. By platforms, we draw on Tarleton Gillespie to mean “sites and services that host public expression, store it on and serve it up from the cloud, organize access to it through search and recommendation, or install it onto mobile devices.” Platforms encapsulate a complex assemblage of cultural, political, ideological, and economic practices. We are interested in research and scholarship that untangles such assemblages—that is, work that examines the rhetorics of platforms.

In his landmark publication, “The Politics of Platforms,” Gillespie unravels how social media companies have leveraged the term “platform” to cater to multiple stakeholders at once. A platform, Gillespie argues, can simultaneously align itself with different aims: it can be a platform for advertisers to reach potential buyers and a platform from which everyday users can speak or write. This slippage helps maintain an illusion of neutrality. Although platforms host and circulate content they do not produce, it would be a mistake to see them as mere intermediaries. Platforms grant access, but they also set the conditions for that access. Platforms promise to be catalysts for public participation, but they also mask their role in facilitating or occluding that participation. Platforms make decisions, but they often downplay, obfuscate, and/or black box those decisions.

The rhetorics of Facebook and Twitter as platforms, for example, raise numerous ethical questions about their responsibilities to their constituencies. Facebook’s trending algorithms, editorial decisions, and advertising structures routinely interfere in the circulation and visibility of its user-generated content. Comparatively, Twitter’s user experience architecture, community guidelines, and economic model has failed to swiftly and reasonably address the rampant harassment that has become part of its culture, prompting criticisms of their stance towards safety. These are just two examples of how we see rhetorics of platforms in action, shaping everyday users’ opportunity for rhetorical expression.

While rhetoric and writing scholars have increasingly explored platforms in regards to critical literacies (e.g., Beck; Buck; Vie), identity (e.g., Almjeld; Shepherd), activism (e.g., Goodling; Penney and Dadas), agency (e.g., Reyman), and design (e.g., Arola), this special issue seeks work that unpacks how platforms structure everyday activity—and especially how they do so in opaque, ever-evolving ways. We believe rhetoric and writing scholars are well-suited to develop praxis-driven methodologies to investigate the rhetorics of platforms. We encourage authors to interpret the special issue theme broadly, though potential topics may include:

Editorial, algorithmic, and curatorial platform interventions (e.g., alerting users via automated push notifications, making decisions about trending topics, promoting content via sponsored hashtags, etc.)

Ethics of circulation and the legitimacy of platform activity and content (e.g., circulating fake news sites, increasing participation via bots, buying followers/harvesting a following via click farms, etc.)

Built-in bias and oppression in platforms and the (re)production of social inequalities (e.g., algorithmic discrimination, politics of the interface, toxic platform cultures, etc.)

Community guidelines and platform policies for responding to censorship, harassment, swatting, doxxing, etc.

Algorithmic democracy and calculated publics in platforms (e.g., the production of optimized newsfeeds and timelines, echo chambers, filter bubbles, etc.)

International/global politics of platforms and transnational digital labor issues

Spatial tracking and colonization (seen especially in platforms such as Pokemon GO, Nextdoor, Yelp, Swarm, Uber, and Waze)

Alternatives or subversions to the platformization of the web (e.g., the hacking of platforms to accommodate new uses and/or meet the needs of unintended or dissatisfied users; the rise of platform cooperativism, etc.)

Issues related to data mining, data trails, ad targeting, surveillance, and privacy

Authors are invited to submit 300-500 word proposals in PDF form to guest editors Dustin Edwards and Bridget Gelms at by March 20th, 2017. Again, we invite work that opens up research trajectories and methodologies that speak broadly to the theme of platform rhetorics, though we encourage contributions that are grounded in specific cases. Queries are welcomed. Please note that published articles will be 2,000-2,500 words in length, and we encourage authors to propose multimedia submissions such as short documentaries, flash videos, slidecasts and podcasts. We also welcome proposals for book or program reviews that are relevant to the theme of this special issue.