New Article: Liking for Like’s Sake – The Commodification of Disability on Facebook

Excitingly, I have had a new article published, Liking for Like’s Sake – The Commodification of Disability on Facebook, in the Journal of Developmental Disabilities, a journal run by the Ontario Association of Developmental Disabilities. Importantly, the journal is “open access” which means that online versions of recent issues of the journal can be downloaded for free in pdf format. This ensures that academic research and knowledge reach broad(er) audiences, outside of the Academy. You can read more about this here. 

This post is a summary of some of the themes discussed in the article, please click here to access the full version of the article.

Liking for Like’s Sake – The Commodification of Disability on Facebook

Liking for Like’s Sake – The Commodification of Disability on Facebook

What is the article about?

Essentially, it is modest attempt to critically explore dominant representations of disability on social media, or more specifically, Facebook. These are very specific images – or internet “memes” – of disability which have been labeled “inspiration porn” and “cripspiration” by disabled people. The terms “inspiration porn” and “cripspiration” refer to typically dis/ableist images of disability which represent either a disabled person as “inspiring” (usually doing an everyday activity, rather than anything actually heroic or inspiring) or which rely upon disability in order to inspire or otherwise shape the behaviours and/or attitudes of the audience or viewer. You can watch the brilliant comedian, journalist and disability advocate Stella Young talk inspiration porn politics here in her TED talk.

What memes feature in the article?

In the article, I look at some of the most common disability memes currently being shared on Facebook, exploring the ways in which these memes work to (re)produce sanctioned (heteronormative) gendered disabled identities and subjectivities which are inherently saleable (or commodified) and which enable Facebook fan pages to be sold for profit. The memes I describe in the article will likely be very familiar to you if you’re a regular user of social media. As an example, I take a look at one of the most widely circulated, or “viral,” memes on Facebook and Twitter: a photograph of Paralympian and Olympian Oscar Pistorious in a running race with a disabled young girl. Fittingly, both have J-shaped carbon-fibre prosthetics (more popularly known as Cheetah Flex-Foot prosthetic limbs). The tagline reads “The only Disability is A Bad Attitude” – a quote from Scott Hamilton, a former figure skater and testicular cancer survivor. Notably, I have chosen not to depict any of the memes within the article itself, instead providing detailed descriptions. For me, this was purposeful towards not reproducing the subtle violences embued by the circulation of this kind of disability imagery.

How do memes make money? And for whom?

While some disability memes are created in, at best, good faith, many others are created and distributed merely for profit – a “Facebook Scam” (Pearce, 2012). These memes are part of an underground Facebook “Like” trade culture, which is unique to a social media context, and serves to (re)produce the disabled identity as something for sale; an ableist commodity for consumption. It is seldom known that when Facebook users click “Like” on certain images, they are simultaneously joining the fan page which hosted the original meme. This is then “Shared” with all of their Facebook Friends via their Newsfeed. Some creators of fan pages enlist the use of images or memes which evoke sympathy, fear, anger or laughter, in order to accumulate “Likes.” Fan pages are then sold on to companies and businesses as a means of reaching potential new customers; the higher the amount of “Likes,” the greater the value of the fan page. Therefore, it is in the interest of fan page creators to accumulate as many “Likes” as possible. There is real ambiguity surrounding how much revenue the sale of a fan page can generate; estimates range from tens, to thousands, of dollars. Some memes are futile, employing taglines such as, “‘Like’ if you hate cancer, ignore if you don’t” and “‘Like’ if you think these puppies are cute.” However, others are far more exploitative and fraudulent, being linked to fake charitable organizations and used as a way to extort money in the form of donations.

“Like if you hate cancer, ignore if you don’t”

The violence of representation…?

Importantly, I reflect upon the consequences of this for people with the label of intellectual impairment, and disabled people more broadly. Analysing the cases of “Mallory” and Adam Holland, both young people with the label of intellectual impairment, I explore the inherent violence in the appropriation (or theft) of their images, and the gross ways which, in both cases, these have been occupied and “re-written” for (financial) gain. A recent related court case has highlighted the significance of this particular kind of abuse for people with the label of intellectual impairment and their parents and families. Adam Holland, a young man who lives with Down syndrome, had his image “obtained,” manipulated, and used in the commercial advertising of media company, Cox Media – without his or his parents’ consent. As such, Holland’s parents are currently in a legal battle with Cox Media. The company digitally altered an original photograph of Adam smiling and showing a piece of his artwork to the camera, to make it appear as if he is holding a sign which reads “Retarded News.” Another version of Adam’s image is currently flourishing on Flickr, an online photo management and sharing application. In the Flickr version, Adam’s artwork has been replaced with a sign which reads, “I got a boner.” In each of these versions, Adam is reduced to an object of ridicule and derision, and his personhood is denied. In this latter version, Adam is routinely hypersexualized – as people with the label of intellectual impairment, and people with disability in general often are – being assumed to have an uncontainable, deviant, and unmanageable sexuality (Liddiard, 2012).

“This is my sister Mallory. She has Down syndrome and doesn’t think she’s beautiful. Please like this photo so I can show her later that she truly is beautiful.”

How does the article conclude?

I conclude the article by looking at the ways in which disabled people are speaking back to – or cripping – such ableist representations of their identities, lives and bodies. I discuss the meaning of disability scholar Bethany Stevens’ recent visual culture project: a brilliant Facebook Fan Page called “This is What Disability Looks Like”. According to Stevens,

This is What Disability Looks Like seeks to counter messages that disability is a tragedy or inspirational. Our goal is to explore the rich representations of people with disabilities. This is a visual culture project featuring images of people with disabilities that do NOT pander to sentimentality, inspiration and/or paternalism like many images that have circulated around social media of late. Instead, this is a community run project – in which people submit photos and they are posted after I add text. This is What Disability Looks Like will feature the rich diversity of our disability communities. Please add to this richness with us! This is a community LOVE project for all of us to spread the word that disability is awesome, natural and not just a tool to make feel pity and social distance from us.

You can take a look at “This is What Disability Looks Like” here.

This is What Disability Looks Like

This is What Disability Looks Like

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