This is my first post of 2011, I’d really appreciate your thoughts to develop these arguments. Comments, as ever, are welcome!
At New Year I met some new people and began explaining my PhD research into Disability and Social Networks (no doubt more technically and tediously than my audience had hoped). In the following discussion a ‘disability’ vignette came up. A reveller described how a colleague at work was currently out of the office sporadically, due to anxiety. She was signed off work on grounds of stress. However, word had spread around the office that, despite the leaves of absence being taken, this person had posted several upbeat messages on Facebook over weekends, including photos from parties and other social events. Others in the office were beginning to question the reality of her mental health on this basis.
My own research highlights how the boundaries of disability shift in social networks, as disability and ability are ascribed and mediated by peers, tools and the social context. To me, this vignette highlights the complexity of disability and its representation online, alongside some worrying developments in disability-surveillance.
Research into Facebook highlights powerful social norms that are enacted in social media due to context-collapse. Importantly, Facebook in particular, is an upbeat space where users present their ‘best’ self for scrutiny before a mixed audience of friends, family, associates etc; lots of different contexts are collapsed into one. As a result, many people upload their only best (sometimes airbrushed) photos, comment with only their wittiest witticisms and so on. This instigates a powerful norm of ingratiation. In research interviews, the disabled students I spoke to repeatedly stated that Facebook was not a place to publicly express depression or serious mental illness. Indeed, for some, the only signifier of such disabilities in networked publics was silence, a lack of interaction resulting in greater isolation. Such silences may be noticed by attentive friends, however, as we will see, to insurers and employers, it is noise, not silence, that attracts the most attention.
Somehow, Facebook interactions known to be private and frivolous, have become caught up in a legal and corporate project to define how much disability is required to qualify as disabled. In these terms, Facebook is conveniently identified as the inside track, the Truth of what is going on. Within this, any number of assumptions about what constitutes a disability are enacted. More importantly, an underlying concern can be perceived regarding the force with which the boundaries are decided without reflection. I would argue that these moves ‘discipline’ disabled people. In this way, disabled people must perform a strictly defined role. The abilities of a disabled person are rendered suspect: and, according to this view, there is nothing more offensive than a disabled person who is not disabled, or not disabled enough. Within this dichotomy there is no room for grey areas, i.e. the complexity and diversity of impairments that exist in day to day life. Grey areas are difficult; it is much easier to render these issues in cartoonish black and white.
A recently example comes from the Chicago Tribune (also printed in the LA Times). The Tibune highlight how insurers are looking to Facebook for evidence to challenge claims.
If someone receiving disability benefits for a bad back brags on Facebook or Twitter about finishing a marathon, chances are their insurance company will find out and stop the cheques.
The newspaper leads with an extreme example, the ‘person with a bad back’ signed off work, who then posts to Facebook that they have completed a marathon. This vignette is offered as the quintessential disability con. Underneath this headline, however, any number of more complex cases cascade; including the mundane case of the person experiencing anxiety attacks, signed sporadically on and off work and but maintaining a social life. Expressing such a life in Facebook is important – to challenge stigma and resist isolation. However, whilst employers and insurers stalk the network, I’m concerned that users will be forced to choose between performing Normal according to non-disabled network norms OR performing the externally defined role of the Disabled Person. Increasingly, physical or cognitive impairment has nothing to do with it.