Biography of a Design Project through the Lens of a Facebook Page

  • Maria Menendez-Blanco
  • Antonella De Angeli
  • Maurizio Teli
Article

Abstract

This paper presents spazioD, a design case around the topic of dyslexia. Building on selected contributions from the literature on infrastructuring in participatory design and publics, it proposes that digital platforms are artefacts that can help infrastructuring the formation of publics and study their biography. The paper then unfolds describing the context in which the case was situated, presenting a specific digital platform (i.e. Facebook) and how it was enacted. The contribution of the paper is threefold: it provides a practice-based instance of the activities entangled in the infrastructuring of publics; building on this description, it shows how a digital platform can contribute to infrastructuring; and, finally, it articulates how the analytical tool embedded in the digital platform contribute to and influence the interpretation of an infrastructuring process and their limitations.

Keywords

Design Digital platform Dyslexia Infrastructuring Publics 

1 Introduction

The last few years have been characterized by a growing attention to the politics of design. This interest pervades several domains from traditionally politically engaged schools such as Participatory Design (PD) (e.g. Kensing and Blomberg 1998; Simonsen and Robertson 2013) to the more recent emphasis on social innovation in the field of Industrial Design (e.g. Manzini 2015). In digital technology design, politics is important as computing increasingly focuses on a variety of communal objects leading beyond the workplace and individual experiences (Bødker 2015). As digital technologies expand to most aspects of daily life in Western societies, a few scholars have engaged into investigating the capabilities of computing to support the formation of publics (Björgvinsson et al. 2010; DiSalvo et al. 2014; Teli et al. 2015; Le Dantec 2016).

This paper is situated within the debate on how infrastructuring can support the formation of publics. It addresses this debate by discussing selected contributions from the literature on infrastructuring and PD. In addition, it elaborates on empirical insights coming from a project focussed on the topic of dyslexia in Trentino, a region in Northern Italy. The project unfolded over one year during which we carried out activities that have been reported in previous publications. Concretely, we carried out interviews and field studies to better understand the involvement of people to the issue of dyslexia in the local context in a way that could facilitate design (Menéndez-Blanco and De Angeli 2016). Furthermore, we constructed different artefacts that explored and exposed the multifaceted social construction of dyslexia as a learning disability with the aim of establishing an alternative narrative focused on individual learning styles (Menéndez-Blanco et al. 2017). As part of the infrastructuring effort, we exhibited these artefacts in a public event in Trentino aimed at bringing heterogeneous actors concerned about the topic of dyslexia together. A Facebook page supported the organization of the event.

The aim of this paper is to investigate how this Facebook page contributed to infrastructuring the formation of publics and to the understanding of infrastructuring, seen as a process that intertwines different design activities that facilitate the formation of socio-material assemblies around matters of concern (Ehn 2008; Björgvinsson et al. 2010). To address these questions we relied on Facebook Insights, the analytical tool embedded in Facebook and complemented these data with a qualitative analysis of comments on Facebook. Building on the results of this analysis, we write a biography of the infrastructuring process (Pollock and Williams 2010) and elaborate on the configurational politics of Facebook in enacting socio-material infrastructures (Parmiggiani et al. 2015).

The paper is structured as follows. First, we elaborate on selected contributions from the literature on publics, design and infrastructuring. Second, we introduce the case study, describing the specific context in which it is situated and presenting two main themes and their articulation as matters of concern. These matters of concern are the result of previous research and constitute the soil of the activities presented in this paper (Menéndez-Blanco and De Angeli 2016). Finally, we introduce the Facebook page and its log mechanism, elaborate on its relevance within the case study and present the data gathered through the embedded analytical tool. Finally, we discuss the results in light of the research questions and conclude with proposals for future research.

2 Related work

In this paper we draw on Dewey’s understanding of publics as heterogeneous groups of people who are concerned about an issue and organize themselves to address it (Dewey 1927). In this understanding, publics are not exclusive to a particular social class or groups of people and can have different opinions on the same issue. As a consequence, there is no single public but a multiplicity of publics who are often contestational (ibidem).

In the last years, there has been a renewed interest in the concept of publics and in how design can contribute to their formation. More concretely, design has been investigated as a way to articulate issues, expose involvement to these issues, and engage related people into action (DiSalvo 2009; Björgvinsson et al. 2010; Teli et al. 2015; Le Dantec 2016). This corpus of research proposes that it is through articulating and exposing issues that people explore possible futures in a way that can bring them together (DiSalvo 2009; Björgvinsson et al. 2010; Le Dantec 2016). In infrastructuring terms, this is an iterative process entangling and intertwining a priori, everyday design, and design in use as part of an infrastructuring effort that supports the emergence of socio-material assemblies dealing with matters of concern (Björgvinsson et al. 2010). In the following sections we elaborate on these aspects with respect to design and infrastructuring. For the sake of simplicity in this paper we cluster related works in two main sections, although we fully embrace a vision of design and infrastructuring as intertwined activities that can support the formation of publics.

2.1 Design for the formation of publics

Building on Margolin’s work, DiSalvo (2009) argued that design for the formation of publics is a kind of predictive design because it articulates scenarios that depict imagined futures, in opposition to prescriptive design which states what should happen (ibidem). Following this line of thinking, designing can be seen as a process which explores ways to expose these imagined futures and to transform them into possible presents (Björgvinsson et al. 2012; Seravalli 2013). These speculative aspects of design are particular relevant to critical design, an approach where propositions that subvert an established status quo are embedded into artefacts (Dunne 2008). Accordingly, products designed through critical design approaches pursue stimulating reflection on political and societal issues through provocation and ambiguity with a ‘slight strangeness’ (Bardzell et al. 2012). An important aspect of critical design is the hegemony of the designer with respect to what is created. Elaborating on this aspect, some researchers propose that critical designers should be encouraged to build on their ‘design authorship’ (Ferri et al. 2014). This suggests that critical design should embody ideas that mainly arise from designer’s concern or curiosity and people are then invited to reflect, or act, on these concerns by interacting with the products of critical design (Ferri et al. 2014).

This view is in sharp contrast with mainstream digital technology design methods that build on approaches and methodologies such as PD or User Centred Design (UCD), where people’s involvement to the design process, and decision making in the case of PD, is crucial. In addition, critical design emphasises individual aspects of interacting with products and does not elaborate on their collective capabilities. In this respect, Anna Seravalli (2013) investigated ways in which design activities and prototyping can facilitate moving beyond critique and towards bringing people together. Concretely, building on Latour’s concept of compositionism, she elaborated on prototypes as artefacts that can help collectively constructing alternatives, or prospects (Latour 2010).

Similarly, public design has been proposed as an orientation to design focused on bringing groups of people together around an issue through design (DiSalvo et al. 2014). This orientation serves both as analytical lens and generative device, meaning that it does not only facilitate articulating issues but also proposes ways to designing digital technology that can support the formation of publics (DiSalvo 2009). In public design, issues are conceptualised building on Latour’s (2004) notion of matters of concern. This notion highlights the complexities of social phenomena that are rooted in historical and political conditions, in contrast to the concept of matters of fact, which refers to conditions considered to be stable and immutable (Latour 2004). Indeed, in the last years there has been a renewed interest in exploring ways in which design can contribute to the articulation of matters of fact into matters of concern (e.g. Björgvinsson et al. 2010; Binder et al. 2011; DiSalvo et al. 2014; Teli et al. 2015; Le Dantec 2016). This articulation process has been proposed as paramount to the formation of publics since it contributes to exposing and supporting the emergence of attachments (Marres 2007; Le Dantec 2016).

The concept of attachments refers to the ways in which people become involved in an issue, which can be based on dependencies and commitments. This differentiation highlights the multiple and evolving ways in which involvement can be shaped, emphasizing affective bonds (Le Dantec and DiSalvo 2013; Teli et al. 2015). Zooming in to the concept of attachments, the contribution of Clement et al. (2012) can help scholars clarify the processes through which people can become involved in publics. More specifically, they elaborate on the role of demonstrations in exposing controversies through ‘seriously playful critique’ or to propose alternative courses of action by creating ‘constructive alternatives’, thereby attaching people to a project (ibidem).

Although there is a limited understanding of the processes leading to the formation of publics (Björgvinsson et al. 2010; Le Dantec and DiSalvo 2013), it is acknowledged that participation is not enough to account for it (Le Dantec and DiSalvo 2013). Concretely, participation can contribute to designing products but it is not enough for infrastructuring the socio-material assemblies based on matters of concern (Björgvinsson et al. 2010). Following this line of thinking, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (2011) proposed the concept of matters of care to highlight that someone can be concerned about something, but caring is more directly related to the notion of material doing. The importance of providing means for people to engage into action, or in design in use (Ehn 2008; Björgvinsson et al. 2010), has been also elaborated in the infrastructuring literature.

Concretely, Ehn (2008) argued that design interventions should not only focus on design for use, meaning the design of products and devices, but also on design in use, meaning that they should enable adoption and appropriation beyond the initial design. Furthermore, he proposed that adoption and appropriation can be facilitated through meta-design – or infrastructuring- carried out along the design process. These meta-design activities can be pursued through strategies that can help connect design and use time. Similarly, Björgvinsson et al. (2010) argued that designing is an iterative process entangling and intertwining a priori, everyday design, and design in use as part of an infrastructuring effort that supports the emergence of socio-material assemblies dealing with matters of concern. Furthermore, designing for adoption and appropriation emphasizes the importance of long-term engagement (Karasti 2014). In order to pursue long-term engagements, it is critical to identify design opportunities along the way, through a continuous matchmaking process, which requires developing new methods to continuously evaluate the infrastructuring process (Hillgren et al. 2011). This calls for new and easily available methods to evaluate the state of the process and adjust accordingly. Building on infrastructuring as an iterative process that entangles and intertwines a priori, everyday design, and design in use in this paper we investigate how a mainstream social media network (i.e. Facebook) contributed to and influenced the biography of an infrastructuring project.

2.2 Infrastructuring public formation

The picture of infrastructuring that has emerged so far is that of a form of artful integration (Suchman 2002; Karasti and Syrjänen 2004) unfolding through socio-technical processes that put different contexts into relation (Star and Ruhleder 1996). In this process, it is paramount to consider long-term evolution and continuity (Karasti and Baker 2004; Pipek and Wulf 2009). The analysis of the temporal and spatial perspective can be addressed by considering the local vs. global space and short vs. long term (Karasti and Baker 2004). The work of (Parmiggiani et al. 2015) elaborated on the temporal aspects of young infrastructures by leveraging on the key concepts of bootstrapping and enactment. On the one hand, bootstrapping refers to the process of addressing an increasing level of entanglement in the early stages of an infrastructure by resolving local vs. global tensions. On the other hand, enactment refers to the process of putting the infrastructure into practice across different domains and sites as it grows. The focus on temporal aspects emphasises future orientations in creating new infrastructures; however, this strong focus on future events tends to overlook the existing installed base and its potential problems (Star and Ruhleder 1996; Karasti 2014). In addition, and in spite of the great interest in the temporal dimension of infrastructuring, the spatial dimension has been generally overlooked (Karasti 2014) and ‘scaling up’ usually refers to increasing the scope of the user population (ibidem). Only a limited subset of the literature has focused on user’s engagement and how it can change throughout the infrastructuring process (De Angeli et al. 2014; Cozza and De Angeli 2005).

Understanding infrastructuring entails exposing the invisible work of infrastructures (Star 1999) because they tend to remain unnoticed until there is a breakdown (Pipek and Wulf 2009). Exposing the invisible work of infrastructures means studying them in-the-making (Bowker and Star 2000) and analysing the on-going processes and interrelated activities that develop over time in ‘multi-relational socio-material-technical contexts’ (Karasti and Syrjänen 2004). From this viewpoint, it is paramount to foreground the aspects that guarantee their functioning by focusing on the everyday working of the infrastructure, an activity that has been referred to as infrastructural inversion (Bowker and Star 2000). Other authors stress that infrastructures should be understood as continuously growing and propose to study their biographies (Pollock and Williams 2010). Following this line of thinking, infrastructuring is described as a process evolving over time, which emerges as open to changes and rooted on pre-existing conditions. The complexity of an infrastructure is based on the combination of two elements. Firstly, there are material gateways that allow for interoperability among the different components of an infrastructure. Secondly, infrastructures entail different configurational politics shaping the techno-political landscape, in the local context of enactment or more broadly at societal levels (ibidem).

In this paper, we build on the definition of infrastructuring as a continuous process that entangles and intertwines different design activities that facilitate the formation of socio-material assemblies around matters of concern (Björgvinsson et al. 2010). We discuss a case study aiming at the formation of publics in the domain of dyslexia focusing on the enactment and analysis of a Facebook page. This digital platform has been part of and has influenced infrastructuring the socio-material assembly, which we consider to be the baseline of the process of publics’ formation. We use Facebook Insights, the analytical tool embedded in Facebook pages, to write the biography of the infrastructuring process complementing this data with qualitative data gathered in Facebook and our experience by engaging in ethnographically inspired activities in the field, which have been previously reported in (Menéndez-Blanco et al. 2017; Menéndez-Blanco and De Angeli 2016).

3 Case study: spazioD

The activities presented in this paper were developed in the context of Città Educante (2014–2017), a research programme funded by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research to investigate the role of the city as a collective learning place. This vision challenges existing approaches to the Smart City that tend to emphasize system development and data gathering while overlooking important cultural, societal and individual aspects of public life (Greenfield 2013). Città Educante covers three main thematic areas: education, society and technology. The project envisaged a set of interventions that could contribute to the development of an active, welcoming and reflective city where technology is enacted as a mean and not as the main goal. As part of our involvement, we started spazioD, a project aimed at favouring the formation of publics around issues of inclusion in the Italian education system, with a special focus on dyslexia. Concretely, spazioD tried to support the infrastructuring of a socio-material assembly in a context where there is a condition (dyslexia) that involves many different actors (children, parents, teachers, institutions), who have multiple and often conflicting views on aspects related to dyslexia.

3.1 The dyslexia debate

In their recent book ‘The dyslexia debate’, Elliott and Grigorenko (2014) explain why dyslexia has been a source of controversy for a long time. In their view, the main reason relates to the operational definition of dyslexia. More specifically, even though many experts agree that dyslexia relates to difficulties in decoding and/or producing written language, there is no generally agreed-on definition nor shared understanding of its nature and causes. This lack of consensus has fuelled some scepticism (Elliott and Grigorenko 2014). As an illustrative example, in 2009 a Member of the British Parliament claimed that dyslexia was a myth invented to excuse poor teaching in schools.

In spite of the lack of an established definition, there are several conditions that are commonly considered when assessing1 dyslexia. These conditions include IQ equal or superior to the average, no physical disability, adequate schooling and not being in severe socio-economic disadvantage (Elliott and Grigorenko 2014). However, the interpretation of these characteristics is largely affected by contextual dependencies that might partially explain the large variance in official percentages of occurrence among different countries, ranging from 5 to 20% (Elliott and Grigorenko 2014).

3.2 Design context

At the time of the project, the attention towards dyslexia in Italy was recent. It had been triggered in 2010 by the introduction of the Law 170/2010, which for the first time regulated the provision of special education for dyslexic students, provided a set of criteria to regulate ‘diagnosis’ and mandated specific training for teachers. Furthermore, the law supported the provision of alternative teaching methods and computer technology to facilitate learning. The law was strongly embedded in a medical interpretation of dyslexia, which was described as a specific learning disorder. For this reason, people with dyslexia in Italy are often referred to by the acronym DSA (the Italian acronym for Specific Learning Disorder). Since the introduction of the law 170/2010, the official percentage of dyslexic students in Italy has been slowly but steadily increasing. According to official data, the number of dyslexic students accounted for 0.7% of the students’ population in the school year 2010–2011, rising to 2.1% in in the school year 2014–2015. Despite being well below other countries percentages, this increase generated a fierce debate about what some people perceived to be just a new label to excuse poor teaching or lazy students. Furthermore, the law proved of limited utility, as operative practices were difficult to identify and implement.

In Trentino, the place of our design intervention, the education system is granted special autonomy rights. In this context, the activities were timely situated within a major public controversy against a new provincial law mandating a Content and Language Integrated Learning methodology to be implemented in German and English. This approach prescribes teaching a foreign language and a subject at the same time (e.g. teaching mathematics in German). The law was issued in September 2015 and encountered resistance from teachers and parents. An important source of controversy related to the lack of consideration given to students with different ways of learning. Several public rallies and demonstrations were organized to call for a change in the law and to advocate for a more inclusive education.

3.3 Key themes: awareness and emotional load

Several research interventions were carried out in order to identify specific themes that related to the topic of dyslexia in the design context (Menéndez-Blanco and De Angeli 2016). In particular, the authors of this paper participated in several public events (e.g. seminars at schools, meetings organised by associations, and groups of parents), analysed a large set of data collected through websites and social networks, and performed eight semi-structured interviews involving government officers, educators and parents. Furthermore, one of the authors had a personal interest in the topic, as she was raising a child with dyslexia. The triangulation of this rich set of data facilitated the identification of a list of major themes that opened up dyslexia as a matter of concern, highlighting the issues central to those involved. In this paper, we focus on two key themes, namely awareness and emotional load, delineating the controversial aspects around them.

The empirical research carried out for this project highlighted a limited awareness of dyslexia, which was strongly biased towards a medical perspective. This bias was deeply engrained in society and constantly emerged in the language used. For example, the acronym referring to Specific Learning Disorders was uncritically used by teachers, parents and students alike. Examining the issue more closely, it became evident that this narrative concerned most of the actors, although there was no available alternative. Overall, the data highlighted several negative emotions, particularly among parents and children. During the interviews, it was reported that dyslexic children tended to have low self-esteem and often felt inferior to their peers. To cope with such a distressing feeling, they often preferred not to disclose their unique characteristic. Consequently, they decided not to take advantage of compensatory measures that dyslexic children have access to by law, such as using a computer in the classroom (a practice which is still uncommon in Italy). As highlighted by some teachers, this decision triggered a vicious circle because without a computer children strived to keep up with the rest of the class, thus increasing frustration and lowering self-esteem.

3.4 Matters of concern

While the themes of awareness and emotional load were common across different actors, the identification of antecedents, consequences, and solutions was open to debate. The controversy about dyslexia (Elliott and Grigorenko 2014) was confirmed by the empirical data, which unveiled an agonistic space (Björgvinsson et al. 2012). More concretely, the conflicts between institutional actors (government officers), professional actors (head of schools and teachers) and private actors (parents of dyslexic pupils, non profit organisations) were strong and diffused among all possible relational dyads. For example, officers named teachers and parents as the main responsible for the medical perspective on dyslexia and the lack of a pedagogical intervention. On the other hand, both parents and teachers voiced the lack of political interest to address the issue, openly complaining about bureaucratic inefficiency and incompetency. This strong mistrust against the institutional providers was one of the few points of agreement between teachers and parents, who accused each other to be in denial or to lack fundamental knowledge to teach dyslexic scholars.

To facilitate involvement among different groups of people, spazioD tried to create a collective space where different actors could meet and participate in the articulation of dyslexia as a matter of concern. The project had three main goals. Concretely, the project aimed to increase awareness while improving the public attitude towards dyslexia exposing strengths alongside weaknesses. In addition, it aimed to build a repository of teaching resources and practical advices that could mitigate difficulties and reinforce strengths. Finally, a third prerogative of the project was to create new dyslexia-friendly digital artefacts, as an alternative to assistive technology design. In this paper we focus a Facebook page as a digital platform that contributed to pursuing these goals.

3.5 The European dyslexia awareness week

The European Dyslexia Awareness Week was launched in 2014 with the intention to raise positive awareness about dyslexia. The first edition in Trentino was held from the 5th to the 11th of October 2015. The event was initiated by our research group at the department of Information Engineering and Computer Science, University of Trento, in collaboration with the department of Cognitive Sciences. To pursue the objective of reinforcing positive communication about dyslexia, the project addressed the concerns related to awareness and emotion. It explicitly outlined a positive narrative that posed dyslexia as a characteristic, emphasising the skills of this specific learning characteristic and, thereby, challenging the existing narrative of dyslexia as a disorder. In particular, we celebrated the creativity and intelligence of dyslexic pupils highlighting famous people, such as Einstein and John Lennon, who were thought to be dyslexic, or attracting the attention on key skills related to building and creativity which are considered to be typical of dyslexic people. In addition, the event stressed the important role of technology in mitigating many of the difficulties that dyslexic people face and reinforcing their capabilities. Hoping to attract the attention of a younger audience, the emphasis was put on the ludic aspects of technology.

The week was divided in two parts. From Monday to Friday we visited a different school every day in key areas of the region, each of which acted as a hub for nearby smaller schools. The daily program included a number of hands-on workshops and presentations organized by clinical and educational experts during school hours. These activities separately involved groups of teachers (N = 191) and children (N = 321). In addition, three plenary sessions open to parents and teachers were run in the evening featuring talks by a university researcher, a representative of the local government, and a representative of the health agency responsible for dyslexia assessment.

The second part of the event took place on the weekend in a large room of the Museum of Science and Natural History in the capital of the region (Figure 1). Admission was free of charge. The exhibition featured a journey connecting several artefacts, which emphasised common themes related to creativity (as a strength of dyslexic students) and technology (as a key compensatory measure). They ranged from a videogame for cognitive training (Menestrina et al. 2014), to a provocative interactive installation exposing the fundamental role of technology in facilitating reading (Menéndez-Blanco et al. 2017) and a set of DIY musical instruments that highlighted the potential of music in clinical intervention (Figure 1) (Tittarelli et al. 2014).
Figure 1

Pictures of the event at the museum

A detailed description of these artefacts is outside the scope of the paper. Our aim here is to investigate how the Facebook page contributed to infrastructuring the socio-material assembly concerned with the domain of dyslexia by exploring how it allowed different people to connect, facilitated involvement, and supported the emergence of diverse views on dyslexia.

4 Digital platform: Facebook

The page titled ‘Settimana Europea della Dislessia’ (‘European Dyslexia Week’ in Italian) was created on Facebook the 17th of September 2015. In Facebook’s terminology, we created a community page, which is different from a group because members’ posts appear on a dedicated part of the screen instead of in the central wall. On the 14th of March 2016 data was retrieved from the log of the page regarding who interacted with the page, and how. These data were provided by Facebook Insights. The comments to posts were manually retrieved from the page and all public posts related to the page were retrieved by searching ‘settimana europea della dislessia’ within Facebook.

The main variables that describe how people interacted with the page are presented in Table 1. These variables seem sophisticated and self-explaining but in order to facilitate a clearer understanding, we describe them as a combination of actions considering two units of analysis: number of people and post occurrences. For example, the difference between the variables reach and impressions is that reach measures the content displayed in terms of how many people have been exposed to it (there is no certainty that they actually saw it); whereas impressions measures how many times the content has been displayed. Therefore, the number of impressions is always equal or higher than reach since the same user might have seen the same content several times. Furthermore, the actions can be reduced to being exposed to, actually perceiving, and acting on content. In addition, Facebook Insights also provides compound variables such as engagement, which is used to refer to the combination of interactions, i.e. number of people who have clicked on content, and talking about, i.e. number of people who have done an action that creates a story. Actions that create a story are liking a page, and liking, commenting or sharing content.
Table 1

Terminology in Facebook.

Variable

Unit of analysis

User’s action

Operationalization

Reach

People

Be exposed

Number of people content was displayed to

Impressions

Occurrence

Be exposed

Number of times the content was displayed

Interactions

People

Perceive

Number of people who clicked on content

Consumptions

Occurrence

Perceive

Number of times content was clicked

Talking about

People

Create a story

Number of people who created a story

Facebook Insights also reports a small number of indicators of disengagement, such as the number of people who unlike a page, have hidden a piece of content, requested to hide all content from this page, or reported that the content was spam. Finally, Facebook offers the possibility to increase the number of people who interact with a page by paying to promote a page or boost content. In this project, however, we decided not to take advantage of these possibilities, because we wanted to investigate an unbiased process. Therefore, we surmised that the content only reached people when someone in their contact list liked or shared a post. All the data presented in this paper was collected uniquely relying on people’s actions and connections.

5 Understanding infrastructuring

The following sections describe how the Facebook page supported infrastructuring the formation of publics, as an on-going process that entangles and intertwines a priori infrastructuring activities, with everyday design activities in actual use and design in use activities (Ehn 2008; Björgvinsson et al. 2010). It is important to underline that we do not intend to draw boundaries between these activities but rather to describe them as biographical aspects (Pollock and Williams 2010) of an infrastructure in the making (Star 1999). We pursue this objective by presenting the data gathered by Facebook Insights and complementing them with people’s comments and our reflections based on first-hand-experience as researchers and designers within the project. All quotes included in the text are translated from Italian.

5.1 Early stages of an infrastructure in the making

The page was envisioned as a tool for bootstrapping (Parmiggiani et al. 2015) the socio-technical infrastructure, which could help involve people in the project and advertise the European Dyslexia Awareness Week. The decision of creating a page instead of a group was grounded on a prior exploration of two main Italian Facebook groups on the topic of dyslexia. These groups were filled with negative messages and complaints of parents against teachers, and only a very small part of the content contained proposals for action. This behaviour reflected the prevailing attitude in Italy (Menéndez-Blanco and De Angeli 2016) and in infrastructuring terms, could be conceptualised as part of the inertia of the installed base (Star and Ruhleder 1996; Karasti 2014). More specifically, the tendency of the cultural, political and societal forces was to remain in the particular state that portrayed dyslexia as a disorder, teachers as part of the problem, and children as sensitive and with low self-esteem (Menéndez-Blanco and De Angeli 2016). Therefore, we decided to create a page that problematized the installed based by challenging the current narrative of a disease with a new rhetoric focusing on strengths. We expected that this page would act as an external force, a provocation, which could open up the matters of fact into matters of concern (Latour 2004; DiSalvo et al. 2014).

A community engagement plan was prepared and implemented by two research assistants targeting the local community who could physically participate in the event. The plan included the preparation of content to advertise the event and the identification of Facebook profiles related to relevant actors mainly within the Trentino region. A part of the content was retrieved from selected sources on the Internet, whereas other elements were created within the project. The content created within the project displayed a visual identity that embedded the proposed positive narrative, leveraging Lego-Duplo bricks as proxies for childhood, assemblage and creativity. In particular, it contrasted two sets of bricks, one representing the original Legos and another consisting of 3D-printed bricks specially developed for the project. They resembled the original bricks with a main difference: three faces of the parallelepiped (instead of only two) could be connected to another brick (Figure 2a and b). This characteristic rendered these bricks unique since they allowed assembling more creative constructions when combined with the original pieces. The profile image of the page contained an image of the bricks (Figure 2c). In addition, they were enacted in other content published on the page, such as a stop-motion video and a set of content pills.
Figure 2

The two sets of Lego bricks (a, b) and Facebook profile image (b)

The stop-motion video was created as part of the project (Menéndez-Blanco et al. 2017). A graphic- and a visual designer ideated and recorded the video, and a professional actor narrated the voiceover.2 To confront the narrative of dyslexia as a disability, the video showed two pairs of hands playing with the bricks. The original Lego-Duplo bricks were painted in white to increase the contrast. The 3-D printed bricks were enacted to build words with spelling mistakes, while the voice clarified that dyslexia is not a disorder but a different way of processing information. In addition, the hands built different shapes using the white and coloured bricks, while the voiceover explained that people with dyslexia tended to be very creative as they often needed to develop strategies to compensate for the challenges of reading and writing. Finally, the bricks were manipulated to depict the lower percentage of dyslexic students in Italy, as compared to other European countries.

Moreover, the content pills were pleasing images combined with short sentences that provided a direct, positive message about dyslexia. These sentences were written by clinical psychologists with the aim of demystifying incorrect assumptions and/or prompting reflection on alternative narratives. For example, one pill explained: ‘Dyslexia is not a disease or pathology. Therefore, it makes no sense saying that people are affected by dyslexia.’ (Figure 3).
Figure 3

Content pill published on the Facebook page (translated from Italian)

5.2 Everyday activities in actual use

We cluster the results of this section in three subsections. The first one provides a general overview of people behaviour in the page by exploring Facebook variables, such as reach, engagement and like. The second section presents the sample demographics, as described by Facebook Insights. The third section focuses on the content of the page analysing its effect on behaviour and deepening into qualitative analysis of users’ posts that helped to understand their concerns.

5.2.1 Overview of people’s actions

The content posted on the page was displayed almost 1,500,000 times (number of impressions), reaching a total of 675,951 unique users (reach) within the first month, which was the period when the page attracted most of its users. Facebook only provides information on reach for a period of 28 days maximum and, therefore, it is impossible to have longitudinal data on this variable. However, the ratio of reach to impression (0.45) indicates that several people were displayed the content more than once. A smaller number of people (N = 44,200; 6% of reach) contributed to spread the content while engaging with it. This active community demonstrated substantial interest and commitment as illustrated by the fact that their percentage remained stable over time (4–7%).

Most of the users viewed the content through a story created when their contacts liked, shared or commented. The number of people who liked the European Dyslexia Awareness Week page (N = 2374) was lower than the number of people who engaged with it. The distribution of likes over time is reported in Figure 4. The highest peak happened during the week of the event; the second highest peak happened almost one month after and corresponded to a post with a video in which we summarised the event.3
Figure 4

Daily new likes on the Facebook page

The number of people who liked the page remained constant over time and only a small percentage of them (2%) unliked it during the entire duration of the project. Furthermore, the page gathered a very small number of negative feedback: only 70 people hid a particular piece of content and 19 people hid all content coming from this page. Interestingly, they did not unlike the page, which would have made their decision explicit to us. Almost everyone who hid a piece of content did it on the stop-motion video. Considering its high popularity, the number of people who hid the video was very small and it might have been influenced by the default setting which make videos to play automatically as the user scrolls down her Facebook wall, or by the repeated exposure to this item. None reported the content as spam.

5.2.2 Demographics

Despite our initial intention to target a local group of actors who may participate in the event, the Facebook page strongly increased the infrastructuring space. Only 19% of the people who liked the page were located in Trentino-Alto Adige (19%) followed by the neighbouring Lombardy and Veneto (18% and 14%, respectively). We were surprised that physical proximity did not seem to be a main factor which influenced liking the page: people located in regions over 600 km away, such as Lazio (5%), Campania (5%), Sardinia (5%), Puglia (4%) and Sicilia (4%) were also present. The interest elicited outside the physical place of the intervention was even stronger when considering the engagement with the content. In this case most of the people were located in Lombardy (16%), followed by Lazio (15%) and Tuscany (9%). People located in Trentino-Alto Adige only appeared in the fourth position (8%), followed by Emilia-Romagna (7%) and Veneto (7%). In addition, a few people (2%) were located abroad, mainly in the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States. This small percentage might refer to the international network of the researchers working in the project.

Several comments and messages inquired about the occurrence of similar events in other regions and warmly invited us to join them. These results highlight the contribution of the page to bootstrapping the early-stage socio-technical infrastructure evolution since it helped engaging people into the infrastructuring effort and facilitated its inclusion at a global level (Parmiggiani et al. 2015). In addition, they suggest that the page and its analytical tool can be instrumental in engaging with the challenge of extending the spatial scope in infrastructuring, beyond scaling up the user population (Karasti 2014).

Data regarding age and gender was available for almost everyone who liked and engaged with the page, Figure 5 shows an overview. The page predominantly appealed to a female audience. Indeed, the percentage of likes coming from profiles associated to women accounted for 82% of the sample. Most of them were between 25 and 44 years old, followed by women between 45 and 54 years old. These results are particularly interesting if we consider that dyslexia is considered to be more common in males than females (Elliott and Grigorenko 2014). However, if we reflect on the demographic trend by taking into consideration the relevance of dyslexia as a learning characteristic, and the recent awareness towards it in Italy, we can speculate that most of the people who liked the page were parents, educators or teachers. Within this hypothesis, the strong gender asymmetry can be explained by the conservative role distribution among gender typical of the Italian society. In Italy women in general, and mothers in particular, are expected to take care of the children, and most of teachers in primary and middle school are females. The analysis of the public messages posted on the page and private messages supported this hypothesis. In total, 33 public posts and 17 private messages were sent to the page. Most of them seemed to be written by mothers or female carers. In their messages, they usually praised the initiative, asked information about the activities, and shared links to content related to dyslexia as well as commented on the links. In addition, a few posts were written by clinical professionals. Although dyslexic people might have written in the page, it was difficult to assess it, since only a few made it explicit. No public officials contacted us through the page or commented on it.
Figure 5

Number of likes per gender and age

5.2.3 Content analysis

The behaviour of the people who engaged with the page varied as a function of content. In total, we published 118 posts including photos (64%), links (28%), video (3%) and status (5%). The stop-motion video was the most successful piece of content: 8000 people liked it, almost 5000 shared it, and more than 350 commented on it. These actions may have facilitated public formation since they increased the exposure of the content and the possibility for the articulation of matters of concerns, in such a way that collective action can be taken (Dewey 1927). In general, the comments praised the narrative embedded in the video and tagged other people encouraging them to watch it. A large proportion of the commenters appeared to be mothers of children with dyslexia. However, there were also other actors, such as a dyslexic person who shared her experience at school:

‘I discovered to be dyslexic in the 5th grade, after an endless series of failures in English, History and Geography… When I discovered to be dyslexic, my classmates mocked me. They said that I was stupid or that it was an excuse to be helped during the exams. Indeed, some of my friends stopped talking to me […]’

Furthermore, a few comments criticized teachers and claimed they lacked knowledge on teaching and assessment practices that could help dyslexics. Often, the conversations that unfolded in the comments exposed the problematic relationship between parents and teachers. As an illustrative example consider the following comment:

‘[…] we (the parents) had to fight against the “teacher” who did not apply compensatory measures during a foreign language test and, last but not least, humiliated the child with the lowest grade of the entire class.’

This was a very popular comment that received many likes from other readers. In a follow-up comment, a mother pointed out that the teachers tried their best with her daughter but the problem was that they did not have enough knowledge. She claimed that this was due to the head teacher who did not support appropriate training. Overall, the page supported the outcome of the field research, suggesting strong conflictual relationships between professional actors (heads of schools and teachers) and private actors (parents, non profit organisations) (Menéndez-Blanco and De Angeli 2016). Furthermore, although we have evidence that some teachers visited the page (information of profession was publicly available in some personal profiles and some teachers reached out in private), it was surprising that no one ever replied to any negative comment regarding teaching practices and skills. It might be the case that teachers might felt intimidated by the social context of the page.

In spite of the positive message embedded in the video, one of the commenters spotted a dissonant note in it. In particular, she highlighted that the video was ‘beautiful’ but:

‘I would like you not to use the term ‘DIAGNOSE’. LETS USE A SYNONYM: VERIFY… CERTIFY. Diagnosis is automatically associated to a disease and this is not beneficial to our children.’

This comment showcased how the narrative was redefined in actual use and that the video enabled the expression of new issues, such as the problematic meaning of the verb ‘diagnose’. It is interesting to note that despite paying close attention, we had not spotted this inconsistency while revising the text provided by the cognitive psychologist who wrote it. Despite the fact that the relationship with our research partners has been excellent throughout the project, we often faced some tensions in the desire to challenge the medical perspective that was deeply engrained in their practices.

The content pills were also very popular, as illustrated by the high number of likes, comments and shares they received. A particularly popular pill contained the following text: ‘Children with dyslexia are intelligent, the reading difficulties that characterise dyslexia are independent of their level of intelligence.’ This pill received 395 likes, was shared 3433 times and received 11 comments. In total, six comments tagged other people and elaborated on personal experiences. However, one commenter articulated her disagreement by writing:

‘I don’t really agree with the second part [of the sentence], reading difficulties are related to dyslexia only if there exist an IQ within the norm, or superior to the norm; therefore, they are not independent of the intelligence level.’

Among the multiple perspectives gathered around the page there were also some that rejected the initiative. This became visible in the post of one dyslexic person who posted in a popular Italian public group on dyslexia:

‘In general, I don’t agree with any “European weeks” and in particular I strongly disagree with the “European Awareness Dyslexia Week”. If we have these kinds of events, there will always be labels. Furthermore, I believe it is not needed to have “weeks”; instead, it is paramount to research and understand that dyslexics don’t need to be “helped” but only need to have opportunities that allow them to achieve high results […]’

This post received 24 likes and 13 comments that supported this opinion and argued that the event stigmatized dyslexic people. The comments triggered the articulation of different views on the initiative. Some commenters mentioned that it was ‘sad’ and expressed their discontent:

‘I was disappointed when I got to know about it because I can’t understand what this is for, which sense it has. They make you feel even worse.’

However, other people defended the initiative since ‘there is so much disinformation that has been carried on during the years’ and praised the value of some of the published content, such as the video.

5.3 Adoption and appropriation

During the period of the dyslexia awareness week other related initiatives emerged on Facebook. Searching the phrase ‘settimana europea della dislessia’, and filtering the results by 2015, we retrieved 198 results. Performing the same search while filtering by 2014 retrieved only three results, which referred to a one-day event at a counselling office in Rome where it was possible to obtain information regarding dyslexia. The search in 2015 retrieved several kinds of results. Many of them where publicly shared posts of our Dyslexia Awareness Week page. Other results announced local initiatives in different regions. Most of them aimed at increasing awareness or offered free tests to identify writing or reading difficulties. Some of them explicitly linked their activities to our page. For example, a charity working on psychophysical wellbeing in the area of Florence included a link to the page while writing:

‘SETTIMANA EUROPEA DELLA DISLESSIA: 5–11 October 2015. The logopedists and psychologists who collaborate with us open their doors to provide information www.illumicino.it. The practical, psychological and social difficulties are multiple and can be addressed only through a participatory approach where different people contribute their skills and knowledge.’

In another post, a teacher shared one of our posts within a public group of a local association of teachers and asked whether they could also organize something. Furthermore, other associations in the domain of dyslexia, such as the local branch of the Italian Association of Dyslexia in Siena, echoed the initiative in their page by sharing a post that described the activities in Trentino. Finally, a centre of neuropsychologists and logopedists in Emilia-Romagna posted:

‘In occasion of the European Dyslexia Awareness Week that will start on Monday the 5th we would like to contribute our five cents to increase awareness on the topic of dyslexia, we have decided to offer part of our time to carry on free screenings […]’

In the post, they also made an open call to other professionals to join the initiatives that prompted a few comments. Some commenters added tags to other professionals, inviting them to consider the initiative. In this case, the actions of sharing, commenting and tagging did not only provide the means for people to express and discover their attachments to issues but also facilitated the prompting of others to enrol in the cause (see Le Dantec and DiSalvo 2013), therefore showing agencies of caring (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011).

Another interesting call for action appeared on a Facebook event initiated by someone in the area of Rome, which was also named ‘Settimana Europea della Dislessia’ and held between the 5th and 11th of October. As stated in the description of the event, it was aimed at increasing awareness by inviting users to change their Facebook profile with an image of a famous dyslexic person. In total, the event was shared with around 2900 people (289 indicated that attended and 48 were interested in the event). It was not possible to discern if this event was inspired by our page as no explicit reference was available in the text.

There were also other interrelated activities in real life that were embedded in the multi-relational socio-material-technical context of the infrastructuring process (Karasti and Syrjänen 2004). For example, a group of parents with whom we interacted during the project became a formal association on the 25th of September 2015, just before the beginning of the Dyslexia Awareness Week. They became the first association of parents of children with dyslexia in Trentino. The infrastructuring activities seemed to have influenced the formalization of the group and they expressed their interest in being publicized as an association during the event. Furthermore, a few months after, the association participated in a two-day regional fair for children with a stand on dyslexia and invited our research group, a psychologist, and two logopedists to join. The Facebook page helped publicize the event.

6 Discussion

The Facebook page contributed to infrastructuring publics’ formation by enabling a dispersed group of people to become part of the socio-material assembly, coming together around matters of concern related to dyslexia. In particular, the entanglement of a priori infrastructuring activities, with everyday design activities in actual use and design in use activities (Björgvinsson et al. 2010) enabled people with multiple views on the domain of dyslexia to discover, support, comment, reject, share and appropriate content and initiatives. In addition, the archival nature of digital platforms such as Facebook makes it a valuable artefact for writing an infrastructure’s biography (Pollock and Williams 2010) and, at the same time, influencing the biography itself.

6.1 Infrastructuring in a digital platform

The initial activities enabled by the Facebook page facilitated the bootstrapping of the socio-technical infrastructure ‘in the making’ (Star 1999; Parmiggiani et al. 2015). This was achieved by enrolling people who had a personal or professional interest in the topic, such as associations, experts, and parents. Bootstrapping increases the level of entanglement of the socio-technical infrastructure over time, opening new opportunities for public formation. The Facebook page allowed easily identifying specific profiles and inviting them to be part of the page, which advertised our intervention in real life. It offered connections but it was of limited value in engaging institutional partners. On the other hand the page opened new and unexpected connections, particularly with respect to its spatial scope.

In addition, Facebook was of limited utility at facilitating connections among related actors, such as parents and professionals, and it was only during the ‘European Dyslexia Awareness Week’ event that they actually interacted. We believe that the design of the digital platform might have contributed to the limited interaction. For example, the choice of creating a community page, instead of group, might have hindered interaction. On the other hand, our practical experience with the page taught us that the amount of time and energy required to moderate such a group might be unsustainable in many research settings. Even though people could have commented on the content, it did not happen as often as in groups related to similar topics. This could be related to the fact that people may feel more at ease commenting on content posted by other members rather than by the impersonal and hierarchical ‘European Awareness Week’ profile associated to the University of Trento. However, even within this limited interaction setting, the conflicts between different actors (specifically teachers and parents) became evident and matched the result of our in-depth but expensive field study (Menéndez Blanco and De Angeli 2016). The available choice of different kinds of pages in Facebook, and their implications in terms of interaction and functionalities, is something to be considered in future infrastructuring endeavours. This consideration brings new requirements for design, such as the need for changing the status of a community in fiery.

The design of the Facebook page was based on a narrative that emphasised a positive image of dyslexia. This narrative challenged the prevailing one in the Italian school system and was embedded in different types of posts and medium, which challenged the existing installed base (Karasti 2014), The pre-existing conditions in our case study included standards, such as the acronym DSA (Specific Learning Disorders, in Italian) which was common among teachers, parents and students alike. The alternative vision did not aim at prescribing a specific solution but at triggering reflection that could bring people together and thereby initiate activities to collectively address the issue. In this sense the paper expands the idea of predictive design aiming a (DiSalvo 2009), in this paper we introduce a kind of propositional design, which challenges an installed base by proposing an alternative agenda aiming at prompting reflection and discussion that can contribute to the formation of publics. This agenda is not solely build on the designers’ concerns or interests but it is collectively created through interaction with different groups of people. In this way, the page can be seen as contributing to collectively constructing an alternative that can bring people together (Seravalli 2013).

Overall, the comments in which people challenged the content of the posts were particularly interesting. They showed how the page contributed to the articulation of problematic aspects of the installed base (Star and Ruhleder 1996; Karasti 2014), in a way that collective action could be taken to mitigate undesired outcomes - such as the social construct of dyslexia as a disease (Dewey 1927). In addition, actions such as sharing, commenting and tagging pieces of content enabled people to become aware, articulate and problematize issues. In this way, the combination of the actions available in the page, the content and the people who gathered around it provided the means for discovering and expressing attachments (Marres 2007; Le Dantec and DiSalvo 2013). In addition, they enabled expressing the consequences of an issue and prompted others to enrol in it.

The Facebook page provided means to acknowledge the existence of an issue to a large audience and facilitated the engagement of a few people in action (e.g. visiting the event, providing free counselling) (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011). It also facilitated the emergence of multiple voices, therefore establishing the conditions for the formation of publics (Dewey 1927). As an example we can consider the post of the person who did not agree with the organization of the event because it would add ‘labels’. However, the formation of publics in digital platforms may strongly bias the demographics of the public, which in Dewey’s views are not exclusive to a particular social class (Dewey 1927). As a matter of fact, digital platforms require access to technology and skills to be able to participate and act. Therefore, we consider paramount to combine infrastructuring activities in the digital and the physical world. In our project we fulfilled this requirement by printing and posting the program in different places of the city and organising the public events in schools and the museum in order to engage a larger and more heterogeneous group of people.

The Facebook page also facilitated exposing design in use actions. Most importantly, these activities helped people who cared about the issue of dyslexia to take action (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011) by organising activities that crossed physical and digital boundaries. An illustrative example can be seen in the behaviour of the people who organized actions, such as offering free screening sessions, and by tagging and sharing messages they invited other people to enrol the cause. In addition, the page contributed to support new initiatives of the publics in formation. An example can be seen, with the event organized by the parents association who used the page to advertise their event in real life. This intertwining of the page with new events organised by other groups highlights the continuous entanglement of infrastructuring activities (Björgvinsson et al. 2010). Finally, it is important to notice that our personal goal of proposing an alternative did not establish a frame that would exclude the people who did not agree with it. Evidence of this point is provided by the fact that the group of cognitive scientists and the association of parents only partially adopted the proposed narrative, but they still joined the infrastructuring effort. These processes established the conditions for the formation of publics.

6.2 Understanding infrastructuring through a digital platform

The way the analytical tool reports data regarding the enactment of the Facebook page can contribute to writing an infrastructure’s biography (Pollock and Williams 2010). For example, the timeline data in Facebook Insights helps to analyse infrastructuring as a process evolving over time, which is open to changes and rooted on pre-existing conditions. These data can be complemented with data gathered through other sources, such as in-depth interviews or ethnographic fieldwork. In addition, it allows analysing the effect of different types of content, such as videos and photos, which can further contribute to the metaphor of writing a biography where different kind of media are often included. The analytical tools also allow understanding infrastructuring in the spatial scope, since they provide data on locations. In this way, they can contribute to the overlooked aspects of spatial scaling in infrastructuring (Karasti 2014). Finally, the analytical tools facilitate understanding infrastructuring in terms of engagement. Indeed, a unique aspect of the analytical tool is that it also provides data on disengagement, by showing evidence of people who gave negative feedback.

The analytics tool and how it presents the data also entails several limitations. Specifically, large part of the data is combined into compound variables, which limits their capability and represents an example of the politics of categorization (Bowker and Star 2000). Understanding their operational definition and how they are computed is a challenging task even for an experienced researcher. For example, the data regarding posts comments, clicks and shares are aggregated into a single numerical variable, disregarding their different meaning. Information on accessing, liking, commenting or sharing page posts are all considered as indicators of engagement, and they all have the same valence. However, the richness of some of the comments presented in this paper demonstrates that comments and likes do not equally contribute equally to the understanding of the infrastructuring process. In addition, data are mainly quantitative. Substantial work is necessary to gather qualitative data (such as comments and posts) by manually retrieving them from the page. These characteristics reflect the fact that the tool is mainly designed to serve business purposes, rather than to contribute to the understanding of a design intervention in richer terms.

7 Final remarks

This paper describes how a Facebook page was used as part of an effort of infrastructuring the formation of publics in the domain of dyslexia and used the log data to inform the biography of the infrastructuring project. These results can be important to infrastructuring as they show practices, and their implications, that designers could enact when engaging with digital platforms such as Facebook such as understanding the implications of promoting a page or boosting content, exposing the spatial scope of the infrastructuring effort and searching for related initiatives. Such results go beyond the enactment of a specific digital platform, and call for stronger interdisciplinary connections with, for example, sociology and anthropology to understanding the potential public and their forms of involvement -and commitment- or with public communication. In such a way, we believe, designers engaging in infrastructuring and the formation of publics can actually participate to shaping the world around them beyond a single project.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    Following the recommendations of the Australian Dyslexia Association, in this paper we use the world assessment to indicate what is often indicated by the term “diagnosis”. A focus an assessment drives educational planning and equitable provisions, rather than reinforcing a medical perspective.

  2. 2.
  3. 3.

Notes

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank all the people involved in the project, members of the interAction Lab and ODF Lab at the University of Trento for their contribution to the activities described in this paper. Thanks to Adriano Siesser for the graphic material and to Linda Tonolli for her pictures of the event. Thanks to Dan Britton for letting us use the typefont designed by him (http://danielbritton.info/dyslexia). Finally, thanks to the reviewers for their thoughtful comments which significantly improved earlier versions of this paper. This project has been possible thanks to the funding granted by EIT Digital and by the Ministero dell’Istruzione, Università e Ricerca through the research program ‘Città Educante’, project code CTN01_00034_393801.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maria Menendez-Blanco
    • 1
  • Antonella De Angeli
    • 1
    • 2
  • Maurizio Teli
    • 3
  1. 1.interAction LabUniversity of TrentoPovoItaly
  2. 2.University of LincolnLincolnUK
  3. 3.Madeira Interactive Technologies InstituteFunchalPortugal

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