As social media platforms have come to play an increasingly central role in mediating communication and culture, the humanities and social sciences have incorporated various computational and digitally-enabled methods into their work. In this presentation, I will discuss and draw on my own research to illustrate the specific set of approaches in digital media and communication studies known as “digital methods”. Here, building and extending on Richard Rogers’ definition, digital methods are understood as “the methods of the medium” – that is, the practice of using the affordances, structures and tools provided by or associated with platforms in order to study and critique how they mediate society and culture.
While earlier work used techniques like web scraping, since the emergence of the platform paradigm, where a small number of proprietary platforms dominate the digital media environment, much digital methods work has come to rely on gaining access to data through platform APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). These tools were generally created by proprietary platforms as part of the mid-2000s Web 2.0 paradigm and its associated ethos of open innovation: for the most part, they were developed primarily to enable third-party developers to add value to the core service or product for the benefit of end users; academics have benefited as a secondary consequence of this business model. But the third-party innovation ecosystem is rapidly evaporating: more centralised, in-house models have arisen with the dominance of a small number of large platforms; and API access is progressively being shut down, especially in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. I conclude by, firstly, mapping out some of the possible futures of digital methods in this environment, including new hybrid approaches to platform analysis; and secondly, by suggesting some of the parameters for research ethics, which will require institutional coordination and support.