New Directions in Affordance Theory

Earlier in the month, the new Sage journal Social Media & Society announced a special issue curated and written by Culture Digitally scholars. SMC’s own Tarleton Gillespie edited and wrote the issue’s Introduction along with Hector Postigo, and the two collaborators blogged about the special issue herehere, and here.

A number of articles in this issue grapple with new ways of understanding the relationship between technology and practice. In particular, two papers approach this issue by revisiting the concept of affordance.

Peter Nagy and Gina Neff argue for the term ‘imagined affordances’ to clarify a socio-technical definition of the affordance concept, one better able to address the mediated duality of materiality and communication technology. The issue also includes an article by myself and Nancy Baym that reframes the affordance concept in terms of a process of sense-making and looks to vernacular language about material structure for clues to how people themselves understand the relationship between their communicative practices and the technologies they use. Titled “Thinking of You: Vernacular Affordance in the Context of the Microsocial Relationship App, Couple”, our paper examines experiences of romantic partners who use Couple and sought to understand how people make sense of the app’s affordances and role in a broader media ecology.

We argue that affordances are not a distinct aspect of a single artifact, but rather are experienced as nested layers at different levels of scale. Likewise, affordances are not experienced in isolation but as part of a complex ecology of alternatives. Finally we found that vernacular affordances are often invoked strategically as either “choices” or “constraints”—an opposition that maps onto different ways of accounting for material structure.

Here is our abstract:

The concept of “affordance” stakes out a middle ground between social constructivism and technological determinism, seeking to account for how material qualities of technologies constrain or invite practices while also accommodating emergent meanings. Yet we know little about how people themselves understand affordances in their encounters with technology. This article treats vernacular accounts of material structure and practice as clues to the ways that people understand and negotiate technology in their everyday lives. We studied the experiences of romantic partners who use Couple, a relationship app touted as a “social network of two,” and part of an emerging class of “microsocial” platforms. Partners who use Couple have limited knowledge of how others use the app, which offered us a unique lens for witnessing how people make sense of the relationship between practice and material structure. We conducted qualitative interviews with romantic pairs who use Couple, attending to how interviewees conceived of its capabilities, features, and position within larger media ecologies. We argue that affordances simultaneously exist for people at multiple levels of scale, for example: infrastructure, device, app, feature, and so on. These levels are theoretically distinct but can intersect conceptually as people make sense of technological systems and adapt their practices, or create new ones. This approach opens up new ways of understanding the relationship between technologies and practices by drawing attention to how different vernacular frames, such as “choice” or “constraint,” reflect particular ways of accounting for material structure.

The Future of Work

The Pacific Standard magazine has been running a series where academics, business leaders, technologists and labor leaders have contributed to the discussion on the most consequential changes in labor and the future of work. We invite you to read the contributions from members of our SMC family.

“Caring for the Crowdworker going at it alone”   –>Mary L. Gray, one of our senior researchers at the SMC. She is writing a book, with computer scientist Siddharth Suri, on platform economies, digital labor, and the future of work.

In many ways, the assumption that workers no longer need a supportive or collaborative work environment and can act as self-directed actors is a fair one. Plenty of workers figure out how to find a good gig, develop routines for getting work done quickly, even find water-cooler chatter on worker-centered forums. A significant percentage of crowdworkers string together 30 to 50 hours of work, and rely on networks of peer support to maintain this level of productivity. Workers share information about how to sign up for platforms, what jobs to consider, employers to avoid, even how to do certain tasks when the task instructions leave out key details. Indeed, my time with workers shows that the API silently shifts the burden of finding, training, and retaining talent to workers’ shoulders.

“Working for the machine” –> Michael Bernstein, assistant professor of computer science at Stanford University, where he co-directs the Human-Computer Interaction group and is a Robert N. Noyce Family Faculty Scholar. His research focuses on the design of crowdsourcing and social computing systems.

The computer no longer is just our tool for doing work: it is becoming an instrument that gives us work. Online, networked societies have embarked on a massive shift to take work online, and that means an algorithm may be your next boss, or at least be your task matchmaker. Ask an Uber driver, who is told where to be and when by software. Or ask workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace, who execute information tasks for hours a day at piecework rates.

For Uber Drivers, Data is the Boss –> Alex Rosenblat, researcher and technical writer at Data & Society, a New York organization focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from data-centric technological development.

From Uber’s perspective, drivers are a stopgap solution until autonomous vehicles can replace them. The more permanent Uber employees—the data scientists—algorithmically scrutinize the drivers’ movements to determine where they should be positioned to meet passenger demand. At Uber, drivers are also data points on a screen. The data they generate as they do their work feeds Uber’s surge pricing algorithm, can help determine how long it should take a driver to complete a trip, or could be used to move into markets beyond passenger delivery.

What isn’t counted, counts –> Karen Levy, postdoctoral fellow at New York University School of Law and the Data and Society Research Institute.

Consider long-haul truckers. Most are paid according to the number of miles they drive, which are increasingly tracked by their employers via GPS-enabled “fleet management systems.” What these systems don’t track (and what drivers aren’t paid for) is the time they spend on other essentials—like safety inspections, paperwork, and waiting for hours while their freight is loaded or unloaded at crowded terminals. But because their work is measured by miles driven instead of by some other metric (say, by number of hours worked), truckers have incentives to cut corners—hurrying their safety checks, speeding, ignoring the legally mandated rest breaks meant to keep the highways safe.

See you at IR 16!

The Social Media Collective is showing up in force at Internet Research 16 in Phoenix, Arizona starting next week. Along with many friends of the SMC, there will be some of our permanent researchers (Nancy Baym, Tarleton Gillespie), postdocs current and past (Kevin Driscoll, Lana Swartz, Mike Ananny), past & present interns (Stacy Blasiola, Brittany Fiore-Gartland, Germaine Halegoua, Tero Karppi, J. Nathan Matias, Kat Tiidenberg,  Shawn Walker, Nick Seaver), past and future Visiting Researchers (Jean Burgess, Annette Markham, Susanna Paasonen, Hector Postigo, TL Taylor), and our past Research Assistants (Kate Miltner and Alex Leavitt). Hope to see you there!

Below is a list of papers and panels they will be presenting:




Digital Methods in Internet Research

Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Tim Highfield, Tama Leaver, Ben Light, Patrik Wikstrom




Beyond Big Bird: The Role of Humor in the Aggregate Interpretation of Live-Tweeted Events

11:00 am – 12:20 pm

Alex Leavitt, Kristen Guth, Kevin Driscoll, François Bar

ROUNDTABLE: Teaching Ethics in Big Data and Social Media: Bridging Theory and Practice in the Classroom

11:00 am- 12:20 pm

Shawn Thomas Walker, Anna Lauren Hoffmann, Jim Thatcher

You [Don’t] Gotta Pay the Troll Toll: A Transaction Costs Model of Online Harassment

1:30 pm – 2:50 pm

Stacy Blasiola

PANEL: Facebook’s Futures

1:30 pm, -2:50 pm

Tero Jukka Karppi, Andrew Richard Schrock, Andrew Herman, Fenwick McKelvey

ROUNDTABLE: Unpacking the Black Box of Qualitative Analysis: Exploring How the Imaginaries of Digital Inquiry are Constructed through Everyday Research Practice

3:10 pm -4:30 pm

Annette N Markham, Nancy K. Baym, T.L. Taylor, Lynn Schofield Clark, Jill Walker Rettberg

ROUNDTABLE: It’s Really About Ethics in Games Research: Reflections on #GamerGate

3:10 pm- 4:30 pm

Shira Chess, Adrienne Shaw, Adrienne Massanari, Christopher Paul, Kate Miltner, Casey O’Donnell

The Role of Breakdown in Imagining Big Data: Impediment to Insight to Innovation

3:10 pm- 4:30 pm

Anissa Tanweer, Brittany Fiore-Gartland, Cecilia Aragon

***The Nancy Baym Book Award will be  presented to Robert Gehl for Reverse Engineering Social Media at the banquet on Thursday night




Singing Data Over the Phone: A Social History of the Modem

9:00 am – 10:20 am

Kevin Driscoll

PANEL: Karma Policing: Re-imagining what we can (and can’t) post on the Internet

9:00 am – 10:20 am

Michael Burnam-Fink, Katrin Tiidenberg, John Carter McKnight, Cindy Tekobbe

ROUNDTABLE: Real and Imagined Boundaries: Building Connections Between Social Justice Activists and Internet Researchers

10:40 am – 12:00 pm

Catherine Knight Steele, Andre Brock, Annette Markham


ROUNDTABLE: Private Platforms under Public Pressure

10:40 am – 12:00 pm

Tarleton Gillespie, Mike Ananny, Christian Sandvig & J. Nathan Matias

ROUNDTABLE: Histories of Hating

10:40 am- 12:00 pm

Tamara Shepherd, Sam Srauy, Kevin Driscoll, Lana Swartz, Hector Postigo

The Challenges of Weibo for Data-Driven Digital Media Research

10:40 am – 12:00 pm

Jing Zeng, Jean Burgess, Axel Bruns

PANEL: Economies of the Internet II: Affect

1:00 pm – 2:20 pm

Sharif Mowlabocus, Nancy Baym, Susanna Paasonen, Dylan Wittkower, Kylie Jarrett

PANEL: Internet Research Ethics: New Contexts, New Challenges – New (Re)solutions?

Charles Melvin Ess, Annette Markham, Mark D. Johns, Yukari Seko, Katrin Tiidenberg, Camilla Granholm, Ylva Hård af Segerstad, Dick Kasperowski

Parks and Recommendation: Spatial Imaginaries in Algorithmic Systems

2:40 pm – 4:00 pm

Nick Seaver

Re-placeing the City: Digital Navigation Technologies and the Experience of Urban Place

2:40 pm – 4:00 pm

Germaine R. Halegoua


ROUNDTABLE: Compromised Data? Research on Social media platforms

4:20 pm- 5:40 pm

Greg Elmer, Ganaele Langlois, Joanna Redden, Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Robert Gehl

FISHBOWL: Exploring “Internet Culture”: Discourses, Boundaries, and Implications

4:20 pm – 5:40 pm

Kate Miltner, Ryan M. Milner, Whitney Phillips, Megan Sapnar Ankerson




FISHBOWL: The Quantified Imaginary

9:00 am – 10:20 am

Lee Humphreys, Jean Burgess, Joseph Turow

Imaginary Inactivity and the Share Button

9:00 am- 10: 20 am

Airi-Alina Allaste, Katrin Tiidenberg

ROUNDTABLE: ‘Black Box’ Data and ‘Flying Furball’ Networks: Challenges and Opportunities in Doing and Communicating Social Media Analytics

1:30 pm – 2:50 pm

Axel Bruns, Anders Olof Larsson, Katrin Weller

ROUNDTABLE: Ethics and Social Justice Meeting: Discussing AOIR Committees and Mission

3:10 pm – 4:30 pm

Annette N Markham, Jenny Stromer Galley, Catherine Knight Steele

new essay from SMC visitor Tom Streeter, on the persistent fascination with Steve Jobs

SMC is excited to welcome Tom Streeter, who will be soon making occasional visits to our New England lab, beginning later this month. To mark his arrival, we wanted to highlight the essay he has just published in the International Journal of Communication“Steve Jobs, Romantic Individualism, and the Desire for Good Capitalism.” (Borrowing from the summary provided by IJOC here:)

The essay explains how that story and its repetition tell us more about the culture than the man. Building on previous work about the rise of “romantic individualism” as an organizing mechanism for high-tech capitalism, this essay focuses on the latest outpouring of discourse about Jobs since his death in 2011, analyzing both its continuities with past cultural forms and what it is about the present moment that has intensified the discourse—especially the post-2008 crisis of confidence in financial capitalism. Among other things, the tale offers the appealing, if ultimately unrealistic, hope of a capitalism with integrity, of a one-percenter who deserves it.

The Social Media Collective is Hiring Postdocs

The Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for two social media postdoctoral researchers (start date: 5 July, 2016). This position is an ideal opportunity for a scholar whose work draws on anthropology, communication, media studies, sociology, and/or science and technology studies to bring empirical and critical perspectives to complex socio-technical issues. Application deadline: Friday 6 November, 2015.

Microsoft Research provides a vibrant multidisciplinary research environment, with an open publications policy and close links to top academic institutions around the world. Postdoctoral researcher positions provide emerging scholars (PhDs received late 2015 or to be conferred by July 2016) an opportunity to develop their research career and to interact with some of the top minds in the research community. Postdoctoral researchers define their own research agenda. Successful candidates will have a well-established research track record as demonstrated by journal publications and conference papers, as well as participation on program committees, editorial boards, and advisory panels.

While each of the Microsoft Research labs has openings in a variety of different disciplines, this position with the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England specifically seeks social science/humanities candidates with critical approaches to their topics. Qualifications include a strong academic record in anthropology, communication, media studies, sociology, science and technology studies, or a related field. The ideal candidate may be trained in any number of disciplines, but should have a strong social scientific or humanistic methodological, analytical, and theoretical foundation, be interested in questions related to technology or the internet and society or culture, and be interested in working in a highly interdisciplinary environment that includes computer scientists, mathematicians, and economists.

The Social Media Collective is comprised of full-time researchers, postdocs, visiting faculty, Ph.D. interns, and research assistants. Current projects in New England include:

– How does the use of social media affect relationships between artists and audiences in creative industries, and what does that tell us about the future of work? (Nancy Baym)

– How are social media platforms, through algorithmic design and user policies, adopting the role of intermediaries for public discourse? (Tarleton Gillespie)

– What are the cultural, political, and economic implications of crowdsourcing as a new form of semi-automated, globally-distributed digital labor? (Mary L. Gray)

– How are predictive analytics used by law enforcement and what are the implications of new data-driven surveillance practices? (Sarah Brayne)

– What are the social and political consequences of popular computing folklore? (Kevin Driscoll)

– How are the technologies of money changing and what are the social implications of those changes? (Lana Swartz)

SMC postdocs may have the opportunity to visit and collaborate with our sister Social Media Collective members in New York City. Related projects in New York City include:

– What are the politics, ethics, and policy implications of big data science? (Kate Crawford, MSR-NYC)

– What are the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric technological development? (danah boyd, Data & Society Research Institute)

Postdoctoral researchers receive a competitive salary and benefits package, and are eligible for relocation expenses.  Postdoctoral researchers are hired for a two-year term appointment following the academic calendar, starting in July 2016. Applicants must have completed the requirements for a PhD, including submission of their dissertation, prior to joining Microsoft Research. We encourage those with tenure-track job offers from other institutions to apply, so long as they can defer their start date to accept our position.

To apply for a postdoc position at MSRNE:

Submit an online application here.

– On the application website, indicate that your research area of interest is “Anthropology, Communication, Media Studies, and Sociology” and that your location preference is “New England, MA, U.S.” in the pull down menus. IF YOU DO NOT MARK THESE PREFERENCES WE WILL NOT RECEIVE YOUR APPLICATION. 

– In addition to your CV and names of three referees (including your dissertation advisor) that the online application requires, upload the following 3 attachments with your online application:

  1. two journal articles, book chapters, or equivalent writing samples (uploaded as two separate attachments);
  2. a single research statement (four page maximum length) that does the following: outlines the questions and methodologies central to your research agenda (~two page); provides an abstract and chapter outline of your dissertation (~one page); offers a description of how your research agenda relates to research conducted by the Social Media Collective (~one page)

After you submit your application, a request for letters will be sent to your list of referees on your behalf. NOTE: THE APPLICATION SYSTEM WILL NOT REQUEST REFERENCE LETTERS UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE SUBMITTED YOUR APPLICATION! Please warn your letter writers in advance so that they will be ready to submit them when they receive the prompt. The email they receive will automatically tell them they have two weeks to respond but that an individual call for applicants may have an earlier deadline. Please ensure that they expect this and are prepared to submit your letter by our application deadline of Friday 6 November, 2015. Please make sure to check back with your referees if you have any questions about the status of your requested letters of recommendation. You can check the progress on individual reference requests at any time by clicking the status tab within your application page. Note that a complete application must include three submitted letters of reference.

For more information, see here.

Feel free to ask questions about the position in the comments below.