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New Directions in Affordance Theory

October 31, 2015

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.

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