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.

Help us expand relationship-app study to NYC, Philadelphia, and beyond!

UPDATE:

We’re now in the process of expanding this study to include other relationship apps besides Couple, including: Avocado, Between, Duet, LoveByte, etc. If you use one or more of these apps, we’d love to connect!

 

Since our earlier call for participants, I’ve been scouring the Boston area looking for people to interview who use the relationship-app, Couple (formerly Pair). Those who have participated have found it thought provoking and fun experience. We’re now expanding the in-person interview component of our study to include participants in the NYC and Philadelphia areas. We’re looking for a range of experiences, and participants can be any kind of couple, not just romantic. And if you’re in a long-distance relationship, only one of you has to live in either Boston, NYC, or Philadelphia. As before, each participant will receive a $20 gift card.

Here’s a brief description of the project from our last post.

Couple is an innovative app designed to help couples stay in touch. It’s one among an increasing number of microsocial platforms that cater to small groups rather than large networks. In the case of Couple, it’s a social network of just two. While there is a ton of research on scalable social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, not much has been done to look at people’s experiences in these small microsocial platforms. We’re seeking to change that! Joshua McVeigh-Schultz and Nancy Baym are conducting a study of relational communication within Couple.

If you don’t live in the Boston, NYC, or Philadelphia metro areas, but are still interested in this study, please let me know. (There is a good chance we’ll be organizing some Skype interviews as well in the near future.)

Participation in the study involves a 1-hour interview in which you would be share parts of your Couple timeline with us. There will be options to control what and how you share. All participants will be anonymous and any images or quotes will have identifying information removed.

If you and your partner are interested in participating, please contact Joshua McVeigh-Schultz at t-josmc _at_ Microsoft _dot_ com.

What do we know about microsocial network apps? Not enough! Help!

Couple  (previously Pair) is an innovative app designed to help couples stay in touch. It’s one among an increasing number of microsocial platforms that cater to small groups rather than large networks. In the case of Couple, it’s a social network of just two. While there is a ton of research on scalable social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, not much has been done to look at people’s experiences in these small microsocial platforms. We’re seeking to change that! Joshua McVeigh-Schultz and Nancy Baym are conducting a study of relational communication within Couple. 

If you use Couple/Pair, we’re looking for participants to take part in this study. We’re looking for a range of experiences, and participants can be any kind of couple – romantic, friends, parent-child, sibling, whatever!  Right now we’re looking for people who can come to Cambridge, MA in the next few weeks. That said, if one or both of you don’t live near Cambridge MA, but are still interested in this study, please let us know.

By participating in this study, participants would be sharing their Couple timeline with us, but there will be some options to control what and how you share. (We’ll leave it up to you which parts of the Couple timeline you’re willing to share.) All participants will be anonymous and any media we capture from the app will have identifying information removed. As a gesture of gratitude, each participant will receive a gift card of $20.

If you and your partner are interested in participating, please contact Joshua McVeigh-Schultz at t-josmc _at_ Microsoft _dot_ com.

And please feel free to forward this call to your respective networks!