The Concept of Affordances in Digital Media
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This chapter outlines the origins and meaning of the concept of affordances, presents some examples, and discusses its relevance to studies of digital media. It suggests that the uniquely socially malleable nature of digital media, the variety of uses they engender, and the simultaneous awareness of the limitations of the mediated interaction that they allow, explain the increased use of affordances in analyses of digital media.
KeywordsAffordances Blogs Digital media Genre Digital literacies Social media
It is increasingly common to see the concept of ‘affordances’ being used in digital studies. An early example was Wellman et al.’s “The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism” (2003), while more recent examples include Treem and Leonardi (2012), or Germann Molz and Paris (2013). The term was coined by a psychologist, James Gibson, who was trying to explain how people and animals take action based on direct perceptions of the utility of components of their physical environment. It then moved into the field of design and technology through Donald Norman in the late 1980s, and from there it drifted into the field of human-computer interaction and computer-mediated communication. This chapter outlines the origins and meaning of affordances, presents some examples, and discusses its relevance to studies of digital media.
2 Relational Affordances
There is no doubt that digital media are exerting a significant influence on interpersonal and sociocultural patterns of interaction. They are introducing the possibility of new socialities (e.g. Postill and Pink 2012) – new ways of ‘being social’ – as well as allowing a restructuring of personal, local, and global networks in new and transformative ways. However, a clear lesson from analyses of the internet so far is that we must always be careful to avoid favouring meta-narratives at the expense of the particular, local, and granular forms of interaction practiced by individuals, acting in accord with socioculturally informed, and personally formed, intentions. People connect with other people through digital media and these mediated connections influence, to some degree, how they integrate their sociocultural environment with their actions and sense of identity. However, individual agency and cultural forces matter, and digital media do not have impact in the same way, everywhere, and all the time.
When Gibson invented the noun ‘affordance’, he explained that it “implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment” (Gibson 1986, 127) – an object offers the potential to be used in various ways, however different animals cannot all use it in the same way. For example, to a water strider insect, a pond’s surface has the affordance of support, but to a human it does not – hence, “an affordance of support for a species of animal [has] to be measured relative to the animal” (Gibson 1986, 127; original emphasis). Affordances are thus relational. They are limited by physical properties of the object, but they are actualised – they come into existence – in relationship with the user. Gibson uses another example: saying that “affordance is relative to the size of the individual” (Gibson 1986, 127), he notes how a toddler cannot easily sit on chair that comes up to her shoulders – instead, the chair may become an opportunity to practice standing and walking.
This line of thought merged with the debate that introduced the concept of ‘sociotechnology’ (e.g. Pfaffenberger 1992), and the appeal of affordances equally stems from the need to avoid positioning technology as determinative of particular sociocultural outcomes, or situating the use of technology as completely socially constructed. Nonetheless, there is a place for a form of “‘soft’ determinism” (MacKenzie and Wajcman 1999, 4) that acknowledges the limitations and directional pressures that technologies place upon their uses. As Graves suggests, the “real power of the concept of a technological ‘affordance’ derives […] from the way it hints that potential exerts its own pull” (Graves 2007, 335). The verb ‘to afford’ means that it is not the outcome alone that we look at, but also the technology, and see what it allows and/or suggests. Thus, in using affordances we do not ignore the way in which technologies can, and often do, put users on particular paths.
The term seems to have remained in the realm of cognitive psychology until Donald Norman’s 1998 book, “The Psychology of Everyday Things”1 where he used affordances to discuss how tools and objects need to be designed so that their intended use – that is, the intended affordance – is clear to the user. This is signalled to the user through perceptual clues – for example, an ergonomic handle on a knife looks much safer to hold than the blade, and its shape means when it is picked up, the easiest way to hold the handle is with the sharp edge of the blade facing downwards. As the term spread, Norman noticed that designers would erroneously refer to the perceptual clue – such as when a computer cursor changes into a little hand when positioned over a hyperlink – as an affordance. Because of this, he later distinguished between ‘real’ and ‘perceived’ affordances (Norman 1999), and in 2013 restated this distinction by referring to the latter as ‘signifiers’ (Norman 2013, 13–20). Thus, when the cursor changes to a little hand, this signifies that a new possibility for action is available, and is also designed to suggest to the user that he tap on the link.
Historically, the mouse cursor was a significant development of the Graphical User Interface (GUI), a design approach that transformed the accessibility of personal computers to relatively untrained users (e.g. Norman 2013, 20). A computer’s affordances exist independently from what the screen shows (Norman 1999, 40), and the GUI is the primary mechanism by which the uses of computers are signalled to users.2 These signals are interpreted through cultural lenses, and it is interesting to note that Gibson did not limit his discussion of affordances to the physical environment, noting that the “richest and most elaborate affordances of the environment are [for humans] provided by […] other people” (Gibson 1986, 135). These rich and elaborate sociocultural environments are diverse and subjective, and the coded affordances built into programs are also created by people with diverse social, cultural, economic, or even political, intentions. In addition, software can be easily updated and changed, and this malleability suggests that digital media is a uniquely human technology – perhaps the most human of all technologies – that can be considered alongside other abstract human creations such as language or art.
A related issue is that of digital literacies. In the example of the mouse cursor above, the user would not know the meaning of the changing cursor unless she was already familiar with the use of the mouse, or at least a touch screen. This highlights the relevance of pre-existing literacies – the ability to ‘read’ such signals and act upon them. Thus, Norman also emphasises relationality and notes that the “presence of an affordance is jointly determined by the qualities of the object and the abilities of the agent that is interacting” (Norman 2013, 11). In this example, the affordance exists because the web browser has been coded to identify and signal hyperlinks, combined with the ability of the user to respond to the visual cue by clicking the mouse. Whereas considering how software is developed reminds us of the social malleability of (digital) technology, considering digital literacies emphasises the limitations to uses in everyday practice. A small minority of software users may be able to hack into software and change it, but for most users the interface has a utilitarian materiality with which they engage as “worldly artefact[s]” (Hutchby 2003, 586), using the features as given, and without seeking to change them.
In 2001, Ian Hutchby developed affordances into an analysis of technology and society, and his definition of affordances as “functional and relational aspects which frame, while not determining, the possibilities for agentic action in relation to an object” (Hutchby 2001, 444) is often cited. Analysing “the technological shaping of sociality” (Hutchby 2001, 441), he addresses the perennial technodeterminist debate by arguing that affordances offer a ‘“third way’ between the ([social] constructivist) emphasis on the shaping power of human agency and the (realist) emphasis on the constraining power of technical capacities” (Hutchby 2001, 444). For example, discussing telephones, he suggests that “there may be specific forms of interaction” that have developed as a result of “a complex interplay between the normative structures of conversational interaction and [telephones’] communicative affordances” (Hutchby 2001, cited in Hutchby 2003, 585; original emphasis).
There are many examples of affordances being used in analyses of digital media (see e.g. Schrock 2015; Treem and Leonardi 2012), but this chapter will restrict itself to three examples that address different platforms.
3 Affording Interaction
Although she did not specifically refer to affordances, a look at an early study by Nancy Baym shows one way in which the concept of affordances helps to explain digital media practices. At the time, she was responding to earlier research that argued that due to the lack of co-presence, the internet encouraged anti-social behaviour (e.g. ‘trolls’), and undermined any attempts to form meaningful or lasting relationships online. In her research, she demonstrated how there were four “Emergent Social Dynamics” (Baym 1995, 151) that enabled meaningful and lasting communities to form.
She focused on soap opera fans who gathered online in a Usenet forum, an early social media platform based around what would now probably be understood as discussion forums. To think more about affordances, what the Usenet platform allowed users to do and what its limitations were, have to be taken into consideration. A Usenet forum allowed users to exchange information via a text-based platform (interactivity), and the fact that they did not have to be online at the same time made this process easier (asynchronous communication). The text exchanges were visible to all who were part of the group, and they shared these collective experiences – enabling many to form relatively stabilised social and personally meaningful relations in emergent groups. However, the most basic limitation of the internet was present – there is no co-presence, the flip side of the affordance of decorporalisation. The relationships that formed between users developed in spite of the lack of co-presence and thus an emergent affordance of the Usenet groups can be identified: decorporalised interactivity.
Rather than accepting the filtering out of social cues, CMC [computer-mediated communication] users invented, and continue to invent, new ones. Smiley faces, graphic icons built out of punctuation marks, are used for a variety of purposes often served by facial expressions or vocal intonations. They smile (:-)), wink mischievously (;-)), and frown (:-(). They may indicate that a comment be taken as humorous or sarcastic. They may indicate good spirits, disappointment, surprise, and a range of other emotions. They may also suggest general friendliness. (Baym 1995, 152)
These emoticons – that were collected in “smiley face dictionaries” for consultation (Baym 1995, 152) – are now a familiar part of internet communication, but this early example illuminates some of their development, and identifying the relevant affordance allows a specific description of the role of the technology. The fact that the internet affords decorporalised interactivity means that users seek to develop ways to represent non-verbal language in textual format. Although technology can be made to serve specific social purposes, it cannot be bent in any way wanted. Users did not have to interact on these forums, and many simply ‘lurked’ while enjoying the content. For those who did want to interact, while “writ[ing] themselves into being” (Sundén 2003, cited in Boyd 2006), they had to negotiate the affordances. This writing becomes a communicative genre, and the next section looks at how genre can help to understand affordances.
4 Affording Genres
Drawing on Gibson, and Hutchby, Graves (2007, 340–2) identifies three particular affordances of news-related blogs. The first, ‘reader input,’ is the ability for readers to respond directly in the comments of a blog post, or in their own blog. As a networked activity, this enables a spontaneous crowd sourcing of knowledge that can go beyond the resources of any established news outlet. The second is ‘fixity’ – blog posts remain online indefinitely, subject to accumulation, rediscovery and redistribution in ways that can impact public opinion in contexts different to those of their creation. Third, ‘juxtaposition’ is the ability to place politicians’ quotes and/or other facts alongside each other in order to effectively highlight discrepancies. He notes that this is not an exhaustive list, and that another affordance – ‘editorial freedom’ – should be seen as relevant too, though not only to news-related blogs.
He adds to a further reading of affordances as relational by explaining that an emergent genre such as the news-related blog can be understood as a “manifest set of communicative affordances […] giving expression to features and norms that a developing technology has […] made possible” (Graves 2007, 343). Also discussing an emerging genre – the online diary – Lüders et al. (2010, 956) argue that genres “specify and generalize communication, ensuring coordination of specific practices involving many people” (Lüders et al. 2010, 950). People reorganise themselves around and through genres, and the limitations embedded in the blog platforms generate particular dynamics and patterns of communicative practices that draw upon existing conventions, but also create new ones. Underlying the plasticity of software, Graves further argues that “how people actually use the object will be one factor guiding the development of the core technology and thus shaping the affordances of future iterations of the object” (Graves 2007, 337). Therefore it becomes clear how the production, the use, and the properties of the technology itself dynamically interact, and that identifying the affordances as nodes helps to explicate the resultant assemblage – a dynamic combination of technologies, practices, and persons.
5 Affording Mobile Communication
Schrock argues for an increasing relevance of affordances in empirical communication research. Defining communicative affordances as “an interaction between subjective perceptions of utility and objective qualities of the technology that alter communicative practices or habits […; and as] framings for action activated by individuals in pursuit of strategic goals” (Schrock 2015, 1238), he outlines four that relate specifically to mobile media: portability, availability, locatability, and multimediality. Each one is associated with practices – for example, locatability is associated with surveillance, and availability with “increased frequency of communication across different physical locations” (Schrock 2015, 1237). By avoiding an exclusive focus on features, he argues that affordances add to the study of communication by allowing comparison over time and across specific technologies – for example, affordances of wearable technologies may “carry over from mobile media” (Schrock 2015, 1239), and in turn, the portability of mobile media has some similarities with printed books (Schrock 2015, 1236). He also argues that whereas Gibson’s approach was focused on the direct perception of utility based on needs (e.g. a dog perceiving a porch as an opportunity to shelter from the rain), utility can also be perceived in relation to goals that precede the use of a medium – for example, using a social network site to announce the birth of a child. Understanding affordances with relation to perceptions of utility that derive from our human ability to reflect on our situation, set ourselves a goal, and recalibrate our actions as we advance towards it, reemphasises human agency and helps to explain both how users may adapt new technologies to existing practices, as well as develop new practices suggested or framed by these technologies.
6 Conclusion: The Potential of Affordances
Digital media are a uniquely malleable form of materiality, and perhaps the increasing use of affordances in digital studies is because of the way in which the production of software lays bare the sociality of technology – especially that which aims specifically to mediate social interactions, such as a social network site – and the ways in which unanticipated uses often came to the fore through user interactions and social relations. However, it is also the case that most users operate within the limitations coded into the digital media, re-emphasising the relevance of the dynamic momentum of materiality that also finds expression in the concept of ‘path dependence’ (MacKenzie and Wajcman 1999), or what Treem & Leonardi refer to when they note that “the affordances of one technology are often the same or similar across diverse organizational settings because the material features of the technology place limits on the kinds of interpretations people can form of it and the uses to which it can be put” (Treem and Leonardi 2012, 146). Digital media and their users can be thought of as a relatively stabilised assemblage where the affordances are key nodes around which the interpersonal interactions and emerging relations with other persons need to navigate. Affordances address the relationality of technology and humans in a way that speaks to these types of experiences. The practices associated with digital media can usually be explained by combining a detailed knowledge of the limitations built into the technologies, and the social context that triggers users’ experimentation and the testing of those limits.
As a final point, to suggest possible future developments in the use of affordances, it is worth noting that a distinction is often made between the ‘features’, or ‘functions’ of software and its affordances. The implication that only those activities that are carried out by a human (or an organism) in interaction with a technological ‘feature’ can be classified as an affordance is a reasonable interpretation of Gibson’s original argument, but it means that the significance of the non-human, and human to human, interactions may be passed over. As Graves has argued, the recognition of non-material agency in affordances is one of its central advantages, but this is sometimes overlooked. Sun’s distinction between ‘instrumental affordances’ which emerge “from use interactions in the material context”, and ‘social affordances’ which are “on the activity level emerging from use interactions in the socio-cultural and historical context” (Sun 2004, 57) also points to this tension. The ‘features’ or ‘properties’ of a software platform are explicitly coded aspects, and can be seen as affordances that were enabled by an underlying level of the sociotechnology. To develop this insight, we can draw upon actor-network theory’s emphasis on the interleaving of human and non-human agency, and there is an argument that would see affordances as nested in each other, linked in chains that resonate (e.g. Michael 2002: 19–26, 66). In this light, it could be considered that for each emergent digital platform, there are ‘basic’ affordances that lay its ontological foundation, and ‘emergent’ affordances that may or may not be actualised, depending on user interactions. However, this last point is proposed as an idea in progress, and is open to debate.
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