Affordances and Social Practice

In chapter three of Barton and Hamilton’s book, Language Online: Investigating Digital Texts and Practices, the authors discuss the concept of affordances. They argue,

Since affordances are not pre-determined, there is a limit to the usefulness of trying to list the ‘properties’ of a technology…. But the uses it is then put to by people cannot be read off from these properties. Any list of uses is provisional and changing. Ultimately, what is important are the actual uses which are made of it. This is where a social practice approach is significant in identifying what people actually do, and how they make sense of their environment… people both create and are created by their environment. In this way, affordances are socially constructed and change as people act upon their environment. Affordances affect what can be done easily and what can be done conventionally with a resource. Creativity is in part seeing new affordances and going beyond existing possibilities…. It is the ways in which people can act within the affordances of designed spaces that create different possibilities for writing. (28-29)

The idea of affordances means that while a writer or designer may intend people to use a text, artifact, or technology in a particular way, audiences often find many more uses and opportunities because the text/artifact/technology and its environment (its social context) offer additional possibilities for engagement. That is, they afford different ways of making meaning and users will exploit those for their own needs and interests. The work of literacy researchers, then, is to understand not just the intended meaning/purpose of an artifact but to look at how it actually gets used and what practices are necessary to do so.

This section reminds me of two recent news stories about how particular technologies were intended to be used and the ways in which their affordances offered other possibilities.

The first example, “The Army, the Inventor, and the Surprising Uses of a Batman Machine” comes by way of NPR’s Morning Edition (2:35 minutes).

The second example, “Russia Used Facebook to Foment Unrest Over Immigrants in the U.S.,” comes from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow (6:12 minutes).

In both stories, the authors offer examples of how technological innovations have been co-opted for other, sometimes nefarious, uses because these artifacts afford alternative interactions. Better understanding how these innovations are being taken up will also help researchers to better what people are doing and why.



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