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Imagined Affordance: Reconstructing a Keyword for Communication Theory

In this essay, we reconstruct a keyword for communication—affordance. Affordance, adopted from ecological psychology, is now widely used in technology studies, yet the term lacks a clear definition. This is especially problematic for scholars grappling with how to theorize the relationship between technology and sociality for complex socio-technical systems such as machine-learning algorithms, pervasive computing, the Internet of Things, and other such “smart” innovations. Within technology studies, emerging theories of materiality, affect, and mediation all necessitate a richer and more nuanced definition for affordance than the field currently uses. To solve this, we develop the concept of imagined affordance. Imagined affordances emerge between users’ perceptions, attitudes, and expectations; between the materiality and functionality of technologies; and between the intentions and perceptions of designers. We use imagined affordance to evoke the importance of imagination in affordances—expectations for technology that are not fully realized in conscious, rational knowledge. We also use imagined affordance to distinguish our process-oriented, socio-technical definition of affordance from the “imagined” consensus of the field around a flimsier use of the term. We also use it in order to better capture the importance of mediation, materiality, and affect. We suggest that imagined affordance helps to theorize the duality of materiality and communication technology: namely, that people shape their media environments, perceive them, and have agency within them because of imagined affordances.

Peter Nagy and Gina Neff. 2015. “Imagined Affordance: Reconstructing a Keyword for Communication Theory,” Social Media + Society, July-December 2015: 1–9. DOI: 10.1177/2056305115603385

Imagined Affordance: Reconstructing a Keyword for Communication Theory

In this essay, we reconstruct a keyword for communication—affordance. Affordance, adopted from ecological psychology, is now widely used in technology studies, yet the term lacks a clear definition. This is especially problematic for scholars grappling with how to theorize the relationship between technology and sociality for complex socio-technical systems such as machine-learning algorithms, pervasive computing, the Internet of Things, and other such “smart” innovations. Within technology studies, emerging theories of materiality, affect, and mediation all necessitate a richer and more nuanced definition for affordance than the field currently uses. To solve this, we develop the concept of imagined affordance. Imagined affordances emerge between users’ perceptions, attitudes, and expectations; between the materiality and functionality of technologies; and between the intentions and perceptions of designers. We use imagined affordance to evoke the importance of imagination in affordances—expectations for technology that are not fully realized in conscious, rational knowledge. We also use imagined affordance to distinguish our process-oriented, socio-technical definition of affordance from the “imagined” consensus of the field around a flimsier use of the term. We also use it in order to better capture the importance of mediation, materiality, and affect. We suggest that imagined affordance helps to theorize the duality of materiality and communication technology: namely, that people shape their media environments, perceive them, and have agency within them because of imagined affordances.

Communication, Mediation, and the Expectations of Data: Data Valences Across Health and Wellness Communities

Communication technologies increasingly mediate data exchanges rather than human communication. We propose the term data valences to describe the differences in expectations that people have for data across different social settings. Building on two years of interviews, observations, and participation in the communities of technology designers, clinicians, advocates, and users for emerging mobile data in formal health care and consumer wellness, we observed the tensions among these groups in their varying expectations for data. This article identifies six data valences (self-evidence, actionability, connection, transparency, “truthiness,” and discovery) and demonstrates how they are mediated and how they are distinct across different social domains. Data valences give researchers a tool for examining the discourses around, practices with, and challenges for data as they are mediated across social settings.

Brittany Fiore-Gartland and Gina Neff, “Communication, Mediation, and the Expectations of Data: Data Valences Across Health and Wellness Communities,” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015), 1466–1484 DOI: 1932–8036/20150005.

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