Tag Archives: affordances

Facebook Fast

Facebook LogoA few posts back, I mentioned that I was giving up Facebook for Lent this year. Now that Lent is over, and I’m back on Facebook, I thought I would reflect a bit on how this limited form of a “digital sabbath” worked out.

At the start, I was concerned that this little experiment of mine might prove to be too difficult, as I really felt that I had become a bit too addicted to Facebook of late. Most of my work right now consists of long-term research, writing, and conference planning projects, so I would often check Facebook whenever I was a little bored, distracted, or just wanting to avoid doing my work. I wondered if I would actually make it until Easter, or if I would just cave part way through.

I have to admit that for the first couple of days, I often found my mouse impulsively shooting up to where the bookmark used to be in my browser window, only to be reminded by its absence of my Lenten fast. This impulse subsided after a few days though, and abstaining from Facebook turned out to be much easier than I thought it would be. I did break the fast once, to self-promote a piece published on Bloomberg.com, but other than that, I stayed off until Easter.

So what did I do with all that extra time? Some productive things, but also some unproductive things. On the productive side, I managed to read a number of books and articles I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time, and because I knew that I couldn’t break away and check Facebook when I became distracted, I found that I was better able to follow longer and more complex arguments. I also spent more time going on walks, thinking through problems, praying, and seeking direction. And I even got my sorely-neglected saxophone out of its case and did some practicing, which felt really good.

But if I was to be honest, I also spent quite a lot of time doing things on the web that were simply pale substitutes for checking Facebook. Instead of checking to see who interacted with my latest status update, I routinely checked the page view stats on my blog, hoping to get that same feeling of acceptance and legitimation. Instead of reading and seeing what my friends were up to, I compulsively read news sites, hoping to feel more in touch with what was going on. And instead of sharing interesting articles I came across with my Facebook friends, I tried tweeting them, but I don’t think anyone was listening.

So does Facebook cause me to be more distracted, or is it just a convenient tool for fulfilling my own desire to be distracted? Is it making me shallow and narcissistic, or is it just one of many places where I can feed my existing insecurities?

The answer is probably a bit of both. As I’ve argued before, each of us needs to be aware not only of our own personal vulnerabilities, but also whether the ways in which we are using our technologies are connecting with those vulnerabilities. I could try to blame Facebook for my foibles, but it’s probably more accurate to say that affordances of Facebook are very well aligned with my some of my existing vulnerabilities. If Facebook didn’t exist, I would still have those vulnerabilities, but I also need to recognize that particular ways of using Facebook might also be making them worse.

Now that Lent is over and I’m back on Facebook, I’ve been much more conscious of the ways in which it can often hit my vulnerabilities. I’ve decided to limit my usage not just in terms of time, but also in terms of what I am trying to get from it. I’ll still post things that I think others will find interesting, but I’m trying not to care how many “likes” I get, or how many comments it might solicit. I still enjoy reading what my friends are doing, but I will try not to compare myself to them and feel inadequate when I don’t measure up. In other words, I don’t simply need to use Facebook less—I need to use it differently.

In a word, I’m domesticating Facebook, altering my usage of it so that it fits better into my life, and aligns better to my stated social values. Instead of knee-jerk reactions that decry how Facebook is ruining our youth, we need to be encouraging each other to do this hard work of self-examination, being honest with ourselves about our personal vulnerabilities and the ways in which the devices and systems we use might be exacerbating those. For some, Facebook might pose little problem, but for others, some changes are probably in order. Let’s get to it.

Affordances and Vulnerabilities

Have you ever noticed how some people seem to be completely “owned” by a device, like a mobile phone for instance, while other people seem to be able to integrate that same device into their lives in a much healthier way? I have friends who constantly check their phones, even when I am trying to have a conversation with them, and other friends who carry a phone but are happy to ignore text messages and even calls when they are having in-person meetings. This also doesn’t seem to be strictly a product of age. Amongst my nieces, nephews, and students, I see the same phenomenon: some are seemingly addicted to their phones, while others are able to treat it as a useful tool that has an appropriate time and place.

In Sherry Turkle’s latest book, which I reviewed in an earlier post, she introduces a pair of concepts that I have found to be very useful in thinking about this phenomenon: technological affordances, and human vulnerabilities.

Book cover for Design of Everyday ThingsThe term ‘affordances’ actually comes from Donald Norman, the cognitive psychologist who wrote the classic book The Design of Everyday Things (a must-read for anyone involved in designing user interfaces). In that book, he defined affordances as “those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used” (9). Affordances give us clues as to how a device should be used: a flat metal plate on a door suggests pushing, while a vertical handle suggests pulling; a button suggests pushing, while a short rod sticking out a right angle suggests flipping.

The brilliance of Norman’s book is how he demonstrates these concepts on the completely mundane and often unnoticed things we use every day: doors, faucets, lights, stoves, teapots, etc. Once you read the book, you’ll never be able to look at these items in the same way again. You’ll also start to notice just how badly designed many of these things are. If a door needs a sign that says “push,” it’s a failure of design, not the users.

This same concept of affordances also works with more complicated devices. Just as the design of a door suggests a type of interaction, the design of a mobile phone (and its corresponding service) or a social networking site can also suggest one or more patterns of use. Designers “inscribe” these patterns into the physical artifacts, and systems behind them, through explicit design choices. Marketers then reinforce those by demonstrating particular patterns of use in their ads. Of course, users don’t have to follow these suggestions, and historical case studies are rife with examples of how consumers have adopted new technologies in ways that were contrary to those suggested by the manufacturer (for example, see the book How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology).

Turkle’s second and related concept is that of human vulnerabilities. Each one of us has particular needs, wants, or addictions that make us vulnerable in particular ways. For example, some people have deep seated insecurities that tend to make them vulnerable to anyone or anything that promises to make them feel more accepted and loved. Others struggle with an overwhelming need for interpersonal connection, and are thus vulnerable to anything that promises to satisfy that. Still others have a deep fear of chaos and are thus vulnerable to anything that allows them to exert control and order over their situation.

When the affordances of a device or system align well with a given person’s vulnerabilities, the results will often be unhealthy for that person. For example, someone with a high need for social interaction but a deep-seated fear of intimacy might find Facebook so alluring that it becomes almost addictive. A person with a fear of chaos and a high need for control will eagerly embrace a mobile smartphone and obsessively check email or the web.

The important point to note here is that this combination of affordances and vulnerabilities is personal and particular. There probably are some vulnerabilities that are truly universal to all humans, but most are not. Some people can walk into a casino, have a bit of fun gambling, and walk out without issue, while others will walk into that same casino and quickly fall into an addiction response. Similarly, some people can carry a mobile phone or use Facebook as helpful tools, while others fall into a pattern of use that enslaves them to the device or service. If affordances align with vulnerabilities, there’s a high likelihood that the relationship will be unhealthy, but if not, it may be perfectly fine.

I like these concepts because they offer a more nuanced way of investigating and critiquing new technologies. Too often we see shocking news articles about “on call” teens that imply this will be the fate of all teens who use a mobile phone. Or we hear a technological critic assert that “Facebook is making us shallow and narcissistic,” assuming that everyone is using it in the same way, and with the same results. These kind of universal statements don’t represent the particular and variable relationships that people have with these systems. They also don’t really help potential users (nor their parents) assess whether they will be able to adopt a new device or system in a healthy way or not.

In order to make that assessment, we need to uncover two things: the affordances (suggested, probable, and possible patterns of use) of the devices or systems in question; and our own particular vulnerabilities. The former is achieved by analyzing and deconstructing the design of the new device or system, and the latter is achieved only by reflection, introspection, and a large dose of self-knowledge and honesty. Both of these are hard to do, and the latter can often be painful, but if we truly desire a more healthy relationship with our technologies, we must endure.