Research on Vernacular Affordances in the context of a “Relationship App” (Microsoft Research)

As part of an internship at Microsoft Research New England with Nancy Baym, I studied the experiences of people who use Couple, an app target at romantic partners. I wanted to understand how people come to adapt or invent new social practices in the context of a novel platform. Couple is one among an increasing number of microsocial platforms that cater to small groups rather than large open networks. Couple’s developers tout the app as social network for two. couple-app This limited scale provided an interesting context for examining how people make sense of new communicative technology. Without an opportunity to mimic or pick up contextual cues from a broader network, partners using Couple instead have an opportunity to make sense of the app’s affordances independently and can develop highly inventive and unique communicative practices in the process. Through a series of interviews, I began to examine the kinds of language participants were using to associate a particular aspect of technology to a particular set of communicative practices. These vernacular ways of framing an affordance offered clues to how people themselves conceptualize the relationship between their communicative practices and the technologies they use. The project culminated publication for the journal Social Media & Society titled “Thinking of You: Vernacular Affordance in the Context of the Microsocial Relationship App, Couple”, where we argued 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,” but that these differences often correspond to particular ways of accounting for material structure. I’ve blogged further about the paper over at the Social Media Collective‘s site.