In my research, I try to describe the influence that different media have on interactional patterns and conversational structures. A recurring topic of contemplation is whether I give the medium of the interaction too much prominence here. I am well aware of the fact that the medium is not the only factor influencing the patterns that I find, but still I argue that certain aspects can be ascribed to the influence of the medium.
Here in HUMlab we have recently started a PhD course on technologically mediated communication, and we have now had our first meeting. Among other things we discussed different theoretical approaches to the role of the medium in computer-mediated settings, ranging from technological determinism to technological instrumentalism. I believe I have been able to find a middle road in my research project, since I have chosen not to focus on the qualities of the medium per se, but rather on its affordances. This is a situated approach bringing in the complete environment in the analysis, and focusing on those specific qualities of the medium that stand out to the user as being especially useful.
Unfortunately, this approach is not unproblematic. The term ‘affordance’ was first coined by J.J.Gibson, but has since been interpreted in a number of ways, ascribing different levels of importance to the role of the social context. For instance, Gaver (1996) takes a stance which is close to the technological determinism end of the scale and excludes the influence of social conventions while claiming that the affordances of the system govern interaction. Norman (1999) has a more socially based approach and argues that not only affordances, but also cultural conventions influence the behaviour that we find in HCI. I now need to decide upon a definition that captures the complementary relationship between the individual and the environment, supporting the idea that the patterns I find are seen to be influenced both by the material qualities of the medium and by the choices that people make when employing the different media, as well as by the conventions that arise as a result of groups learning to make the most of these mediated conversations.
Other topics of contemplation relating to the concept of affordances can be found in my blog.