Tag Archives: affordances

On Affordances, Neil Gaiman, and Google+

The term affordances was a new one to me and quite tricky for me to get my head around. The more I read about it, the more muddled the definition became. The most helpful document was ironically a paper (PDF  here) discussing the ambiguities and varying uses of the term, though even the wikipedia entry on affordances provided some guidance.

Basically as I understand it, affordances describe all the possibilities of actions of an object or tool. Depending on whose definition you follow, this includes all action possibilities or only those perceived by the “actor”… The course module refers to affordances as “can do” statements, so I’m taking the broad view of affordances as all the actions that an object/tool allows or “affords” you to do, whether intended or not.  [EDIT: I’m realizing affordances don’t necessarily have to be actions per se, but qualities.  For example, an iPod affords portability.  I think I learn better with lots of examples…]

For example, a chair affords being used as a seat, being stood upon to reach something high, and perhaps as an overkill paperweight. The latter is obviously not the intended usage, but it’s an affordance nonetheless. Likewise, Twitter has evolved into usages that were likely never envisioned by its creators (crowd-sourced poetry, stalking, alerting burglars to when you’re not home), yet these are all things that are afforded by the tool. By the way, please correct me if my interpretation of affordances is completely invalid…

My favourite author Neil Gaiman’s most recent journal entry discusses joining then quickly abandoning of Google+ and his reasons for doing so:

I found the continual stream of notifications telling me that another 500 people I did not know had put me into circles and that lots of other people I didn’t know had mentioned me really irritating and distracting, and I couldn’t turn them off or easily find the signal in the noise (or find my friends in the flood of people putting me into circles), and when I grumbled about it mildly (agreeing with Warren Ellis that I couldn’t find friends I’d actually want to put in circles among the thousands of people who I was being told were putting me in circles) a couple of hundred people explained to me that I was Doing It Wrong.

It was the “You’re Doing It Wrong” messages that were my personal tipping point. As far as I’m concerned, the mark of a good social network is that it either does what it was made to do easily and cleanly, or it’s bendy enough that you can make it do what you want. And being told “you’re trying to use it like Facebook but really it’s like Twitter!” just made me strangely nostalgic for Twitter. And as Twitter was still there, I cancelled my Google+ account, feeling at this point that I didn’t need another time sink, another place to check, another distraction from work or from life.

That sounds like an affordance issue to me. Google+ has many unadvertised affordances and perhaps a lack of desired affordances, particularly for users who will inevitably attract thousands (or millions) of followers/circlers.  I’m with Neil in that there shouldn’t really be a “wrong” way to use these social media tools.  In fact, it’s the users that will ultimately shape their usage (to an extent), exploring and uncovering all of a tool’s affordances.