Affordances in Online Communication, part 2: New media

Part 1 of this essay contained important background on the way I’m going to use the term “affordance” as what an object tells you it can be used for, based on your understanding of the rules, of your capabilities, and of the context.

Interaction as action

I’ve used hammers and knobs and chairs as examples, so far, because they’re easy to understand for nearly everyone.

Burg Hohenzollern lion door handle (Rebecca Kennison). This lion affords knocking!

But some of our most important social interactions happen in the realm of communication exchanged with others. And communication affordances matter too.

Face-to-face conversation (hereafter FTF), using words, facial expressions, posture, gaze, and subvocalizations, is the first and among the most powerful forms of our communication tools. It’s the default — or was, until recently — and so we forget what it affords and what it makes harder.

FTF affords communication of concepts, yes, but where it excels is communication of the connection between individuals.

A sample conversation

People talking, probably telling stories. (David Nichols)

A quick scenario: you and a friend are talking, perhaps at a cocktail party. A common friend walks up, sees that you are engaged, and stands by until you turn your head slightly toward them.

Your conversational partner reads your slight smile, and switches her eyes to the new person; finally, she nods slightly, and then the new person speaks.

So what was all that?

About six things happened in there. (Conversation Analysis calls this speaker introduction and speaker selection.)

1. First, the new person was able to observe your relative distance, posture, gaze angle, and body axis positioning (whether you and your friend were facing each other, or had shoulders and hips off to an angle, or were both looking at a third thing; or rarer circumstances, like one behind the other). These clues don’t say a thing just by themselves — but your observer was raised in a particular culture, where each of these things is some sort of indication.

(We humans are generally more used to encountering problems here because cultures differ on what proximity means; the introvert/extrovert divide is often exacerbated by disagreement on what eye angle means. I haven’t read a survey of body axis across cultures, but that’d be interesting.)

2. The new person decides, perhaps subconsciously, that you’re busy. She does this based on all of the above; the conversation affords interruption, but not strongly so. She decides her interruption is worth waiting for. And so she pauses, silent, with a non-intrusive but non-averted gaze.

3. You both see her approach, and make a small non-reaction — you don’t immediately stop talking, or turn away, or scowl, or anything that would defend the conversational space. Our society is largely implicit, and joining a conversation is usually alright, so she takes this as a passive invitation. (In other contexts, the conversation would not afford joining — for example, if you were facing each other tightly and seated together, or in a more private space.)

4. You and your conversation partner come to a natural pause point in the conversation by mutual agreement; negotiated with intonation, gaze angle, shifting of weight, word choice, and other means. If the person waiting is important or things look time-critical, you may self-interrupt sooner — or even without a lack of mutual agreement. This will cause a social ripple that needs to be smoothed over with a half-smile or a titter or a mumbled “sorry”, or any of a number of other means.

5. There is a quick negotiation over who should greet the new person. This happens in a half-second or less, again by the above means. Usually in our society it falls on the person who has a stronger attachment to the interrupted; or, if there is a big divide in social standing, by the more important person. (If this occurs, usually the more-important person explicitly hands off the duty: “So, does your friend have a question for me, too?”)

6. The person selected as a greeter — or both of you nearly simultaneously, if you can’t come to an agreement in less than a half-second or so — look at the new person, or change body position to include them.

All that happens in one second, and no one remarks on it unless it fails. That’s what FTF affords, and it does it damn well.

It does it for a variety of reasons; to start:

1. Participants can hear and see each other.

2. They can see each other seeing each other.

3. They have access to a wide variety of extra-textual communication channels (posture, angle, facial expression).

These are dimensions of conversation that Herb Clark calls ‘constraints’; specifically, visibility, copresence, audability, cotemporality (participants are paying attention at the same time), and simultaneity (participants may contribute at the same time). He identified eight of these, including some that conversation doesn’t provide — reviewability, for example, which lets a new person joining the interaction review what has occurred; or revisability, which allows you to change what you said.

(Some argue conversation does have the revisability, but I argue it doesn’t. You can’t take back what you said; you can only ask your listeners to leave it aside.)

These ‘constraints’ aren’t affordances; instead, they’re categories for the capabilities of a communication mechanism. Email has reviewability but not simultaneity. Video chat has visibility and cotemporality, but not reviewability. And so forth.

In this parlance, the hammer has the ‘hittability’ capability; a hand has ‘twistability’ but not ‘rippability’. Being new capabilities, they change what people think they can do: they change how people perceive both the mechanism and the task, in this case, the interaction.

in this way they change the affordances of interaction.

New media, new ways to interact

You wouldn’t expect to be able to privately speak to a thousand people at once; but a podcast can.

You can’t publically speak to a thousand people; with a bullhorn you can, but not like you could speak to each of the individually.

If you have a microphone and they have earbuds, you can coordinate a flashmob in just this way, in a way you couldn’t with either your voice alone or a bullhorn.

Flash Mob Classical Concert at Place des Nations Geneva, by the U.S. Mission Geneva / Eric Bridiers.

Sometimes a new medium enables new actions that the old ones didn’t. This opens up new ways to interact, and new ways people think about interacting.

That’s sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing; more on that later, when we talk about the impact of these new interaction media.

Remember that “joining a conversation” interaction outlined above? It also works for two additional, important reasons:

4. The mechanism of face-to-face communication has been refined and honed over tens of thousands of years of practice; possibly millions. It may be in our genes at this point (mirror circuits, the face-mood circuit), or we may have zeroed in on a communication style that makes use of that stuff.

5. We’re trained and socialized in this method from birth.

These are really important. We’ve lived with “voices and faces in public spaces” for millenia, and we’ve figured out what works. And we teach it to each other — implicitly, explicitly, erroneously or fluently.

But what about online communication?

Online tools afford certain kinds of interaction, and it’s hard to realize what those are without investigating carefully. And each new medium is new, with new affordances and capabilities, and therefore new challenges; and newbies show up to each medium constantly.

And so, much of online communication SUCKS at this stuff.

In part three, I’ll break down a few ‘new’ media specifically, and talk about what they afford; what they make easy, and what they make harder, and the social implications of that.

References (partial)

Brennan, S. (1998) The Grounding Problem in Conversations With and Through Computers. In S. R. Fussell & R. J. Kreuz (Eds.), Social And Cognitive Psychological Approaches To Interpersonal Communication, pp. 201–225.

Clark, H., and Wilkes-Gibbs, D. (1986). Referring as a collaborative process. Cognition, 22, 1–39.

Clark, H. and Brennan, S. (1991) Grounding In Communication. In Clark and Brennan (Eds.) Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition, pp. 127–149.

Clark, H. (1996) Using language. Cambridge University Press.

Schegloff, E. and Sacks, H. (1973) Opening Up Closings. Semiotica, 8, pp. 289–327.

Schegloff, E., Sacks, H., and Jefferson, G. (1974) A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking in conversation. *Language, 50*, pp. 696–735.

Whittaker, S., Brennan, S., and Clark, H. (1991). Coordinating activity: An analysis of interaction in computer-supported cooperative work. In Proceedings, CHI 1991, Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 361–367.

Obligate infovore. Antiviral blogger. All posts made with 100% recycled electrons, sustainably crafted by artisanal artisans. He/him/his.

Obligate infovore. Antiviral blogger. All posts made with 100% recycled electrons, sustainably crafted by artisanal artisans. He/him/his.