We’re proud to announce the special issue of Social Media & Society, vol. 1 no. 2, curated by and drawing its contributions from Culture Digitally. Culture Digitally and Social Media & Society are, we like to think, cut from the same fabric. For five years now, we have endeavored to gather scholars and practitioners who explore the myriad ways in which societies, organizations, and individuals engage networked communication technologies, and the practices, cultures, and imaginaries that emerge around them. We see Social Media & Society as also seeking a new approach to these challenges, one complementary to the path we have taken with Culture Digitally. So we were honored when we were asked to help assemble a special issue in the journal’s formative moments. This post, and a handful of others this week, will point you to some of the amazing work available in this issue.
It is not surprising that several of the papers in this collection are not just grappling with the intersection of technical and social structures, but looking to refine new ways to think about that intersection. Nick Couldry and José van Dijck [“Researching Social Media as if the Social Mattered”] interrogate what exactly we mean by “social” when it comes to social media, worrying that too often we take what platforms allow as interaction between people to stand in as social, rather than recognizing it as a simulation of sociality. Tracking our friends and loved ones by occasionally skimming a partial and curated list of the updates and photos they’ve chosen to upload is offered as being “social,” but it is a very particular and deliberately crafted version – one that not only obscures its own workings and agendas but, as Couldry and van Dijck argue, also can obscure, even replace, older understandings of sociality. In her research on social movements, Carla Ilten [“‘Use Your Skills to Solve this Challenge!’ The Platform Affordances and Politics of Digital Microvolunteering”] worries about the technological shaping of the social in similar ways, when civic engagement is managed using otherwise entrepreneurial platforms. A social movement must contend with the politics of the technology it depends on. If it doesn’t, Ilten argues, a platform’s politics may abdicate those elements of the social that make a movement what it is, in the “social media” of bodies mobilized on the ground.
The theory of affordances is quickly becoming an important tool among our group of contributors, and more broadly among research that studies how social media platforms choreograph human relations and then invite users to inhabit those relations. Two essays examine the theory here. Both suggest that ‘affordances’ may be emerging so prominently because it charts a convenient path midway between technological determinism and social construction. And both essays wonder, perhaps for all its theoretical convenience, whether the idea of affordances is losing some of its specificity and its intellectual legacy along the way. Peter Nagy and Gina Neff [“Imagined Affordance: Reconstructing a Keyword for Communication Theory”] argue that the term too often degenerates into a glorified word for the “functions” or “features” of a technology, forgetting the crucial role that human perception played in the original thinking of Gibson and then Hutchby – that it is more about how the artifact is perceived to offer some function. Joshua McVeigh-Schultz and Nancy Baym [“Thinking of You: Vernacular Affordance in the Context of the Microsocial Relationship App, Couple”] wonder if people point to technical affordances to make sense of the overlapping layers of the tools they take up, crafting narratives of choice and constraint that help them make sense of the practices they adopt.