The four affordances of online networks. Part one: Persistence

Barely a month goes by without some change to the features and functioning of the major social networks that many of us now use on a regular basis. Just this week, Twitter announced that it’s indexed all tweets back to 2006, meaning that they’re now easily discovered via search. Twitter’s also been experimenting with inserting tweets in your newsfeed that were favourited by people you follow, as if they were retweets. And conversations were made more prominent via threading, which links together comments about an initial tweet. If we look to Facebook, two of the biggest changes have been the shift to the timeline profile, as well as constant tweaks to the newsfeed algorithm, including how often – and where – content from Pages are shown.

Each new change is met – somewhat predictably – with complaints from users. But what if the basis for those complaints is not simply that adapting to new ways of doing things requires effort?  What if these changes are actually fundamentally altering the “rules” of these networked spaces that many users now consider to be their online living rooms?

In the introduction to her recent book “It’s complicated – the social lives of networked teens”, Danah Boyd outlines the concept of “affordances” of online platforms. An affordance is a characteristic of an environment that makes certain types of behaviour possible. It doesn’t determine directly what will happen, but people using that space will need to work with – or around – that particular feature, and so their behaviour will be shaped by it.

Boyd describes 4 affordances that affect what we do in our online networks: persistence, visibility, spreadability and searchability. These affordances provide a useful way to think about our relationships to the content that we share online and, by extension, to how we interact with each other around that content.  In a series of posts, I’ll take a look at them in more detail, specifically with respect to how our social networks keep changing.

Persistence – how long your online content lasts

We’re coming to realise that pretty much everything online is persistent now – not just static pages, blog posts and so on, but also our activities on social networks. For example, we know that Facebook is storing not just our visible activities such as commenting on, and liking, our friends’ posts, but also the data about what we decide not to post, or delete. Tweets are all being automatically archived in the Library of Congress, and are also available to select research institutions working with Twitter to study the behaviour of users.

For me, our reaction to the issue of persistence seems to be closely related to two of the other affordances: searchability and visibility. Basically, pretty much everything you post online is going to stay there “forever” in some form, even if just on some server at Twitter or Facebook. But what really affects the user is how easy it is for anyone else to find it. And this can depend on search tools, and whether the audience for a post is somehow changed after it’s shared e.g. by sharing that data with unintended recipients such as researchers or even new friends.

Do you know what medium you're creating your digital footprint in? What happens when you thought it was sand and discover it was concrete? Image credit: Flickr user Dave Mathis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eldave/1455743875/

Do you know what medium you’re creating your digital footprint in? What happens when you thought it was sand and discover it was concrete? Image credit: Flickr user Dave Mathis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eldave/1455743875/

Travelling back in digital time

And this is where changes to features matter. With Twitter’s original search tool you couldn’t go back very far into “Twi-history” and so the content never really felt persistent. But now, in addition to third party tools such as Topsy that allow you to go back through the archives, and Storify that allow you to preserve conversations, Twitter has now indexed all tweets back to 2006 making them discoverable within Twitter itself. What may once have felt like a forum for throwaway chatter now becomes something more lasting and possibly with more consequences.

Ditto Facebook where the obligatory shift to the Timeline-based profiles suddenly meant that your friends could search back through your archives if they wanted to, viewing the you of several years ago, possibly before you were even friends. In relationships, we’re used to sharing information about ourselves gradually, incrementally revealing our vulnerabilities. The persistence of our digital pasts presents us with a new way of getting to know someone – and one that is further complicated because it may only be representative of our online life, not of our offline actions.

What’s wrong with forgetting?

The popularity of Snapchat, where content is destroyed after it’s viewed, suggests that there’s a demand for non-persistence online. We need places where we can engage in the kind of less consequential, more fleeting interactions that face-to-face meetings have often permitted. In “It’s complicated”, Boyd argues that being able to experiment with different identities without major consequences is a key part of being a teenager, and I’d argue that adults need this opportunity too.

We’re often doing things for the first time, or make mistakes that we’d rather be able to forget as part of a process of learning. Where actions are held only as memories, they fade and may even be completely forgotten. What are the consequences of persistent online records where events can be revisited and even revealed to those who weren’t part of the original audience? And what happens when what was once perceived as a safe, somewhat private space suddenly becomes a more public one?

From persistence to privacy and onto visibility

Changes to social networks, and also the creation of third party tools, are increasing the persistence of online content. As we build up a larger and more searchable online history, what are the consequences? Do we react by more carefully controlling the access to our past lives? For example, a friend of a friend’s daughter recently moved schools and created a brand new Facebook profile  so that none of her new friends could see her interactions with her old school friends. Or do we still take comfort in the notion of privacy through obscurity?

Which brings us to the next post in this series, where we’ll consider visibility – whose eyeballs you want on your content.

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5 thoughts on “The four affordances of online networks. Part one: Persistence

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