Bethany Baumgartner

Affordances are ways that a user is able to use, manipulate, and change technology available. Developers of technology have intended uses, however, consumers work around the original parameters and constraints to do other things. For example, sociologist Ian Hutchby describes communicative affordances as “possibilities for action that emerge from […] given technological forms” (Bucher & Helmond, 2018, p. 7). Therefore, they’re the alternative functions of a technology that the designer didn’t think possible or intend for.

Affordances are a form of surveillance that allows people to expand the influence and reach of technology. It can therefore change people’s behavior both as consumers–how they interact online–and as developers–how they form the layout of their technology and what tools they make available to consumers. An example of affordances can be found on the social networking site Twitter; by design users had a limited number if characters available but were permitted to attach photos and reply to tweets. As an effect, users manipulated the function to attach pictures by taking screenshots of larger text and attaching it to the original tweets. They also commented continuously, forming threads that allowed them to say everything they wanted to. Twitter changed its design by allowing 280 characters on a tweet, compared to the original 140 (Larson, 2017). This affordance is a way users worked around the original constraints to achieve what they wanted. For consumers, “imagination is the capacity to break with the ordinary, the given…to challenge the controlled” (Lin, 2017, p.2). Consumers have power when they use affordances.


Bucher, T., & Helmond, A. (2018). The affordance of social media platforms. In J. Burges, A. Marwick, T. Poell (Eds), The SAGE handbook of social media. http://sk.sagepub.com/reference/download/the-sage-handbook-of-social-media/i1867.pdf

Larson, S. (2017, November 7). Welcome to a world with 280-character tweets. CNN. Retrieved from https://money.cnn.com/2017/11/07/technology/twitter-280-character-limit/.

Lin, Y.-W. (2017). A reflective commentary of teaching critical thinking of privacy and surveillance in UK higher education. Big Data & Society, 1-6. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951717694054


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Key Concepts in Surveillance Studies Copyright © 2019 by Bethany Baumgartner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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