Like friends, follow uses: The social in social media

Digital machines such as smartphones frame behavior and instill new cultural and social practices. ‘Liking’, ‘sharing’, ‘following’ are relational activities which have been defined by social media and established as new normal in the shaping of human relationships. The phenomenon of communication devices prompting new behaviors and expressions is not new: for instance, the word “hello” did not exist until the development of the telephone.

A digital machine is digital enabler and limiter for human action. In its simple form, it is a singular service: a website, an app, a chat bot, etc. In its complex form, it is a system combining and connecting a number of singular machines: The Internet, the ‘Internet of things’, advanced robots, smartphones, etc.

Digital Machines are fostering and limiting actions and bringing forth a praxis

For instance, the ‘people you may know’ algorithm on LinkedIn combines a variety of personal data – your profile and network activities, data of users who searched for you, selected keywords you used in your posts – to infer connections, generate rankings and hierarchies, and suggest participants of your social circle. This is an example of practico-inert: With Sartre, we could describe Digital Machines as practico-inert, fostering and limiting actions and bringing forth a praxis (Sartre, 1960).

The term “user” is somewhat misleading. It suggests sovereignty: Who uses something, has a position of power towards what is used. However, users are not in control of the Digital machines they use. User actions are reactions and interpretations of commands rather than commands themselves, resulting in behaviors and expressions influenced by practicalities, self-interest and inventiveness.

Through a device, user actions are transmitted (through mouse, keyboard or button clicks, screen taps, spoken instructions etc.) to the code level, where they get processed. Microphones and intelligent language processing enable devices to hear, cameras and object recognition enable devices to see, and location tracking and gyroscopes enable devices to know where it is. An interface exchanges information between its own domain – the Digital Machine – and external spaces of information. Interfaces to the Internet are technical components and protocols required to receive and send information. User Interfaces exchange information with humans. For the device, humans are agents, external entities providing and receiving information. For humans however, devices can be mistaken for other humans (Nass, 2007).

Media logic defines an interface and impacts user behavior

User interfaces are the visible surface of transformations, defined in code and suggesting uses. The “media logic” of an interface – “how material is organized, the style in which it is presented, the focus or emphasis on particular characteristics of behavior, and the grammar of media communication” (Altheide and Snow, 1979) – defines the interface and impacts user behavior.

Priority and salience of visual elements ‘nudges’ users to certain actions

For instance, “on eBay a user’s feedback rating is conspicuously displayed at the top of his/her profile page… the development and eventual achievement of a good reputation on eBay becomes a legible, highly intentional, and strategic object” (MacDougall, 2011). Priority and salience of visual elements ‘nudges’ users to certain actions (Bell, 2001).

A study on the effectiveness of banner ads for online gaming sites shows that a larger size led to increased click through rates (Robinson 2007). A study on browser security warnings reveals that interface differences (design of graphical elements, number of clicks required) substantially impact user behavior (Akhawe et al., 2013).

With emotion recognition – the analysis of facial expressions, words and tone of language – the machine is also able to understand the state of human emotions. Voice assistants or intelligent personal assistants (Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana) are operating on the basis of deep learning and are activated by human language.

Frames can be analysed by looking at how transformations, projected to user interfaces, shape data input and output and prescribe sequences of actions, and how visual design structures and shapes information through visual emphasis, hierarchies, and signs. The overall style of the device and service – how it presents itself, how users are treated, how interactions are happening, what language is used in user interfaces and instruction manuals – is analysed to decode goals, intents and motives.

In the Digital, consumption has become a form of production

In the Digital, consumption has become a form of production: Use. A Use happens when a user provides input to and gets feedback from the Digital Machine. Uses describe how users interpret the user interface, interact with its suggestions, and react with behaviors and expressions.

The Digital is setting limits and determining a space for human interaction

Any Digital Machine has code-determined boundaries, setting limits and determining a space for human interaction. Individuals and groups use the possibilities and openings in this space to interpret meaning, to negotiate opportunities, and to create new behaviors and expressions. Analogous to “It is the viewers who make the meaning” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2001), it is the users who make the use.

People invent uses the medium was not designed for

Suggested uses are what software and interface designers had in mind: When you ‘follow’ a person suggested by Twitter or ‘like’ a posting suggested by Facebook, you act according to the intent of the Digital Machine. However, people also invent uses the medium was not originally designed for, such as rallying members for political dissent (Beaumont, 2011) or using the Facebook profiles of dead people as memorial sites (Ebert, 2014).

User’s uses illustrate how users make a device or service their own

I call these uses user’s uses: they illustrate how users make a device or service their own, reinterpret it and invent new uses. User’s uses describe the difference between the intent and strategy of a Digital Machine and the interpretations and tactics of its users.

With Certeau, strategy is the method of the powerful, planning courses of action based on ownership, while tactic is the method of the powerless who do not own, the art of improvisation by exploiting possibilities, glitches and uncontrolled spaces (Certeau, 1984). Certeau explains tactics as: “… clever tricks, … polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike.” and explains their necessity; “…tactics wander out of orbit, making consumers into immigrants in a system too vast to be their own, too tightly woven for them to escape from it. “

There is a wide range of user’s uses to be found within the spaces of Digital Machines. For instance, people use mobile phones to enable social distance by turning the phone off, manage their own memory of a partner by saving voice mail, brand their relationships by designating a ring tone as “our song”, or try to overcome relationships by buying a new phone as part of a ‘new me’ (Gathmann, 2008).

People use social media to trick themselves and others into believing that they are more beautiful, more popular, and more liked than they actually are

In social media, people make themselves look better with photo filters (Chua and Chang, 2016) or make themselves happier by accumulating more ‘friends’ than they actually have (Lönnqvist and Deters, 2016).

With user’s uses, people use social media to trick themselves and others into believing that they are more beautiful, more popular, and more liked than they actually are. There can be entire markets of use. For instance, the ‘follow’ function created a virtual market for ‘social capital’ that can translate into actual capital. With 400.000 to 1.5 million followers, ‘influencers’ can command 5,000 US$ for a post promoting a commercial product on Instagram (Chafkin, 2016).


Parts of this article have been published as chapter 3.5 and 3.6 in “Analysing the Digital: Transformations, Territories, Frames and Uses” by Mario Gagliardi, Proceedings of the 12th European Academy of Design Conference, Sapienza University of Rome 2017.

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