Saturday, April 28, 2007

Crackberries, Facebook, and Interpretive Flexibility

Come on, the title of the entry had to make you giggle... just a bit. Ok, it made me giggle and I'm blogging instead of working on my paper. Maybe it's the caffeine from the Vietnamese coffee rushing through my veins...

My Senior Supervisor, Richard Smith, was interviewed on Global TV about the 'addictive nature' of Blackberries in light of the recent outage of said devices... playfully referred to as "Crack berries." But while me sighs about that deterministic view of a technology framed in the news story, Keith Hampton, at UPenn's Annenberg School for Communication, who was interviewed by ABC also tempered the discussion quite well by helping to forward the view that people were really very much intertwined with the communication and social interaction afforded by these technologies (as opposed to just the technologies themselves).

And then there's Facebook. Florence Chee's Facebook profile
Usually, new users are regaled with a message along the lines of "Welcome friend... glad to see you on here, but beware... it's addictive!"
From my own observations, I've had 'discussions' with colleagues of an ideological nature, and those exchanges happen by writing remarks on one another's walls. Everyone joins and quits various 'group' affiliations... for what ever reason. My blog entries are imported, as well as photos of my choosing. I get 'poked.' Repeatedly... by some yahoos I knew in high school, and some I don't even know. Many of these activities, I can choose/not to get email notifications of, and everyone else can do the same. Customization.
There's also what one of my friends calls the 'stalker-ability.' Before anyone panics about this terminology, it's only used lightly in this way to mean that once you have authorized friends to be your 'friend'.... you get almost EVERYTHING they did/changed about their profile, notes, events, etc... all in a neat little digest when you log on. might be inclined to 'keep up' on the latest, because there are admittedly a lot of things going on here. One needs only to hit 'refresh.' Why is this compelling? I saw the same things happening in Korean online communites, where a lack of quick reply was perceived as disappointing, if not rude.

One of the terms one might invoke here is interpretive flexibility. Another one of my supervisors, Andrew Feenberg, has written about this as well. The concept talks about how technological artifacts are culturally constructed and interpreted, and that there is flexibility in how people think of or interpret artifacts and there is flexibility in how artifacts are designed.
I see this concept applying in an iterative way for the aforementioned technological systems as well as others like games.

Related to a book chapter I'm doing for the Applied Communication Lab, here's a brief summary of how I see it working:

  1. Vision: There is a vision of a technological system and its usage in a given social context (country, nation, community... ). This vision is often informed by government, industry, or even academia through various initiatives, policies, etc. The case studies I'm taking up in this way are the French Videotex and Korean online games uses.
  2. Implementation: The movement of resources to construct technological artifacts and systems according to the specifications of stakeholders (of which there are many, and political economy perspectives are useful for taking these into account).
  3. Innovation: Once the technology has been introduced, the affected communities must then deal with it, and often, have used the technologies in creative, unanticipated ways. Interpretive flexibility is a useful concept in this stage, and indeed people vividly illustrate the interpretive flexibility of a technology.
  4. Institutionalization: As stakeholders watch the vision and implementation of technology take its twists and turns, the positive/negative consequences then get appropriated and incorporated into everyday institutional structures responsible for education, governance... (read ISA's to some). Perhaps rationalization then takes place. It depends at this point.

I use ethnographic methods to look at various case studies in this way. But the tie-in here between crackberries, facebook, online games, and associated 'sticky' technologies is likely the presence of interpretive flexibility--the allowance of people to determine what a technology means for them, and where it becomes compelling is when they transform it into a way to communicate. If it then becomes a big part of a person's way of communicating with those around them, of course they'll be inclined to spend a lot of time on it.

Ok, back to this paper.

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