Cohabitation with media
The habitats we live in are made up of complicated relations between humans and technologies. Digital and media technologies are woven into our homes and public spaces, tethered to our bodies, and entangled with our imaginations.
Once we might have ‘studied’ media mostly by examining its symbolic content, or by examining how symbols are produced and consumed.
Now we need to also account for media as socio-technical infrastructure. That is, as infrastructure made up of humans and material media technologies that jointly construct the cultural, economic, social and political systems within which we live.
Drawing inspiration from critical media and cultural researchers I sketch out two techniques here – walkthroughs and vignettes – for purposefully reflecting on our cohabitation with media.
What’s a walkthrough?
A walkthrough is a method used by researchers and technology designers who examine how people use media in their everyday life.
A walkthrough is useful for carefully documenting the interplay between the design of media technologies and the way people use them. This is a dynamic relationship.
On the one hand, human users play an active and creative role in using media in our lives.
On the other, media technologies are purposefully designed to structure how humans make use of them.
For research purposes, a walkthrough is a systematic analysis of how a media technology is designed to work and how it is used within everyday life.
Walkthroughs are most often used to examine interactive digital media technologies like apps or social media platforms. That said, the set of questions and concerns below work just as well for examining any media technology from books and newspapers, to cinema and television, to wearables and augmented reality. The principles of examining carefully the interplay between humans and technology remain the same.
Here are some of the things a walkthrough does:
1. Explains how something works.
A walkthrough is a step-by-step explanation of how a media technology works.
In a vernacular sense, we see walkthroughs all the time. For instance, if you ever wanted to block a number on your phone, or change your privacy settings on Facebook, or know how to create a particular effect with make-up you probably jumped on Google or YouTube and search ‘how to…’. These ‘instructional’ videos on how to do things are an everyday example of a ‘walkthrough’.
2. Critically examines the social, political and economic setting of media use.
A walkthrough examines how a media technology is shaped by commercial, social, cultural, political and legal conditions.
technology and thinking about how that institutionalises relations between users and platforms.
Questions you might ask:
- What are the commercial arrangements that sustain this product, service, technology, app or platform?
- What contractual arrangements does the media technology create with users?
- Do the users of this media technology undertake labour?
- Do the users of this media technology create content or data?
- If so, what value does that content or data have?
- How does its advertising model work?
3. Critically explores the choices and affordances a media technology offers users.
A walkthrough examines how media technologies structure the range of choices users have.
This involves carefully exploring the options given to users as they go about engaging with a media technology. This might involves examining the interface, protocols, defaults and algorithms of a technology.
For example, when I log on to Facebook I cannot choose what content I see, the News Feed algorithm makes that choice for me. Or, when you sign up to a dating app you might be given a limited set of categories for describing your gender and sexual preferences.
Questions you might ask:
- What options do the users of this technology have to describe and express themselves?
- What kinds of participation does this media technology facilitate?
- What options or choices does the interface give users?
- Do users need to create a personal profile to use this media technology? If so, what choices do they have in constructing the profile?
- What ‘rules’ govern the use of this media technology? What are users able and not able to do with it?
- Is data recorded about users?
- Are algorithms used to shape the experience or engagement with this media technology?
- What kinds of data are collected?
- What public, political or cultural consequences does this data-processing have?
4. Critically analyses the symbolic qualities and practices unfolding in and around a media technology.
A walkthrough can pay attention to the symbolic landscape of a media technology.
This might involve a semiotic analysis of the design or interface of the media technology itself. For instance, until recently Facebook only enabled users to ‘like’ content, now they allow a limited range of ‘reactions’. It might also involve a critical analysis of the kinds of symbolic content that flow through a platform. For instance, we might pay attention to the kinds of narratives and identities that are represented on Netflix.
Questions you might ask:
- What icons, images or colours are used to describe and facilitate use of the technology?
- What kinds of lives, identities and bodies are visible via this technology?
- What are the dominant and non-dominant forms of expression taking place via this technology?
- Who is creating, sharing and consuming representations?
- What is being represented? Your own life? The lives of others? Bodies? Brands? Cultural experience? Tastes? Political viewpoints?
- How are these ideas being represented?
- How are users engaging with them?
- What controls are placed on the forms of symbolic expression allowed by this technology?
5. Critically documents and reflects on the use of a media technology in an everyday setting.
A walkthrough documents how a media technology is actually used as part of everyday life. Researchers often recruit informants who help them make sense of their media user. But, you can also do a walkthrough ‘solo’, by carefully documenting your own use.
Questions you might ask:
- Where am I when using this media technology?
- What time is it?
- Who am I with?
- What am I doing?
- Am I using this technology to search for information, organise something, purchase something, express myself, post images of my body, monitor my mood or body?
- Do I create ‘hacks’ or ‘workarounds’ to get around the rules of the platform? For instance, having two Instagram profiles, one private and one public; using a fake name on Facebook.
- What actions do I take to manage my visibility or privacy?
- How do I use this technology as part of my self-expression or relationships with others?
- What are my feelings and mood?
- Am I scrolling, glancing, and tapping?
- Am I using two screens at once?
- Am I relaxed, bored, anxious, just passing time, quiet and reflective, thoughtful, agitated?
- What are the touchpoints between your body and the media technology? For instance, if you put headphones on does this technology create a kind of immersive and private experience?
These are not a definitive list of questions or concerns, the important principle is that walkthroughs encourage us to think carefully about the dynamic relationships between media and human users.
In particular, the walkthrough helps us think about the relationship between our creative uses of media and the way they are purposefully designed. We come up with all sorts of creative uses of media as part of living our lives and expressing ourselves. At the same time, media technologies are designed to encourage certain practices and achieve certain strategic goals like increasing user engagement, generating profit, or advancing political objectives.
Walkthroughs also help us think about the active engagement of users with media, we aren’t just passive consumers of symbolic content we are actively involved in the process of incorporating media into our everyday practices.
Sometimes users do things with media that designers didn’t intend, sometimes media constrain users or reinforce existing power relationships or rituals of communication.
Walkthroughs help us think about how power relationships work in participatory digital media cultures.
They focus our attention on the ‘socio-technical architecture’ of media. That is, the relationships between the ‘technical’ design of media technologies and their ‘social use’ by humans.
More on walkthroughs
The description of a walkthrough I’ve sketched here draws inspiration from the methods of a range researchers who critically explore the interplay between media and cultural life.
If you want to read more about some of these methods, here are a few leads.
Livingstone, S. (2008). Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: teenagers' use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression. New Media & Society, 10(3), 393-411.
Livingstone’s (2008) method involves sitting down with young informants who explain in detail their use of social networking sites as part of their practices of identity formation and self-expression.
Light, Burgess and Duguay’s (2016) method involves carefully documenting smartphone apps drawing on approaches from Human Computer Interaction, Science and Technology Studies and Cultural Studies.
Robards, B., & Lincoln, S. (2017). Uncovering longitudinal life narratives: scrolling back on Facebook. Qualitative Research.
Robards and Lincoln’s (2017) involves sitting down with informants who ‘scroll back’ through their Facebook timelines as a method of both reflecting on their life narratives and the affordances of the platform.
Caliandro (2017) offers the principles of 'follow the medium' and 'follow the natives' by which he means that to understand digital media we must both 'observe and describe' how media technologies work and observe and describe the practices of users and how users give meaning to thier practices.
In this walkthrough exercise, begin by selecting a ‘moment’ of engagement with media that you want to critically examine and reflect upon.
Take this moment and ask the following questions as a way of describing it.
Question 1. What day did this moment occur?
Question 2. What time did this moment occur?
Question 3: What media platform or channel were you using?
Question 4: What kind of media device were you using?
Question 5: Where you are when using the media technology?
Question 6: Were you consuming media content?
Question 7: Were you producing media content?
Question 8: Were you adding ‘information’ to media content produced by someone else by sharing, commenting or liking it?
Question 9: Was data being recorded about you?
Question 10: Are algorithms being used to shape your experience or engagement with this media technology?
Question 11: Do you need to create a user profile to use this media technology?
Question 12: What is the business model of this media technology?
Question 13: Are other users of this media technology visible to you?
Question 14: Do you interact with other users?
Question 15: Portray this moment in a short vignette.
Vignettes capture and express not just events and actions, but also their character and feeling.
Vignettes are used by researchers to document, reflect upon, and analyse everyday practices and relationships.
A ‘vignette’ is a brief evocative description and illustration of this moment of media engagement. A vignette combines descriptive detail with analytic commentary and critical reflection.
Your vignette only needs to be a 100-200 words. Writing the vignette is preparation for preparing the script.
Your vignette should provide a step-by-step account of your actions with the media technology from the moment you first ‘pay attention’ or ‘engage’ with it to the moment you ‘disengage’.
The vignette should respond to these two questions:
- What are you doing, thinking and feeling?
- How is the media technology shaping your actions and experience?
You can also take up any of the questions in the explanation of walkthroughs above.
Below is an example of a vignette.
Watching Netflix: an example vignette
Friday night. 8pm. On the couch waiting for Netflix to load. We are going to watch season 2 of Love. We start. I want ice-cream. We pause it. I flick to the football to see what’s happening, then back to Netflix. Half the time I’m scrolling through Instagram or Twitter. Nicola is looking at Facebook and ASOS. She finds a good suit for me. When I look on my phone it costs twice what it costs on her phone. Netflix starts buffering.
A decade ago. Friday night. 8pm. I live in a share house that has no ‘tuned’ TV, just a screen and a DVD player. Nothing doing on a Friday night, no money. We get beers and rent The Wire on DVD. You rent it one disc at a time, about three episodes per disc. Watch one disc and then scramble back to Network Video before it shuts at midnight to get the next one. As we are renting it, a group from a share house down the road start cursing us. We are renting the disc they need. We wander back down the street and invite them to ours to watch it. We sit out the front smoking and drinking.
The ritual hasn’t changed. Both Friday nights are organised around the television screen, the home and the people you live with and love. And yet, a decade ago there was only one screen in the room, that screen wasn’t connected to a communication network. It didn’t stream and it didn’t watch. Network video was finite, Netflix is endless. The DVD collected no information about me, the Netflix interface does. I started watching The Wire because a friend gave me a burned copy, and then I saw it on the ‘top picks’ list of one of the video store staff. I started watching Love because the Netflix algorithm predicted I ‘might like it’. ASOS offered Nicola a better deal on that suit because she flicks and scrolls and buys on the app more often. A decade ago the shops shut at 9pm on a Friday night and they didn’t know who I was.