Ethical implications of affordance change in contemporary social media platforms

  • Stefan Werning Utrecht University


The article at hand investigates how changes and additions in affordances across online social networks (OSNs) over the past five years have increasingly framed communicative practices in terms of “attention economies” (Harsin 2015), competition and the “neoliberal self” (McGuigan 2014) without presenting viable alternatives. Online social interaction is undergoing constant change: gamification schemes such as Snapstreaks  become increasingly explicit, platforms offload features aimed at specific audiences into companion apps like Viber Wink and startups like Bux use social features to turn activities like stock-trading into quasi-communicative activities, thereby becoming specialized OSNs in their own right. Previous research has shown that the principles of increasingly “commercial societies”, which social media startups reflect, tend to foster “self-commodification” (Coupland 1996) or, more specifically, “commodify relationships” (Badhwar 2008), leading to an overlap between “market norms and the norms of friendship” (307). The article at hand aims to show how affordance changes in OSNs can a) propagate notions of the neoliberal self, b) constraining the users’ means of self-expression, and c) blur the boundaries between OSNs themselves and between online social interaction and other platforms, e.g. dedicated to activities like writing or stock trading. For that purpose, a diachronic affordance analysis is conducted to investigate how social media platforms reframe communicative practices over time, using an updated technological determinism framework (de la Cruz Paragas and Lin 2016). Social media affordances have been researched e.g. in terms of how they affect knowledge sharing (Majchrzak et al. 2013) or political expression (Halpern and Gibbs 2013). However, these critical uses of affordances to analyze software (Curinga 2014) only investigate their case at one point in time. Yet, social media startups are characterized by constant ‘tweaking’ (Bogost 2016) and shifting alliances (e.g. between Spotify and Tinder or Twitter and Stripe) and these ‘evolutionary’ dynamics have not been systematically reflected. Rather than looking holistically at one service, the analysis pursues a novel comparative approach, focusing on patterns of affordance change over time, according to patterns such as the ambivalence of online metrics, the relationship between playfulness and control (e.g. Gekker 2016), and notions of self-branding, which have been discussed in cases where personal identity and entrepreneurial activity overlap (e.g. Duffy and Hund 2015) but not in everyday communication. This comparative approach demonstrates the ethical challenges that the synchronized development of social media affordances across platforms poses, making it difficult for users to become literate in the mechanics of “social media logic” (Poell and Van Dijck 2013).

Aug 9, 2018
How to Cite
WERNING, Stefan. Ethical implications of affordance change in contemporary social media platforms. Communication and Culture Review, [S.l.], v. 1, n. 1, p. 15-32, aug. 2018. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 19 sep. 2019.