Module I - Affordance

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This online course is offered to MLIS students continent-wide in January 2013
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Learning objectives

After completing Module I "Affordance", you will be able to:

  • List the major social tools and technologies used by information professionals
  • (Re)define the key terms and vocabulary of social media (see social media glossary, including web 2.0 & library 2.0)
  • Discuss the potential of social media to meet new challenges in outreach and community-building in information organizations
  • Discuss some of the common social media tools used in libraries, archives & museums


To orient yourself to Vista, the content of LIBR559M and your peers complete the following:

Week I

Week II

In week II, complete the following activities:

  • Watch the instructor's presentation (this will be an introduction to affordance as a concept using the Affordance definition, and its application to social media and library 2.0)
  • Do the Discovery exercise
  • Read and reflect on the page I've developed called Blogs - affordances
    • Scan the article on blogging by Andrew Sullivan
    • In your study group, pick a tool from the web 2.0 page and brainstorm its affordances; consider its potential for archivists, librarians and other information professionals in doing their work
  • Post your reflections in the forum "Affordances"

Definition of affordance

Affordance is a design principle that is also controversial; it's a slippery concept at best. That said, in designing online systems with user interfaces, it makes sense to make their affordances obvious to users. The following definitions are variations on that theme:

"...affordance allows us to look at something and intuitively understand how to interact with it" ~ Link-Rodrigue M. (2009)

"The term “affordances” is generally attributed to the perceptual psychologist, JJ Gibson (1977, 1979), who used it as a core component of his ecological theory of human perception. The term is now used in a range of fields, including but not limited to cognitive psychology, industrial design, human-computer interaction (HCI) and interface design, and artificial intelligence. Overall, an affordance is an action that an individual can potentially perform in their environment by using a particular tool (Affordance, 2007). In other words, an affordance is a “can do” statement that is not necessarily pre-defined by a particular functionality, and refers to any application that enables a user to undertake tasks in their environment. For example, telephones allow the placing and receiving of calls, which in isolation are not affordances, but which substantively enable the affordances of communication and information exchange." ~ Lee M, McLoughlin C. (2008).

Origins of term 'social media'

  • In 2004, Allen wrote Tracing the evolution of social software where he traces the evolution of "groupware" and "social software" going back to Vannevar Bush's Memex
  • More recently, Judith Donath of the MIT Sociable Media Group, defined "sociable media" as engagement with issues of identity and privacy in a networked society
  • Rheingold introduced the phrase "cooperation–enhancing technologies" in 2005. danah boyd summarized all of the available definitions of social software starting with Shirky (“stuff worth spamming”) and Coates: "software which supports, extends, or derives added value from human social behavior".
  • Dourish contested social software arguing that all software is social. Boyd called tools that facilitate a conversation "social media".

The discourse of social media

The term "social media" is applied to a range of web-based software, tools and technologies that facilitate conversation, collaboration and sociablity/network-building. In the library and information science literature, you will hear the term social software as often as you hear social media. Although seemingly synonymous, each term conveys slightly different views of similar ideas. The latter term, however, seems to embody more than software hence its use in LIBR559M. (See some of the related concepts on the course glossary).

This course examines social media and some of the major tools associated with it, such as weblogs, RSS feeds, social tagging, mashups and wikis, particularly as they are applied by information professionals in their work. In the last few years, social media have surged in popularity; for example, more than 80 million videos have been uploaded to YouTube and 140 million blogs have been created worldwide. Due to their ability to connect people and facilitate information-sharing, social tools provide a powerful way for people to interact and present new ways of delivering library and information services.

According to Wikipedia, the use of social media represents a shift in how people discover, read and share information. Social media fuses information technologies to the social needs of people thereby transforming monologues (one to one; one to many) into socially-dynamic dialogues (many to many). The ability to network with people globally is a major explanation for why social media is so revolutionary. Broadly speaking, social media is implicated in the democratization of information, globalization of the economy and transforming people from content consumers into content creators.

Recently the New Media Consortium (NMC) and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative released their Horizon Report which identified new technologies capable of changing how we teach and learn. It outlined challenges for institutions of higher learning such as the need to equip students with new media literacy skills and to develop curricula that "address not only traditional capabilities like developing an argument over the course of a long paper" but "how to create meaningful content with today’s tools." (New Media Consortium, 2008, p. 6).

Many teachers now recognize that using social media in the classroom is key to creating meaningful content and lifelong learning.

Why social media?

A number of persistent questions arise vis a vis social media, for example:

  • First, what is social media? What is social software?
    • What place do these tools have in the delivery of services in archives, libraries and museums?
  • What specific tools or applications can be used by information organizations to provide innovative services?
  • What evaluation methods can be used to assess these tools before they are implemented?
  • Are there organizations whose use of social media sets a high best practices standard? Who are they?
  • How can we plan "stepped" approaches to adopting social media in information organizations?
  • What strategies can we use for effective implementation? Can information organizations develop reliable "web 2.0 strategies"?
    • What would they consist of, and how would they be implemented?

These are just a few of the questions that arise in our exploration of social media in LIBR559M (which you can discuss with your peers, or me). Feel free to start your own threads in the discussion forums but particularly those arising from the above questions.

Increasingly, a recurring theme in social media discourse is how tools are used as vehicles for lifelong and informal learning. Some people, however, question this saying that the learning facilitated by social media is of the most superficial kind - one that is fragmented, atomized and decontextualized. This course indeed considers these questions, particularly whether social media is eroding discourse among information professionals and our management of time.

Using best practices as a guide, I encourage the sharing of examples in this course of the most effective uses of social media. What do best practices of social media look like for us in the information professions? Do you have any clear examples? What evidence can we find to support us in our evaluation?

Also: how do we evaluate social media, its effectiveness in our work without it consuming even more of our valuable time? Hands-on experience of tools that fall under the umbrella of social media is important in our learning, but our focus is on how these tools can be used to solve information problems rather than on the tools themselves.

Finally, the empirical and theoretical research will be examined whenever possible. The exploration of new roles and identities for library and information professionals as a result of the impact of social media may also come up in your conversations, and this course.

Associated memes

  • properties that influence how something will be used; qualities; function; attributes; intrinsic values
  • Noah’s ark is a parable, in a sense, of the benefits of embracing technological innovations, before it’s too late
  • Human-computer interaction, a field related to information architecture, affords pluses and minuses
  • Does form follow function? (or is it the other way around with technology?)
  • professional affordances; allowance; utility/usefulness, usability; design; benefits; pros/cons

Final reflections

  • What are some of your final thoughts around the affordances of social media?
  • Do you feel that module I was a good way to begin our exploration of social media? Why or why not?
  • If you wish, explore one (or more) of these questions in the forums, Wimba classroom, on your blog or engage with someone in a forum with which you feel comfortable.
  • Before we move onto Module II, any other thoughts?

Other exploration


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