Design affordances

A Reading Note

On how digital tools can facilitate or impede organizing, in the case of @TahrirSupplies, a Twitter account set up to coordinate supply needs during the Tahrir Square protests in 2011:

Digital tools are not uniform. Rather they have a range of design affordances that facilitate different paths….For the moment, I focus on Twiter, Tahrir Supplies’ tool of choice. A common misconception about Twitter is that one must already have a high follower account to gain attention. In fact, two key features of Twitter enable anyone with compelling content to gain a whirlwind of attention…Twitter provides a “mentions” column that shows any user of your Twitter handle in a post by another user, providing a record of how people are interacting with you. Since anyone may “@mention” or “tag” you, this feature provides an opening for people to mention you even if you do not know or follow them. You can, of course, ignore your mentions, but most people look at them since that is how people talk to them. @TahrirSupplies used @mentions to access high-follower users and, through them, to quickly reach thousands or even millions of people. In contrast, Facebook is designed more for communiction by mutual consent—you mostly talk to people who have agreed to be your Facebook friends, especially if your privacy is set at a high level. This makes Facebook more suitable to conversations among presumed equals, where both parties agree to the conversation in advance. As a result, Facebook has different affordances for political organizing than Twitter’s ability to ping anyone.

Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas, page 55

Of course, the same affordances on Twitter that facilitate organizing also make Twitter users more susceptible to abuse. If you can ping anyone, you can hurl death threats as easily as you can a request for help. And the platform doesn’t distinguish between organzing for social justice versus organizing for white nationalism. Figuring out how to design for the former while not the latter is a real challenge.

Related books

Twitter and Tear Gas

Zeynep Tufekci

Zeynep Tufekci’s book spans the Zapatista uprisings in Mexico, the Occupy movement, a Turkish coup, Arab Spring, fake news, and more—and provides the most lucid analysis of the ways digital networked media has both enabled social justice movements and been used to thwart them.