Identity, Anonymity, and Appropriation on a Location-Based App for Queer Men

by Jean Hardy

On February 27, I will be attending a workshop as part of the 19th ACM conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. The workshop, titled “Collaborative Appropriation: How couples, teams, groups and communities adapt and adopt technologies,” brings together researchers from North America and Europe to tackle this topic.

Paul Dourish describes appropriation as “making use of the technology for purposes beyond those for which it was originally designed, or to serve new ends” (p. 2, 2003). While a small amount of literature has looked at how groups of people appropriate technology for new uses (Balka & Wagner, 2006; Draxler & Stevens, 2011), this literature focuses primarily on appropriation happening among people who already know each other. My position paper, titled “A Case Study of Appropriation Diffusion in a Semi-Anonymous Network,” uses Scruff, a location-based mobile application for gay, bisexual, and queer men, to examine how appropriation works among a network of people who are largely anonymous and/or unknown to each other. This paper was informed by an interview study I performed of rural Scruff users in Michigan, my experience as a Scruff user since 2010, and previous conversations with Mark Handel (a UMSI PhD alumni).

I picked one particular appropriation, the inclusion of a plus-sign (+) into a user’s profile name, as my case. When Scruff was first developed, the iTunes App Store had rigid guidelines that restricted material related to sexuality. These guidelines, among other things, made it so profile fields related to HIV-status were unable to be incorporated into user profiles. To circumvent this restriction, HIV-positive (HIV+) users of Scruff started adding a + into their user names. The plus-sign was a way for these men to disclose their HIV-status before being contacted by other users who may not be interested in having sexual relationships with HIV+ men.

This paper (which you can read here) uses Everett Rogers’s concept of diffusion of innovation to model how the + appropriation may have spread through user networks on Scruff. I also use Rogers’s concept of “re-inventions” to look at how similar appropriations were spun off of the + appropriation. Questions I have unanswered, and look forward to discussing at the workshop, include:

  • Can appropriation ever be truly collaborative, or is it ultimately just individual appropriations that diffuse through a network or group?
  • Is designing for appropriation antithetical to the act of appropriation?
  • How do designers act on appropriations of their tools?

With that last question, I have a few preliminary thoughts. In the case of Scruff, recent revisions to the App Store have made it so developers at SCRUFF could incorporate new profile fields that allow users to disclose sexual information (including HIV-status). This design changes ways in which people disclose their HIV-status but doesn’t empower people to have conversations about stigma in the same way that the appropriation might have. Additionally, I would argue that the inclusion of new designs to address appropriations have created new norms of disclosure that may create bias against those HIV+ users who don’t want to publicly disclose their HIV-status.

If you have any questions or feedback about the paper, I can be reached at jkhardy (at) umich (dot) edu. Otherwise, y’all will hear from me again with a CSCW 2016 report-back in March!