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!

Questioning Habermas

Over this summer, I was fortunate enough to do some preliminary ethnographic research in Marquette, Michigan. This research is part of a broader project investigating use of digital technology by LGBT people in rural Michigan. Inspired by the works of scholars such as Mary Gray and Michael Warner, Silvia and I began thinking through how the social networks created in these areas, and specifically Marquette, can be framed and explicated using concepts such as publics, counterpublics, and boundary publics. Though I felt like I had a handle on these concepts and could apply them to my research, my knowledge of what these were based on, Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and Fraser’s “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” was very limited. In this post, I’d like to speak briefly to bias in Habermas’ description of the shifts and decline of the bourgeois public sphere. For a more complete review of the text, check out the Wikipedia article or Spark Notes.

I received my copy of Habermas through our university’s Interlibrary Loan and opened it up to see pages covered in large exclamation points, check marks, and circled X’s in the margins. Right away I could tell that previous readers of this book had felt and reacted strongly. Like many others, maybe even some of those that read this exact copy, I continually asked myself questions such as, “What was the public sphere for the poor and the illiterate?” Habermas is clear that the basis for the public sphere and publicity was a class of people who visited salons and coffee houses. These people were moneyed, middle class, shopkeepers, or intellectuals (and men). Through an evolution of architecture after the 17th century, the members of the bourgeois public sphere often also had access to a formalized individual private life in their own homes. It seems like these folks had the best of both worlds: spaces outside of the home to come together and discursively create and produce media and texts, in addition to areas in the home that allowed these same individuals access to what are now modern interpretations of a private life.

It is also interesting to note that in Habermas’ analysis, the most dramatic shift (section 18, the shift from a culture-debating public to a culture-consuming public) is caused by a mass democratization of economic culture in the 19th century. Essentially, because more people were engaged in media at a mass scale, including those who had not formerly been included in categories that fell under the bourgeois public sphere, a “world of letters” lost its dominance and was replaced by a society of consumption. Though this transition makes sense and I see a valid argument for this shift, my mind was racing with exclamation points going off in my head as often as they appeared on the pages of my worn copy of this book. Is access to mass culture more important than holding up a specific privileged notion or process of cultural creation? I would argue that yes, it is, and I want to know why Habermas wasn’t asking these kind of questions.

Fortunately, many have come after Habermas and tried to answer these, expanding on what it might mean when poor people, women, and other classes of people not included in the bourgeois public sphere come together to discursively create material and digital spaces. I am happy to report that I can now continue my work, building on those that have built on Habermas, and say that I’ve actually read the damn thing.