Affordances in Layman’s Terms

I was extremely intimidated by the content of MSLOC class 430 in the beginning. I didn’t grown up with social media, so using it as an important way of accomplishing work seemed off-kilter to me. It wasn’t intuitive and felt a bit scary. One of the biggest takeaways from that class is the concept of affordances, which is a way of describing an object’s or tool’s utility. (2) While I’m not a regular poster and blogger (although that’s about to change!), I find myself thinking about affordances all the time.

Recently, I’ve been working with clients on using their already-in-place enterprise social networks (ESNs) as a means to drive culture, engagement and learning. While I don’t use the term “affordances” with them, I reference them frequently. I’ve found myself holding back from, “you know, using your ESN will afford you persistence!” to “you know, using Yammer instead of email will allow your team the ability to see and search for a conversation long after the discussion is over.” It struck me that I needed to be able to talk about affordances in layman’s terms for practical purposes, so I thought I’d take a stab at defining those.

Triggered Attending

  • Scholarly Definition: Remaining uninvolved in content production of the conversation until a timely automated alert informs the individual of a change to the specific content of interest. (1)
  • Layman’s Definition: Setting up your notifications so you’re pinged when you need to pay attention to the conversation.


  • Scholarly Definition: Reacting online to others’ presence, profiles, content and activities. (1)
  • Layman’s Definition: Reaching lots of people through content being shared and re-posted.


  • Scholarly Definition: Informed by relational and content ties. (1) Established connections between individuals and content, or between an actor and a presentation. A social tie. (2)
  • Layman’s Definition: Being able to see who knows who and who knows what.

Generative Role-Taking:

  • Scholarly Definition: Enacting patterned actions and taking on community-sustaining roles in order to maintain a productive dialogue among participants. (1)
  • Layman’s Definition: These are the people who keep the conversation going and bring new joiners into the mix.


  • Scholarly Definition: Communication is persistent if it remains accessible in the same form as the original display after the actor has finished his or her presentation. (2)
  • Layman’s Definition: The data remains visible and searchable long after the conversation is over.


  • Scholarly Definition: The amount of effort people must expend to locate information. (2)
  • Layman’s Definition: Unlike email, ESNs allow everyone to see and learn from the conversation.


  • Scholarly Definition: Editability refers to the fact the individuals can spend a good deal of time and effort crafting and re-crafting a communicative act before it is viewed by others. (2)
  • Layman’s Definition: You can make updates to the information when things (policies, practices, individuals, etc) inevitably change.

I’ll keep working on my layman’s definitions and would welcome feedback related to how others talk about affordances with their clients and organizations in non-scholarly ways.


(1) Majchrzak, A., Faraj, S., Kane, G.C., & Azad, B. (2013) The Contradictory Influence of Social Media Affordances on Online Communal Knowledge Sharing. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 19(1).

(2) Treem, J., & Leonardi, P. (2012) Social Media Use in Organizations Exploring the Affordances of Visibility, Editability, Persistence, and Association. Communication Yearbook, 36, 143-189.

Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash


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