RMeS Workshop Appnography: Researching the apps of life and the life of apps

Workshop organized by Dr Rik Smit (RUG), within the context of the RMeS PhD Workshop Grant

When? 1 April 2019
Where? University of Groningen, Academiegebouw – A2, Broerstraat 5, Groningen
Time? 10.00 – 17.30
Coordinator? Dr Rik Smit (RUG)
Open to? PhD’s and research master students, max 20 participants

This workshop explores how we can study mobile application software, popularly known as ‘apps’, discussing and applying methods from digital ethnography and user interface analysis. For most people who own a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet, apps are part and parcel of everyday life. Whether people cook, play, jog, or date, they increasingly use apps to aid them in these activities and practices. At the same time, apps – or at least their developers – use us to gather user data, often for commercial purposes, or to refine their proprietary algorithms.

During this workshop we will explore possible ways to study these “apps of life” and the “life of apps.” Like any medium or technology, apps live a life of their own: they are conceived of, presented to the world, implemented and used, and they may stop being used (they die). As a specific form of digital ethnography (Pink, et al. 2016), “appnography” will be proposed as a way to analyze the various stages of development (production) of an app, the discourses surrounding the app (how the app is marketed and presented to the world), and how it is used and made sense of by app users. Moreover, we will discuss various ways in which to analyze app interfaces, features, and affordances, which enable, shape, and restrict practices.

The workshop is organized by Dr Rik Smit and is connected to a new research project following his recently completed PhD project Platforms of Memory: Social Media and Digital Memory Work (defended March 2018, cum laude). In this new project, he investigates the plethora of personal memory apps available in app stores. Apps such as The Memory App, Lifecake, Relive, Facebook’s On This Day, and Moment Garden help organize mediated memories by categorizing, sorting, and filtering them. These apps, he argues, signal a broader shift toward systems and services that structure and automatically re-present our pasts for us, so-called “mnemotechnologies” (Stiegler, 2010). As such, they are part of an emerging “algorithmic culture” (Striphas, 2014), in which our daily practices have come to involve algorithmic procedures such as automatic recommendation and personalization. Thus, in a nutshell, this research scrutinizes how the logic of computational systems and databases intertwine with personal digital memory work.

Guest speakers

Anne Helmond (UvA)

Anne Helmond is assistant professor of New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. She is a member of the Digital Methods Initiative and the App Studies Initiative where she focuses her research on social media platforms, apps, and web history. She holds a Veni grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) for the project ‘App ecosystems: A critical history of apps’.

Fernando van der Vlist (UvA)

Fernando van der Vlist is a research associate with the Collaborative Research Centre ‘Media of Cooperation’ at the University of Siegen. He is a member of the Digital Methods Initiative (University of Amsterdam) and the App Studies Initiative. He has lectured in new media, digital culture, and digital methods (University of Amsterdam, Utrecht University, Utrecht Data School) and has a background in media arts and design.

Nathaniel Tkacz (U of Warwick)

Nathaniel Tkacz is Reader at the University of Warwick. His work investigates the political, economic and organizational dimensions of technology, with a specific focus on networked and digital forms. This has led him to analyze notions of political openness in web-based communities, the practice of ‘mass collaboration’, experimental economic platforms, software forking, trolling, and emerging forms of governance in network cultures, among other things. His current work is on 1) the rise of ‘dashboard interfaces’ and 2) the relationship between media and economy.

Preliminary programme
10.00-10.30Doors open. Coffee
10.30-10.45Welcome (Prof. Marcel Broersma)
10.45-11.15Introductory lecture: Swipe, tap, Open, Remember (STORe): Personal Digital Memory in the App Ecology (Rik Smit)
11.15-11.30 Coffee
11.30-12.30Workshop I: Researching App Ecologies: Methodological affordances and challenges of studying apps and app stores (Anne Helmond & Fernando van der Vlist)
Discussion and debate
13.00-14.00Lunch break
14.00-15.00Workshop II: User Interface Analysis and the Walkthrough Method (Nate Tkacz)
15.00-15.30 Coffee
15.30-16.30Workshop III: Studying App Discourses, Rhetoric and Logics (Rik Smit)
16.30-17.00 Design Fiction: Introduction to the assignment
17.00-17.15Closing remarks
Assignment for participants

The assignment for this workshop is rather unconventional. Instead of writing a paper, participants will have to come up with a “design fiction”—speculative, critical design that aims to explore and critique possible futures. This can take many forms: a story revolving around an imagined technology, an extended prototype description, a piece of journalistic reporting about this future technology, a conversation between two philosophers discussing the technology, an extended manual for the technology, a review of a future technology, or a visual representation of a possible future technology, accompanied by a rationale. Some well-known design fictions are the “Memex” by Vanavar Bush (1945) and technologies featured in films and books such as Black Mirror, 1984, and Minority Report.

The design fiction will need to engage with one of the workshop themes:

  • Apps and datafication
  • App ecologies
  • Dashboards and interfaces
  • Memory (both personal and collective)
  • Algorithmic culture

The themes are broad on purpose, in order to stimulate creative/critical thinking. All design fictions are to be accompanied by a 1,000 word rationale which reflects on the design fiction, using the workshop material (lectures, workshops, readings).

  • Striphas, T. (2015). Algorithmic culture. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 18(4-5), 395-412.
  • Levine, D. (2016). Design Fiction. Medium.
  • Dieter, M., et al. (2018). Store, interface, package, connection: Methods and propositions for multi-situated app studies. Medien der Kooperation – working paper series, 4. 1-16.
  • Bush, V. (1945). As we may think. Atlantic.
  • Bell, F. et al. (2013). Science fiction prototypes: Visionary technology narratives between futures. Futures 50. 5-14.
  • Bartlet, J. & Tkacz, N. (2017). Governance by Dashboard: A policy paper. Demos.