Snapchat’s impact on social media networks has been a hot topic for several months now.  It and other ephemeral data applications are being championed as the next wave in communication. The application’s creators have positioned Snapchat in opposition to traditional social media applications, such as MySpace and Facebook, which focus on creating a profile and archiving experiences. This rhetoric and Snapchat’s increased popularity have led many to argue that the days of traditional social media network are coming to an end. Often overlooked in these conversations are short message service (SMS) and multimedia messaging service (MMS), which are Snapchats forerunners. When examining Snapchat’s potential as a revenue generating application and effective communication tool, it is important to understand its technological origins. In the last two case studies, I examined the users’ communication via Snapchat as well as technology’s role in that communication. This case study will move away from Snapchat users and technology, focusing instead on the design of the application itself. Since Snapchat is supposed to be an advance in digital communication and social media networks, it seems key to use Gibson’s theory of affordances to examine the actions users are able to perform within the Snapchat network.

Network and Affordances

The theory of affordances, as laid out by by J.J. Gibson in Chapter 8 of The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, defines affordances as what the environment “offers that animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill” (127). Simply put, the environment or object allows certain actions for the animal or users. The emphasis here in regards to networks is that there is connection between the environment (object), what is allows the user (action), and the animal (user).  Affordance theory is connected to ecology, hence the reference to environment and animal, so there is a sense of looking at what a specific environment or space allows animals in that space. The is a interdependence or connectedness between the environment and the animal. Gibson presents, “The organism depends on its environment for its life, but the environment does not depend on the organism for its existence.” (129). However, he goes on to say that the organism does have impact on and the ability to share said environment.The allowable action or affordance impacts both the parts of the network in that “an affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer” (129). When an environment offers a set of affordances it is a niche. Gibson argues that “a niche is a set of affordances[…]The niche implies a kind of animal and the animal implies a kind of niche. Note the complementarity of the two” (128). Beyond the connection environment and the animal, is the idea of perception. The animal or user has to perceive the use before the environment or object can be utilized. Perception adds another dimension to the network of affordances because affordances can exist that animals/users cannot perceive. Gibson explains stating, “The affordance of something does not change as the need for the observer change. The observer may or may not perceive or attend to the affordance, according to his needs, but the affordance, being invariant, is always there to be perceived” (139). Affordances exist as a part of the network whether they are recognized or not by the user. So, as a network, the theory of affordances includes the environment in which action takes place, the objects themselves, the allowable actions, and the animal/user.

Connection to Snapchat/Literature Review

The theory of affordances allows for the inclusion of the camera phone and multimedia  messaging (MMS) into the Snapchat network. Camera phones and photo messaging are essential parts needed for Snapchat to function. What is the significance of camera phones and photo messaging in regards to mobile communication? One scholar will provide work on which to build an analysis of Snapchat and it’s affordances. As mentioned in previous studies, there is little to no literature on Snapchat besides discussions of ephemerality and sexting. In this study, Snapchat is a photo messaging application designed for mobile phones (smartphones, specifically) framed as a network. In the previous case study, the hardware (data storage) and software were considered parts of the network. Moving forward, this case study will aim to incorporate the hardware in regards to the camera phone and photo messaging software that make Snapchat possible.

In “Visual chitchat: The use of camera phones in visual interpersonal communication,” Mikko Villi argues that photo sharing is a significant part of mobile phone communication, which was enahnced by the camera phone. The camera phone is not a ubiquitous part of moblie phones. Villi’s study aimed to see how mobile phone communication practices connected to photo sharing. Through the lens of James W. Cary’s theory of ritual view of communication, Villi concluded, “ritual communication is evidence in how camera phone photographs are captured and communicated in order to maintain social cohesion among a group or among individuals”(39).    Villi’s work presents that photographs have moved from being the subject to the medium of communication. Due to the camera phone, visual interpersonal communication has increased. According to Villi, “A photo message offers both interpersonal, shared experience, and mutual view of the same world through the photograph” (42-43).  Thus, the camera phone allows “new forms of mobile interaction by adding a visual element to the communication process” (50). A significant thing that Villi notes, which relates to Snapchat, is: “A further outcome of the convergence of photography and mobile communication is that photographs can be increasingly directed towards communicating the present. These communications, Villi argues are ritual communications that are used to maintain connections between individuals and/or groups.  The convergence and utilization of these technologies allow users to visually connect with one another to “show the recipient that s/he is in the sender’s thoughts” rather than to directly communicate a specific message (49). This is significant in that  Snapchat is all about capturing and sharing a specific, fleeting moment. The rhetoric of Snapchat’s creators emphasizes connectedness through shared moments and memories that must be paid attention to and absorbed by the individuals involved versus being archived and shared with everyone.

How does the theory define your object of study (as a whole, broken into pieces)?

The theory of affordances would define Snapchat as an object within the environment of the smartphone. The smartphone serves as the environment because Gibson defines the environment as “the surfaces that separate substances form the medium in which the animals live” (127). The smartphone would be the surface that allows the network of Snapchat to function within it. The smartphone’s functioning and ability would greatly impact the network within. For example, if the phone loses power or cannot connect to the cell tower, the user will have limited to no access to Snapchat.

What and/or who is a network node?

The network would include the environment, the object, the user, and the affordances. Through the lens of the affordance theory as network, the environment of the smartphone provides the space for the object of the camera to allow the functioning of the object Snapchat by the user. The environment (smartphone) would be the surface in which the nodes of the objects (camera phone and Snapchat) afford the animal (Snapchat user) action. The snaps, themselves, would also be objects that are moving within the environment of the smartphone and between the objects of the camera phone and Snapchat. These different nodes all impact and connect with one another. All are influenced by the larger environment of the smartphone. The affordances are also apart of the network. The camera phone affords taking pictures and videos. The application of Snapchat affords connecting to the camera phone to take pictures/videos, connecting to other users, and sending/recieving pictures/videos. Upon first glance, the application does not afford saving of images. However, this is circumvented by saving the picture/video on another device or utilizing another affordance of the smartphone and camera: screen capture.

How are different types of nodes situated within a network?

The nodes within the network are not necessarily hierarchical. In the previous case study, I discussed the significance of the hardware and software. This is also the case via the lens of affordance theory.  The objects, actors, and affordances are all connected and interdependent. There is no hierarchy. However, if the environment is considered a part of the network (it has agency). It would be situated as the primary node. This is important in regards to Snapchat because the environment of the smartphone and the object of the camera play a significant role in the functioning of the application. There is much more dependence of Snapchat upon the connection to the network and the functioning of the smartphone and camera than the other way around.

The theory of affordances aimed to allow the examination of the connection between environment and animals/objects in an interdependent and connected ecology rather than a subject-object divide. This moves in favor of the network being flattened. However, Gibson states, “The possibilities of the environment and the way of life of the animal go together inseparably. The environment constrains what the animal can do[…]”  (141). Although there is interconnectedness, the environment constrains the actions within the network.

What types of agency are articulated for various types of nodes?

In the Snapchat network, if the environment is viewed as only a surface, the actors have the most agency. Although there is a still a certain level of dependence on the functioning of the camera phone, the users still decide when and if to use the network. All the parts of the network and environment would still exist, but they would be static if not for the users. The users must perceive the affordance and then act in order for the network to be active. Moreover, within Snapchat the actors create objects that are added to the network. The taking and sending of a snap adds the snap to the network (even if for a short period of time).

What are the types and directions of relationships between nodes?

In regards to types of relationships, the nodes within the Snapchat network are interdependent. Gibson presents the idea of niche. A niche is defined as  a set of affordances” (128). He presents that the nice has more to do with how than where an animal lives. In this regards, the niche would focus on how the user functioned within the environment of the smartphone and utilized the affordances of the camera phone and Snapchat. The user needs all of these pieces. If any of the pieces are missing, nothing can move within the network. I am aware that this can contradict the previous section in which I stated the actors/users had the most agency. I justify this by thinking of a dysfunctional network as being more significant than a network that is not being used at all. What i mean by that is if parts of this network malfunction, the user is still attempting to access and make use of the network. If the user is not attempting to use the network, whether it is functional or dysfunctional, it will be static.  The objects of the network are limited to the network, except for those that are user generated. Objects, such as snaps, added to the network have the ability to leave the network if another user violates the terms of snapchat and saves/stores and disseminates the snap. A snap removed from the network would have its own set of affordances that would go beyond the affordance of sharing a private moment/experience between connected users within the Snapchat network .

What is moving within the network?

As mentioned above, the only thing that moves within the network are the user created objects (snaps). These move from user to user and only exist for up to 10 seconds. At this point, the object, theoretically, disappears. It is hidden from the user via the camera phone and smartphone, itself. It is also, supposedly, hidden or blocked in the larger environment of the service provider network. Nothing else within the network moves.

What happens to content or meaning as it travels through a network?

Through the theory of affordances meaning is complex. Gibson argues, “The meaning is observed before the substance and surface, the color and form, are seen as such.” As mentioned before perception is a significant part of affordance theory. Affordances can exist that are not perceived. Meaning is tied to the perception of affordances. Therefore, it is up to the user to assign meaning based on perceived affordance of the object (snap). However, since affordances exist whether not they are perceived, the meaning can be there and not be perceived. As Gibson states, “The affordance of something does not change as the need of the observer changes. the observer may or may not perceive or attend to the affordance, according to his needs, but the affordance, being invariant, is always there to be perceived” (139). So, theoretically, meaning would travel through the network and reside in the network until the snap disappeared. The snaps afford interpretation and internalization of meaning. If the user does not perceive this affordance, the meaning still exists but it is not perceived.

How do networks emerge, grow, and/or dissolve?

The emergence, growth, and dissolution of the environment would be impacted by niche ecology and constraints. Gibson argues, “ “The possibilities of the environment and the way of life of the animal go together inseparably. The environment constrains what the animal can do, and the concept of a niche ecology reflects that fact.” The niche, as previously defined, is a set of affordances.  Just as there were aspects of the environment that had to be invariant for animals to evolve. The environment of the smartphone has to have invariant elements for the network of Snapchat to develop. The camera phone had to become a ubiquitous part of mobile phones, and  photo messaging had to become a regular part of mobile communication. Gibson discusses constraints in regards to what the environment affords the animal/user. Another aspect is cultural constraint. Normal defines cultural constraints as “learned conventions that are shared by a cultural group.” In regards to Snapchat, the network emerged and grew due to the cultural constraints. Over time camera phones, photo messaging, and applications have become a regular part of culture that users have accepted overtime as natural part of mobile phone communication. This harkens back to Villi’s discussion of ritual communication. The ritual of communication through these methods allowed for this network to emerge and grow in this environment. The same can be said for the dissolution. The cultural constraints could provide advancements, which cause the network to grow, move toward another form of mobile communication, or the end this form of mobile communication all together.


The theory of affordances, for me, emphasized connection, action, and perception. The parts of the network were illuminated for what they do and how they do it in connection with the other elements. In the other case studies, I barely looked at the technology that makes Snapchat possible. This has to be apart of the equation if the entire system is taken into consideration. Through the theory of affordances (and what it brings from ecology), I was able to focus in on where Snapchat exists within a somewhat larger position, rather than focusing just on Snapchat and the users. There is much less on the users and the possible content of the snaps. The users will always be an essential element in this because Snapchat needs users to send snaps in order for the network to remain active and relevant. If everyone is a receiver on Snapchat the network will not be as effective. More importantly, the network will no longer align with the rhetoric that the creators have crafted. Each case study has allowed for a closer look at a different aspect of Snapchat. Bring the pieces together could allow for the big picture of Snapchat as a network within much larger networks. I am thinking of this in regards to the network of mobile phones and service providers. In addition to its position as the next big thing in social media networks.

Works Cited

Gibson, James. “The Theory of Affordances” The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1986. Print.

Norman, Donald A.. “Affordances and Design.” Don Norman: Designing for People. 2004. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.

Villi, Mikko. “Visual chitchat: The use of camera phones in visual interpersonal communication.” Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture, 3.1 (2012): 39-54. Print.