Social network sites as cognitive technologies

Social network sites, viewed as collectively symbolic, cognitive technologies (Cole, 1996; Norman,1991), are technologies that materialize previously ideal cultural artifacts such as birthdays or ways of sharing information. Moreover, because it seems that, as Hollan, Hutchins and Kirsh (2000) hoped, the idea of continuously re-designing social platforms according to user uses and needs is a prominent practice in the social media business, these technologies are constantly evolving as they adapt to and also adjust these cultural artifacts over time.

If we consider certain actions we take on social network sites to interact with our “Friends”, we can see many of them are digitalized versions of things we used to do before having social media in our lives, such as wishing someone a happy birthday, but that have also been shaped in new forms by incorporated features in the technology—such as the Facebook feature that notifies you of your Friends’ birthdays and prompts you to post on their wall or send them a message. While we would congratulate people on our different social networks on their birthdays before social media, it is likely we would not have remembered everyone’s birthday and send them any type of message as often. Congratulating someone on their birthday is in itself a cultural norm; the idea of commemorating the date someone is born is a cultural act that is learned through ages of doing so across cultures, and part of institutions in various forms. At elementary schools, kids can sing to their classmates; and people can expect some paid time off work either through informal norms or laws, when they are older. And on social network sites, people can expect to be reminded of their contacts’ birthdays and to have their birthdays notified to them. Moreover, while wishing somebody a happy birthday could have been an ideal artifact, sometimes materialized in a gift or a card, on social network sites it is always materialized (and permanently archived) if we regard a digital message as such.

In wanting to keep this site focused on interpersonal communication, Facebook designers understood the significance of the birthday as a cultural artifact and modified the feature over the years to make it more prominent. Facebook algorithms will show you popular activity in your network of contacts and birthdays tend to be one, so a contact’s birthday tends to be on someone’s wall making it an “event” on a user’s feed. When you might have not been enthused about sending a message to a contact, seeing more people do it may give you a push and thus establish new lines of communication across networks. The construction of the birthday changes along with the emerging dynamics that take place on social network sites. In this way, our collective symbolic cognition about this artifact is carried on in an ever-changing way.

A similar example can be seen on Twitter, where we can see how users on social network sites also shape these cognitive technologies according to the type of use they need from it. When Twitter was originally designed, it did not have the now very famous Retweet feature, as the action of re-tweeting somebody was not considered by the designers. Once users started getting ahold of the system, they realized that part of how they wanted to communicate was by spreading information effectively within the character limit of the platform. A re-tweet allows a user to share somebody else’s message in a format that gives information about the post being somebody else’s (in saying it’s a re-tweet) and that links to that somebody, thus giving proper credit and making that someone easy to find (by linking to their username). While this practice, which required users to copy-paste somebody’s Tweet and format it as a re-tweet, was becoming popular, the designers of the platform took notice and made it into a button that facilitates the task. The platform now has a key feature that emerged from how users decided to share information through a collectively agreed on criteria. Retweets are now not only an indicator of how many times a message has been spread, but a symbol of popularity within the Twitter community. We can see here as well how social network sites, as cognitive technologies, serve as both mediators and objects of culture. Their users make use of them not only to express cultural norms but also to shape them, while at the same time these objects carry meaning on which users act.

Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
James Hollan, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh. “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-computer Interaction Research.” ACM Transactions, Computer-Human Interaction 7, no. 2 (June 2000)