Latzko-Toth, Johan Söderberg, Florence Millerand, and Steve Jones

Download Full EssayMisuser Innovations

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Studying the digital is an opportunity to revisit and reconsider certain notions that may have been overlooked or didn’t receive full attention in STS scholarship based on non-digital technologies. The term misuses is applicable to those uses of technology that are described by actors as deviating from a prescribed, proper use. We argue that reflections over misuse and misuser, although relevant for understanding the use and adoption of any kind of technology (Oudshoorn & Pinch, 2003), becomes critical for digital communication technologies. The plasticity associated with digital communication technologies boils down to the difficulties of imposing any single norm on other parties and bring to closure the prescribed uses. Extending Flichy’s concept of “frame of use” (2007), we suggest that sociotechnical practices are discursively and normatively framed by developers and users as being “good” uses (desired, appropriate) or, conversely, misuses (deviant, disruptive). But what begins as a deviation from a pre-existing normative frame of use may lead to innovations from which grows a new set of prescribed uses and misuses. Whether or not a deviant practice will be reevaluated as an act of innovation by posterity depends on the success of this practice in establishing itself as the new norm for use. Consequently, users deviating from a normative frame of use cannot help but to reproduce the distinction between use and misuse. These reflections are advanced through a threefold case study of playful, recreational activities (gaming, chatting) as a disruptive practice within early digital media devices. It provides a historiography of how misuse became a driver of innovation in digital communication technologies. Students playing games or chatting on computer terminals deviated from expected uses and were branded as misusers or disruptive users by system administrators/designers and teachers. However, these misuses proved to be a source of innovation on top of which whole industries have grown, computer game companies and the social media industry.