PLUGGED IN: A QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS OF THE WAYS IPOD USERS PRODUCE AND EXPERIENCE SOCIAL CONNECTION

Postgraduate

ABSTRACT

Various science and technology studies (STS) scholars argue that users are active agents who provide insight in the uses of a technology. While researchers describe the effects of technologies like the Apple iPod as isolationary, few focus on how users form social connections. In this study, I argue that contrary to assumptions surrounding iPod usage, the ways personal technologies are used and the cultural impact usage has on everyday interactions allows for the formation of social connections in practice. Drawing upon fifteen in-depth interviews and four observations, a modified grounded theory approach was used to analyze the meanings users gave to interactions with the iPod. Findings indicate that users experience social connection through file sharing, ownership, and collective usage, which coexist with processes of creating isolation. This demonstrates that the meanings given to the use of a particular technology are not stable, but interpretively flexible and contingent on social context.

Introduction: Users and the Social Shaping of Technologies

Various Sociologists and Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars argue that users are not passive recipients but are active and important actors in shaping technology (e.g., Pinch and Bjiker 1984; Cowan, 1987; Douglas, 1987; Woolgar, 1991; Akrich, 1992; Oudshoorn and Pinch, 2003). Users, who are predominately framed as patients or consumers, provide insight in the interpretations and uses of a technology. In practice, the use of a particular technology produces multiple and even contradictory meanings about social life. By examining how the meanings associated with usage are produced, maintained, and altered, this research examines how practices with technology impact everyday social interactions.

Conceptions of media technologies as isolationary have dominated the findings of scholars examining the use and effects of portable media technologies like the Apple iPod (Hosokawa, 1984; Chen, 1998; Henderson, Taylor, and Thomson, 2002). Little research, however, has focused upon how users through their interactions (i.e. practices) with technologies also form social connections. The recent popularity of personal technologies like the iPod provides an opportunity to examine the ways users produce social connections.

This research begins with the following three questions: How do users shape and reshape the meanings associated with iPod usage? In what ways do users counter or reinforce popular notions of the iPod as a socially isolating technology? How are social connections or isolation produced with the iPod in practice? I explore these questions though an examination of the meanings users give to their everyday use of the iPod. 

By uncovering how users form social connections, this research aims to reveal the multiple and sometime contradictory ways users maintain or negotiate various meanings associated with iPod usage. Influenced by Science and Technology Studies (STS), feminism, and post-structural approaches to user-technology relations, I argue how, contrary to assumptions surrounding the use of portable media players (PMP), the ways personal technologies like the iPod are used and the cultural impact usage has on everyday interactions, allow individuals to also actively produce social connections in practice.