Busy Week, Busier Weekend

I spent this past entire week working on a presentation that I gave yesterday at the local Instructional Systems Technology conference. I was freaking out for some reason, and literally did nothing but prepare my slides for the presentation. I move quickly through my slides, so I wasn’t surprised that I had 75 slides for a 20 minute presentation. Other people thought I was insane until I actually went through my presentation.

It was super well received, which surprised me. My question-answer session was challenging, but I handled it really well. I mean, I thought the questions were manageable, but people afterwords told me they were really tough questions. One of my questioners told me I should pursue a PhD with my topic, and that my topic should be my dissertation because it’s timely and meaningful. And  I think I would, I do love this topic and my research, I just need to learn how to create and stick to a routine that makes sure I eat and sleep properly. Life as a student for essentially 20 years has ruined me.

Anyway, people who had never seen me present before, but have been friends here on campus, saw me do my thing and were impressed. I video recorded the entire thing using my FlipCam Ultra, so when I get time (ha!) I’ll post it to Vimeo and link it to you guys.

There is a reason behind my madness over Steampunk. And other academics are recognizing it. Yay! Also, I want to thank Chad, Burr, Yujia, Xuan, Nate, Lynn, Ammar, Gopi, and Vidya for attending my presentation session. Having familiar faces in the audience was comforting, and those of you who asked questions asked some really good ones!

I also had an informal meeting with the other research capstone students yesterday. They helped me with my current problem, which is that I think the methodology I outlined for analyzing my interviews is the wrong one for me. I really enjoyed speaking with people, and soaked their enthusiasm, and I’m beginning to see patterns. However, I don’t relish the idea of analysis because I feel the methodology I chose sucks out the enthusiasm that defines Steampunk.

My research peers suggested that I listen to my interviews again as if I were listening to a story. Where are the climaxes, the lulls, the plot twists? This definitely works for me much better because I am a narrative soul, and when describing the interviews to my thesis adviser I was narrating, rather than reporting. As such, my plan is to listen through the five interviews I have, prepare for my interview tomorrow, and write insights onto Post-Its so I can ask people to help me with an affinity diagram. The affinity diagram will help me abstract the main insights, and strengthen my theory.

In the meantime, I should stop blogging and continue grading my third of 55 undergrad reports. The joys of being a teaching assistant! Later, kids.

Appropriation vs Customization

So I had an interesting talk with one of my professors, Erik Stolterman, about my capstone topic on Tuesday. He was curious to know what my topic has to do with HCI, specifically, why I’m only looking at creative appropriation, and not everyday appropriation. To be honest, I was a bit dumbfounded by the question. It’s not that I’m not looking at everyday appropriation. Or rather, he’s correct, I am not looking at everyday appropriation, because I don’t feel what he was talking about is appropriation at all. It’s at the opposite end of the spectrum, and that end of the spectrum is called customization.

His examples included such things as buying a case for his iPhone which suited his style, or setting a GMail theme or iGoogle theme… these are customizations to me, and not appropriations. You may disagree, which is totally fine and most likely expected. Why do I feel this to be true?

According to The Free Dictionary, customization is when one “makes or alters to one’s personal specifications.” Synonymous definitions would be to have something made to a “customer’s individual requirements.” In which case, I mean to say that customization is not necessarily a creative act. It is not something in which the customer is also the individual doing the customizations. Whereas with my definition of appropriation, I specifically state…

Appropriation: The act of adapting an object to oneself in a way that not only redefines the object, but also relates the object to one’s sense of self.

So while I should probably look at examples of customization, and I surely will for design exemplars, I still feel that customization is still very different from appropriation, simply because appropriation has a heavier meaning to the individual. At least, this is my theory on the subject.

It is incredibly important to recognize it is the act of appropriating that makes it more meaningful. That the individual doing the appropriating has made a choice to creatively express oneself in a way that redefines the object in a way that somehow reflects the individual’s personality, perhaps.

Light-bulb Moments

Things have been pretty hectic around here, but somehow I still manage to make progress on my capstone. I love having conversations with the people in my program because the most interesting points come up.

Creativity isn’t consistent

I had lunch with Chad Camara one day, and we got into this conversation about creativity. He mentioned that even though we are both creative, he sees our creativity as being very different. Mainly, that mine is extremely personal. I write stories that reflect some deep belief or question that I have. I paint, draw, dance, sing, sketchnote, and create objects from clay.

I write this because it seems that my intrinsically personal creativity is a huge part of my self-perception and identity. If I can’t be creative, I feel lost. In the same way, if I can’t appropriate something into my world so that it feels personal to me, I don’t care about it. So that’s food for thought.

Getting push-back

I had a design session with my roommate, Lynn, and she had the brilliant idea of looking at how people look at objects. She made the point that I see everything as a potential building material to make something else… which she simply doesn’t do.

Nov 5, 2009: Lynn Dombrowski suggests that I do a design exercise where I take people to Goodwill, etc, and ask people what they would do with the objects they find. Will they see built/”finished” materials as components of new projects?

It has since occurred to me that not only do I learn from what they choose, but also what they don’t choose. As in, what do I see as building materials, and why don’t they see them that way?

Nov 8, 2009: Rachel Bolton asks me questions that stump me, only because all my information is stuffed somewhere in an inaccessible part of my brain. Her questions, however, start a subtle thought-chain which eventually lead me to my light bulb moment.

  1. What makes the steampunk appropriation unique… what are the
    specific implications for HCI?
  2. What makes the creative/identity rewards of appropriation
    (specifically steampunk?) different from other identity-forming
    endeavors like sports?  Is it the process, the materials, the people
    that are attracted to it?

Because I find I have difficulty answering these questions, I begin to wonder if it’s so smart to be studying steampunk in the first place. I love the topic, I find it fascinating, but really, what does it mean for HCI? I asked for push-back from Rachel, and she gave it to me, and I had no answer. Sigh.

Class Exercise

On Tuesday, Nov 10, we were required to bring our sketches in for discussion in small groups. Because I’m doing a research capstone, I was a bit stumped. I’m not sketching, at least not in the visual sense. So I brought in my pseudo-affinity diagram, pictured below.

Poster of Themes and Questions

So I threw it up on the wall with all the other sketches.

Sketching Exercise

Sketching Exercise

During this exercise, we had groups of four-to-five students. We walked to our different sketches and discussed the purpose of them, etc. My group was awesome with feedback. CJ Page admitted that he doesn’t appropriate anything at all, which just boggles my mind. I appropriate almost everything that comes into my life, in some form or another. It’s my way of engaging with the world. Which struck me as a worrying point while CJ spoke.

Light-bulb moment

That night after capstone, I climbed into bed with a frown. Something was off, I realized, in how I was approaching this entire research project. It wasn’t until about eleven at night that I had my epiphany.

You see, I had a dream about capstone. Specifically, a dream in which I realized my case study group (steampunks) don’t have to be my target user group. At first, I stayed in bed, repeating that mantra to myself: “Case study doesn’t equal target user.” I quickly became paranoid that I would forget the epiphany by morning’s light. So I grabbed my whiteboard markers and attacked my unsuspecting whiteboard for about two hours.

Sketching Exercise

I’m feeling pretty good about this direction. I feel like I have an idea of how I can apply the literature and my own experiences, compare them to the experiences of people who don’t do such things, and see what we can learn. Now if I could only find the time… and get some sleep!

Making my thoughts tangible

Over the weekend, I threw together some sticky notes, as mentioned in my status report. This has been extremely helpful for me to get some of my thoughts out without censoring myself, which is great. When my thoughts are hidden in my head, they’re locked in a black box. When thrown out onto sticky notes? I can move them around, create associations, transcribe the ideas into a meaningful post on a blog, etc.

Theories, Concepts, Issues and Questions
Theories, Concepts, Issues and Questions

Above, is a photo of the wall above my bed. The orange notes are my questions, the blue notes are questions that are explicit from the papers I’ve been reading, and the fuchsia are the theoretical concepts, theories, and issues that I’ve determined from my papers. Continue reading

Status Report

I think it’s time for my first real status report. Here is what I’ve accomplished in the last two weeks…

  • I finished reading a number of papers on creativity, DIY, and appropriation. I would list them, but I don’t have them with me at the moment
  • I created some fake Steampunk goggles for my Halloween costume
  • I completed my Steampunk machine for ceramics. It’s currently drying out and waiting to be fired in the kiln
  • I defined my current idea of appropriation
  • I went through all of the papers I’ve read and pulled interesting or important quotations that help build the argument I’m forming in my head
  • I went back through all those same papers and pulled out interesting/important concepts, theories, issues, and questions from them. Each one got its own sticky note and pasted to the wall above my bed
    • There are about thirty of them, and I still have more papers to go through, so eventually, I need to determine which concepts/theories are more important, which are sub-concepts, etc
  • I dressed up as a Steampunk character for Halloween
    • I created an entire persona and spoke with a fake English accent. I was “Lady Almyra Gunn, Steampunk scientist, researcher, and explorer extraodinaire.” It was awesome
    • Someone actually recognized I was Steampunk! Apparently they have a friend who modded their laptop to look Steampunk, and was highlighted in Gizmodo back in August
    • Obviously, I got their contact information and have asked to speak to their friend, especially since the friend lives in Indiana, perhaps Bloomington, even
    • I documented all stages of my costume, including the original clothing selection, the additions, etc. I plan to blog about this later
  • I’ve collected some initial research questions on sticky notes

You know, I kind of thought I’d done more than that. But I guess not. It’s amazing how much time certain tasks will take! Well, with that out of the way, what would I like to accomplish in the next two weeks?

To do list

  • I have to determine an activity for my capstone class tomorrow night. Don’t know what I’m going to do yet
  • I want to determine my primary research question and any related sub-questions or potential opposing questions
    • This means I need to come up with more questions
    • I also need to start card sorting my questions, concepts, theories, issues, etc
  • I want to determine my primary research plan. Where will I try to get interview subjects, and why? This includes sources like Etsy, Flickr, blogs, indie magazines, etc
  • I’ve looked up the CHI work-in-progress details, but I still haven’t determined a plan of what I would like to have accomplished when
    • I need to figure out my plan for the remainder of the semester, actually. Gulp
  • I keep finding more books and papers to read, but at some point, I need to cut myself off
    • Gotta find some reasons to do primary research
    • Again, this means I need to determine my primary research question

So yeah. That’s my plan.

HCI’s Appropriation of Appropriation

Well, it’s about 1:30 in the morning, so of course I’m working on capstone and have to blog about it. In reference to my former post about appropriation, where I discussed the common definition of the word, I thought it high time I also discuss the ACM’s definition of appropriation. I do this with the hopes that I will determine a working definition of appropriation and what it means to my capstone.

I have determined two categories from the six papers I found in the ACM Digital Library that specifically discuss appropriation: temporal experience and adaptability. The categories and provided definitions don’t seem to stray too far from the common definitions, except that they are applied to technology and our relationship with it. That said, I would be interested to read papers from the psychology tradition to know if the definition alters at all. I suppose it might/must.

Appropriation as temporal experience

Based on my readings from Adhe, McCarthy and Wright, and Wakkary and Maestri, one can think of appropriation as the amount of time spent with an object. All three papers suggest that there must be some sort of meaningful interaction or experience with the object. Adhe suggests the interaction/experience needs to be positive, whereas the other two papers make no distinction.

According to Adhe (1), the “appropriation process is part of a biography of goods. It is part of the biography of the products from the moment of purchase.” He goes on to say that  “the process of appropriation requires pleasurable experiences with the product.”

McCarthy and Wright (4) seem to have a similar definition, saying that appropriation means “making an experience our own by relating it to our sense of self, our personal history, and our anticipated future.”

Wakkary and Maestri (6) reference McCarthy and Wright by saying “we mean the remaking of something through a use that becomes personal, framed within our understanding of our situation and our anticipated future.”

Appropriation as adaptability

I don’t want to say that the following quotations are in contrast to appropriation as temporal experience. It seems to me that appropriation as adaptability and as temporal experience are inextricably intertwined. At the same time, however, their motivations are slightly different. One can’t learn to adapt an object without spending time with it, and without having an experience which suggests adaptation is an option.

Anyway, Dix (2) says:

“These improvisations and adaptations around technology are not a sign of failure, things the designer forgot, but show that the technology has been domesticated, that the users understand and are comfortable enough with the technology to use it in their own ways. At this point we know that technology has become the users’ own, not simply what the designer gave to them. This is appropriation.”

March, Jacobs, and Salvador (3) say that their focus for appropriation is on “openness, transparency and adaptability.” Similarly, Salovaara (5) says appropriation is when “users invent ways to use technology for purposes that they had not been considered before.”

So what do I think?

Well, first off, I don’t think you have to have a positive experience in order to appropriate something. I think that a positive experience helps, for sure. But I think one can appropriate something even under negative circumstances. For instance, how many of us hold on to our lemon cars, perhaps, because of memorable road trips with family/friends, etc? Maybe it’s the first car we ever learned to drive, even though the bottom’s basically rusted out now. It doesn’t matter if the car is decrepit, in our minds, it’s still that shiny car our parents gave to us.

In that way, it seems I agree with McCarthy and Wright in saying that appropriation is when we “relate [the object] to our sense of self, our personal history.” It seems to me that in order to appropriate, the object must become a part of one’s personal narrative. And how does one do that, exactly? Because it isn’t enough to simply bring the object into one’s life… that’s not appropriation, that’s possession.

Appropriation, then, is when one uses the object “in their own way,” as according to Dix. It is when one “adapts,” as per March, Jacobs, and Salvador, the object to one’s life/task/style/etc. I especially like Salovaara’s idea of appropriation, where it’s about using the object for something it hadn’t been “considered before.”


Meaning that, by looking at the ACM definitions of appropriation, I think of it as adapting an object to oneself in a way that not only redefines the object, but also relates the object to one’s sense of self.

This relates back to my previous post, where I highlighted specific common definitions of appropriation, pulling out the following keywords and phrases:

  • To set apart for or assign to a particular purpose or use (Merriam-Webster).
  • To make (a thing) the private property of any one, to make it over to him as his own; to set apart (Oxford English Dictionary).

Excellent. So there you have it. My (current) understanding and working definition of appropriation. All of this might change, though, if I read something that truly ignites a spark in me. But in the meantime, this is what I will be using as my definition.


  1. Ahde, P. 2007. Appropriation by adornments: personalization makes the everyday life more pleasant. In Proceedings of the 2007 Conference on Designing Pleasurable Products and interfaces (Helsinki, Finland, August 22 – 25, 2007). DPPI ’07. ACM, New York, NY, 148-157.
  2. Dix, A. 2007. Designing for appropriation. In Proceedings of the 21st British HCI Group Annual Conference on HCI 2008: People and Computers Xxi: Hci..But Not As We Know It – Volume 2 (University of Lancaster, United Kingdom, September 03 – 07, 2007). British Computer Society Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. British Computer Society, Swinton, UK, 27-30.
  3. March, W., Jacobs, M., and Salvador, T. 2005. Designing technology for community appropriation. In CHI ’05 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Portland, OR, USA, April 02 – 07, 2005). CHI ’05. ACM, New York, NY, 2126-2127.
  4. McCarthy, J. and Wright, P. 2004. Technology as experience. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  5. Salovaara, A. 2009. Studying appropriation of everyday technologies: a cognitive approach. In Proceedings of the 27th international Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Boston, MA, USA, April 04 – 09, 2009). CHI EA ’09. ACM, New York, NY, 3141-3144.
  6. Wakkary, R. and Maestri, L. 2007. The resourcefulness of everyday design. In Proceedings of the 6th ACM SIGCHI Conference on Creativity &Amp; Cognition (Washington, DC, USA, June 13 – 15, 2007). C&C ’07. ACM, New York, NY, 163-172.

What do I mean by Appropriation?

This is a great question that was brought up by Nate Husted during an impromptu design session over Thai food at lunch.

(By the way, while Siam House on 4th in Bloomington is pretty good, I’m still partial to Esan Thai’s chicken fried rice. Thai curries just don’t do it for me the way Indian curries do. Yum.)

Back to business.

“What do you mean when you say appropriation?” Nate asked me as we walked to Siam House. It was drizzling, and cold. A miserable day, actually, where it wasn’t wet enough to open my umbrella, yet, it was misty enough that my glasses were rendered useless. His question was simple. So simple, that I was, for a moment, dumbfounded that I hadn’t thought to define my understanding of appropriation yet.

This isn’t to say that I hadn’t thought about it a lot, I had. I’ve read almost every paper in the ACM library on appropriation, so I have a working knowledge of how other HCI/tech researchers are approaching the appropriation research/design space. What about the general public? When they want to understand what it means to appropriate something, where do they turn?

  • Free Dictionary: (1) To take for one’s own use, esp illegally or without permission. (2) (Economics, Accounting & Finance / Banking & Finance) To put aside (funds, etc.) for a particular purpose or person.
  • Wikipedia: Appropriation is the act of taking possession of or assigning purpose to properties or ideas and is important in many topics.
  • Wiktionary: v (1) To make suitable; to suit. — William Paley. (2) To take to one’s self in exclusion of others; to claim or use as by an exclusive right. (3) To set apart for, or assign to, a particular person or use, in exclusion of all others. (4) To annex, as a benefice, to a spiritual corporation, as its property. –Blackstone.
  • Dictionary.com: adj (1) Suitable or fitting for a particular purpose, person, occasion, etc. (2) Belonging to or peculiar to a person. v (3) To set apart, authorize, or legislate for some specific purpose or use. (4) To take to or for oneself; take possession of. (5) To take without permission or consent; seize; expropriate. (6) To steal, esp. to commit petty theft.
  • Merriam-Webster: (1) To take exclusive possession of : annex. (2) To set apart for or assign to a particular purpose or use. (3) To take or make use of without authority or right.
  • Oxford English Dictionary: (1) To make (a thing) the private property of any one, to make it over to him as his own; to set apart. (2) Const. to oneself: = next. (3) Hence ellipt. To take possession of for one’s own, to take to oneself. (4) Eccl. To annex (a benefice) to some religious corporation, as its property. (5) To allot, annex, or attach a thing to another as an appendage. Obs. (6) To devote, set apart, or assign to a special purpose or use. Const. to, for. (7) To assign or attribute as properly pertaining to; to attribute specially or exclusively. arch. (8) To make, or select as, appropriate or suitable to; to suit. arch. (9) To make proper, to fashion suitably. (So Fr. approprier.) Obs.

So that’s a pretty good start, right? This, of course, is all impromptu research I did after Nate’s question sparked genuine worry that I wasn’t doing my job as a researcher. How could I possibly attempt to understand why people appropriate, without having a general definition of appropriation in the first place?

My answer to Nate went roughly like this:

“Well, I’ve read a lot about what the ACM community thinks about appropriation, so I guess I could talk about that. But to me, appropriation is when you take something, whether be a finished product or simple materials, and adapt them to fit you. You engage the artifact, whatever it is, and bring it into your lifeworld, as it were.

“Example… okay, so a ton of people have an iPhone, right? But no two iPhones are exactly alike, if you think about the apps that people download. Or the cases they buy. Or the other little personalizations and customizations that make your iPhone yours, and someone else’s iPhone theirs.”

“So appropriation is personal customization?” Nate asked.

“Yes, to me anyway. It’s making the object personal to you. But that’s just appropriation. I think my topic, my subdomain of appropriation, is actually about the do-it-yourself, creative aspects of customization and personalization. The extreme end of appropriation, where you engage the artifact to the point of using your creative talents to make it your own. What drives people to do that? Why do I do that?”

“So steampunk fits in…?”

“Because steampunks are all about doing it themselves. They embrace their creativity and engage the objects around them. They are an extreme of the appropriation spectrum. They are my people.”

So… okay. What’s the moral of the story? I’m sure you’re wondering. Well, the fact is this is why it’s so great to talk to people about my capstone. The fact that everyone seems interested, asking great questions… it’s invigorating. So invigorating that even though I was completely ready to sleep, having been laying in bed for an hour, I couldn’t sleep. Why? Because I kept thinking, I need to write down my thoughts on appropriation before I fall asleep and they drift away. So here I am, writing this entry at 12:30 AM EST on a Saturday night, after having literally traveled across the country, starting my day at 3 AM PST (6 AM EST, to be fair). I spent twelve hours traveling, and returned to Bloomington to partake in an excellent Diwali celebration.

I should be exhausted. I should be unbelievably cranky.

I’m sure I will be when I wake. But hey, let’s be completely honest here… What’s another few hours of late night, bloodshot cogitation to a seasoned graduate student, anyway?