middlebroware research website

The Photoshop Inscriptions Project with DHIL

We’ve been working with SFU’s Digital Humanities Innovation Lab over the past eight months to set up a research platform for investigating YouTube videos related to Photoshop. The initial hypothesis guiding this research project is that Photoshop is ubiquitous not simply because of its instrumental value as a tool for creating and editing images but also because it is part and parcel of deeper ethical, political and social debates about mediation and creativity within popular culture. This hypothesis is framed by the following postulates:

  1. Photoshop is an object whose cultural classification is contingent upon its re-inscription by communicative practices. Designers and engineers give meaningful form to technologies in ways that can be ‘read’ as instruments (Ihde, 1998: p.150). Socio-technical inscriptions, much like texts, are generated by communicative practices (Orlikowski & Yates, 1994) accompanied by figures or ‘figurations’ who enact these actions (Suchman, 2012). In this sense, designers and marketers not only create affordances for users when designing media software, they also generate a material and semiotic model of who acts with/through these affordances. Scholarly research in STS and in media studies working with (or in reaction to (for example, see Silverstone & Haddon (1996)) this conception of design has convincingly shown that technological scripts do not determine how technologies are read. People who use technologies develop de- or re-inscriptions that challenge the designer’s original intended reading. Analyzing technological inscriptions, their figurations, and how both are read or reinterpreted therefore allows the researcher to examine the contingent power dynamics between different social and technological actors involved in mediation and map out the cultural categories ascribed to Photoshop.
  2. One of the key spaces in which these re-inscriptions take place are in/through digital infrastructures of participation like YouTube. Communicative practices for re-inscribing Photoshop are not limited to academic or professional fields. Digital media, particularly popular video-sharing sites like YouTube, have become key infrastructures of participation (Beer, 2013b) where anyone interested in Photoshop—be they professional or amateur users, fans of the software or its critics—converge to teach, learn, entertain, debate, and denounce its place in contemporary culture.
  3. The immanent order for these communicative practices can be conceptualised as genres. In order to understand how these communicative practices are socially, culturally, and technologically enabled and constrained through these infrastructures of participation, we must investigate how order immanently develops through classification. One way to conceptualise this order is as ‘genres’ (Beer 2013b). In their classic research on communicative action in organisations, Yates and Orlikowski (1992; 2002; 2007) provide a compelling conceptual definition of genres:

“When agents enact a genre, their interactions with others are structured by the genre’s socially recognized and sanctioned expectations around key aspects of the communication: purpose, content, participants, form, time, and place. […] genres are indicative of what communities do and do not do (purpose), what they do and do not value (content), what different roles members of the community may or may not play and the conditions (time, place, form) under which interactions should and should not occur.” (Yates & Orlikowski 2007: 70-71)

In order to further develop and test the ideas presented above, we need to investigate what kinds of genres of communicative practice for re-inscribing Photoshop exist on infrastructures of participation like YouTube. We’ve been coding the sample for the past two months and have come up with some great material. The online platform can be found here: https://dhil.lib.sfu.ca/pi/

More soon!


  • Beer, D. (2013a). Genre, Boundary Drawing and the Classificatory Imagination. Cultural Sociology, 7(2), 145–160.
  • Beer, D. (2013b). Popular culture and new media: the politics of circulation. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Orlikowski, W., & Yates, J. (1994). Genre Repertoire: The Structuring of Communicative Practices in Organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 39(4), 541–574.
  • Rogers, R. (2013). Digital methods. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
  • Silverstone, R., & Haddon, L. (1996). Design and the Domestication of Information and Communication Technologies: Technical change and everyday life. In R. Mansell & R. Silverstone (Eds.), Communication by Design: The politics of information and communication technologies (pp. 44–74). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Suchman, L. (2012). Configuration. In C. Lury & N. Wakeford (Eds.), Inventive Methods: The happening of the social (pp. 48–60). London: Routledge.
  • Yates, J., & Orlikowski, W. (1992). Genres of Organizational Communication: A Structurational Approach to Studying Communication and Media. The Academy of Management Review, 17(2), 299–326.
  • Yates, J., & Orlikowski, W. (2002). Genre Systems: Structuring Interaction through Communicative Norms. Journal of Business Communication, 39(1), 13–35.
  • Yates, J., & Orlikowski, W. (2007). The PowerPoint presentation and its corollaries: how genres shape communicative action in organizations. In M. Zachry & C. Thralls (Eds.), Communicative practices in workplaces and the professions: cultural perspectives on the regulation of discourse and organizations (pp. 67–91). Amityville, NY: Baywood Pub. Co.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *