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The Sociology of Mobile Apps

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Abstract

Since their introduction in 2008, software applications for mobile devices ('apps') have become extremely popular forms of digital media. Mobile apps are designed as small bits of software for devices such as smartphones, tablet computers, smartwatches, and other wearable devices. This chapter presents a sociological analysis of apps through the lens of three major theoretical perspectives: i) the political economy approach; ii) Foucauldian perspectives; and iii) sociomaterialism. Each perspective adopts a different focus, but all elucidate important aspects of the sociocultural and political dimensions of apps. Relevant empirical research is incorporated into the discussion to illustrate how apps are designed, developed, and promoted by a range of actors and agencies, and to provide examples of the ways in which people incorporate apps into the routines of their everyday lives. The chapter ends with identifying directions for further sociological research and theorising related to apps.
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The Sociology of Mobile Apps
Deborah Lupton
Vitalities Lab, Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre,
Goodsell Building, UNSW Sydney, Kensington, 2052, Australia
Email: deborah.lupton@unsw.edu.au
Pre-print of chapter for the forthcoming The Oxford Handbook of Sociology and Digital
Media, edited by Deana Rohlinger and Sarah Sobieraj. New York: Oxford.
Abstract
Since their introduction in 2008, software applications for mobile devices (‘apps’) have
become extremely popular forms of digital media. Mobile apps are designed as small bits of
software for devices such as smartphones, tablet computers, smartwatches, and other
wearable devices. This chapter presents a sociological analysis of apps through the lens of
three major theoretical perspectives: i) the political economy approach; ii) Foucauldian
perspectives; and iii) sociomaterialism. Each perspective adopts a different focus, but all
elucidate important aspects of the sociocultural and political dimensions of apps. Relevant
empirical research is incorporated into the discussion to illustrate how apps are designed,
developed, and promoted by a range of actors and agencies, and to provide examples of the
ways in which people incorporate apps into the routines of their everyday lives. The chapter
ends with identifying directions for further sociological research and theorising related to
apps.
Keywords: mobile apps, mobile devices, digital media, digital sociology, political economy,
phenomenology, Foucault, more-than-human theory
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Introduction
Mobile applications (better known as ‘apps’) are digital media commodities. They are small
bits of software, micro-programs designed to work quickly and easily on mobile devices such
as smartphones, tablet computers and wearable devices, with little effort required from users
to upload them and put them into action. Since their introduction in 2008 (first by Apple and
quickly followed by Google), apps have become popular forms of software. The two major
app stores Google Play and the Apple App Store now offer millions of apps with a huge
range of purposes and functions, receiving billions of downloads worldwide. Apps differ
from other software in having limited functions but offering people easy access to software
through the mobile devices that they often carry with them throughout their days and nights.
Unlike other software, they are often free to use or else require only a small up-front fee or
in-app purchases: some app developers offer free ‘lite’ versions as well as paid versions with
more features. Just as mobile devices have become ubiquitous and permanently connected to
the internet, so too are the apps that are downloaded onto this hardware. Apps are designed to
be media artefacts that are quick to acquire and on impulse, and just as easily discarded or
relinquished (Morris & Elkins, 2015). They have been characterised as both mundane and
stylish (Morris & Murray, 2018) and as ‘charming junkware’ (Bardini, 2014).
This chapter presents a sociological analysis of apps. I draw on social and cultural theory and
empirical research to discuss the ways in which apps can be understood as sociocultural and
political phenomena. This sociological approach to apps departs from other approaches in
that rather than focusing on design, instrumental, or utilitarian user-experience issues (such as
how well-designed, popular or effective apps are, or how accurate their content), it views
apps as sociocultural and political artefacts that are created and experienced in complex
relationships and networks involving app users, app designers and developers, app stores, app
blogs and news reports, as well as the broader socio-political environment involving
government agencies, regulators, digital infrastructures, social institutions and many other
entities. This chapter will demonstrate that like other media, apps are material objects
invested with meaning and affective forces. They are designed and marketed with certain
types of use and users in mind and offer various promises to entice downloads and use but are
not always taken up in these ways by users. This approach to apps incorporates sociological
theory and research as well as new interdisciplinary fields of research such as science and
technology studies, software studies, internet studies and surveillance studies.
In what follows, three major perspectives presented in the social research literature on apps
are outlined: i) political economy; ii) Foucauldian; and iii) sociomaterial approaches. Each
perspective adopts a different focus, but all elucidate important aspects of the sociocultural
and political dimensions of apps. The outlined approaches range from a macro- to a micro-
political focus. Scholars engaging with the political economy approach are principally
interested in the macro-political dimensions of apps. These are the broad social, economic,
and political structures (age, gender, social class, sexual identity, race/ethnicity, geographical
location) and institutions (the workplace, educational sites, the family, the economy, the mass
media, healthcare systems and so on) in which apps are developed, promoted and used.
Foucauldian researchers often seek to bring the macro- together with the micro-political
elements of apps in understanding their biopolitical dimensions. The micro-political focus
dominates for scholars taking up sociomaterial perspectives to examine peoples lived
experiences as they come together with apps. The chapter ends with an overview of key
insights and suggestions concerning where sociological app research might head in the future.
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Background: the app economy and patterns of app use
The rapid expansion of smartphone ownership globally with over 3 billion users in 2019
(O'Dea, 2020) has been accompanied by a growing interest in apps. The app economy is
thriving and expanding, both in terms of number of apps published and downloaded, and in
their commercial value (Dieter et al., 2019; Morris & Murray, 2018). Consumers interest in
apps has continued to increase over time. Hundreds of billions of app downloads each year
occur across the world (Clement, 2020), with over 2 billion downloads in 2019 alone,
representing the highest number of any year (Sydow, 2020b). A report published by the app
analytics company App Annie revealed that in 2019, USD $120 billion had been spent by
consumers on app purchases globally: twice that spent on commodities offered by the global
music industry (Sydow, 2020b). The app economy is global, with successful app publishers
distributed across the world, including not only Silicon Valley in the USA, but also Europe,
Israel, and Asia. Indeed two Chinese companies topped the list of the most lucrative app
publishers in 2019 (App Annie, 2020).
Most apps fulfil a solutionist approach to software development: they are designed to deal
with a specific micro-problem that has been identified by the app developer (Morris &
Murray, 2018). Above all, apps offer entertainment and convenience: helping people to
engage in work activities, use social media, find their destinations, do their online shopping,
seek romantic or sexual partners, check the weather forecast, find a ride, order food delivery,
send and receive messages, play games, make and share photographs and videos, listen to
music, manage their finances, monitor their health and physical activity, and many more
services. As the Apple App Store famously put it in early app promotional efforts: ‘There’s
an app for that’. An analysis of apps categorised in the Apple App Store revealed that game
apps were far and above the most commonly offered, followed by business, education, and
lifestyle apps (a large and diverse category including digital home assistant, shopping, service
and job seeking, job makeover, astrology and dating apps but not health or fitness, which has
its own category) (Clement, 2019). In terms of popularity (how many apps are downloaded),
video streaming, content sharing, messaging, social media, and work-related apps rank at the
top. Apple’s top ten free downloaded apps for 2019 (excluding game apps) were listed as
YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Messenger, Gmail, Netflix, Facebook, Google
Maps, and Amazon (Stolyar, 2020). A list of the all-time most popular apps on rival app store
Google Play similarly identified the top ten as dominated by apps for messaging, social
media and work: WhatsApp, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, the Subway Surfers game,
Facebook Lite, SHAREit (a file-sharing app), Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint, and
Microsoft Word (Price, 2020).
For many people, apps have become incorporated into their everyday lives. It is estimated
that app users spend an average of 3.7 hours a day on their apps (Sydow, 2020b). However,
despite very large download metrics, only a small number of apps are used regularly (Morris
& Murray, 2018). Given this crowded and competitive marketplace and the burgeoning
numbers of apps coming onto the market each day, app developers must work hard to make
their products attractive to consumers (Whitson, 2019). They attempt to lure users to
download and use them with promissory narratives referring to almost magical properties
offered by the app, and colourful graphical design that invite interest and engagement
(Bardini, 2014; Lupton, 2014, 2019b; Rose, 2014). The visual appearance of the app and its
description in app stories are key elements that must appeal to people browsing the stores.
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These promissory narratives suggest that almost any human need or desire can be ‘appified’
(Morris & Murray, 2018), or fulfilled by a well-designed app.
The strategies of ‘gamification’ and ‘ludification’ are central to the design of many apps, in
their attempts to attract and maintain people’s interest by offering elements of fun and play.
Gamification involves incorporating game-like elements into apps that are designed for
purposes other than games (Murray, 2018). A multitude of apps have included gamification
elements, including productivity apps (Murray, 2018) and health and fitness apps (Maturo &
Setiffi, 2016). Popular dating apps such as Tinder also mobilise some gamification strategies,
presenting the quest for romantic and sexual relationships or short-term hook-ups as a
competition based on physical attractiveness (Hobbs, Owen, & Gerber, 2017; Tziallas, 2015).
Ludification, on the other hand, is a more extreme strategy that attempts to transform non-
game activities into play (Frissen, Lammes, de Lange, de Mul, & Raessens, 2015). Examples
of apps employing ludification include apps designed for little girls that involve making a
game of pregnancy and childbirth. In these games, players are invited to glamorise pregnant
women to prepare them for birth by performing ‘make-overs’ on the game avatars, and then
to assist in performing a caesarean section on the avatar to deliver her baby: the successful
birth is a win (Lupton & Thomas, 2015). The need to market apps that are new and excite
consumers interest can sometimes result in ludicrous novelty apps such as the ‘Is it Tuesday’
app that offers the sole function of informing the user whether it is Tuesday or another day of
the week. The app is offered to users simply as a joke, but simultaneously highlighting the
often trivial functions of apps made available in the app stores and the ‘problems’ they
portend to ‘solve’ (Morris, 2018).
At the other extreme, however, are apps developed by reputable medical publishers, such as
WebMD, which provide vast reams of medical information for people worried about
symptoms they are experiencing, apps used by women with young children to measure their
growth, food consumption and development, and those offered to people with chronic health
conditions such as diabetes, continuing pain, mental health conditions, or high blood pressure
to manage their health and engage in self-care (Lupton, 2017a). Far from trivial, these types
of apps are important complements to or sometimes even replacements of traditional face-to-
face healthcare. Many of these apps allow for a far more participatory approach to health and
medical information generation and sharing, in contrast with the traditional top-down
dissemination of advice from trained healthcare professionals to patients and lay people. In
my research with Australian users of health and fitness apps, I found that they highly valued
the support, convenience and information the apps offered (Lupton, 2018b, 2019b; Lupton &
Maslen, 2019; Lupton & Smith, 2018).
Dating apps have also risen in prominence to become one of the major ways in which people
meet sexual and romantic partners. The Pew Research Center (Vogels, 2020) conducted a
survey of American adults in late 2019 about their use of dating apps and sites. Findings
revealed the high popularity of using these media for intimate relationships. Three in ten
respondents had ever used a dating app or site, with almost half of those aged between 18 to
20 years reporting use, as well as 38% of people aged 30 to 49 years. People who identified
as lesbian, gay, or bisexual were approximately twice as likely than heterosexuals to have
used a dating app or site. Dating apps can be racist (Carlson, 2018; Mason, 2016) and
misogynist (Hess & Flores, 2018; Shaw, 2016). However, people of diverse gender and
sexual identities have reported enjoying the feelings of empowerment over and freedom to
meet like-minded people, explore their sexuality, and facilitate intimacy and sexual
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encounters that dating apps can offer them (Ferris & Duguay, 2019; Hobbs et al., 2017;
Jaspal, 2016; Tziallas, 2015).
The app marketplace is dynamic. App developers are often responsive to social changes as
part of attempting to gain a foothold in consumer attention. A key example is the changes that
occurred in the app marketplace and consumption of apps during the first stages of the
COVID-19 pandemic in early to mid-2020. In these unusual circumstances, apps offered
solutions to many problems faced by countries seeking to control the spread of the
coronavirus and help people manage quarantine and physical distancing requirements. For
example, following hygiene, isolation and other restrictions brought in to contain the spread
of the coronavirus, download and time spent using health and fitness apps increased to record
levels. At-home fitness apps were particularly popular. App publishers moved to change the
names and content of their apps to appeal to the new market of people confined to their
homes and wanting workout routines and tips (Sydow, 2020a). Finance and banking,
shopping, video streaming, video conferencing, and game apps also received higher levels of
engagement across the globe during COVID lock-down periods (Venkatraman, 2020). In
China (the first country to be affected by the pandemic), time spent on apps increased by 30%
to five hours a day during its lock-down period, while other people in other countries
experiencing similarly long social isolation period (such as Italy, France, Germany, and the
USA) soon followed in devoting more time to app use (Venkatraman, 2020).
The political economy approach
The political economy approach adopts a macro-political perspective on apps, focusing on
the social structural, geographical, and economic dimensions of their development,
promotion, and use. This perspective builds on the foundational work of German philosopher
Karl Marx. Writing in the nineteenth century, Marx ([1867]1977) draw attention to the
political and economic dimensions of the relations of work in the emergent capitalist
economy spawned by the Industrial Revolution. He emphasised the exploitation of what he
called ‘the proletariat’, or the wage labourers, by their employers, the wealthy owners of the
means of production (capitalists, or the bourgeoisie class): in those days, principally
industrialists who owned and operated factories. With his collaborator Friedrich Engels,
Marx argued that the industrialists profited handsomely from using the labour power of the
proletariat by failing to compensate them adequately for their work and keeping them in
conditions of destitution. He called for the proletariat to rise up against their oppressors as the
only option to improve their poor working and living conditions (Marx, [1867]1977; Marx &
Engels, [1848]1968).
Contemporary scholars who adopt a political economy approach build on Marxs critique by
focusing not only on labour relations but also other socioeconomic determinants of people’s
lives: their gender, age, race/ethnicity, place of residence, and health or disability status.
When applied to digital media, political economists have drawn attention to what they
perceive as the exploitation of workers and consumers by the internet empires (Apple,
Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft). They have examined the socio-political and
economic dimensions of the app marketplace, demonstrating that workers are often poorly
paid, while the major corporations profit handsomely from their labour. For example, as the
title suggests, in his book Digital Labour and Karl Marx (2014), Fuchs directly applies a
Marxian lens to analysing how workers and citizens engage in ‘digital labour’ across a
variety of practices, including people in the Democratic Republic of Congo extracting
minerals for hardware such as laptops, tablets and mobile devices, and Chinese employees
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working on production lines assembling them. Fuchs also examines the relations of
production in the Indian and Silicon Valley software industry, where apps are among the
artefacts generated in conditions of long working hours. While some of these workers are
paid better and have more favourable working conditions than others, Fuchs argues that they
are all exploited for the benefit of the owners and shareholders of the major corporations for
whom they work.
Political economist researchers have also highlighted the processes of datafication and
dataveillance that occur when people use apps and the opportunities for exploitation or
privacy breaches that can result. Datafication refers to rendering peoples activities,
preferences and habits into digital data , while dataveillance is a term used to describe the
many ways in which people can placed under surveillance using their digitised information
(van Dijck, 2014). Many types of app use generate flows of personal data: about peoples
movements in space and place, their name, age, gender, contacts, relationships, everyday
routines, and a plethora of other features of their lives. Zuboff’s (2019) The Age of
Surveillance Capitalism is often cited in critical analyses of datafication and dataveillance.
Zuboff defines ‘surveillance capitalism’ as a new form of capitalism, developed by the major
internet corporations in Silicon Valley. These corporations, she argues, exploits internet and
app users by extracting their personal information from them and selling it to third parties for
data profiling and targeted advertising purposes. According to Zuboff, people who use the
internet or apps are manipulated by profiling and targeted advertising conducted by these
corporations and have little power to challenge this use of their personal data.
Other researchers have drawn attention to the third-party use of the personal information that
is generated when people use apps, identifying the potential for personal privacy to be
breached by insufficient protection of users’ data. The highly sensitive information collected
by health tracking and dating apps are particularly vulnerable to privacy breaches or misuse
(Brandtzaeg, Pultier, & Moen, 2019; Kuntsman, Miyake, & Martin, 2019; Lutz & Ranzini,
2017). People who are already experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage are often the worst
affected by such privacy breaches or by the use of their personal data by government or
commercial agencies to exclude them from opportunities such as special offers, social
security support, insurance, quality housing, and employment (Arora, 2019; Gangadharan,
2017; Petty, Saba, Lewis, Gangadharan, & Eubanks, 2018). Human rights advocates have
drawn attention to the risks of supplying devices with monitoring apps to displaced peoples
as part of digitised humanitarian initiatives. The rights of such marginalised groups to opt out
of datafication and dataveillance of their movements and biometrics are often not considered
by these initiatives. People in these situations rarely have control over who collects their
personal data and how they are used (Sandvik, 2020).
The app industry has also been criticised for its exploitation of what is often referred to as
‘gig workers’: people who depend on apps such as the ride-sharing app Uber, the freelance
work app TaskRabbit or one of the multitude of food delivery apps now available for finding
ill-paid short-term and casual work and have little job security or protections in place
(Sharma, 2018). This mode of employment often offers little choice to people who have
signed up to be gig workers. Their working conditions are controlled by the app and platform
through which they seek jobs. Gig workers are often at the mercy of dataveillance and
profiling algorithms used in the apps and platforms for finding and maintain regular work in a
context of labour oversupply and competition (Gandini, 2018; Wood, Graham, Lehdonvirta,
& Hjorth, 2018). Further, people working as software engineers developing and publishing
apps also frequently face job insecurity if they are attempting to engage in kick-starter
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initiatives rather than working for large software companies (Whitson, 2019). App developers
who live in the Global South who focus on local content can have great difficulties
challenging the corporate power of major multinational companies in the Global North when
they are attempting to attract the attention of local markets to their products (Wagner &
Fernández-Ardèvol, 2015).
During the COVID-19 crisis, as the coronavirus spread around the world, generating health,
social and economic disruptions, the tension between top-down health imperatives and the
need to preserve the capitalist economic system in how the crisis was managed using apps
drew much attention from the political economy perspective (French & Monahan, 2020). In
response to social changes resulting from the COVID crisis, including many more people
using digital technologies to work from home, Fuchs (2020) applied his political economy
critique to what has been called ‘coronavirus capitalism’. He raised the concern that the turn
to video-conferencing apps such as Skype or Zoom to conduct social life is a poor substitute
for in-person communication, and a way of commodifying the need to communicate with
others using commercial enterprises. Fuchs suggested that these kinds of apps operate to
colonise the domestic space, blurring the boundaries between the home and the workplace.
He argued that from a political economy perspective, such blurring of boundaries can work to
extend the logic of capital into spheres outside the traditional workplace’ (Fuchs, 2020, p.
378). The rapid expansion of or tweaking of apps to meet the needs of people in self-isolation
or quarantine conditions may also be viewed as an element of coronavirus capitalism, with
app publishers seeking to profit from people’s changed consumption needs.
A range of apps were used for health-related purposes by governments and health authorities
seeking to manage the spread of COVID-19. These included apps designed to assist with
providing information to publics, contact tracing of people infected with the virus, and for the
surveillance and monitoring of populations, including enforcing quarantine restrictions. In
China, for example, apps were used that calculated a personal risk rating that could be used to
prevent people deemed potentially to be contagious from entering public spaces, while South
Korea introduced an app that publicised the movements of people with COVID-19 and the
Israeli government monitored the movements of citizens using geolocational smartphone data
to enforce self-isolation (Calvo, Deterding, & Ryan, 2020). In India, some government
agencies and workplaces insisted that citizens register with a contact tracing app using a
unique digital identification number linked to their personal details and to carry a smartphone
or wear a wristband with the app installed if they wanted to enter certain regions or engage in
some work activities (Das, 2020).
Adopting a political economy perspective, privacy and surveillance scholars raised the alarm
about breaches of privacy and human rights these apps could engender, and the potential for
ever-greater restrictions of rights and freedoms (Calvo et al., 2020; French & Monahan,
2020). Critics pointed out that people living in disadvantaged conditions (in overcrowded
housing, needing to go out of the home to earn money), could not readily engage in the social
isolation measures that were monitored by these apps, and were therefore rendered more
vulnerable to social discrimination and poverty (Fuchs, 2020). Others drew attention to the
dataveillance over-reach of companies using apps and other digital monitoring systems to
check on their employees activities and monitor their productivity, geo-location, sanitation
and social distancing practices and health status during the pandemic (Chyi, 2020).
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Foucauldian perspectives
The scholarship of the late French philosopher Michel Foucault has been taken up in
numerous critical analyses of the sociocultural and political implications of app design and
use. Foucauldian approaches are interested in both the macro-political and micro-political
dimensions of apps, often seeking to bring them together in analysing the implications of
apps for discourses and practices of identity and embodiment. While Foucault was writing
well before the advent of mobile devices and apps, his focus on biopolitics and biopower has
been taken up by other scholars to examine how apps operate to encourage users to engage in
practices of self-responsibility. The concept of biopolitics refers to the ways in which
people’s bodies are managed and monitored by themselves but in alignment with the
objectives and imperatives of state agencies and commercial enterprises. Biopower is a term
Foucault uses to describe the power relations that are exercised with and through biopolitical
strategies and practices. Both concepts focus on how human bodies are measured,
disciplined, controlled, regulated and brought into fields of visibility (Foucault, 2008).
An important difference between the political economy approach and that of Foucauldian
theory is that Foucault positions power as essentially part of all relationships, and as
productive as well as repressive. Political economists tend to represent publics as lacking
power, autonomy, and agency in their relationships with internet corporations or app
publishers. Foucault (1991) argues that through discourses and practices of biopolitics,
certain kinds of identities and bodily practices are brought into existence: often in ways that
encourage people to take responsibility for managing their own lives and bodies in their own
interests rather than being forced to do so by powerful institutions. In this way, personal
objectives to be healthy, productive citizens are often aligned with institutional interests
as part of governing populations through everyday practices that are directed at ‘the care of
the self’ (Foucault, 1986). It is here that the micro-political and the macro-political converge.
Foucauldian analyses examine how apps are marketed and used as ways to help people
engage in practices related to the care of the self in their efforts to be responsible, productive,
and careful citizens. In my work on the sociological dimensions of self-tracking practices and
‘the quantified self’ movement, I have discussed how practices of digitised self-monitoring
using apps for health and fitness tracking can be viewed from a Foucauldian perspective as
supporting and encouraging people to conform to these ideals of citizenship. Self-tracking
apps devoted to body functions and attributes such as activity levels, food and alcohol
consumption, sleep patterns, mood, pregnancy, and indicators of fertility such as ovulation
and menstruation are often predicated on the biopolitical imperative to establish a norm of
behaviour against which users are encouraged to measure themselves (Lupton, 2016a, 2016b,
2017a). These apps suggest that achieving the goals or targets established by the app (often
involving arbitrary metrics such as 10,000 steps a day) is a way of achieving the ideals of
self-control, optimisation, and responsibility (Esmonde & Jette, 2020; Fotopoulou &
O’Riordan, 2017; Lupton, 2016b; Millington, 2014; Toner, 2018).
The affordances offered in health and fitness apps assume that users have access to resources
such as up-to-date smartphones, time and space in which to exercise or engage in other forms
of health-related self-care such as mediation and mindfulness, and the physical capacity to
operate apps and perform the activities suggested by the app. People who are already
advantaged and able to make use of these resources often appreciate being able to use health
and fitness apps to feel more in control of their health, physical fitness, and wellbeing
(Fotopoulou & O’Riordan, 2017; Lupton, 2018b, 2019b; Lupton & Smith, 2018; Pink,
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Sumartojo, Lupton, & Heyes LaBond, 2017). For example, in one of my projects involving
interviews with Australian self-trackers, the notion that one can become a much better and
more responsible person by engaging in practices of self-monitoring was frequently
espoused by participants (Lupton & Smith, 2018). These assumptions suggest that apps users
are well-off people living in safe neighbourhoods with plenty of green space available for
walking and other forms of exercise, enough disposable income to support gym memberships
or exercise equipment and clothing and are not living with a chronic health problem, injuries
or disabilities. Foucauldian critiques point out that the states responsibility for protecting the
health of its citizens is glossed over in this emphasis on personal responsibility and autonomy
(Esmonde & Jette, 2020; Lupton, 2018b; Millington, 2014; Thornham, 2019). The social
determinants of ill health, such as socioeconomic disadvantage and living in crowded and
polluted urban environments are ignored in this overweening focus on individual consumerist
and lifestyle behaviours. Further, this is a concept of personhood that ascribes to the western
models of the individual, health, and embodiment. It excludes worldviews from non-western
cultures, in which people are viewed as inextricably part of their communities, kinship
networks and environment, and health is a collective and relational state (Christie & Verran,
2014; Kuoljok, 2019; Nahar, Kannuri, Mikkilineni, Murthy, & Phillimore, 2017).
Feminist critiques point to the ways that many health and fitness apps are gendered. There are
apps for self-monitoring sexual and reproductive activity, for example, which encourage
people to view their sexual behaviour and fertility as bodily functions that can and should be
quantified and compared against norms of behaviour, even in a competitive way in terms of
monitoring and measuring sexual performance. Sex-tracking apps often position women as
reproductive subjects, while men are portrayed as sexually competitive, interested in
comparing their performance with other men (Lupton, 2015). Beauty apps, designed to help
users improve their physical attractiveness and to rank, analyse, monitor, or measure peoples
appearance, are largely targeted at women. These apps adhere closely to ideals of self-
improvement by recommending practices of self-surveillance and dataveillance from others
(Elias & Gill, 2018). Pregnancy apps are mostly designed with the overt assumption that
women are willing and able to engage in the pursuit of intensive self-monitoring of their
bodies and that of their foetuses as part of a responsibilised focus on protecting their foetus’s
health (Barassi, 2017; Thomas & Lupton, 2016; Thornham, 2019). Here again, however,
these apps can be helpful: women can also appreciate using these kinds of apps as a way to
avoid risk, perform the ideal of the caring and responsible mother, cope with the challenges
and chaos of new motherhood, and to feel in control of their fertility and reproductive cycles
(Karlsson, 2019; Lupton, 2017b; Thornham, 2019).
The biopolitical dimensions of apps are particularly overt in health crises, in which publics
are often encouraged to engage in practices of self-care as a way of alleviating the burden
they may pose to societal resources if they become ill. During the obesity crisis, for
example, citizens across the Global North were the subject of campaigns by health agencies
and commercial enterprises to engage in activities to monitor their body weight and reduce it
if they were deemed to be too fat. Calorie counting and physical activity apps were
promoted as one avenue for achieving these weight loss expectations by supporting people to
engage in self-surveillance and disciplinary practices (Didžiokaitė, Saukko, & Greiffenhagen,
2018; Lupton, 2018a). As several commentators noted, social and government responses to
the COVID-19 pandemic can be viewed from a Foucauldian perspective as an example of
biopolitics and biopower (Coeckelbergh, 2020; Raffaetà, 2020; Sarasin, 2020). A
combination of ‘raw’ power (exercised from the top-down by governments) and the more
subtle ‘soft’ power (involving voluntary actions from citizens encouraged by governments)
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was characteristic of many countries’ experiences of the pandemic (Coeckelbergh, 2020). As
part of efforts to protect populations from infection and minimise the burden on healthcare
services, governments initiated measures that required their citizens to engage in self-
management and self-discipline to conform to strategies such as hygiene, distancing and self-
isolation practices as well as using contact tracing and other COVID-related apps.
The discourse around these portrayals of health crises and suggested measures to improve
public health and reduce the burden on the healthcare system often focus on messages that
‘we are all in this together’, and that individual behaviour change is needed for the protection
of the larger polity. For example, while on the one hand, engaging in COVID-related app use
and other measures were productive and beneficial in helping people feel as if they were
contributing to reducing the spread of the virus and simultaneously protecting themselves and
their families, there was also a moralistic undertone to these discourses that implied that
people who could not or would not engage in these practices were lacking in self-discipline
or civility (Ali, 2020; Manderson & Levine, 2020). Similarly, fat people targeted by digital
media measures designed to counter the obesity epidemic were frequently represented as
moral failures, toxic and undisciplined bodies, and burdens on the economy, requiring greater
reserves of self-discipline than the general population (Lupton, 2018a).
Sociomaterial perspectives
Sociomaterial perspectives have only recently been taken up to understand the micro-political
and sociocultural dimensions of apps. Sociomaterialism perspectives devote close attention to
the ways in which humans live with and through apps. This approach builds on Marxian
concepts of the importance of materiality of power relations and Foucauldian insights into the
relationships between the discursive and material elements of biopolitics, but extend this
work by devoting greater attention to nonhuman agents as they come together with people in
the context of the broader sociotechnical worlds in which apps are imagined, developed,
tested, published, marketed and incorporated into everyday lives and routines. These worlds
include the economic and regulatory contexts, the digital ecosystem, the people working on
making and promoting apps, the app stores, other agents and agencies that advocate for app
use (such as government departments, schools, gyms, medical professionals), the people who
connect with each other on apps (such as those engaging on social media, content sharing or
gaming apps): and in the case of apps designed for monitoring pets, livestock or wildlife,
animals other than humans.
Scholars drawing on science and technology studies, and particularly actor-network theory
based on Bruno Latour’s work, have investigated the broader infrastructural dimensions of
app ecologies. Actor-network theory positions both people and things as active agents in
shifting networks (Latour, 2005). These human and nonhuman entities together make up the
social world. Actor-network theory is less interested than are other sociological theories in
social structures such as social class or institutions such as the government, and more
interested in noticing and documenting the specific details of how entities relate to each other
(Michael, 2016). This focus on how the social and the technological are entangled includes
exploring the ways mundane experiences are ordered by technologies such as digital devices
and apps, and how apps operate as ‘digital objects’ (Dieter et al., 2019; Morris & Elkins,
2015).
As researchers engaged in science and technology studies demonstrate, while apps might be
presented as self-contained entities on app stores and mobile devices, they are products of a
11
complex network of diverse agents that are constantly relating to each other. These include
flows of digitised information and the broader digital platforms, interfaces, hardware,
regulatory environments, network protocols, algorithms and other infrastructures within
which apps operate (Dieter et al., 2019; Gillespie, Boczkowski, & Foot, 2014; Morris &
Elkins, 2015). A sociotechnical approach to apps can show, for example, how app stores
create specific situations in which apps are developed and published. Each app store
whether it is the two major stores Apple App Store and Google Play, or the plethora of
smaller app stores in western countries and larger app stories in countries like China and
Russia has its own regulatory environment, logics, access points, recommendation systems,
topic categories and rules with which app publishers must engage, including how they
describe the app on the store (Dieter et al., 2019; Morris & Murray, 2018). At a different
level that of the platform social media companies and platforms such as Facebook and
Instagram have intersecting platforms and apps that work with and across each other on
multiple devices: mobile devices, desktop and laptop computers and smartwatches.
Feminist materialism scholars (Barad, 2007; Bennett, 2009; Braidotti, 2019; Haraway, 2016)
and perspectives building on ages-old Indigenous and non-western cosmologies (Bawaka
Country et al., 2015; Kuoljok, 2019; Todd, 2016) offer a somewhat different perspective:
sometimes been referred to as vital materialism (Bennett, 2010; Coole, 2013; Lupton,
2019b). Vital materialism emphasises the interrelationships between humans and nonhuman
things, including objects, place and space, and other living things. Drawing on the philosophy
of Giles Deleuze, affective forces are understood in this body of work as shared intensities of
sensation and emotion that propel human action. These forces flow between humans and
nonhuman things (Ott, 2017). Relational connections are the relationships that are continually
formed and reformed as people come together with other people but also with nonhuman
agents. Barad (2003) uses the term ‘intra-action’ to describe ‘how matter comes to matter’:
that is, how assemblages (groupings) of human and nonhuman agents work together to
generate forces and action. Bennett’s concept of ‘thing-power’ also acknowledges the flows
of vibrancies and intensities that human-nonhuman assemblages can configure: ‘the curious
ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to product effects dramatic and subtle’ (2004, p.
351). Bennett (2001) describes the force of this thing-power as the capacity to create
enchantment in everyday things.
Sociomaterial theoretical perspectives drawing on vital materialism theory focus on the
micro-politics of the lived experiences of people when engaging with apps (Lupton, 2018b,
2019b; Salmela, Valtonen, & Lupton, 2018). The affective dimensions and relational
connections of human-app encounters are identified in some analyses, as well as their
agential capacities, or what they allow people to do. The potential to enchant users is an
essential element of the successful app, in attracting interest and affective intensities that lead
to continued use from app consumers (Lupton, 2019b). From a vital materialism perspective,
when humans come together with apps, they are creating new worlds of movement and place.
Human-app assemblages are lively, opening up thing-power that configures capacities
(Esmonde & Jette, 2020; Fullagar, Rich, Francombe-Webb, & Maturo, 2017; Lupton, 2018b,
2019b; Salmela et al., 2018). It depends on the affordances of the app (the features it is
designed to offer users), the affordances of human bodies (the capacity for movement,
learning, memory and sensory perception) and the situated contexts in which the app is used
(where, when, for what reason, at what time) how these vitalities and capacities may be
opened or closed (Lupton, 2019b).
12
Another insight from vital materialism is the concept of distributed agencies. Agency is
viewed not as a force that belongs only to humans, or only to some humans and not others.
Instead, agential capacities are continually and dynamically generated with and between
people and nonhuman agents. Various forms of agencies, therefore, are configured as human-
app assemblages come together. They are brought into being as these agents assemble and
can just as quickly dissolve and reform as people move through space and time. Human-app
assemblages, therefore, are lively, dynamic, and responsive to the situated contexts in which
they are configured. They generate relational connections between the agents in the
assemblages: between the humans moving around in the spaces and places in relation to each
other. This is intra-action and thing-power in action. Apps, from this perspective, have
affordances that offer humans certain capacities, but humans may resist, reinvent, ignore, or
improvise with these affordances, drawing on their bodily capacities.
Apps can generate strong affective responses and relational connections. Game apps, together
with apps involving gamification or ludification elements, frequently attempt to incite intense
affects to incite download and regular use of the apps. Excitement and the spirit of
competition are often a key affective force driving game app use, which offer incentives such
as badges, rewards, and favourable comparisons with other users as evidence of winning.
For example, the location-based augmented reality game app Pokémon GO was initially
highly popular because it worked to draw in users by combining the affective force of
‘finding all’ the characters and earning rewards with moving around in space and place,
allowing users to explore new domains, find new friends to move within their locale, and
turning neighbourhoods into gaming fields (Hjorth & Richardson, 2017). The Strava athletic
tracking app is designed to create supportive and competitive communities of runners or
cyclists who can measure and publicly display their feats, record their personal bests, win
segments of their route by proving they have achieved the fastest time (thereby becoming
King of the Mountain) and give and receive congratulatory messages in response to other
users (Lupton, 2018c).
In contrast, the darkly humorous productivity suite of apps ‘Carrot To-Do’ seeks to inspire
the affects of guilt, humiliation, and shame. These apps work to gamify productivity by
stimulating these feelings as well as offering rewards for tasks and goals that are achieved by
the user. Users are greeted with insulting messages from the apps if they fail to achieve set
tasks, with the less-than-subtle rationale for such messages being that evoking these affects
can be motivating for people, inspiring them to adhere to the ideals of self-responsibility and
high productivity (Murray, 2018). Ambivalent feelings can also feature in peoples lived
experiences of using apps. In my study on women’s use of food-tracking apps, the
participants expressed their feelings of pleasure, control, and achievement in losing weight or
monitoring their food intake, which motivated them to continue using the apps. However, the
forces of disappointment and frustration, as well as a fear of becoming too obsessive about
counting calories, were also expressed by some women, sometimes leading to giving up or
avoiding app use (Lupton, 2018b). Further, apps can sometimes feel invasive, or somehow
wrong, creating feelings of discomfort. A study involving autoethnographic accounts of
using a sleep-tracking ‘smart ring’ and app (Salmela et al., 2018), drew attention to intense
feelings in response to considering incorporating this type of self-monitoring technology into
the private space of the bed and bedroom.
A vital materialism approach highlights the ways in which apps are responsive and change as
they intra-act with the people who design and use them, just as people’s bodies, activities and
feelings can be changed by apps (Esmonde & Jette, 2020; Fox, 2017; Fullagar et al., 2017;
13
Lupton, 2019a). Self-tracking apps, for example, operate synergistically with the people who
use them. The sensors and algorithms designed into the apps provide opportunities for people
to monitor and measure their bodies and activities in certain defined ways. The digitised
information generated by these gatherings of people and apps is itself lively and ever-
changing, responding to people’s movements in time and place (Lupton, 2018c, 2019a).
People who use these apps can review the data they generate, which can contribute to their
sense of embodiment, place, and space. In turn, the app responds to further changes in the
human users quotidian activities (Lupton, 2012). Some apps generate thing-power that
changes the ways people move in time and space. For example, geolocation apps such as
Apple Map or Google Map and physical activity self-tracking apps such as Strava and Fitbit
can help people find their way in the world and document their movements, and in turn rely
on the information relayed to them by humans and their devices to locate the human body.
When people are using these kinds of apps, they are working with the app and the physical
environment in which they are located and through which they move in intra-active ways to
generate capacities for movement, spatial location and wayfinding (Lupton, 2019c). This is a
synergistic relational connection of change and response that repeats itself, so that people
make data and data make people (Lupton, 2019a).
Future directions for sociological app research
As I have demonstrated in this chapter, while apps may be considered to be mundane
software, for many people across the globe, they are integral to social worlds, social
relationships, concepts of selfhood and embodiment, and the performance of everyday life.
Taken together, the three theoretical perspectives discussed in this chapter offer rich and
diverse insights into the sociocultural and political dimensions of apps. While an important
body of empirical research by sociologists and other social researchers has been published,
important gaps in the literature remain. Given the sheer volume and diversity of apps in the
marketplace, with a bewildering array of new apps being published every day, it is a difficult
task to maintain a close engagement with changes in the app industry. Apps for social media,
health and fitness, games, pregnancy and parenting, and dating have attracted the highest
level of attention by social researchers. There are still many categories of apps that have yet
to be examined in detail. These include apps that are extremely popular and used regularly:
weather, education, messaging, and banking apps, for example. More nuanced research on
how people across the different life stages are using apps, and on users from marginalised and
disadvantaged backgrounds and from non-white and non-Global North regions would make
an important contribution. Finally, close attention to the types of apps that are published into
the future and particularly those that attract popularity or are responses to crises and other
major social problems such as the COVID pandemic remains an important area of research
for the sociology of digital media.
14
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