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Dourish, P. (2003). The Appropriation of Interactive Technologies: Some Lessons from Placeless Documents. Computer-Supported Cooperative Work: Special Issue on Evolving Use of Groupware, 12, 465-490.


Customization: specialization of a tool to the needs of particular users or settings.

Appropriation: the way in which technologies are adopted, adapted and incorporated into working practices.

Customization has been studied for a single user and groups of users. Studied showed that customization is always a collaborative phenomenon. Also, a stronger position is that customization is inherent to collaboration.

The goal of the paper is to show how the problem of appropriation are technical problems. What features of technology support appropriation? 

Placeless Documents

Almost all information systems are based on hierarchy. This is a very restrictive paradigm. Users has to create a range of creative approaches to manage their information. They appropriate the system by creating personal information structures and procedure for managing them.


  1. Document properties: pair name/value attached to each document.
  2. Active proprieties: name/value pairs including runnable code that will be executed when operation will be performed on the documents (for example add a line in a log file when the document is written.)
  3. Universal and personal propierties
  4. Content: the most important part of a document: placeless attach a property, "content provider" to each document that allows the document to be retrieved in systems that need different access protocols.

Placeless and Appropriation

Placeless makes properties open ended so to allow user to collaboratively revised their organization and appropriate the info structure.
How do Placeless's conceptual model - an unstructured soup of documents annotated with arbitrary properties - can support appropriations?


Engineering organization and collaborative document organization practices. The company has an categorization scheme that doesn't always adapt to the different groups or to different moments.
The categorization scheme of the company and its modifications are a collaborative artifact itself.

So they developed in Placeless Macadam, a system to allow different categorization to exist at the same time (kind of a stack of translucent sheets). Each sheet represent the changes to the categorization made by a group.

What is appropriated is the conceptual scheme by which documents are organized.


In traditional system workflow is usually incorporated within the application.

In placeless they add workflow functionality into the infrastructure using dynamic properties.
The workflow system is called Bernoulli. It adds two types of properties to the document: active and delegate. Using this properties is possible to specify workflow characteristics of the documents and visualize this properties and the workflow in specialized applications. The system also keeps tracks of where the resources are coming from by inserting properties when a document is modified.

(This doesn't look like a case study ...)

Designing for appropriation


  1. Properties are a good way to organize information. They can  support multiple perspective on information.
  2. active properties allow to control document behavior composably: but they must be visible, otherwise the user doesn't know what to expect.
  3. Properties support group works. But experience shows that information sharing should be an application matter rather than infrastructure matter.

[...] Appropriations and boundaries: allow to organize the work independently of the boundaries that conventional system models presents. 



Basically Macadam adds the possibility to characterize the documents in different ways. Bernoulli add workflow characteristics.