The interactional use of sticky notes in business meetings and workshops

This paper belongs to Thematic Session 3 of the Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium

Mie Femø Nielsen, University of Copenhagen (Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics)


Sticky notes were invented by mistake by 3M. Dr. Spencer Silver accidentally created a “low-tack,” reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive in 1968 when he was working on developing a super-strong adhesive. He promoted his “solution without a problem” within 3M both informally and through seminars and in 1974 his colleague, Art Fry, came up with the idea of using the adhesive to anchor his bookmark in his hymnbook and then developed the idea further with his team. The original notes’ yellow color was also chosen by accident, as the lab had only yellow scrap paper in stock. Today they come in different colours, shapes and sizes, and competing companies sell them under different names.
It is the basic physical properties of Post-Its/stickies/sticky notes that makes them interesting for the study of social interaction: It is paper that can be glued to something without getting stuck so that they can be moved and glued to something else. Participants can write on it, draw on it, look at it, read what is on it, point to it, touch it, select it, stick it to something, move it, reapply it to something (else), talk about it, create patterns or pictures with it, store it and throw it away. It has been argued that the visual, moveable, inscribable and tangible qualities of sticky notes make them perspicuous objects for investigations of multimodality, embodiment, text and materiality in interaction (Day and Wagner 2014). But not much research has been done on the use of sticky notes in social interaction.

Sticky notes can be used to simulate a lot of the actions we know from other kinds of social interaction, and they can be used to do something else, too. It is equally interesting when postits can be used to do similar things as regular turns at talk, and when they can be used to do something more or different. This paper proposes a review of the most important interactional functions of sticky notes in business meetings and workshops:

1. Contribute to social activities
2. Record contributions
3. Enable and chair participation
4. Orchestrate sequences of actions
5. Secure fluidity and transience
6. Enable collaborative sensemaking
7. Communicate results and identities

In this paper I will address the social actions enabled by sticky notes and discuss the impacts of those for social interaction, and present data pertaining to these issues. The focus is on how they are treated in the interaction as objects and as turns-at-talk. I will analyze examples of some of the most fundamental functions.

The data for this study are taken from a large pool of video recordings of workshops and business meetings. The analyses draw on conversation analysis and ethnomethodology, and transcripts are made in accordance with the notation system originally developed by Gail Jefferson.