A version of this article was also published at aalto.fi.

Wearable devices have become part of our everyday life. For two decades, researchers investigated them, not just as personal devices but to enhance our face-to-face social interactions, so-called social wearables. However, we have not seen widespread adoption yet.

Scholars have identified social factors and context as the essential barriers to adoption. These include aesthetics, social identity, cultural norms and privacy. Hence, there is a need to explore people’s lived experiences to fulfil the promises of social wearables. To this end, we investigate the utilisation of social wearables in Nordic student culture.

Nordic students, especially in technological fields, practice a rich cultural tradition of wearing and adorning colourful boiler suits. Each student receives one of those overalls from their subject association in a specific colour to show affiliation and group membership. Additionally, the students individually embellish their overalls over time, based on personal interests and achievements that give them, so to say, a batch of honour.

Based on this cultural practice, we co-design with the students an interactive closing patch called “Digi Merkki”. Digi Merkki had two main functionalities. One function was LEDs showing different animations from afar based on the relationship to nearby people. Additionally, these LED animations were synchronised to support singing or other activities. The other function was a small display to show and trade pictures between participants.

We looked at how the students used Digi Merkki in a two-week elicitation diary study, including some organised events. We observed how the students used Digi Merkki as a material in their existing social and cultural practices. Not only did Digi Merkki shape existing practices, but we also observed emerging social practices and how students navigated those. For example, students started spamming each other, which was an unintended functionality. Here, it was fascinating that students engaged actively in meaning-making. A cat picture was shared especially for this kind of teasing when hijacking an interaction between two other people. This meaning of the cat then was adapted among all participants. However, some participants focused on propagating their unique idea. For example, one student introduced Dick Butt and was eager to push it to someone that previously had refused this particular picture.

Looking at this spamming practice and other uses of our interactive clothing patch, we see “memes in digital culture” as a structural element. Memes came in the form of dare challenges that some students introduced to socialise and the participants’ content of existing online memes. Based on this, we formulated a strong concept for design. We call Memetic Expression. We invite designers to create participation tools that enable people to remix existing memetic content. Through reappropriation, personalisation, and propagation, Memetic Expression supports discourses and community. We can see this mechanism in online memes like in image macros. This way, Memetic Expression helps the adoption of social technology, particular social wearables.

Our CHI artilce goes into more details on our approach of generative design research and co-creation that supported involvement and adoption. Further, we illustrate how meaning-making and a dialogical perspective is essential when designing social technology.


  • Felix Anand Epp, Anna Kantosalo, Nehal Jain, Andrés Lucero, and Elisa D. Mekler. 2022. Adorned in Memes: Exploring the Adoption of Social Wearables in Nordic Student Culture. In CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM, 18. DOI