Independent Alliances, Dedicated Defiances: Community, Contest and Collective Action on Slashdot.org
For advocates of free/libre and open source software, the online news and discussion site Slashdot.org has served as the primary source for daily, geek- and technology-centered news. With its content contributed, constructed, and moderated through the collective participation of its users, Slashdot's assemblies of news and discussion boards serve as dynamic spaces where new formations and expressions of techno-sociality and online collectivity manifest.
This study contributes to the research on contemporary social movements and online communities through an exploration of the various modes of collective network action that emerge from Slashdot. Incorporating a consideration of Slashdot users' own descriptions and interpretations of their experiences both on and off the site, an analysis of content from Slashdot and related sites, and mainstream news accounts of the site, this study reveals the diversity and (at times latent) power in network actors' modes of participation. Such modes include user practices exhibiting allegiances to the site itself - in, for instance, the exercise of social and political activisms that express shared values with other Slashdot users, and in users' combined impact on the access of digital information beyond the site. They may also, however, encompass practices reflecting defiances of the site -- in moves to break away from the site to form distinct, often contestory ones, and through users' attempts to exercise and display "improper" uses of the site.
For while collective action has traditionally been approached the expression of a social movement whose participants share a unified sense of purpose and cohering body of political practice, the forms of collective network action that are expressed on online news and discussion sites like Slashdot are not ordered by any single logic or structure, but by multiple ones that operate at times in support of it and at times in conflict with it. Critically, as well, Slashdot's forms of network action are reliant upon the activity of a diffuse body of participants who may often not even recognize the collective dimension or impact of their action. That the practices of network actors, despite their diversity and disunity, nonetheless call attention to and may generate pronounced visibility around, themselves, however, ultimately testifies to the power and strength of collective network actions.
Social Code: "View Source" as a Cultural Strategy
This paper describes what might be called the "view source" worldview and argues that it serves as a strategy for knowledge production, cultural reproduction and reinvention in a period of rapid change. Though proponents of open source and free software are the most self-conscious and vocal of people with this view, it is by no means limited to them. "View source" is the cultural strategy that brought about the World Wide Web, the Internet, and personal computing as mass social phenomena. Drawing on studies of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and on ethnographic fieldwork with a group of open-source developers building a community forum application (calliope.sourceforge.net/), this paper will look at "view source" in social processes, modes of governance, and development methodology.
Open Computing and Knowledge Networking: A Research Agenda
Why should social science be interested in phenomena like Open Source Code, Free Software, and the increasing popularity of Linux-flavored software? These phenomena constitute some of the most significant current manifestations of the long tradition of socially-informed approaches to automated information technology—Open Computing, for short. This paper argues that current-wave open computing should be examined in relation to the “Computer Revolution” hypothesis, the notion that ours is a time of technology-induced transformational social change. In particular, these phenomena constitute the best case for the “Knowledge Society” form of the CR, the idea that technology is changing fundamentally the way knowledge is produced, reproduced and shared.
The paper begins with a summary of the author’s argument about what whould have to be transformed in order for a CR of the knowledge type to have taken place. It then turns to some illustrations of unjustified K-CR claims, like the transformation of knowledge creation through collaboratories or of knowledge sharing through distance education. Presented next is the argument for why, if what is claimed by it proponents were true, current Open Computing really would indicate a transformation of knowledge. A set of these claims are presented as a core agenda for the ethnography of Open Computing, and the author’s current comparative research project on open source used to illustrate how these issues can be approached.
A large and ever increasing portion of the programming effort behind the internet has been directed at building content management systems (CMS). A CMS is a piece of software that employs a set of information organizing rules to invisibly guide browsers to whatever information they need. For example, the two big picture W3C initiatives at the moment, XML and the Semantic Web, appear to be just new approaches to CMS.
Dozens of open source/free software CMS have been built, a proliferation that seems somewhat contrary to the spirit of the open source movement. Except to the expert programmer these systems are often hard to tell apart. An STS critique of the methodology will reveal three key errors in the methodology that guides CMS development: First, that the information organizing methods universally employ formal rules to separate out types of information, causing a proliferation of alternate cases in contextual situations. Second, that the development of these systems routinely confuses information with knowledge, making the systems only useful to the most expert of users. And third, that the tenuous relationship between the sharing of source code and the political agenda of the open source community fails when it encounters an intellectual property landscape that is multi-textured.
In addition to detailing the parts of this STS critique, this paper will describe the early stages of an action research project that mobilizes the critique into a new approach to the provisioning of appropriate resources via the web – knowledge networking.
"The Case is Closed: How Talk about Open Source Technologies Complicates Freedom of Expression on the Internet"
An important aspect of the Open Source movement is to promote computer platforms, such as Linux, which enable free access to powerful and personalizable technologies. Linux advocates have a democratizing vision of the Internet and believe that Microsoft's monopolistic business practices contribute to a wide distribution of expensive, low-quality products that are bundled in ways that remove consumer choice. Many Internet participants believe they must expose such practices to maintain the Internet's integrity. Notably, manipulating Linux is typically not for the technologically-challenged. Promoting and using Linux can socially mark an Open Source advocate as technologically superior to novices who are unfamiliar with it. Participants may therefore perform their affiliation to Linux in order to increase their online techno-social capital. Ironically, such performances may contain linguistic forms and structures that make open discussion of computer platforms' merits more difficult. This paper examines two online communities in which participants share knowledge and mentor each other with respect to computer and networking technologies. The data show that when participants become linguistically caught in a performance of their technical affiliation to Open Source philosophies, debate often assumes a pre-programmed format that stifles individual expression. Informants express frustration at seeing their choices (such as Microsoft products) for certain applications unequivocally dismissed. The paper concludes with a discussion of how ethnographers may be caught in such performances and may express alignment to the Open Source movement to increase their techno-social capital. The paper hypothesizes that the closer one wishes to be to the technical community, the more difficult it is to avoid getting caught in such linguistic performances. Ethnographers farther from the technological center (e.g. ethnographers who are not coders) may thus add important insight into how discussions of Open Source technologies may ironically complicate freedom of expression and circulation of technological knowledge on the Internet.
Author:Patricia G. Lange.
The social and legal stakes inherent in the Open Source movement appear differently in Lhasa, Tibet, a city far-removed from hackerdom both in terms of geography and technology. Though the typical angst against Microsoft and other proprietary packages is commonly voiced in China, the rhetoric of information transparency is largely silenced, especially in a place as sensitive as China's Tibet. Yet, the practical mode of Open Source engineering, that of international cooperation based on voluntary association, is seen by several Tibetan computer engineers as a possible avenue of enhancing Tibetan language publication. To this end, the computer science head of the Lhasa's sole university is proposing to meld the most popular version of Linux in China, aptly named "Red Flag," with the emerging standard of Tibetan Unicode. Red Flag Linux, however, is not ideally suited to this effort, nor does it sit well with general Open Source guidelines. Red Flag asks a significant price for the its server version, and most importantly, does not adhere to open-type fonts like many of the Western variants of Linux. In theory, Red Flag is supposed to respect the GPL, but in practice, the picture is rather cloudy. In this uncertain context, one hears of "legal" and "illegal" installations of Red Flag. Beyond troubling questions of legal ownership, the practical limit of Red Flag's Chinese language encoding, which adheres to state standards regardless of Unicode initiatives, implies that an updated Red Flag including a Tibetan language interface would also have to rely on font standards set by the state itself. The question remains whether such state standards would expand to make room for the complex Sanskrit stacks which populate the Buddhist literature in Tibet.
Strangely enough, the national standard for Tibetan encoding was developed by Tibet University in Lhasa, though the same programmers would now prefer to join the international bandwagon toward Unicode. This overall lack of international standards for Tibetan computerized communication spells disaster for a language that is already endangered from the hegemonic force of other languages. Open Source products, specifically Red Flag, are in the position of offering both hope and frustration. This year sees the first time Linux has been taught at Tibet University, and the ethnography I present depends on my participation with this class in the second semester of this academic year.
Author: Chris Walker.