September 12, 2005

Reagle on Resarch

Category: Anthropology,Research,Tech — @ 6:00 pm

Joseph Reagle, a PhD candidate at NYU researching the Wikipedia community, recently wrote a blog post that asks a set of methodological and theoretical questions about the nature of his work, questions relevant to anyone that studies online communities: is it an ethnography of a current phenomenon, a set of oral histories, how does one portray and (or not) anonymize the people he works with? He raises my chapter on Debian (as well as some other work I would love to check out), in part, to address these questions and in particular, my strange treatment of sources. While I anonymize interviews as well as irc conversations (by changing names, for example), I use the names of the real developers when referring to public events and quote email mail lists but without the url. I think the lack of the last choice was indeed strange and perhaps not the wisest one. I think I made it clear that the source was a mailing list but for some reason I did not provide the URL to give it some visual consistency with the interview quotes, knowing that if someone wanted to find it, they could type a small section in google and retrieve the message. In retrospect, I should have just used the URL and when I post the paper on SSRN I will add them.

I had a really tough time deciding whether to anonymize everyone, just those folks that asked to be anonymized, or do something all together different. I have read material on F/OSS where even the names of projects were changed but the instant you googled the mailing list quote provided in the chapter, you could find out who wrote it and for what project. It just seemed silly and antiquated to try to make people and messages anonymous when they are in reality totally public documents and figures. If one wants to truly keep those elements anonymous, it is possible but it requires abstaining entirely from using mailing lists quotes verbatim, and using hefty paraphrasing. But for the ethnographer, who tends to make ample use of direct quotes, mailing lists represent such a pristine and succulent source of data, it would be almost sacrilegious to paraphrase instead of quote directly.

Internet Relay Chat is a bit tricker due to its semi-public nature. On the one hand, anyone can join a channel but on the other hand, most channels are not publicly logged. So I treated the source as private and changed the names of folks unless people published sections of conversation on a quote file (common for jokes).

I found probably some of the most interesting conversations and events on IRC because of its synchronous, realtime nature that was at once playful yet very intense. On IRC, the tongue seems a little looser, people often say what first comes to mind because there is no palpable reaction except text, which does not always sting as sharply as a facial gesture combied with a sharp reaction. This looseness makes for some interensting, raw conversation that was often entertaining and otherwise essential to my research. IRC was as important to my research as mailing lists and was perhaps the most important vehicle for making my presence in a routine sense, known. Over years and years of being on IRC, chatting in the wee hours of the morning, I became a more or less semi-permanent fixture. More than anywhere else, I became embedded the routine social life of the project via IRC, a place I have yet to leave and I doubt I will anytime soon.

He also raises the question of history and I have always given a lot of attention to how historical can and should we be. In my thinking, so much work on virtual communities strikes as a-historical, describing social organization without adddressing the local and perhaps more global event that were at the basis for organizing, change etc. History, even if is something we tend to think of as neatly in the past, I guess is always ongoing, in the sense that the history is always (in the) present, always in the making, even if it is only with time that we can actually see what what going on with more clarity.

I look forward to Joseph’s ongoing research on Wikipedia and I imagine the comparisons with F/OSS (which he is already mapping), will bring into stark relief that which is unique to F/OSS and what it may share with other collaborative, non-software communities.

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