Open Codex HISTORICAL entry

2012 Apr 20 | The best filter for serendipity is smallness

The recent blowup about what Ethan Zuckerman calls attention ethics surprises me a little, but not a lot. A comment by Ito Kagehisa at Boing Boing provides the best summary of the kerfuffle:

some knuckleheads decided to ask everyone on twitter to bombard people designated as “celebrities” with tweets about the knuckleheads’ self-promotional charity efforts. Xeni was unfortunately targeted as one of the celebrities, she got ridiculous numbers of pointless tweets (because the whole idea is stupid) and at some point she was annoyed enough to tweet “fuck off”. Then it turned really ugly and personal – enough so that the original knuckleheads were ashamed and appalled, and any charities involved are probably completely mortified.

I sometimes ask my students if the churn of new media platforms is ever likely to abate. Some think that technology will eventually exhaust itself and others think technology will always somehow improve. To me, the answer lies with the structure of community rather than the features of technology.

In this case, we’re seeing the topical #-spam (of 2009) complemented by @-spam (of 2012) through which advocates attempt to gain the attention and re-tweeting power of celebrities. (A great example of the opinion-leader model). @-spam is interesting in that much of it is for a purportedly good cause. Hence, it is not easy to ignore or say “fuck off.” (And Xeni’s doing so is what caused much of the vitriol I suppose.) One might ask if we could build an even better filter? What if we limited the tweets we see addressed to us to those we have tweeted ourselves? This is certainly possible. However, once Twitter begins being used in this way, it will have lost some of its value. Over a decade ago, Cass Sunstein was worrying about a new media world of perfect filters and asked how would we ever encounter serendipity in such an environment? Granted, some people make use of the shuffle and the random button, but the best filter for serendipity is smallness. Once a community reaches critical mass, where critical mass is indicated by the presence of spam, it will never feel the same as a small community, even with “perfect” filters. It is thrilling to unexpectedly learn something, make a new friend, or find a new passion. Once this becomes difficult, novelty junkies will move on to the next media platform and thrill in the experience of being open to serendipitous interactions – before that community gets too big itself.

2011 Jan 28 | "Free as in Sexist?": Sexism in the Free Culture Movement

The introduction to my draft on free culture and sexism:

In the summer of 2010, David Finsher and Aaron Sorkin's film about the beginnings of Facebook ("The Social Network") attracted much discussion about the portrayal of women in geeky projects. Tracy Clark-Flory, writing for, wrote the film prompts the question of why "women in one of the greatest Web innovations" were "one-dimensional characters playing gold-diggers, drunken floozies and that 'bitch' who got away?" (Clark-Flory2010fpo). Similarly, Rebecca Davis O'Brien, writing for The Daily Beast, noted that while one might argue the film merely represents "the gender divisions and inequalities at Harvard," it recapitulates those divisions by portraying women through the eyes of the male antiheroes, that is, as "doting groupies, vengeful sluts, or dumpy, feminist killjoys." (OBrien2010sns)

This popular discussion about female participation and representation paralleled recent discourse by participants in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement. Skud, a blogger at Geek Feminism, noted that 2009 was "shaping up to be a watershed year for women in open source. We have seen numerous high profile incidents where men have made remarks in conference presentations which have dismissed, marginalised, or upset women." (Skud2009olm) In late 2010, the conversation moved beyond offensive presentations to active discrimination, harassment, and assault among conference participants (Shirley2011ht, Aurora2010inj).

What seems most startling in light of decades of work on bias in technology-related fields is how an imbalance in participation not only persists, but is exacerbated in communities founded upon the liberal values of freedom and openness. Furthermore, this effect is present in projects like Wikipedia, which need not be overly technical (the focus of earlier literature) but share the liberal values and geeky esprit of the software communities.

Hence, I argue there is a free culture effect that arises from the culture, dynamics, and values of these communities and that contributes to the gender gap. First, free culture can be unappealing to those unable or unwilling to hew to the stereotypical features of the online geek (i.e., an identity associated with an intense and narrow interest and argumentative style). Also, the openness of such communities means that a minority of high-conflict members (including, for example, a sincere misogynist or an insincere troll) can have a disproportionate affect on the tone and dynamics of the community. Finally, the ideology and rhetoric of freedom and openness can then be used to (a) suppress concerns by labeling them as draconian or "censorship" and to (b) rationalize low female participation as simply a matter of women's personal preference and choice.

Hence, while a founding aphorism of the free software movement was "free as in freedom" to distinguish between that which is free (gratis, as in someone buying you a beer) and freedom (libre, as is in few or no restrictions), this freedom might also contribute to an imbalance in female participation.

2010 Jan 20 | Coleman on Hacker Cons

This week I've been reading the reports from camp KDE 2010 and looking forward to attending a few hours of Wikipedia Day NYC. So it was a great pleasure to read Biella Coleman's "The Hacker Conference: a Ritual Condensation and Celebration of the Lifeworld". I haven't seen anyone else address this issue, but as a sometimes participant and scholar of related communities, I think she is right to highlight the importance of this venue. In my forthcoming book I note that in addition to virtual spaces "there are the physical spaces in which some community members interact."

Through Wikipedia "meetups" I've attended in New York and annual Wikimania conferences I've met a couple dozen contributors. Many of these people I've spoken to more than once, and it's quite easy to speak to a newly met Wikipedian about issues of concern to the community. These conversations were informative, but casual.

So, while formal face-to-face interviews played a very small part in my work, the opportunity to meet with people, to participate in conversations, to see playfulness and laugh at jokes was essential to interpreting what I saw happening online. In Biella's work I particularly appreciated the inclusion of some history (though I wanted more detail, including whether fandom conferences might've had any influence), and how Debian women in part rose out of the opportunity of face-to-face interaction.

Coincidentally, in the last year I have been particularly interested in questions of gender representation and participation at geek conferences. There were a number of instances in which the "playful" discourse of men were said to be predicated on sexist assumptions, and at the least had an alienating effect (e.g., Stallman, Aimonetti, Mouette ). In fact, in a conversation with Biella this summer I noted that 2009 was probably the "Year of [Something]", where "something" connotes a greater gender consciousness or willingness to confront alienating discourse in open content communities -- but I couldn't come up with a good word!

2003 Dec 09 | Socialization in Open Technical Communities

A draft of my paper on how newcomers are socialized into open technical communities is now available. Before I could consider the "socialization features" I had to first define an open community, which delivers or demonstrates:

  1. Open products: provides products which are available under licenses like those that satisfy the Open Source Definition.
  2. Transparency: makes its processes, rules, determinations, and their rationales available.
  3. Integrity: ensures the integrity of the processes and the participants' contributions.
  4. Non-discrimination: prohibits arbitrary discrimination against persons, groups, or characteristics not relevant to the community's scope of activity. Persons and proposals should be judged on their merits. Leadership should be based on meritocratic or representative processes.
  5. Non-interference: the linchpin of openness, if a constituency disagrees with the implementation of the previous three criteria, they can take the products and commence to work on them under their own conceptualization without interference. While "forking" is often complained about in open communities ? it can create some redundancy/inefficiency ? I have and continue to argue it is the essential character and major benefit of open communities as well.

That last principle of non-interference is critical to me and is completely at odds with the common sentiment expressed in a Slashdot article posted today: "Forking" Greatest Danger of Adopting Open Source? In March, I compared this sort of hand-wringing to complaining about too many cooks in a potluck feast:

. . . To ask if too many cooks would spoil the stone soup is to ignore the very nature of the soup. Our software benefits from the cacophony of free ideas. It does seem wasteful when development efforts are doubly spent. And they may very well be. But to expect a marketing driven "command and control" focus is to forget how the software you now use was developed. If you use free software (e.g., Linux, GNU, Apache, Mozilla, etc.) it's very likely the result of a competitive development or fork — wherein a project splits and developers form a new project with their own variant. Folks are presently concerned about Keith Packard's xwin fork of XFree86, but XFree86 itself was a fork. People complain about the competing desktops KDE and Gnome, but perhaps both are stronger for the competition, and they themselves were once new and competed with other windowing systems: should they have been suppressed back then?. . . . Splits over ego and misunderstanding are unfortunate and should be avoided, but they are also a reflection of our fortune. Too much salt can spoil the soup, but it also gives it its flavor.

In any case, I hope to do more work on this issue next semester, but since this was a sociological paper I considered a number of features that might affect socialization in open communities. For example, the "scratch your itch" and 'fix it yourself" maxims might be opposite sides of the same coin. I conclude with the following findings:

In this paper I've attempted to synthesize existing literature and community practice so as to derive a number of questions for future research. In looking at the socialization features of motivation, structure, joining, learning, goal setting, identity, and roles and attribution I've posited a few novel characteristics of these communities that have interesting implications for socialization. In summary:

  1. Many open technical communities are characterized by significant growth, in addition to the high-turnover typical to voluntary organizations. Seemingly, there are always "newbies."
  2. While considered aberrant by some, the action of "forking" is critical to the very conception and life of open communities.
  3. Unlike other voluntary organizations such as the Peak rescue group, and aside from a handful of celebrities, much of the status derived from participation is orientated within the community itself.


Jennifer Louis's paper on Socialization to Heroism: Individualism and Collectivism in a Voluntary Rescue Group was a great foil to my considerations on open technical communities.

2003 Dec 09 | Managing the Boundary of an 'Open' Project

Siobhán O'Mahony and Fabrizio Ferraro have written an excellent paper on evolution of the Debian project. In Beyond Majority Rule Sheeran notes that the growth and control of decision making among Quakers, who otherwise were individualistic and loosely coupled, arose from the threat of government persecution. O'Mahony and Ferraro note that the need for managing boundaries in an "open" technical project arise in order to protect the project from trojans: folks who join the community for malicious purposes such as introducing back-doors.

We examine the project's face-to-face social network during a five-year period (1997-2001) to see how changes in the social structure affect the evolution of membership mechanisms and the determination of gatekeepers. While the amount and importance of a contributor's work increases the probability that a contributor will become a gatekeeper, those more central in the social network are more likely to become gatekeepers and influence the membership process.(2)

They also consider social connectedness by looking at the Debian Developer PGP keyring:

Betweenness centrality is a measure that synthetically captures the structural position of developers in the social network and each individual's ability to potentially broker information and exert social influence. In this context, betweenness centrality is a measure of an individual's ability to link disconnected parts of the network through face-to-face interaction3. Betweenness centrality (Freeman, 1979; Marsden, 1982; Wasserman and Faust, 1994) measures the extent to which an actor can broker communication between other actors. (14)

There research shows that one's "betweenness centrality" and the popularity of one's packages is predictive of gatekeeper status, though oddly enough experience in the community is not:

The popularity of one's package is also predictive of NMC status. For every 100 people who use a developer's package, he or she is 4% more likely to become a NMT member (3% in 2003). Tenure likely had a negative effect because those who joined the project more recently were more likely to be aware of the problems with admitting new members. In 2002, these results are confirmed, even though the magnitude of the effect of centrality is smaller (Odds ratio=1.47). (27)

What's nice about this paper is it includes a theoretical treatment (open science), historical exposition (evolution of Debian organization), and social network analysis augmented with ethnography (interviews). This is what I also liked about Stephen Lansing and John H. Miller's Cooperation in Balinese Rice Farming: a game theoretical model of upstream/downstream rice farmers given the variables of water deprivation and pest damage validated by field interviews.

2003 Nov 21 | Beyond Majority Rule

At the beginning of the year I mentioned how excited I was to find the book Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society of Friends. Michael Sheeran wrote it as his PhD dissertation, and I'd like to do something similar, but for on-line open communities. I reread it this week and posted my notes/outlines for those interested.

2003 Nov 19 | Chicken and Egg: Community v. Media

People often expect a media to engender community: "I'm blogging but not getting enough comments!", or "if I put up a Wiki, they will come." But if you look at the amount of blog dead wood — some estimate 2/3 of blogs never got out of infancy — this is clearly not the case. The degree to which the community and media prompt and depend on each other can be complex, and differ across media genres. A common form of this mistake is what I refer to as the "fat end of the scale" fallacy: people look at the "fat" part of a scaling system and think, "Wow, a Wiki could support 1000 different collaborators." Sure, but even systems that scaled to 100,000 start small; it is in the genesis, the first one to three folks collaborating, that the community is born and the ball starts rolling.

My current belief is that Wiki's are inappropriate for starting a community. The best way to get a Wiki rolling is to use it as a collaborative "white board" for a pre-existing email list or IRC channel. People scribble to it and reference it, and that prompts others to investigate and perhaps contribute. One reason for this characteristic of Wikis is social psychology. The norms surrounding stepping on someone else's toes when editing or deleting their text are powerful: they inhibit participation or prompt easily hurt feelings. Having an existing community where the participants know each other and the community's norms mitigate this deficiency.

2003 Sep 10 | The Division of Social Roles

Shirky’s and Danah’s comments on Friendster reminded me of a response I sent to Danah, after I introduced myself to her. Through various connections, and most notably from a link of my friend and former roommate I found that Danah was interested in some of the same things I am. (When it comes to making connections within a social network, I observe the “when it rains it pours” phenomena: when I “connect” with someone, there is usually more than one event corresponding to that connection within a period of a few days.) When she asked about my Friendster identity I responded:

… I feel a bit like one of those old Comp Sci professors that don’t have email! The social networks are fun of their own accord, but I personally haven’t felt the need to use them, I’m a bit hesitant given the privacy and cliquishness aspects. I spoke to Dan Brickley about this a while back with respect to FOAF. In the past, I labored to actually remove links to my blog, and carefully maintain the separation of my nyms. The expectations are changing now though, blogs are so common and the line between the personal and public is much thinner….

In part, I already felt that my present “networks” were serving me well, and I was also following some of my friends’ experience with Friendster. I was seeing folks connecting with existing friends and goofing around with pseudonyms and such, but not much else. Or at least, not much beyond what I presently get from the various blogs, lists, and the face-to-face communities I belong to.

Over on my personal blog, I wrote about how I’ve largely given up on trying to actively keep my nyms separate; but the reader also has the ability to follow very granular aspects of my life: my personal blog, my public blog, with its own technology, culture, and other subdivisions. This reminds me of Armand Mattelart’s identification of the relationship of globalization with segmentation. As communication technology forces one’s horizon ever forward, one’s blinders and tinted glasses must become that much more sophisticated.

2003 Aug 29 | Quaker Architecture

I finally had the pleasure of meeting Siva Vaidhyanathan yesterday, who mentioned Susan Garfinkel’s work on the architecture of Quaker Meeting Houses. Given my interest in their cultural approaches to consensus the use of physical architecture to facilitate consensus forming Quaker Meetinghouse Architecture is interesting, and dove tails nicely with Lessig’s architectural thesis in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.

Open Communities, Media, Source, and Standards

by Joseph Reagle