Coleman, History v. Ethnography

Yesterday I read a chapter from Gabriella Coleman’s dissertation on the Debian community. (She co-authored a piece with Mako in the M/C Journal issue in which I wrote about open content communities.) I was quite excited to read it because it reminded me of another paper had just read a couple days ago by Tom Chance – sharing themes of hacker culture – but more importantly because it includes many the same questions I have about my own community, the Wikipedia. My inspiration and template of sorts has been Michael Sheeran’s study of the Quaker community. However, that dissertation is nearly 30 years old and has no theoretical or methodological text. (And while I hope to not linger on those things in my own dissertation, I have to have a sense of them in order to write it!) In particular, both Sheeran and Coleman conduct a combination of history and ethnography.

In my case, I’ve been wondering if my project is:

  • an ethnography, but of notable and public persons and events – so purposefully anonymizing is inappropriate.
  • a history, but of a community and work that is ~5 years old.
  • an oral history, but the majority of the material is not be oral but textual (e.g., email, Web pages, IRC, etc.).

It appears the Coleman did a mix of both. When referring to the “public history,” she names names where appropriate; but, developer interviews are anonymous. However, there are some oddnesses which I find confusing. For example when she speaks of the “Vancouver incident” she quotes an e-mail, without citing its source. It’s a well known email, and not citing it directly strikes me as odd. I’d love to see her methodology secion and IRB proposal. In fact, I hope to chat with her soon. (Additionally, it appears she’s studied religion and I wonder if that would be relevant to my own interests in sectarian decision making.)

While reading the dissertation, I made this little table comparing Debian and Wikipedia:

Debian (Coleman 2005) Wikipedia (Reagle 2005)
charter social charter “an Encyclopedia”
policy Constitution NPOV?
final arbiter technical committee arbitration committee/Jimbo
leadership Democratic/meritocratic Jimbo and meritocratic lieutenants
socialization new maintainer sponsor mentorship radically open
“witnessing” one’s biography and explanation of the policies in one’s own words user pages (or people describe how they came to and what Wikipedia means)
decision making contributed, discursive, and voting discursive, persistent, and occasional voting (deletion)

Ported/Archived Responses

Trackback from Interprete on 2005-09-13

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?

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