- Resume på dansk/Summary in Danish
- Problem statement
- 1. What’s vulnerable about software?
- Conceptualisation one: A software culture
- Some brief methodological suggestions
- Conceptualisation two: A technological culture
- The convergence between the two conceptualisations
- Bijker’s notion of ‘technological vulnerability’
- 2. The Mozilla Firefox community: Is it a community?
- Position one: A Virtual Community
- Position two: An online community
- Position three: An alternative proposition, ‘Virtual Togetherness’
- Position four: A rejection of the concept of ‘community’
- Position five: Towards a symmetrical approach
- An argument for actor-network theory
- 3. A multi-modal approach for doing fieldwork in an online community
- The researcher is an actor, too: The relevant part of my life
- Becoming part of the Firefox community: Who or what to follow?
- Overt online participant observation of an unofficial, very large Mozilla forum
- 4. Opening up the vulnerability of technology in the community
- Firefox user/developers regarded as ‘lead users’
- Some risks that result from ‘technological vulnerability’
- Browser customisation by means of Adblock Plus
- The Mozilla Firefox community regarded as a ‘user community’
- Suggestions for further research
- Appendix: A glossary of key terms
- An ethnography of the risks and benefits that result from technological vulnerability in an online community
Del specialet med dit netværk
Kort beskrivelse af specialet:Specialet undersøger begrebet 'teknologisk sårbarhed' og dens betydning i det software producerende fællesskab Mozilla Firefox.
En kort refleksion over begreber ’lead user’ og ’innovation community’ vil pege på, hvorledes disse koncepter er relateret til resultaterne i specialet, og hvordan disse kan bidrage til et feltbaseret projekt, der sigter mod at levere anvendelige resultater til en organisation eller virksomhed.
Astrid Pernille Jespersen
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First of all thanks to my dear wife and son who provided the fertile soil in which this thesis could take root and ultimately, blossom. Thanks Karina for taking care of the many inevitable practicalities of everyday family life, and for putting up with listening to my academic worries after working time! Thanks Viggo for reminding your father to remain concentrated and focused both on the writing process, and our family activities!
Thanks to my supervisor, Astrid Pernille Jespersen, for her meticulous comments, inspiration, guidance, and constructive criticism.
Andreas Birkbak, Torben Elgaard Jensen, Aske Juul Lassen, and Robert Willim provided me with invaluable literature suggestions and inspiring discussions early in the process, which enabled me to get on the right track fast. Many thanks to you.
Kenneth Mujih and Harpa Stefánsdóttir read and commented upon early drafts of the thesis. Thanks mates!
A word of thanks to my interlocutors who I ‘met’ online. They must remain anonymous but aren’t less appreciated for their help in collecting my empirical material.
Mange tak to Lars Hallundbæk who was so kind to translate the abstract from English into proper Danish.
Innumerable informal discussions with the teachers and classmates from MACA 2009, both in Lund and Copenhagen, have had an indirect, but nevertheless, positive impact on the whole project as well. Many thanks to you all, you know who you are!
Last, but definitely not least, I would like to express my gratitude to Amy Clotworthy who proofread the thesis incredibly thorough and made many helpful suggestions.
Pedersen, Giorgio M. (2011) Browser culture: An Ethnography of the Risks and Benefits that Results from Technological Vulnerability in an Online Community. Copenhagen
Afhandlingen indledes med en undersøgelse af Lev Manovichs begrebsdefinition af ’software culture’. Denne begrebsdefinition af kultur relateres derefter til Wiebe Bijkers begrebsdefinition af en ’teknologisk kultur’ og hans begreb ’teknologisk sårbarhed’. Konvergensen mellem ’en software kultur’ og ’en teknologisk kultur’ som afsæt tjener til en nøjere undersøgelse og begrebsmæssig udvidelse af ‘teknologisk sårbarhed’. Herefter argumenteres det, at de nye videnskabelige discipliner i Software Studies (software studier) og Applied Cultural Analysis (anvendt kulturanalyse) kan drage nytte af hinanden ved at fremme vores forståelse af disse begrebsdefinitioner og deres konvergens gennem at udvikle nye metodologiske strategier. Som empirisk eksempel tjener Mozilla Firefox Community’et til at belyse hvorledes software, et bærende element i teknologisk kultur, og teknologisk sårbarhed konstitueres. For at sikre symmetri og refleksivitet i analysen, diskuteres en række teoretiske tilgange til begrebet ’fællesskab’, og der argumenteres for, at dette opnås ved at trække på aktør-‐netværk-‐teori (ANT). Empiriske data frembringes fra en flerstrenget tilgang til at udføre etnografisk feltarbejde online. Etnografien består af tre indbyrdes forbundne dele, som trækker på elementer af analytisk auto-‐ etnografi og Bruno Latours aktør-‐netværk-‐teori. Med denne tilgang besvares spørgsmålet: hvordan er teknologisk sårbarhed opfattet og kulturelt konstitueret i Mozilla Firefox’ software-‐producerende fællesskab? Endelig vil en kort refleksion over Eric von Hippels begreber ’lead user’ og ’user community’ pege på, hvorledes disse koncepter er relateret til resultaterne i denne afhandling, og hvordan disse kan bidrage til et feltbaseret projekt, der sigter mod at levere anvendelige resultater til en organisation eller virksomhed.
Presumably, we are living in an Age of Algorithms (Willim, 2010), and we don’t only surf on the internet—we live in there, too. There’s an emerging cultural discourse on the Internet of Things (Chaouchi, 2010; van ‘t Hof, van Est, & Daemen, 2011). Others claim that the effects of developments in Science and Technology are so profound that it is plausible to speak of a Technological Culture (Bijker, 2006). The sociologist Manual Castells envisioned the rise of the Network Society in the mid-‐1990s (Castells, 2010). Even if these statements are only partially true, then it is equally true that these characterisations of highly developed, rich and mostly Western countries could never have been conceived without the existence of software. An ever-‐increasing number of aspects of our society are made possible by software. Nevertheless, as an aspect of culture, the phenomenon of software is underdeveloped in the field of Applied Cultural Analysis. This is not so surprising, as it is also underdeveloped in related disciplines. The emerging field of Software Studies—as represented by Lev Manovich (Manovich, Forthcoming 2012) and others, who come predominantly from Computer Sciences and Media Studies—is bringing attention to the cultural importance of software, making a powerful argument for an increasing need for, if not the requirement of, for the incorporation of software as such in analyses of culture. Generally regarded as something that is mostly technical in nature, software is subject to errors, faults and failures, which combined are some of the constituents of its perceived vulnerability, and the causes for not doing what it is designed to do. However, as long as software is created by humans, there’s always a chance for human error to set off its perceived—and superficially regarded as mostly technical—vulnerability. Hence, the need has been established for a humanistic, or a cultural analytic, perspective, which is as necessary as that of an engineer.
The vulnerability of software can have many negative and even disastrous effects. However, there’s also a positive side to vulnerability, and according to the influential sociologist Wiebe Bijker, living in a technological culture is to some extent inevitably connected to living in a vulnerable culture. Moreover, to take it a step further, a perceived, culturally dependent vulnerability may even be a necessary condition if advanced, high-‐tech, rich and mostly Western countries are to maintain and develop their capacity to innovate. It is mostly this aspect of the meaning of ‘technological vulnerability’ that this thesis seeks to explore. I propose here to speak of the potential benefit that results from dealing with technological vulnerability’, as opposed to its risk.
An internet ethnographic case study of the free and open source software (F/OSS) web browser Mozilla Firefox is presented in an attempt to explore the rather abstract notion of software vulnerabilities; to make the example of technological vulnerability in a technological culture more easily imaginable; and to investigate how ‘software’, ‘vulnerability’, and ‘community’ are constituted. It is rather challenging to conduct an ethnography that is as rich as possible—generating useful insights that will live up to the expectation of providing satisfactory answers to the research questions—in a short, but very intensive, three-‐week period. However, with the help of an important aspect of the vulnerabilities scrutinised here (namely, the internet), it has proved to be very possible after all. The ethnographic case presented consists of three separate but interrelated parts. First, to introduce an additional layer of complexity, the strategy of auto-‐ethnography was employed and situates the researcher in a dual role of being both in-‐ and outsider. Second, acknowledging that Mozilla and Firefox can be viewed as communities, the immersion of the researcher into those communities is described. Third, after arriving at a user/developer forum, participant observations are undertaken.
The non-profit organisation Mozilla, which is responsible for creating the Firefox web browser, labels itself as a ‘community’ on its official web pages. This self-description creates the need to further investigate the community concept; it is a hotly debated concept, both within the humanities and social sciences. I strive for a symmetrical approach when considering all actors, both human and non-‐human, and resist as much as possible the temptation to somehow make them fit into a pre-defined frame. However, I don’t intend to reject the merit of other traditions in which the community concept has been successfully employed as an analytical tool from the onset. Therefore, several possible intellectual positions on the concept are discussed, moving from more traditional, anthropological notions toward a discussion of the possibility of communities on the Internet, and further to what these communities might entail. These positions don’t represent all there is to say about the concept; instead, they’re a relevant selection that serves as a transition to the theoretical stance taken here.
Drawing on elements of actor-‐network theory (ANT), as represented by Bruno Latour and others, the socio-‐technical relations between the encountered actors are traced and mapped out. To invoke one of ANT’s slogans: I ‘follow the actors’ without a clear and pre-‐defined starting point, and I allow both humans and non-‐humans to guide me on my ethnographic journey toward answering the research questions. The resulting map drawn up from this journey is then laid out both textually and, in part, graphically, which allows the non-‐human actors to ‘speak for themselves’. With this, a greater understanding of the cultural meaning of software and technological vulnerability in the Mozilla Firefox community is reached. Having subsequently connected the nodes in the uncovered actor-‐network, the last stop is an overt participant observation of an online discussion forum. This approach straddles the definition of an online focus group, but it is different in the sense that certain formalities required to conform to such a definition haven’t been met—the most salient being the fact that, prior to the discussions, no interlocutor selection had taken place. Adding the adjective ‘overt’ to ‘online participant observation’ is a more precise characterisation of the employed method; I revealed my identity as a researcher from the start, inviting potential interlocutors with an interest in the topic to voluntarily engage in a spontaneous discussion, moderated by me to an extent.
From the ethnographic case, five actor-‐networks related to vulnerability emerge: browser customisation; advertisements; malware (malicious software); computer damage; and privacy infringement. Because Firefox is a F/OSS web browser, it has the unique capacity to be customised with so-‐called ‘extensions’. This capacity (which arguably appeals to more advanced users) means that, when first downloaded, a rather basic web browser can be drastically modified in both functionality and visual appearance. These extensions are additional building blocks of software, and they can be downloaded for free. Moreover, they have been developed by the same user/developer community as the browser itself. A specific extension mentioned by my interlocutors is given as an example of what can be installed to decrease the risk of computer damage and privacy infringement by means of blocking unwanted content, mainly advertisements on a website. As mentioned before, ‘to decrease risk’ by exploiting Mozilla Firefox’s vulnerability for the better may be seen as a way of increasing its benefit, which stems from the same source: its inevitable technological vulnerability. The details of the specific software extension’s implications are addressed in the analysis of the ethnographic case.
Decreasing the risk that results from inevitable software vulnerabilities by installing software plugins or extensions—here, in the specific case of the F/OSS web browser Mozilla Firefox—may be seen as a counter-‐action that attempts to increase the benefit made possible by the technological vulnerability of software. Put another way, when compared with the closed, proprietary web browser Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE)—a comparison made specifically by my interlocutors—Firefox offers this benefit by virtue of its F/OSS status. The user/developer community has the opportunity to create add-‐ons that enable Firefox’s customisation toward their own collectively specified needs, but IE users—even if they’re technically capable of writing the necessary code or programming language for such a software extension—wouldn’t be allowed to implement such modifications in an individual, uniquely customised copy of the browser. The simple reason being that the End-‐User License Agreement (EULA), entered into with Microsoft upon installing the software, is subject to international copyright law and prohibits one from doing so: “Limitations of Reverse Engineering, Decompilation and Disassembly. You may not [italics added] reverse engineer, decompile, or disassemble the SOFTWARE, except and only to the extent that such activity is permitted by applicable law notwithstanding this limitation.” (Microsoft, 2011) This is limiting, not only in the sense that one is prohibited from modifying the source code of IE, but also because it is actually prohibited to even ‘touch’ IE’s source code. In stark contrast, there no longer exists a EULA for the latest version of Firefox. Instead, there’s reference to a “few notes” and the OSS Mozilla Public License: “Firefox is made available to you under the terms of the Mozilla Public License. This means you may use, copy and distribute Firefox to others. You are also welcome to modify the source code of Firefox as you want to meet your needs. The Mozilla Public License also gives you the right to distribute your modified versions.” (Mozilla, 2011c)
The benefit of freely modifying, using, copying and distributing Firefox is a result of the different, and perhaps more positive, way of dealing with a web browser’s inevitable technological vulnerability. To explore this supposed positive twist to something generally regarded as negative, I attempt to employ some of the ideas of innovation theorist Eric von Hippel, in order to elucidate the presumed benefit. Notably, I attempt to employ his concepts of ‘lead user’ and ‘user-‐innovation communities’ in my analysis of the empirical example, Mozilla Firefox. These reflections aren’t intended to lead to an indisputable perspective on what specific type of software product development is superior; they’re not intended to compare Mozilla Firefox’ F/OSS practices to the closed and proprietary practices of a corporation like Microsoft. Rather, they’re meant to serve as a (hopefully) thought-‐ provoking suggestion of how the insights gained from this thesis could be taken further into a concrete project on user-‐driven innovation.
This leads to the following problem statement and research questions. Based on the empirical material collected during my fieldwork, this thesis investigates:
- How is technological vulnerability perceived and culturally constituted in the free and open source software-‐creating community of Mozilla Firefox?
To answer this question, the following points are also adressed:
- First, how can Software Studies and Applied Cultural Analysis mutually benefit each other?
- Second, how is the theoretical concept of ‘the community’ understood here, from both a reflexive and symmetrically ethnographic perspective?
- Third, an investigation of the notion of software – as exemplified by the free and open source software web browser Mozilla Firefox and its constituents – is undertaken; and
- Fourth, the cultural meaning of ‘technological vulnerability’ in relation to the specific empirical case is elucidated.
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