The Journal of Peer Production - New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change

Review A

Review by Giacomo Poderi, Dep. of Sociology and Social Research, University of Trento, Italy

This work certainly addresses an interesting topic and could potentially provide a valuable contribution to research on hackers, hacker practices and hacker ethics. However, in its current form it has a few shortcomings which prevent from appreciating it in full and which need to be addressed.

On the positive side, the research is empirically insightful. Hackathons, or local instances of globally and distributed hacking efforts, are a phenomenon we really have little research about. Per se, the empirical/analytical sections are fairly well written and interesting to read (despite the problems I mention below). Also, the tentative connections and arguments for a broader idea of hacker ethic are laudable.

About the limitations of this work, broadly speaking I found two: lack of focus/consistency about the research objectives and lack of clarity on the empirical component of the paper (methodology and definition of the case/research object). Basically, to sum it up, the research design of the carried out research is partly absent or weak in this document. This makes it difficult to judge the validity and relevance of the findings.

Since these aspects influence each other and remain in a sort of limbo for the whole document it is difficult to clearly point the specific portion of texts where “The” problem lies and suggest alternative solutions. I try to make clear what are my concerns, hopefully this will help the author to understand how to best adjust the work in accordance with his own intended goals.

(A) In regard to the Research objectives.
I had difficulties in understanding what this research was an ethnography of.
The title suggests “An Ethnography of a ‘Humanitarian Hacking’ Community”, but what community is the author referring to: the small community of RhoK Southampton event, the broad-worldwide RhoK community, or an hypothesized humanitarian hacking community (which comprise traditional hackers, open-data, open-government, clean-web movements etc.)? The title suggests this latter case, but certainly the research was not an ethnography of such worldwide and broad community. It was a two-days long observation of a sub-group (author writes to have mainly shadowed one group) in a local event belonging to a worldwide endeavour.
Furthermore, once clarified the ‘unit of analysis’ (i.e. the community targeted for the ethnography), for what purpose did the author investigate it? Was the initial purpose of the research to investigate the ethic of this group? As the three central sections suggests, I think that the purpose was to investigate organizational, coding and narrative practices of one particular group in the RHoK movement. From such an investigation the author inferred, or came to realize, the idea of a more encompassing ethic which refers to a ‘humanitarian hacking community’. However, this is not easily accessible to the reader. It should be made clearer as a strong statement at the beginning of the paper, possibly by improving the Research Framework subsection (or even adding a Research objectives one). Without clarity on the research scope/objectives, the three main sections (Organisation, Code, Narratives) seem too disconnected. One simple way to improve this issue, it could be to provide (at the opening of each section) a clear statement of the purpose of that section, and to close each one by summarizing the key argument of that section (of course by keeping consistency with the opening). The author needs to build guidance through the text, and connect such guidance with the research objectives.

(B.1) In regard to the empirical part: Methodology.
I understand that this work does not aim to be a methodological reflection. However since the research involved a challenging field, more clarity about methodology is advisable. This would help the reader understanding what kind of research work was performed there. I try to list some of the points in need of improvement.

  • The author claims: participant observation as the main method for the research; shadowing for one of the subgroups of RhoK Southampton; spontaneous interviews/discussions with the majority of participants. It is hard to figure out how the whole fieldwork unfolded in practice. How did the author gather data? Only through field-notes (if yes, when were they taken? During the action, or during coffe-breaks?). Were the interviews recorded and transcribed?
    • As a minor and personal thought I’d suggest to think whether the author really did shadowing or just participant observation. How do you shadow a group? What if one member leaves…do you shadow the one who left or not (either cases devalue shadowing)? What was the rationale for interrupting the shadowing of the group and going to observe other ones?
  • Reporting data: in the excerpts of interviews with participants the interviewee is always referred to as participant. Do all excerpts come from the same interview?
  • There is no mention about the process of data analysis. How did the author code the data and reached his findings.
  • Clarifications about how the author used specific analytical/methodological devices are highly recommended. The author writes: I used Latour, I used shadowing as suggested by czarniaswka, I used multi-sited etc., but it is very difficult to understand how these devices were used in this work (this comment well connects with my previous one about missing data-analysis).
    • As a minor and personal thought I’d suggest the author the reflect and try to explicate in what regards his ethnography was multi-sited, since all the action he observed was in one room at Southampton (Yes, hackers were connect to other people via technologies, but the other ends of the technology/medium were not a key research interest, as far as I understood.).

(B.2) In regard to the empirical part: The case/Research object.
My argument here strictly relates to point (A) outlined above. Thus, depending on how the author will address that, this may become less important.
The two-day ethnographic observation of this research concerned a local event (RHoK South.) which was part of an official-global emergent phenomenon (RHoK). A part from a couple of descriptive lines at the beginning of the paper, there is no description, no information helping the reader to understand what RHoK is. This lack of information is not marginal, because if the author argues for an emergent humanitarian hacking community by using RhoK as evidence for that, then how RHoK emerged (or at least what RhoK is) is important. I suggest that the author provides additional information about RhoK.
When reading the paper the following puzzles came to my mind and I think that if the author engages in a better description of RhoK (e.g. what are its goals, what is its history, how is it organized?) the paper would benefit from it.

  • RHoK homepage describes the event as “an initiative between Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, NASA, and the World Bank”. This is not trivial. As also the author notes, hacker ethics is often depicted in opposition to corporate powers (see below my literature suggestion).
  • Participation to RhoK events is a sort of competition. ‘Winning teams’ receive prizes. From a few fieldnotes excerpts the author acknowledge that there was no feeling of competition, but this seems irrelevant because the author did not acknowledged that RhoK also involved a sort of competition/reward.
  • In its homepage RhoK officially targets “hackers participation”. However, if the argument of the paper is that there is a different ethic than the traditional ‘hackers one’, then it should be clarified how RhoK (which calls for hackers participation) ethically differs from other hackers’ events.

About the formal questions:

1) Is the subject matter relevant?


Research on specific instances of hacker groups/activities (beyond the typical ‘hacker conference’) is an interesting and relevant topic to be addressed.

I encourage the author to continue working on this document.

2) Is the treatment of the subject matter intellectually interesting? Are there citations of bodies of literature you think are essential to which the author has not referred?

To a large extent the core bulk of literature is well on spot.

In Research Framework the author refers to the hacker ethic as usually opposed to mainstream corporate ICT. While I believe it reasonable, there is literature showing that such ethic can be funneled into different ‘moral genres’. The author might want to enrich that argument by integrating with this literature. For instance see:
Coleman, G. E., & Golub, A. (2008). Hacker practice: Moral genres and the cultural articulation of liberalism. Anthropological Theory, 8(3), 255–277.

As a minor/optional suggestion: the author references more than once Coleman. It might be reasonable to compare Coleman’s latest work with a few of the arguments made by the author. For instance in regards to the organization/settings of hackers conferences, I would check whether Coleman’s latest work has to say anything about organization/settings of hackatons:
Coleman, G. (2012). Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton University Press.

In the document there are non-minor issues with the use of in-text references and the final References section. The author should make sure that all references mentioned in-text are listed in the final References section, similarly should make sure that only references mentioned in-text are present in the Reference section (and not additional ones which were not used). At the moment there are many issues in both regards.

3) Are there any noticeable problems with the author’s mean of validating assumptions or making judgements?

As I explained above in my general/open review, the major weakness of this work is in an unclear focus of the paper scope. As such, there are some idiosyncrasies among (i) declared research intentions, (ii) research design/methodology and (iii) declared findings. These I argue shall be improved.

4) Is the article well written?

Language is good and the article is, overall, well written.

5) Are there portions of the article that you recommend to be shortened, excised or expanded?

Above I provided a general overview about how the article could be improved and about the critical issues.
At the practical level, I suggest to expand the Introduction section in order to include improved subsections about: the research framework (which shall include clear research objectives, or these shall be placed in an independent subsection) and methodology.

The text includes six footnotes, but there is no footnote section which displays them. This should be fixed.
In page 13 the author writes “…fairly different backgrounds, despite at first appearing quite similar (see Figure 1).”, but the paper provides no Figure. This should be fixed.

Review B

Review by Nathaniel Tkacz, University of Warwick, Editor of JoPP

1) Is the subject matter relevant?


2) Is the treatment of the subject matter intellectually interesting? Are there citations of bodies of literature you think are essential to which the author has not referred?

The article draws on Latour and ANT to explain certain aspects of how ideas are translated into outputs. Within this same tradition there is a richer language that might be deployed (see paper). The article relies heavily on a few core references on the notion of the ‘hacker ethic’. This in itself is not problematic (because they are the key references), but some more critical reflection would strengthen the piece. One thing that bugged me was how the author presents this community in very utopian terms – it is clear that he has been drinking from the hacker cool aid – and this leaves a mark on the paper that becomes problematic in certain sections. For example, the author buys into all the literature that is produced by software gurus like Raymond, and when faced with obvious issues (such as the fact that there were no women in attendance at all) the author completely overlooks these situations. How can inclusion be a factor when it’s a total sausage party ‘with women, girlfriends and children dropping in for a visit’ like an episode of Madmen! These sections needs to be addressed (Joseph Reagle has a recent piece in First Monday on Gender in Wikipedia that would make a starting point). The paper would also benefit from a stronger knowledge of the political ideals that sit in the background to the ‘hacker ethic’ and show an awareness of the historical critiques of them.

3) Are there any noticeable problems with the author’s mean of validating assumptions or making judgements?

No, although at times the article looses its academic/ethnographic quality and reads a bit like promotion. This is fine, but it is a bit awkward to sway between observer and promoter.

4) Is the article well written?

There is an overuse of the passive voice, but generally the article reads well. I have made some suggestions throughout.

5) Are there portions of the article that you recommend to be shortened, excised or expanded?

This is a difficult question. The article is rich in detail and the case study is really interesting. My concern is that the article lacks a clear direction and seems to want to cover several things at once. The various sections do not necessarily follow on from each other or build towards an overall argument. Instead, the article contains several arguments and lines of inquiry: why people contribute; what brings them together as a group; and how what they build is reflective of this group. I think the last two aspects are the most interesting, but they need to be brought together in a more compelling fashion, and one that at least displays an awareness of critical commentaries.

The article is formally structured like a ‘social science’ paper, with method, background, etc., but the ‘narrative structure’ is somewhat lacking. I would suggest removing some of these formalities, especially the historical method section, and getting right into the details of the case. Let the argument develop as the narrative unfolds. The field notes are very interesting and these could be used to structure and punctuate the different sections of the paper. Additionally, I would suggest stripping back any section that doesn’t lend itself directly to the main argument (and also any repetitions – there are some) and then spend more time articulating a more nuanced argument.For example, one of the claims is that that ‘hacker ethic’ is no longer specific to geek computer cultures, and instead, something approaching this ethic seems to become a generalised practice, an ethos perhaps, within the networked informational society. This is a very interesting suggestion but it isn’t really developed. Despite these critical comments, I think the piece has a lot of potential and is an important contribution to this area of study. See paper for more detailed commentary.