In a 2009 interview with ReadWriteWeb, Mark O’sullivan, the lead developer of the open source web forum software Vanilla, was asked if Web forums are still relevant in the era of the real-time-web of Facebook and Twitter. His response offers an important point of entry for understanding the under-explored implications of web forum software, “Do a Google search for anything. How many of those search results are from discussion forums?” When asked if the prevalence of discussion forum threads in search results had to do with a querk in page-rank, Google’s system for evaluating the relevance of pages in any given search, he responded “It has to do with people having real discussions and giving real answers.” Yes, he is defending the relevance of his product in the face of a range of social networking platforms. Still, his response is verifiable. In my own experience, I find myself in the middle of a threaded web forum discussion on nearly a daily basis. We consult this collective knowledge-base on a regular basis, but generally know little about the structures, systems, ideologies and theories of end users involved in it’s creation.
In particular, we know little about the design decisions behind the forum software that enable dialog and discussion online. To be sure, the nature of Google’s search algorithm, page rank, and its approach to caching pages, each play important roles in this experience. However, the first step in the process involves the software tools that enable and shape our discourse online. The structure of the conversations that we engage in on online discussion boards, blogs, and other comment driven platforms are shaped (to some extent) by the Mark O’Sullivan’s of the world, the individuals that create, design, implement and hack on the software that makes the web a platform for community discussion, deliberation and dialog.
Beyond the knowledge-base, web forums are increasingly being explored as places where young and old alike are developing valuable skills and knowledge. Ito and others suggest that these kinds of spaces are where many young people are “learning to navigate esoteric domains of knowledge and practice and participating in communities that traffic in these forms of expertise” (2009, p. 28). Similar things have been said about fan fiction forums, video game forums, and hip-hop forums.The more we think about software environments, like forums, as learning spaces, the morewe need to understand how their design enables and disables particular kinds of discourse.
Welcome to my Dissertation (I Think)
It looks like this is what I am going to write my dissertation about. I intend to blog my way through this process. I have not yet written my proposal, I have drafted a 40 page sketch of some of the conceptual framework I am thinking through. (Which I will not subject you to), but I do not yet have a formal proposal. I plan to work through my research design on the blog and I would like to invite any and everyone even remotely interested in this topic tocomment, critique and share thoughts about how I am going about this. I am largely thinking about this as a project in software studies, platform studies, STS, and distributed cognition.
How to Books and A History of Vanilla Forums
To kick this off I thought I would describe the two primary sets of sources I intend to work with. So far I am focusing primarily on two kinds of source material to develop two kinds of stories.
First I am interested in exploring what how-to and technical guides targeted at people setting up software to create web communities can tell us about tell us about the relationships between users, administrators, and developers.
Second, I am interested in using the content and structure of the vanilla forums development forums, and the archive of those forums available through the internet archive, to explore the relationship between ideologies of users and administrators of the software and the actual software itself.
Together, I hope to use these sources to work toward understanding more about how the developers, and administrators of forum software conceptualize their users, and how those conceptualizations of users do or don’t become embedded in the functionality of the forum software itself.
It’s your turn! Take a moment to Opine
I’m mildly interested in what you think about this topic. I am far more interested in what you think about the sources I am considering. What do you think about how-to books and a case study of an open source forum project as the focus of this study? Are there other sources you would think about looking at to explore this? In subsequent posts I will lay out the books I am thinking about looking at and a justification for why I think Vanilla is a particularly interesting case study for this project, but at this point I am particularly interested in hearing feedback about the over all idea behind this area of study and the general kinds of sources I am talking about.