Building The Forum: Or, Help Design Trevor’s Dissertation

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 forumsvideo game forums, and hip-hop forums.The more we think about software environments, like forumsas 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 studiesplatform studiesSTS, 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.

When did we become users?

We live in an era of user experience of user centered design. We have a range of usernames for everything from Facebook to our banking websites. We tacitly sign End-user License Agreements as we click our way around the web. We know what to do because we read User Guides to figure out how to get our software to do what we want.

In short, we are all users.

The user has become such a central way of being that scholars are now reading the idea of the user into the past. In How Users Matter you can read about the users of everything from the Model-T, to Vaccines, to electric razors, to Minimoogs, to contraceptives.

The idea of the user as a way of being is so omnipresent that it is easy to forget that the idea of us as users has a history.

There must, in fact, be a historical moment at which we became users.

So when did we become users?

I don’t have an answer here. I’ve screwed around (hermeneutically) with a few online historical datasets and I would like to invite you (the user) to help interpret, consider and suggest next steps.

Asking a question to a graph

For starters I figured I would see how our various names have fared in the books of the 20th century. Below you can see a chart of the terms user, producer, consumer, and customer as they appear in the corpus the culturomics folks have given us to play with in Google n-gram. I am not a statistician. I will be the first to admit that I do not completely grok the details of their FAQ and supplemental documents. With that said, the naive interpretation of this graph shows the term user beating out producer and consumer in our lexicon in the lat 60s and beating out consumer in the early 80s. Does this tell us anything interesting? Despite all the limitations that come from this sort of data, are there any claims that this at least suggests to you? Are there other terms you think should be included in this? Please link any interesting related n-grams you generate in the comments.

user, producer, consumer, customer in google n-gram

Here is, more or less, the same trending line for user in the Time magazine corpus.

Chart of "user" in Time Mag

Colocating the User

Oh numbers, how you mislead! I can’t forget the drug users.

Thankfully, the really neat thing about Mark Davies corpora is that he lets you dig in and see what words are collocated within a specified number of words of the term you are searching for.

For example, when I search for user in the Time Magazine corpus I can find that “Drug” appears within 4 words of user 32 times. Beyond that, we can see which decades those locates happen in.  Below are the collocates for nouns within 4 words of the word user.  Beyond this we also find a bunch of other cool stuff. Again, as I am far from confident in making assertions about the implications of this kind of data, so I thought I would share it here, offer my naive read of it, and invite you (the user) to tell me what you think the data suggests. Here is the sheet of data I’ve lightly coded as either drug or technology uses of the term user. If you want to recreate this, just do a search for collocates of nouns either four before or four after the word user. You can see what that looks like in a search in the image at the bottom of this post. To talk about these results I have coded them into my own categories, those that have to do with drugs and those that have to do with technology. There are a few at the bottom that I haven’t categorized but which I would most likely call technology uses of the term. I have sorted them first by my categories and second by their frequency. As a last step I have flagged the cells in the sheet with two hits as a dark green and with more than that with a light green to draw attention to the patterns in the data.

What are users using?

The rise of user is also rise of drug user

Throughout the chart users are associated with the general idea of drugs and the specific terms for a range of individual drugs. This would be the user in the “Users are losers” construction. In any event, at least in the case of Time Magazine, the the growth around the term user happened for both drugs and tech at the same time.

The first technology related term that shows up is telephone

The first tech term to show up in this data is telephony. The first thought this suggests the user may have may have less to do with the rise of computing and more to do with the rise of networks. It may well be that we need the concept of the user to describe technology based networks.

Some open questions

  1. How to periodize the history of the user? I have provided a few pieces of evidence. It would seem that this evidence suggests….. If you have other examples of what this evidence might look like I would be thrilled to hear it. Are there other places one would look? Are their other explanations for this evidence?
  2. Was our relationship to technology different before we became users? Or, is the word the only thing that is new here? This is really the crux of the issue. Is this change in language simply an arbitrary neologism? Does the idea of us as users of technology shape our way of thinking about tools and technology? Has it changed how we think about technology? Lastly, what would the evidence look like that would help us answer this question and where would we find it?

Asside: if you want to recreate the search I did for collocates of nouns within four words of the term user it would look like this.

What my search looked like: Click image for bigger pic