Fieldwork in the Ubuntu community

Well, today I’m taking what feels like a plunge, though I guess that’s mostly in my mind. I’ve just sent this mail to the Ubuntu Sounder mailing list:

Hello all Ubunteros,

My name is Andreas Lloyd and I am a graduate student at the department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Having used and enjoyed Ubuntu since november 2004, I have become very interested in the social workings of Free Software projects, and I wanted to combine my interest in F/OSS projects with my graduate studies. Therefore I propose to start an anthropological fieldwork study of the Ubuntu development community.

As I’m not much of a computer expert myself, I’ve been considering various other ways to contribute to the Ubuntu community. I’ve spent some time contributing to the Ubuntu documentation and the Danish translations, but I believe that it would be better for me to help improve the project by examining it from an anthropological perspective. You may have heard of American anthropologist Gabriella Coleman’s work in the Debian community[1], and it is this sort of studies of how F/OSS projects are governed and maintained that I take as my inspiration.

With Ubuntu’s ‚??Linux for human beings‚?Ě catchline, and its much-mentioned Bug #1 [2], the project seems to have a clear goal of developing a F/OSS operating system for a wider user base ‚?? especially in the Third World. With this goal in mind, I find it central to examine the way that Ubuntu developers percieve, use and talk of computers, as it is my hypothesis that the shared cultural and social values and ideas of the developers are shaping the way the average user perceives and uses the computer. Take, for instance, the fact that Ubuntu is a distribution of Linux whose basic shape and form is inspired by Unix ‚?? an operating system whose cultural heritage originates from an age when there were few computers and no end users – and continues to shape the way both users and developers perceive and use the computer.[3]

I am especially interested in how and to what degree social conceptions and jargon concerning computing technology govern the way we use it, and I hope that this fieldwork will help uncover new perspectives on how software developers encode the computer and the software they write with their own social and cultural values and ideas.

One of my key interests here is the interplay between developers and users in the community – especially with regards to the development and discussion on usability issues such as User Interface Design, Internationalization, Localization and Accessibility which seem to rarely receive much attention in F/OSS projects. By studying the way the developers work together and discuss these issues, I hope to pinpoint some of the problems that can arise between users and developers of Free Software. And furthermore, I hope that my fieldwork will help create more focus on a field of study which has received very little social scientific research attention so far.

A fieldwork study such a this one is a mandatory part of my graduate studies and will be the basis on which I will write my Master’s Thesis. Initially, it was my plan to fit my fieldwork along a complete Ubuntu development cycle as the Ubuntu 6 month release cycle matches the average length of such a fieldwork quite well. I had planned to follow the now-codenamed Edgy Eft release cycle running from April to October 2006. But with the postponed release of Dapper Drake and the related shortening of the Edgy Eft release cycle, I am now ready to begin my fieldwork ahead of the new schedule. But in order to have the full 6 months in the field, I would like to begin the fieldwork soon after the date of Dapper’s originally planned release ‚?? which is today!

This may seem like short notice, but in an online context it is rarely any good announcing a project until you’re ready to follow through. Traditionally, anthropological fieldwork involves travelling to some remote part of the world, and spending a long period of time immersed in the local culture, learning their ways by taking part in their everyday life. But since the Ubuntu project is not centralized in any single location and has volunteers and developers spread all over the globe (though primarily Europe and North America), I will seek to do both

1. an online fieldwork and participation in the many digital fora and means of information exchange that used by the Ubuntu community: discussing on IRC channels and the mailing-lists, helping with bug triage in Launchpad, reading blogs and writing documentation and suggestions in the Wiki.

2. an in-person fieldwork focusing on visits to individual developers where I will spend some time interviewing, observing and participating their daily life and work routines around the computer in order to examine how the development work takes place first-hand. Along with this, I will go to the developer’s summits ‚?? such as the one announced to take place in June ‚?? and the few ‚??sprints‚?Ě in order to meet the developers and study how they meet each other to create and develop the personal and social ties which are the basis of the online collaboration.

This form of ‚??multi-sited‚?Ě fieldwork coordinated through the Internet has been developed by anthropologists in the last ten years, as it reflects the fragmented and globalized world which the discipline has as its object of study. I have received some grant funds to help finance these in-person field trips, so there it will not become any economical burden for the Ubuntu project.

Furthermore, as is usual practice with anthropological fieldwork data, all the material that I gather during the course of the fieldwork will be anonymized ‚?? unless the interviewed informants wish otherwise [4]. Also, I will make sure to present all of my findings to you, but please be fore-warned that an anthropological fieldwork takes time ‚?? and there are rarely any easy answers.

You are all most welcome to contact me (contact info below) ‚?? both those of you who may have questions regarding the fieldwork, or those who already now know that they do not want to take part.

If you are interested to know more about the theoretical basis for the fieldwork, I can send you the 10-page fieldwork proposal upon which the department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen has approved my fieldwork. It is rather full of anthropological jargon, but does explain the my project in greater detail.

If you are interested in knowing more about me and my academic background, feel free to read my weblog at http://www.alligevel.blogspot.com/ or my Ubuntu wiki page at https://wiki.ubuntu.com/AndreasLloyd. I will also be participating in the Bug Day tomorrow, and will be online in the Ubuntu IRC channels under the name ‚??lloydinho‚?Ě – feel free to ask me questions there as well.

Best regards,

Andreas Lloyd
email: lloydinho@gmail.com
launchpad: https://launchpad.net/people/lloydinho
blog: http://www.alligevel.blogspot.com/
IRC: lloydinho on network irc.freenode.net

[1] http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=805287
[2] https://launchpad.net/distros/ubuntu/+bug/1
[3] http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/Biculturalism.html
[4] http://ethics.iit.edu/codes/coe/aanta-1998.html

Let the fieldwork commence…

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