Tracing controversies in hacker networks

Looking forward to AoIR2017 in Tartu! I will present a part of my research on hacker cultures which is particularly important to me – and is likewise giving me a headache sometimes: ethical decisions and moral issues concerning participants’ interests and privacy. The hackers and makers I met so far were often very generous with the information they share – online as well as in interviews. But when sharing online, how aware are they of the contexts in which their statements can be published? And how do you deal with statements that address third persons? In my talk “Tracing Controversies in Hacker Networks”, I will therefore address the ethics of research on hacker communities. Here’s a preview of some of the issues that I will touch upon in my presentation.

My paper starts from two interrelated questions: How private or public are communication platforms commonly used by digitally networked communities? And how should Internet researchers assess, define and treat online environments which are technically public, but suggest varying privacy expectations on the part of involved users? These questions are relevant to a wide range of Internet research. Privacy expectations have been discussed with regards to the ethics of using Twitter, Facebook, as well as other social media data. I focus on ethical implications of communal debates on controversial subjects. Specifically, I examine how gender- and diversity-related tensions and incidents have been discussed in hacker communities. I argue that the content reflecting such controversies commonly travels across various platforms which imply different degrees of privacy expectations and therefore require distinct ethical considerations. I particularly highlight the relevance of three factors for ethical decision-making when analysing controversies: the vulnerability and public/private status of affected individuals; the privacy expectations suggested by traversed platforms and users’ interactions; and the moral concerns which are at stake in respective debates.

Insights into controversial debates, tensions, conflicts in hacker cultures make highly relevant contributions to Internet research: They facilitate a better understanding of gender-related issues, discrimination, and sexism in networked developer publics. This information is needed in order to reflect on and counter factors compromising the mental as well as bodily integrity of vulnerable individuals in these groups. Moreover, such research sheds light on issues of access and inclusivity − also in light of a more general gender bias in IT professions. However, in many cases, the information needed in order to address controversies and debates pertinent to gender and diversity has ‘travelled’ across different platforms: before it reaches more overtly public platforms, such as blogs or online newspapers, some of the material relevant to analysing and observing sexism and discrimination in hacker communities is posted in Google groups, sent via mailing-lists, or posted on communal wikis. In tracing gender and diversity controversies in hacker cultures, my paper will contribute to a better understanding of transitions between different online publics and their ethical implications.

The image used as header in this post has been retrieved from (you can find the original photo on Thanks for sharing!


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