Email Brian Ballentine
West Virginia University
Web Developer
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Introduction Writing as Hacking Web 2.0 and Open Content Hacker Ethics Hacking Writing and Plagiarism Firefox Extensions Sample Hacks Closing References

This article adds “hackers” and “hacker ethics” to the growing complexities in the ongoing debate over Web 2.0 as both a term and concept. Contrary to the pejorative connotation the word often carries, free software pioneer Richard Stallman defines a hacker as “‘[s]omeone who loves to program and enjoys being clever about it’” (p. 53). The reach and meaning of the term, however, have spread beyond the world of computing. Programmer and open source activist Eric Raymond’s online Jargon File contains multiple entries for “hacker” including: “An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.” According to Raymond, a hacker also: “enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.”

The first objective of this text is to create a link between the ballooning definitions of writing to the activities and motivations of a hacker. Writing has moved deeper into what Christopher Thaiss (2001) has called the “multimedia swamp” where creative expressions such as video remixing and other forms of digital authoring are not only classified as writing but also are being taught in a variety of composition classrooms experimenting with new media. Therefore, I posit that as writers in Web 2.0 environments we are all hackers. While I have initiated the claim elsewhere that it is becoming more difficult and less fruitful to distinguish between programmers, designers, and authors and their melding roles in digital spaces (Ballentine), this text and ensuing argument focus on using specific Web 2.0 technologies as a backdrop for discussion on what we as writers/hackers can glean from “hacker ethics.” Specifically, I pursue what we can learn from the hacker community about how to teach students to write ethical Web 2.0 texts.

While the term “ethics” has received some scholarly attention in networked communities and is prevalent among users and developers of free and open source software, discussions regarding the term are typically understoond in the context of an individual’s duty to make his or her work available to the rest of the community (Himanen, 2001; Raymond, 2000; Stallman, 1999; Weber, 2004). The free and open source mantra of “information wants to be free” is shared by Web 2.0 not just in the fact that many popular Web 2.0 applications are open source but that popular Web 2.0 publication and distribution methods such as RSS feeds, social bookmarking, and application programming interfaces (APIs) share the same philosophy for sharing and manipulating content, though there are Web 2.0 projects developed for commercial gain. Instead, Web 2.0 succeeds because “giants like Yahoo and Google have thus far taken a mostly nonproprietary stance toward their data” (McHugh, 2008, p. 139). Without suggesting that Web 2.0 technologies are inherently benevolent, it is the unregulated treatment of data that fuels both commercial and noncommercial innovation in this arena. Looking once again to Raymond’s Jargon File, a parallel exists between Web 2.0 and his first entry for “hacker ethic” which reads: “The belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing open-source code and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible.”

Ethical concerns as they relate to writing and technology are of course not new. Composition, multimedia writing, and professional communication classrooms, where the influence of digital advancements such as Web 2.0 continue to be felt, offer environments for “keeping ethics, rhetoric, and writing together as an intertwined set” (Porter, 1998, p. 23). Ultimatel,y I wish to demonstrate that pedagogically such teachers do not have a choice. As James Porter (1998) remarks, “When one writes, one decides. Writing is an action involving an ethical choice about what one is to be and what one is to do. At the point when you begin to write, you begin to define yourself ethically” (p. 150). Porter’s book, Ethics and Internetworked Writing, which is now more than 10 years old, contains the warning that “we are in an ethically sensitive and important time right now because what we as users (and as teachers of users) do on the networks will help constitute the norms for such discourse as they become stabilized and legally sanctioned (or not) in the future” (p. 8). Web 2.0 has ratcheted-up the sensitivity levels by enabling a larger group of users to engage with more data and test the limits of how and how much of that data is used. Because an increasing number use Web 2.0 technologies and in essence have joined a community of writers/hackers, advocate moving beyond just modeling ethical online behavior and using the classroom as a space to introduce hacker ethics. I focus on two new Web 2.0 extensions – Web Developer and Greasemonkey – for the open source browser Firefox that I believe extend an unprecedented invitation to remix, hack, manipulate, and even sabotage content. These two extensions and the activities they enable are discussed within the framework of white, black, and grey “hat” hacker ethics.

First, I outline how and why we are essentially hackers when we write and create in digital spaces. Next, since new modes of composition require special consideration in relation to Web 2.0, I provide a discussion on primary characteristics of Web 2.0 as well as its relationship to open source. The subsequent section parses the complexities of hacker ethics and demonstrates how the field of composition’s growing concerns regarding academic integrity and plagiarism mirror some of the challenges in attempting to define what constitutes ethical hacking. I propose that writing, or the writing/hacking that we and our students do with Web 2.0 technologies, can benefit from considering the ethical hacking color spectrum of white, black, and grey “hat” hacking and their associated behaviors. With this foundation in place, I provide an overview of Firefox extensions before introducing two specific Web 2.0 technologies, Web Developer and Greasemonkey, and their potential for pairing writing and hacker ethics in the classroom.
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