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

“Central to the idea of rhetorical theory is the idea that audience determines the appropriateness and success of communication. The expectations, task needs, immediate situation, values, interests, and presumptions of readers affect how they understand and respond to a text or message” (Giesler et al., pp. 271-2).

Web 2.0 has broadened significantly the available means of recourse for an audience that finds the “appropriateness” or “success” of an IText lacking. The breadth of options also presents instructors with a unique opportunity to bring ethics into the classroom. In Edward McQueeney’s “Making Ethics Come Alive,” he remarks on students in his communication course who “often perceive ethics to be spongy, soft, and largely irrelevant to the skills necessary to do business” (p. 158). The problem McQueeney finds is the “air of unreality that often surrounds classroom ethics discussion” (p. 158).

I believe that McQueeney is not alone in his experiences with attempting to bring ethics into a writing classroom. Case studies and even examining existing codes of ethics are useful tactics for engaging students, but with Web 2.0 we can confront students with ethically “grey” scenarios regarding remixing the web. This pedagogical approach to ethics deliberately prompts ethical debate without prescribing right or wrong. A neutral stance is an important part of my own strategy for moving class discussion from two specific case studies to some more general ethical concerns of writers. As Donna Kienzler (2001) remarks, “A critical thinking perspective also demands an ethical instructor. One of the first demands on that instructor is a safe learning community” (p. 325). Using examples like the two included in this essay, I strive to create an open environment where the “right” answer is up for debate and it is in the process of forming arguments and thinking critically about options that students learn about ethics. The approach also brings instructors face-to-face with the complicated relationship between writing, intertextuality, and the debate over what constitutes plagiarism.

To expand the exploration of ethics with my students, I use McQueeny’s article where he states, “Ethical behavior costs something, and its consequences, to the individual as well as to the organization, can be very serious” (p. 160). I posit his remark in the form of questions for the class: what are the costs of white hat hacking where permission for the use of every source is required? Conversely, what are the potential costs of black hat behavior where no effort is made to secure any permission? The two case study hacks with Web Developer and Greasemonkey are good points of departure for widening discussion with students of ethical behavior into other writing situations. For example, what are the costs of exaggerating experience in a résumé? Would you classify that behavior as white, grey, or black hat hacking? Likewise, what are the potential costs in including a “drop dead” implementation date within a business proposal that can not be guaranteed with 100% certainty? At what point, if any, is including such a date acceptably “grey”? In fact, I have found the hacker color spectrum to be applicable and useful for discussing a variety of writing situations, and the Web 2.0 technologies Web Developer and Greasemonkey to be excellent tools for introducing students to the hacker community.

The concerns writing instructors have with attempting to integrate Web 2.0 technologies and hacker ethics into a writing course often are in regard to the learning curves associated with tools like Web Developer and Greasemonkey. These tools like many others offered in Web 2.0 communities allow users to wield them with varying degrees of knowledge and skill, however. For example, many Greasemonkey scripts are ready to download from that function equally well as prompts for classroom conversations on ethical hacking. Since facilitates the dissemination of scripts that do everything from remove expensive advertisements to remixing content, use of the site and even its existence is an interesting point of entry for discussing ethics.

I also suggest that most of the apprehension over using these new technologies is not found with students. After listing numerous emerging genres resulting from compositions in digital spaces, Yancey remarks that students are already motivated to embrace the challenges of working with new media:


Note that no one is making anyone do any of this writing. Don’t you wish that the energy and motivation that students bring to some of these other genres they would bring to our assignments? How is it that what we teach and what we test can be so different from what our students know as writing? (p. 298)


This is not to say that in order to curry favor with students we should abandon all existing writing pedagogy and move exclusively to online environments. I believe we should continue to teach our writing courses emphasizing the genres and principles of conduct our fields recognize as valuable. In writing courses that range from introductory composition to multimedia writing, ethics in some form usually makes the short list. What I am suggesting here is that hacker ethics has a unique relationship to writing in digital environments that we can leverage to help us navigate our foray into writing with Web 2.0.