Email Brian Ballentine
West Virginia University
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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

In “Framing Plagiarism,” Linda Adler-Kassner, Chris Anson, and Rebecca Moore Howard note that what is allowed is complicated because “in no community is the textual value system unitary or stable” (2008, p. 240). The scholars are critical of news stories and articles that simplify current issues of textuality and plagiarism by casting student writers as mere cheats. The unfortunate result is a shift in emphasis from writing instruction, including discussions on value systems relating to “text,” to how to catch cheaters. In her 1999 work, Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators, Rebecca Moore Howard challenges the “criminalization” of plagiarism and asks that we reevaluate what practices the term encompasses. Much like Lessig’s views on the ills of thoughtless copying and redistribution of copyrighted materials, Howard does not condone students taking content outright and passing it off as their own. However, students attempt to situate themselves as they evolve as writers within their respective discourse communities in part by appropriating and incorporating other sources of material. Good writing instruction focuses not on catching cheaters but on learning and respecting the value systems of different communities. Similar to a Web 2.0 remix, Howard appreciates what she terms “patchwriting” outcomes as unique and valid artifacts. Just as Lessig suggests with remix, students as patchwriters are taking materials from culture around them and using that existing content “to say things differently.”

In a more recent article, “Understanding ‘Internet Plagiarism,’” Howard (2007) draws on postmodern theory to set the groundwork for an argument that “all writing is relational and intertextual” (p. 9). As such, we are situated amidst a textual revolution with which we can either critically engage and embrace or pull away from to lock down and control access to texts. According to Howard, the latter is a waste of our time: “It is no longer possible to control access to text, and it is no longer possible to imagine that writers do not draw copiously on other texts, both consciously and unconsciously” (p. 10-11). Appropriation and intertextuality are inherent in writing. For evidence, Howard cites Geisler et al. and their scholarship on “IText” or “information technologies with texts at their core” (p. 270). While “IText” predates Web 2.0, the description of it by Geisler and his co-authors is remarkably prescient: “People use IText documents as part of larger activities, carrying out meanings with motives and using tools that are built on prior activities and activity systems but transforming them in their new electronic contexts” (p. 273). This transforming or what can now be called the hacking or remixing of texts and the resulting artifacts are embodiments of intertexuality that should not be dismissed as mere plagiarism. In order to combat what Howard calls the “widespread hysteria” brought on by the perceived threat of internet plagiarism, students would be best served by eliminating “inclusive and simplistic” labels that encompass otherwise productive patchwriting (pp. 12-13). For situations where a student’s work is questionable ethically, Howard suggests a pause before branding someone a plagiarist to consider the following advice from the Council of Writing Program Administrators and its “Statement on Best Practices”:


Ethical writers make every effort to acknowledge sources fully and appropriately in accordance with the contexts and genres of their writing. A student who attempts (even if clumsily) to identify and credit his or her source, but who misuses a specific citation format or incorrectly uses quota­tion marks or other forms of identifying material taken from other sources, has not plagiarized. Instead, such a student should be considered to have failed to cite and document sources appropriately. (Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism, 2003)


Of course, we are still exploring how we write in digital environments and that means constructing not only new citation methods but new pedagogies for the classroom. Since Web 2.0 at its best is, as O’Reilly suggests, designed for hackability and remixability, users are producing new digital texts that were never before imagined and any formal documentation methods are naturally absent.

In a bit of irony, for all of the anxiety over internet plagiarism the composition community has created, it has also grown fond of open source and its ethical approaches to knowledge sharing. Specifically, the National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on College Composition and Communication passed recently a resolution on the adoption and use of open source software (2008) which reads,

“BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED that the Conference on College Composition and Communication support consideration of and strategic use of open source software whenever possible; will explore the use of open source software within its own organization and recommend that educators, institutions, and other educational organizations do the same.”

Of the reasons listed for pursuing open source, many are practical including claims that open source may spare technology budgets and prevent universities from being tied to a specific software vendor with no way out of a long term contract. Relevant to this discussion, however, is the additional claim that: “The open source development model parallels the academic model of knowledge creation and distribution.” While the resolution is a brief document and does not elaborate on how exactly academic and open source communities are alike, I read the claim as a direct acknowledgement and even endorsement of the intertextuality and ITexts that Howard, Geisler, and others describe. The unanswered question remains: “How do we teach students to create ITexts that are ethical?” (Geisler, et al., p. 283)

I suggest that we take a cue from factions of the open source community that acknowledge the ethical grey areas of writing/hacking. Specifically, the online security guide documentation offered by Red Hat, a commercial distribution of Linux that profits by selling professional support and training for an otherwise free operating system, contains a loose but useful framework for hacker ethics. Red Hat does not pretend that achieving a universal definition of ethical hacking is possible. Instead, the practice of hacking in any form is discussed within the spectrum of white, black, and grey “hat” hacking. The “hat” a hacker wears and its associative color is simply a metaphorical reference to the type of activity he or she is engaged with at a particular moment in time. Not surprisingly white symbolizes good or pure activity, black denotes bad or evil, and grey stands in for an ambiguous blend of the two.   

“White hat hackers, for example crack their own systems or the systems of a client who has specifically employed them for the purposes of security auditing” according to Red Hat (Attackers and vulnerabilities, 2002). This permission-centered definition is in accordance with ethical hacking as described earlier by Gregg and Harris, et al. For a student composing a Web 2.0 text, white hat hacking would be analogous to that student systematically documenting all of his or her sources and acquiring all of the necessary permissions before using any digital content found online. Content for which permission was not granted (including cases when the “owner” of that content could not be located) would need to be omitted from the composition in order to comply with this definition of white hat writing/hacking.

Conversely, those that hack for ignoble purposes such as sabotaging servers or stealing confidential content are labeled “black hat hackers.” Black hats “are less focused on programming and the academic side of breaking into systems” (Attackers and vulnerabilities, 2002). Here, ethical writing/hacking would amount to a student acquiring content online and attempting to take credit for that content “as is” and as if it were his or her own work. Black hat writing/hacking means the student has no critical engagement with the content. That is, there is no “technological adjustment” or “technological reconstitution” of the artifact that Selber describes as important components of a student’s critical literacy education.

In practice, hacking is often more “grey” than the white or black binary. According to Red Hat’s security guide, “The grey hat hacker, on the other hand, has the skills and intent of a white hat hacker in most situations but uses his knowledge for less than noble purposes on occasion. A grey hat hacker can be thought of as a white hat hacker who wears a black hat at times to accomplish his own agenda (Attackers and vulnerabilities). The word “intent” calls to mind the “Best Practices” statement on plagiarism offered by the Council of Writing Program Administrators noting a student’s “attempt” to do the right thing. The problem is once again determining what constitutes “less than noble”? Should a student, for example, forego incorporating a portion of a digital text into his or her composition because, despite diligent attempts to secure permission, they have failed to locate its owner? Due to the restructuring of copyright law, even what are known as “orphaned works” have a barrier of protection despite the absence of discernable owner. Of course it is part of a student’s “agenda” to use other texts as a means to enter a discourse community, to “create,” and to “say things differently” as they construct their own compositions. Indeed, these are our own pedagogical goals for writing and it seems futile to pretend that writing/hacking will not reside frequently in this grey area.

It may be a simple task to label someone a black hat hacker for installing spy-ware on an unprotected computer, but when it comes to hacking as writing (which includes remixing a range of content that includes lines of code, digital images, video, prose, poetry and more) we are by the very definition of text “grey” hat hackers. Relying on the work of other writers is what writers do. More eloquently, Porter describes the relationships between texts: “Not infrequently, and perhaps ever and always, texts refer to other texts and in fact rely on them for their meaning. All texts are interdependent: We understand a text only insofar as we understand its precursors” (1986, p. 34). Web 2.0 has brought us face to face with intertextuality, though many seem unprepared for the encounter. In what may be interpreted as a knee-jerk response, many institutes are now relying on plagiarism detection services despite excoriating reviews by scholars decrying their use. No tool will help us escape the following fact, “In instructional settings, plagiarism is a multifaceted and ethically complex problem” (Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism, 2003). Instead, a loose framework derived from the terms white (“good” hacking), black (“bad” hacking), and grey (ethically ambiguous hacking) can be an effective means to introduce students to Web 2.0 and the ethical concerns it brings without being prescriptive. As Howard remarks, “Plagiarism-detecting software does not protect the learning experience; only pedagogy does” (2007, p. 11). In the next section, I demonstrate how to use two Web 2.0 tools to situate student writing in ethically grey situations in order to facilitate a discussion on hacker ethics. Rethinking our pedagogy to engage with new forms of composition like Web 2.0 remixes as well as appropriate the open source community’s notion of hacker ethics might, as Howard suggests, save us.
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