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

Web 2.0 takes us deeper into Thaiss’ (2001) “multimedia swamp,” as he wonders “where does the ‘writing’ end and something else take over?” (p. 306) Indeed, our profession struggles to keep pace with the latest production technologies and the new generic artifacts that may or may not fall under our purview. In “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key,” Kathleen Blake Yancey (2004) writes, “Never before have the technologies of writing contributed so quickly to the creation of new genres” (p. 298). This claim leads her to ask, “What is writing, really?”


It includes print: that seems obvious. But: Does it include writing for the screen? How visual is it? Is it the ability to move textual resources among spaces…? Is it composing…not only about medium but also specifically about technology? Suppose I said that basically writing is interfacing? (p. 299)


Intended or not, the term “interface” is a loaded one in the context of writing in digital spaces. It is at once the act of communicating as well as a framed area facilitating and defining where and how the communication transpires. Not long ago, the options for those designing and using digital interfaces were few. Web 2.0 has broadened interfacing for both the designer and the user effectively blurring those once separate roles. As a result, user expectations of quality, usability, and overall effectiveness and persuasiveness of the communication space have increased to the point that “the cost of building a mediocre interface is higher than it used to be” as “frustrated users can give up” and easily go elsewhere (Tidwell, 2006, p. xi). As Stuart Selber (2004) remarks in his Mulitliteracies for a Digital Age, interface design is a “rhetorical endeavor” (p. 28). He posits that “interface design problems are more like writing than programming problems and that although all projects have technical aspects, mathematical and scientific formalisms are inadequate in design situations that involve social concerns and interactions” (p. 28). As an added caveat, I will demonstrate how Web Developer and Greasemonkey empower the frustrated user to usurp the designer role and rewrite or hack the inadequate interface. In addition to the social concerns embedded in hacking an interface, we should not overlook the responsibility of evaluating the ethics of such actions.

This phenomenon of re-writing or hacking the interface supports what noted legal scholar and copyright reform activist Lawrence Lessig refers to as “read-write culture.” Over the last several years Lessig has given numerous lectures on intellectual property law, the internet, and their relationships to our (in)ability to legally “remix” digital content. Rhetoric and composition instructors may have seen Lessig’s presentation “Remix Culture” at the 2005 Conference on College Composition and Communication or perhaps viewed his March 2007 Technology Entertainment Design (TED) online lecture titled “How Creativity Is Being Strangled by the Law.” While the law as it regulates the world of print permits read-write culture by allowing for the practice of “remix,” Lessig and others worry that copyright term extensions and other adjustments to intellectual property law are pushing us in the direction of read-only culture. In his TED lecture, Lessig notes that read-write culture and our legal ability to remix digital content means “people participate in the creation and the recreation of their culture.” The consumer moves from a passive role into the position of creator or a co-creator of content. Lessig is clear, however, that he is not advocating for the mere copying and redistribution of other people’s copyrighted materials.


I’m talking about people taking and recreating using other people’s content using digital technologies to say things the importance here is not the technique…the importance is that the technique has been democratized. It is now anybody with access to a $1500 computer who can take sounds and images from the culture around us and use it to say things differently. These tools of creativity have become tools of speech. It is a literacy for this generation. This is how our kids speak. It is how our kids think. It is what your kids are. (2007)


A number of composition scholars have initiated thoughtful conversations on technology and literacy (Gurak, 2001; Selber, 2004; Selfe, 1999) and we can benefit from that research as we begin to approach remixing and hacking as a form of writing and literacy. Cynthia Selfe defines “technological literacy” as “a complex set of socially and culturally situated values, practices, and skills involved in operating linguistically within the context of electronic environments, including reading, writing, and communicating” (p. 11). Similarly, Information and Communication Technologies or ICT has been an educational buzzword for several years and beyond just installing networked computers in a classroom, ICT research suggests that a “crucial” part of the “changing role of the teacher” will be to use available technologies to “encourage critical thinking skills, promote information literacy, and nurture collaborative writing practices” (Wheeler, 2001, p. 13). Critical thinking skills are a key component to Selber’s three-part “mutliliteracy” comprised of what he terms functional, critical, and rhetorical literacy. According to Selber, incorporating critical literacy in the classroom means that we must “invite students to approach an artifact with inquiries about it that are different from the ones directly imagined by author-to-readers intention structures, making available an oppositional discourse that can be used to critique a dominant discourse” (p. 97). At its best, critical literacy translates into students using digital technologies to react to dominant discourses with “technological adjustment and technological reconstitution” (p. 104). Among the outcomes of technological adjustment, users have the opportunity to “engage in micropolitical acts of modification that adapt technologies to users” (p. 105). Technological reconstitution is an even more “aggressive response” where users may “create counter artifacts that displace the politics of technological regularization” (p. 105).

For example, many web sites track how their visitors get to their sites by way of an “HTTP referer” [sic]. Depending on what link a user clicks on to get to a web site (that is, how they are referred to their content), a user may gain or be denied access to different materials. For over a year now, the Wall Street Journal has allowed its online readers to use the Web 2.0 link aggregator site to link or “digg” its articles. Any article that has been “dugg,” including articles that would normally restricted to pay subscribers, may be clicked on and read for free so long as Digg is the referrer. While the Wall Street Journal was using Digg’s social networking power to boost attention to its articles, hackers eager to exploit an opportunity to work around the $79.00 online subscription fee created a browser extension called “refspoof” in order to make it appear that any Wall Street Journal article has been referred by Digg. Those in favor of this technological reconstruction are quick to point out that “it’s completely legal” but also note that it is “slightly deceptive” (Manjoo, 2008). In the sections introducing Web Developer and Greasemonkey will be similar instances of hacking/writing that are realizations of theoretical concepts like Selber’s technological adjustment and reconstitution.
Next: Web 2.0 & Open Content-->