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Presentation: Who’s Taming who? Tensions between people and technologies in cyberspace communities by Terrie Lynn Thompson

Presentation asking what is the experience of connecting to other online for learning. What are the...

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Gill Clough
4 May 2010

Presentation asking what is the experience of connecting to other online for learning. What are the materialities of discussing screens, settings, negotiating etc. Looking for tensions between human actants and technology actants.

Theoretical perspective: Actor Network Theory (ANT)

Looking for clarification of how the community works. NOT exploring formal online spaces. Rather, looking at emergent, organic, self-managed spaces.

ANT is often situated alongside activity theory as practice-based, situated learning (as when discussed during the keynote). True, but in this research focusing only on ANT. Ant referred to as Material Semiotics by John Law. Not a learning theory per se, but possible to view learning as an effect of the network.

ANT works on the principle of Symmetry – positioning technologies as actants alongside other human and non-human actants. In an effort to bring web technologies to public inquiry the authors have situated them as participants in study.

I found this a fascinating interpretation and application of ANT to the study of web spaces. Inspired me to view ANT as a theory that I might be able to adapt to my own research needs.

Study Participants

11 Human participants who were self-employed and worked alone from home.

Non-human participants (technology)


Human participants: Interviews that asked Did they perceive the spaces they inhabited as communities.

Regarding non-human participants – the researcher speaks with, by, through and as these entities:

  • Heuristics to interview objects in study
  • Follow the actors
  • Study breakdowns and accidents
  • Untangle tensions
  • Employ co(a)gents

Views participating in an online community is a series of journeys and passages

Who is taming who?

One case study was presented to illustrate how an ANT-informed study could drive the analysis:

Original 9 members of an interest group communicated by email.

They moved to forum. This was open to more members, but although membership increased, there were more lurkers and non-participants. The original members felt that the new members were not as interested in learning as they were, so the original 9 members migrated back to email. Effectively searching for a configuration that works for them.

My interpretation of the implications of this is that email is an exclusive technology that supports constrained groups whereas open forums invite a wider membership (with advantages and disadvantages that this implies).

This transition was interpreted in this study as a nomadic network formed of a series of passages

Started with small group –-> passage to fishbowl like forum –-> not acceptable to original members –-> passage back to small email focused group.

At each stage the actor network had possibility to break apart and fracture.

  • Cutting the network shapes new configuration
  • New circulation mobilized “we do not lurk”
  • Enrolling objects purposefully to help close ranks
  • New actants (birthday cards) help stablize new configuration.

Who’s taming who?

  • Human actants attempted to tame the technology (by extending their cyberspace)
  • The technologies in use were doing their part to “tame” other actants (human and non-human)

Not deliberate. Data and human actants intertwined, co-constituted

“Technologies fold into us as much as we fold into them”

Data as a digital trail.


There is no one way to do learning in online communities

Learning is constantly enacted: not containers but networks in flux. Learning online is about managing these multiplicities.

  • Wenger (2006) multiple communities
  • Rybert (2008) trajectories, connetions and relations across and between diff practices
  • Baym (2007) networked collectivism, commnity not in single sites but across a network of sytes.

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