Online / 5 & 6 February 2022


Free Software Development as Observant Participation

Developing textnets, Studying Digital Cultures

I am a social scientist who mostly teaches and conducts qualitative research, but I am also a programmer. Over the years, I have contributed to a variety of free and open source software projects, and since 2019, I have developed and maintained textnets, a Python package for text analysis that represents collections of texts as networks of documents and words, providing novel possibilities for the visualization and analysis of texts. In my field, such software development efforts are not usually rewarded, but I have been very fortunate. My academic superiors have been supportive of my endeavors, and a publication in the Journal of Open Source Software also helped me get official recognition for this work in the standard currency of my field.

While I developed textnets to scratch my own itch, I seek to make the package widely available by providing extensive documentation and making it easily installable across multiple platforms. This part of my software development work -- learning the intricacies of version control, package managers, continuous integration testing, and dependency management -- puts me in a position to learn not just about the technical side of coding, but about the social side of the choices developers make. At least in the Python world, the way you learn about what dependencies to use, if any, and how many, is informed by norms more than by technical considerations, and the same is true for much else. By engaging in software development work, I engage in a version of the research method of participant observation -- learning by taking part -- that sociologists have called observant participation -- becoming part of what you want to learn about. In my case, I want to learn not just about software development and its culture and norms, but the wider world of free software, hacker culture, artistic practice based on FOSS tools, and more.

In my talk, I provide some background to the development of textnets, give a brief demonstration of the package's features, and finally reflect on my experiences engaging in observant participation as well as some of the insights I have gained and still hope to gain.


Photo of John Boy John Boy