A reflecting and/or refracting Pool
First Monday

A reflecting and/or refracting Pool: When a local community becomes autonomous online by Margaretha Haughwout



Abstract
The Pool is an online project developed by faculty and students in the New Media Program at the University of Maine that aims to facilitate the sharing of skills and ideas among its users. Still in the development phase, while performing the “release early, release often"” ethic of open source software development, The Pool’s sources are mostly limited to a steady stream of students from the New Media Program. That The Pool to date, is limited to geographically local, and contextually specific use might engender answerable questions about the nature of evolving collaborative systems. This study explores where local context influences Pool development dramatically and where it appears to make little difference by focusing on three main themes: 1) collaboration; 2) student attitudes and strategies of resistance to The Pool; and, 3) licensing trends in The Pool. One of the most interesting aspects of the study shows that as a project develops, users tend to lessen the controls of attribution, and non–commerciality, while increasing the controls of no–transformations and no–combinations. This phenomenon reveals a surprising, anti–intuitive shift in emphasis during the creative process.

Contents

Introduction: Autonomy and community in The Pool
The swimmers: Demographics of local users
Reflection or refraction: Trends in collaboration, student attitude, and licensing
Ripple: How does the community affect the system and how does the system affect the community?

 


 

Introduction: Autonomy and community in The Pool

In 2002 The Pool was carved out by University of Maine faculty Joline Blais, Jon Ippolito, Mike Scott, and Owen Smith, with the assistance of several University of Maine New Media students, namely John Bell, Matthew James, Jerome Knope, and Justin Russell. The main impetus for its creation was to develop a collaborative environment where sharing was the dominant mode of interaction [1]. As various Creative Commons–style licenses are available to assign to a work [2], a creator might contribute an idea or swim around and pick up an idea or approach contributed by another. The Pool allows for intents, approaches and releases to be contributed. Each kind of contribution might be rated on its technical, perceptual, or conceptual merit. The Pool interface also maps how many times this particular artifact has been rated. Thus, a diver can get quick visual information as to how many times the community has rated an artifact, and what their opinion is of it. There are 154 users in The Pool.

Ample recent research studies the emergent nature of online communities, and demonstrates how certain types of users populate and normalize subject matter in these arenas [3]. With these references in mind, a next step in this kind of research is to watch the evolution of a collaborative system in its formative stages. Understanding the real–life conditions at play in a system’s development is key. One thing that makes this research of particular interest is the relationship between autonomy and community in The Pool. The Pool, by virtue of being an online system, is autonomous; it has primarily been used for class assignments by students at the University of Maine. The Pool is still in beta development [4]. It has been used primarily in classes as a way to test the system, to further collaboration, to cultivate a diversity of ideas and skills, and to teach how New Media systems might facilitate different modes of cultural production.

The research described here is preliminary and seeks to stimulate a greater degree of knowledge and discussion. As The Pool itself continues to develop, it is hoped this research might develop too. Rather than reach too many hasty conclusions, this work begins to address the burgeoning, largely local attitudes and trends at play in this developing system. Recommended future investigations will be suggested.

 

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The swimmers: Demographics of local users

Because the user base of The Pool is distinguished by locality and context, it is necessary to assemble demographic data for the purpose of gleaning more specific details that might speak to certain trends of use and attitude.

It is important to reiterate here that because of The Pool’s beta status, it is in fact an “artificial environment.” With a few exceptions, people outside of the University of Maine have had a difficult time obtaining a username and password because it is still in development. One class at the University of California at Berkeley used The Pool for a semester, and there are a handful users with connections who expressed interest in the idea and managed to obtain a username and password. But The Pool overwhelmingly consists of students who are in the University of Maine’s New Media program, and they are distinguished in The Pool by much more frequent use, by frequent rating contributions, and by level of contribution [5]. Non–UMaine Pool participants were included in trends analysis but were not analyzed demographically.

Local user demographics

The following statistics are collated from the list of names in The Pool. All names that were not in the University of Maine system were assumed not be University of Maine students. Names with matching information were associated with Social Security numbers and given to the University of Maine Student Records. The University of Maine Student Records returned statistics stripped of identifiers such as name or Social Security number.

 

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Figures 1–4: Demographics of the University of Maine’s Pool users.
Note: For the following figures, a blue background with “P” indicates the data was culled from The Pool
and a white background with a “Q” indicates the data was culled from a questionnaire.

 

As the statistics show, the predominant age range is between 20–25, the predominant ethnicity is Caucasian, and the predominant gender is male. One hundred percent of the University of Maine undergraduate New Media students are Maine residents.

The following statistics are based on the sample of 20 anonymous University of Maine student users who voluntarily took a questionnaire on their use of The Pool.

 

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Figures 5–10: Demographics and circumstances of Pool use
(based on University of Maine Pool users who voluntarily answered questionnaire).

 

Comparison between the user demographics of The Pool and those who voluntarily took the questionnaire show a strong similarity in terms of demographic spread. We conclude that the data received from this survey represents University of Maine student users relative to some finer details that are difficult to obtain from The Pool database alone.

As in the demographic spread of all University of Maine Pool users, the predominant age range is between 20–25, the predominant ethnicity is Caucasian, and the predominant gender is male.

Responders also stated their economic class [6] — 61 percent said middle, 28 percent noted lower, and 11 percent remarked “other”. All of the students who chose “other” wrote “lower–middle” in the text box beside this option. The relationship between class, residency and their effect on The Pool might be tracked in terms of how these users perceive The Pool’s value. This subject will be addressed later in this paper.

Additionally, 75 percent of users who answered the survey said they used it solely because it was required for a class and the next highest percentage (15 percent) said they used The Pool in and outside of classes. The plurality of responders (35 percent) said they contributed over five artifacts to The Pool, but interestingly, the next highest percentage said they contributed only one artifact.

With this demographic information and the circumstances of use in mind, we can begin to consider how it might be reflected in terms of trends and attitude. The student body of users share similarities in ethnic and sexual — though not class — privilege.

 

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Reflection or refraction: Trends in collaboration, student attitude, and licensing

We selected three subjects to examine in this paper. They are project collaborations in The Pool, user strategies of resistance to The Pool, and licensing trends. They contain interesting initial data and may be worth pursuing in greater detail in the future. The following attitudes and trends speak to ways in which The Pool might be similar to other collaborative environments, ways in which local context is relevant, and directions future research might take.

1. Collaborations

We took data from The Pool that indicates the degree to which students collaborate on Pool artifacts. In The Pool, projects are organized into three main categories: intent: the idea stage, approach: a visualization of an intent, and release: a fully functioning version of the idea. Each stage can have any number of versions.

The purpose of exploring Pool collaboration was to see if local context increased the degree to which students collaborated.

 

Project collaborators per stage of artifact

Figure 11: Project collaborators per stage of artifact.

 

It is immediately apparent that the predominant number of people working on any given project is one. There is a slight rise in collaboration in the approach phase; it begins to decline again in the release stages, which seems to affirm that ideas may be articulated by groups but tend to be conceived of and built by sole individuals.

 

Question in survey regarding collaboration

Figure 12: Question in survey regarding collaboration.

 

According to the volunteer survey conducted, one out of 20 students said they picked up a project or entered into a collaboration as a result of exploring The Pool. Why is there such a small pick–up rate? Perhaps it could be because of opinions about the quality of work in The Pool. Alternatively, The Pool’s beta status renders it sometimes offline and connections are more easily made offline. Perhaps the culture of New Media students does not encourage this kind of collaboration or project building.

These data also seem to affirm Krishnamurthy’s study of Sourceforge [7] that shows the most common number of developers working on an open software project is one, apparently debunking the bazaar [8] myth of collaboration in open source projects.

There are, however, connections between students in The Pool’s small world network not represented in the survey results. A Pool widget called the Social Network Grapher [9] — made by Jerome Knope — demonstrates connections between contributors and projects:

 

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Figures 13–16: Data based on the Social Network Grapher.
Note: Figure 13 shows 0 degrees of connection. Figure 14 shows 1 degrees of connection.
Figure 15 shows 2 degrees of connection. Figure 16 shows 3 degrees of connection.

 

The images from the Social Network Grapher show relationships between projects and people by degrees of separation. The artist sampled above contributed thirteen versions of six total projects. Nine of these versions (69 percent) had no collaborators, three versions (23 percent) had two authors, and 1 (8 percent), three authors. The Social Network Grapher demonstrates how at two degrees this artist is connected to her collaborators’ collaborators, and at three degrees, her collaborators’ collaborators’ collaborators. The artist’s initial connections comprised only one third of all her versions, but those associations link her to increasing numbers of other artists. These links, grounded in the creative process, can serve as reference for an artist looking for collaborators. They reflect local connections of trust and familiarity.

To date, The Pool seems to act as a reflector in that visible collaboration links occur mainly as a result of pre–existing relationships. The Pool is not altering or magnifying connections — at least not yet. As it deepens and more cultures develop, it is hoped that what the Social Network Grapher reveals might hold more cultural meaning and relevance because the focus of The Pool is not to treat connections as commodities [10].

2. Attitudes

The Pool is, by nature an experiment, a teaching tool and a political strategy to keep spaces alive where copyright is not the norm and where innovation can be fostered through modes of sharing. It is not always the case that the University of Maine’s New Media students are quick to embrace this tool and promote its value. There seem to be some University of Maine New Media students resistant to the challenge and rigor of The Pool, not ready to engage in modes of sharing. Because The Pool’s architecture is being developed in an environment that is not autonomous, this opposition is magnified in the system. It was not an original purpose of this study to investigate modes of resistance in The Pool, but the optional “additional comments” section of the survey collected a number of negative responses. These remarks may be due in part to The Pool’s beta status, or because the procedure for uploading artifacts is still arguably cumbersome. A deeper look at local demographics suggests that there are other forces at work.

 

Optional comments section of anonymous survey

Table 1: Optional comments section of anonymous survey.

 

A few phrases in this language are worth teasing out. Take the first example; “... learning how to swim and getting nowhere really fast.” This phrase might indicate an ideology which asserts that communities of sharing do not situate or advance the writer’s interests, and most likely reveals an ideology of progress inline with capitalist values. Another phrase in the third quote down is worth highlighting; “... I have little cause to visit it nowadays. Being in business and all.” Again, this text indicates a belief that somehow business and a system of sharing are incompatible. And finally, “The Pool is useless.” This text seems to argue that there is no utility in sharing, voicing the rampant ideology of capitalism and competition.

When these users’ comments were correlated to their other responses in the survey, we found some interesting results:

 

Relationship between negative comments and other survey questions

Table 2: Relationship between negative comments and other survey questions.

 

It seems worth noting that there is pointed effort to contribute bad projects to The Pool by those who do not recognize it as “useful.” [11] There is reason then, to consider these comments since these attitudes are having some effect on the ecosystem within The Pool.

If The Pool is to be considered as a teaching tool, weighing the strategies of resistance to it, too, seems worthwhile. Weis (1990) analyzes identity formation in white working class youths in an area once economically fueled by factories just like Orono and Old Town, the two towns surrounding the University of Maine, once were. Her studies show that white working class boys have deeply embedded oppositional attitudes to aspects of a liberal arts education that seem abstract, intellectual or overtly mental. They often “engage in behavior designed to show resentment while stopping short of outright confrontation, and elaborate a ‘them versus us’ ideology which typifies the struggle between class and labor.” [12] This “indirect behavior” may now be refracting in The Pool. An overwhelming amount of students in the department are 20–25 year-old white males, and all undergraduates are Maine state natives. Most students focus on what kind of jobs will be available to them when they graduate, and are geared towards developing their skill base rather than contemplating how New Media might or might not alter the course of creativity or even economics [13]. A central question then becomes one of whether their resistance remains successful or if there is opportunity for transformation and/or expanded perspective on previously held beliefs. Identifying how economics plays out in the classroom is not a new subject; the question now really is whether or not a collaborative tool like The Pool can shift the student’s resistance over time, with continued exposure. Can The Pool, by virtue of its mix of online autonomy, local reference, and process–based creative approach become a successful teaching tool where others have failed?

When it comes to student attitudes and the initially hidden factor of economics, The Pool in fact seems to again reflect these dynamics while not magnifying or altering them. We can postulate that regionality and economic class affect the use of The Pool. This user base may not be particularly open to embracing innovative systems that are not corporate or vocationally driven. Indeed, in this case, The Pool is not necessarily affecting student attitudes and trends, but rather student attitude has the potential to affect The Pool in terms of climate and project quality (in other words, its “ecosystem”).

3. Copyright

It was hypothesized that The Pool would in fact have some influence over changing users’ attitudes regarding copyright and collaboration. In some instances, Pool use appeared to have little influence. Answers to survey questions did not show a marked shift in opinion after Pool use.

 

Survey questions regarding attitude shift after use of The Pool

Figure 17: Survey questions regarding attitude shift after use of The Pool.

 

However, data regarding the types of license restrictions chosen for approach and release phases of The Pool shows a significant shift. We found some interesting and unexpected results regarding controls.

 

License options among The Pool’s users

Figure 18: License options among The Pool’s users.

 

There seems to be some evidence that the structure of The Pool shifts or that there are shifts in control as a given project develops over time. As a project develops, users lessen the controls of attribution and non–commercial licenses, and increase controls on no–combinations and no–transformations, while share–alike remains just about the same. The reasons for this are not certain. It could be that 1) projects that have less controls have more success; 2) an attitude shift occurs when a project nears or is in fact completed; or, 3) as users work more with The Pool they become more open–minded. The last possibility could prove to be quite compelling, given that conventional wisdom would suggest that authors should become more controlling of their work as they invest more time and effort in it. It is all the more interesting given that many University of Maine New Media student users might approach The Pool initially with strongly ingrained resistance and prior values relating to employment and practical skills in a competitive market, but ultimately become less interested in maintaining controls as they develop their projects.

The best argument for an attitude shift is based on a distinction implicit in the license terms. Attribution, non–commercial use, and transparency are restrictions primarily on consumption. For example, if a Pool user wants to borrow an mp3 released with an attribution requirement, then she needs to credit the original author in her re–use. No combinations, No transformations, Share–alike, on the other hand, restrict modification; for example, if a Pool user wants to re–use an mp3 released under a no–transformations license, she cannot change the pitch or instrumentation of the original. If it’s released under a no–combinations license, she cannot even use it as a soundtrack for her video.

The data suggest that as Pool projects are developed over time, their authors loosen restrictions on consumption but tighten restrictions on modification. The second effect isn’t as pronounced as the first, suggesting perhaps that experience with The Pool and its system of protection may indeed lead to a more relaxed attitude toward copyright in general. However, the relative difference in trends for restricting consumption versus modification still begs explanation. The most likely answer seems to be that authors who have little more than a text proposal or screen mockups to show for their work are more likely to believe others could easily steal their idea if it is shared without restriction. There is a general concern about protecting their work to ensure they can realize it on their terms first. On the other hand, authors who’ve crafted a fully realized JavaScript or mp3 may be more willing to share it because having a full release gives them a different kind of security, or satisfaction that comes with a sense of completion. While these latter authors are happy to share their creations without strict attribution controls, they conversely may be less sanguine about allowing another person to change their code or music, now that they feel they got it right and don’t want others to alter what they consider to be finished [14].

Tracking licensing trends in various stages of project development reveals how use of The Pool in fact might alter how an author protects their piece. In this case, The Pool seems to have the ability to refract user attitude from approach to release.

As more systems are able to chart various stages and processes of creation — as well as the controls related to these stages as The Pool is so adept at doing — we begin to understand how creators nurture their ideas and projects to maturity. Future research should examine the number of collaborators as related to the kinds of licenses; how a project is rated relative to the kinds of licenses; and, survey decisions by creators relative to various kinds of licenses.

 

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Ripple: How does the community affect the system and how does the system affect the community?

The question of how an emergent system such as The Pool might reflect user attitude and trends is engaging because it can tell how users might be shaping and evolving the tool itself. Equally compelling is the notion that the tool might be changing the individual and the community. In this paper, we explored how The Pool simply reflects a community of users; user attitudes affect The Pool; and, use of The Pool refracts user behavior. In terms of collaboration, to date, The Pool mainly reflects pre-existing user relationships. The Pool is affected by, and therefore reflects, vocationalism, capitalist ideology and pre–formed political opinion. And finally, The Pool refracts user attitude toward copyright from approach to release stages of project development.

What becomes clear in this study is the tensions between the values of the body of students versus the values inherent in the online system. These are not always at odds, but they may speak to a greater struggle occurring beyond the University walls. It is worthwhile to consider the forces at work and to closely observe the first communities populating The Pool. Important to watch is 1) the high rate of solo projects, and the relatively low rate of collaborative ones; 2) the compulsion to contribute intentionally lousy projects to The Pool as a means of political resistance to its system of values; 3) trends in attitudes and ideology towards copyright and sharing as it might be reflected in a decrease in controls as a project develops; and, 4) the relationships and reactions between raters and ratings (flame wars [15]) and their narratives [16].

Examining the development of an online, autonomous, emergent system, such as The Pool, may provide significant insight into the local context of a given digital project. Many educational programs, such as the New Media program at the University of Maine, attempt to envision ways in which society and economics can be envigorated by collaboration, while maintaining viable ways for students to enter into an ever more competitive world. The Pool can become a reflecting pool to consider how these forces and ideologies are at work in our community. A reflecting pool in turn can potentially subtly refract a user’s attitude and mode of use. End of article

 

About the author

Margaretha Haughwout has just completed her BA in New Media at the University of Maine, with a minor in Linguistics. Her artistic interests lie in participatory media and the performative aspects of telematics.

 

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Jon Ippolito for his guidance, insight and encouragement, John Bell for The Pool data, Velma Figgins, and Linda Reid for their help with this paper.

 

Notes

1. See M. Delio, 2003. “Copyright doesn’t cover this site,” at http://www.wired.com/news/infostructure/0,1377,61585,00.html, accessed September 2005.

2. The licenses available for use in The Pool are very similar to Creative Commons licenses (see http://creativecommons.org, accessed December 2005). In The Pool, the potential license terms are as follows: Attribution, Non–commercial, Transparent, No transformations, No combinations, and Share alike. The difference between these and the Creative Commons licenses is that The Pool differentiates between No transformations and No combinations whereas the Creative Commons licenses lumps these into the single category of No derivatives. The Pool also offers a Transparent license modeled on the GNU General Public License or GPL (see http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html); Creative Commons does not currently offer this license term in conjunction with the others. Intents in the Pool are not licensed because they are basically ideas, although Pool administrators have discussed adding a clickwrap default license to protect intents from cherrypicking by outsiders.

3. See W. Emigh and S. Herring, 2005. “Collaborative authoring on the Web”; and F. Wu, B.A. Huberman, L.A. Adamic, and J.R. Tyler, 2003. “Information flow in social groups”.

4. While Pool administrators refer loosely to the current version as “Pool 2.0beta”, each Pool module is released on its own timetable in a more–or–less continuous fashion. For example, the Art Input interface is up to version 4.1 while the Art Pool interface is now at version 7.3.

5. Berkeley users only contributed intents with very few of these leading to an approach, whereas University of Maine students have contributed more frequently in all aspects and all stages of development.

6. This was an optional question, but all answered it.

7. S. Krishnamurthy, 2002. “Cave or community? A critical examination of 100 mature open source projects,” First Monday, volume 7, number 6, at http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_6/krishnamurthy/,accessed November 2005.

8. E. Raymond, 1998. “The cathedral and the bazaar,” First Monday, volume 3, number 3, at http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue3_3/raymond/,accessed December 2005.

9. The Social Network Grapher (http://newmedia.umaine.edu/pool/pool_extras.html) by Jerome Knope is also beta. It tracks collaboration relationships between users in The Pool, and helps to visualize the small world network at work in The Pool.

10. “If this initial rush to add yet more ‘friends of friends’ to one’s Friendster or Instant Messaging network seems superficial from the perspective of a traditional Wabanaki Longhouse, fortunately electronic networks have emerged that begin to approach the nuance of indigenous relationships... . When these communities of interest begin collaborating on projects, they produce not only social ties but economic ones that challenge current market–based, profit economics... . Building on this model of distributed creativity, The Pool, an online environment for sharing art, code, and text, tracks the relationships between its members based on projects on which they have collaborated ... the collaborative projects that link people in The Pool reflect relationships that are deeper — and often more personal — than the superficial ‘friendsters’ connected by friend–of–a–friend networks. Even if they don’t always work together in a physical meeting, the small scale of most Pool collaborations means that collaborators often get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses intimately, and they can use the Social Network Grapher to find people who’ve worked with people they trust. These new contacts may then choose to collaborate on a new project, thereby thickening the number of links between people in this ‘local’ cluster of collaborators.” — from J. Blais, forthcoming. “In the presence of the sacred.”

11. A noteable 15 percent of the responders to the survey said they made a pointed effort to contribute bad project to The Pool.

12. Weis, 1990, p. 17, emphasis added.

13. Most teachers in the New Media program observe an orientation by many students towards “useable skills” and a resistance to that which has no “practical application.” Another volunteer survey conducted by Joseph Grace, Justin Taylor, Shane Winters, Stephan Tassell and Russell Dunn — all New Media students — backs this up to some degree. In the volunteer survey, over half indicated they chose to go to UMaine for financial or location reasons. About the same amount said they chose the New Media program for some sort of production skill, whether it be graphic design, Web design, or animation. Just under half indicated a vocational reason for entering into the program to begin with.

The optional “vocational interests” section highlighted in Table 2 also backs up this orientation.

14. The distinction between the two types of license restrictions was first noticed by Jim Campbell and elaborated by Jon Ippolito.

15. One student recently recounted an incident to me: he gave another Pool author a somewhat low rating on their project and within hours the former received a low rating from the latter in which the latter commented on their own initial low rating in the text review. In the e–mail that ensued, the latter student admitted to giving a low rating simply because he had received one. Examples such as this would be interesting to explore; to what degree do these kinds of reactions affect ratings in The Pool? Two survey questions speak to this as well:

 

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Figures 19–20: Factors affecting ratings in The Pool.

 

16. See P. Case and E. Piñeiro, 2004. “The Slashdot aesthetes; Programming sense and sensibility,” at http://www.stmarys.ca/academic/commerce/mgmt/scos/images/REVIEWpercent25208percent2520-percent2520PDFpercent2520VERSIONS/Case.pdf, accessed November 2005.

 

References

P. Case and E. Piñeiro, 2004. “The Slashdot aesthetes; Programming sense and sensibility,” at http://www.stmarys.ca/academic/commerce/mgmt/scos/images/REVIEWpercent25208percent2520-percent2520PDFpercent2520VERSIONS/Case.pdf, accessed November 2005.

M. Delio, 2003. “Copyright doesn’t cover this site,” at http://www.wired.com/news/infostructure/0,1377,61585,00.html, accessed September 2005.

W. Emigh and S. C. Herring, 2005. “Collaborative authoring on the Web: A genre analysis of online encyclopedias,” Proceedings of the 38th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, at http://csdl2.computer.org/comp/proceedings/hicss/2005/2268/04/22680099a.pdf, accessed March 2006.

S. Krishnamurthy, 2002. “Cave or community? A critical examination of 100 mature open source projects,” First Monday, volume 7, number 6 (May), at http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_6/krishnamurthy/, accessed November 2005.

E. Raymond, 1998. “The cathedral and the bazaar,” First Monday, volume 3, number 3 (February), at http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue3_3/raymond/, accessed December 2005.

L. Weis, 1990. Working class without work: High school students in a de–industrializing economy. New York: Routledge.

F. Wu, B.A. Huberman, L.A. Adamic, and J.R. Tyler, 2003. “Information flow in social groups,” at http://www.hpl.hp.com/shl/papers/flow/flow.pdf accessed November 2005.

 


Editorial history

Paper received 20 February 2006; accepted 25 March 2006.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

A reflecting and/or refracting Pool: When a local community becomes autonomous online by Margaretha Haughwout
First Monday, Volume 11, Number 4 - 3 April 2006
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1322/1242





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