Abstract for Dissertation Proposal “Towards a Sociomaterial Perspective of Socialization in Open Online Collaborative Communities”

Socialization is a process where newcomers move from a state of uncertainty to a state of fluency in the practice, terminology, and behavior that define an organization. For settings where activities have a high degree of impact on the functionality and continued existence of the organization, socialization processes are particularly important (Van Maanen & Schein, 1979). While formal training models successfully integrate newcomers, crowdsourced projects like Wikipedia are unable to provide formal training due to the ad hoc assemblage of volunteers that participate. Studies on socialization in open online collaborative projects typically focus on information seeking, the impact of feedback, and the construction of social networks as newcomers make sense of their new environment. While such research is important, there is scant consideration for the material components of the online platforms and their role in the socialization process.

Drawing on the sociomaterial perspective from Science and Technology Studies (Barad, 2003; Pickering, 1995) and Organizational Studies (Orlikowski, 2007; 2009), this research proposal suggests opportunities for integrating the role of material actors into the study of online socialization. In particular, this research will focus on the sociomaterial performance by newcomers observing the work of other participants. As Lave and Wenger point out in their work on Legitimate Peripheral Participation (1991), newcomers to a community of practice move from a peripheral position to more engaged participation by watching experienced members work. However in the case of open online collaborative communities, observation is only possible by interacting with system features that support the social translucence of participant activity (Erickson & Kellogg, 2000). Given that observation of other’s work is supported primarily by system features, a sociomaterial perspective of socialization will bring attention to both the social and technical actors that newcomers perform in order to accomplish what Lave and Wenger describe as a key component to becoming acculturated to a community’s practice. Questions considered in this research will include how the structure of actor-network assemblages performed for observation changes as newcomers move away from a peripheral to a more core position in the community and how the translation and representation of participant activities has implications for both socialization of newcomers and constraints and affordances for their practice.

This proposal suggests the use of Actor Network Theory (Callon, 1987; Latour, 1987; Law, 1987) as a way to analyze the network of social and technical actors that newcomers perform when observing the work of others. Research will be conducted on Wikipedia and Planet Hunters and will follow a sequential exploratory mixed method design (Creswell, 2009). Data collection will include interviews with participants and designers, participant observation and trace ethnography to unpack the social and technical networks performed in the socialization process. 

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