Book Review: The Conversational Firm

New hires from the rank-and-file arguing with the CEO in public. Employee-chosen projects and a management team reluctant to say no. Few if any written rules. No offices. Staff arriving and departing when they choose. Messes everywhere. Some companies—especially technology firms—describe their ways of working as remaking the model of the modern business. They describe ways of working that were unthinkable some years ago. But has anything really changed from the organization models of the past, or are these features mostly hype and marketing obscuring the same old bureaucracy and hierarchy?

Although not a Communication scholar, sociologist Catherine J. Turco’s work offers vital insight into how communication structures are reordering relationships, with significant implications for the field and discipline of Communication. In this brief and readable ethnographic study, Turco describes ‘TechCo,’ a social media marketing company, in rich detail. TechCo employees have access to the perks and features familiar to those who study firms in Silicon Valley — hack nights, freedom to experiment, flexible schedules, an open floor plan, a “dogs welcome” policy, free beer, and so on. The company seeks to embody its own industry: positioning itself as open, freewheeling, and engaged, just like the social media platforms they help their customers to use. Beyond this external branding, the founders have made an explicit goal internally: to create a company that is intentionally more `open’ and less hierarchical than traditional firms. How is this goal accomplished—and is it indeed accomplished at all?

Turco’s answer to this question is that these companies accomplish half of this goal. Companies are indeed able to deliberately open their communication, including the disclosure of financial details that in many firms is held exclusively by C-level leadership, as well as allowing for frank, public feedback from rank and file staff to executive leadership. However, they do so while leaving their hierarchical structure for decisionmaking largely intact. Turco argues that staff are satisfied by this arrangement—and in fact prefer to have decisionmaking power left in the hands of executives.

Drawing from theoretical background stretching from Max Weber to Albert Hirschmann to Sherry Turkle, Turco elaborates a theory of the conversational firm. In the conversational firm, voice and decision making power are intentionally decoupled. Therefore, these two factors can be analyzed distinctly and in tension with one another. This poses a particular challenge to lines of research which treat voice and authority as intertwined or interchangeable.

Communication scholars may find much to reflect on in her careful articulation of what is meant by and accomplished by the idea of “openness” in a firm, from her exploration of how employee use of social media can both benefit and harm a firm, and her case study of how efforts to brand and disseminate company culture can be both a marketing boon and an internal headache.

The book opens with conversations with the founders of TechCo and their desire for “radical openness” (p. 2) and anti-bureaucratic approach to structure. Turco describes the company’s experiences with openness and anti-bureaucratic tendencies from a range of perspectives: as reflected in the experiences of an eager young woman who is new to the workforce, as observed in Hack Nights, as visible within the company’s rollicking wiki discussions about everything from financial information to kitchen cleanup duties, and in their grappling with a lack of strict policies (instead, TechCo asks employees to “Use Good Judgment'”).

Through the first three chapters, Turco asks what this openness means, and finds that although the founders’ goal is to be transparent and less hierarchical than traditional firms, hierarchy remains and is even desired by employees: instead, what’s truly different about TechCo is its embrace of employee perspectives, and the employees’ trust that the firm will take them into account. Through long-running discussions on the company wiki and chat platforms, town hall meetings and cross-departmental dinners, we see frank conversations unfold and influence the direction of the company. Turco also observes that employees seem to primarily seek to be heard—they don’t have, and often don’t want, decision rights: they want and receive voice rights.

Turco concludes that despite the findings of prior work that bureaucracy is largely indestructible and reproduces itself, openness in communication allows greater freedom for employees, at least bending the bars of what Weber called the iron cage. The book returns to the limitations of anti-bureaucratic approaches throughout the text, with a series of examples in Chapter Six navigating the limitations of this openness: how the company came to have a traditional human resources department despite the founders’ repeated public expressions of distate for formal HR and concerns about noise, mess, and distraction in open ‘officeless’ seating plans.

In chapter four, Turco turns attention away from TechCo’s internal dialog and to the relationship between TechCo and external audiences—in particular, the absence of a social media policy. Unlike other firms which have strict rules for how employees comport themselves on social media—and the risk that the company faces from public response to employee behavior and disclosures—here again TechCo emphasizes their “Use Good Judgment” guideline. When employees make mistakes that reflect poorly on the company, TechCo’s response is to treat this as a learning opportunity, turning the event into training materials to shape employee understanding of what good judgment looks like (and doesn’t look like).

Chapter five offers a case study of TechCo’s external communication about their company culture. The founders disseminated a `manifesto’ that combined both their beliefs about TechCo’s culture and their beliefs about how companies should be organized to succeed in the current era. Although the document received extensive positive attention and served as a recruiting tool, existing employees were troubled by gaps between their experience and the company’s description of its culture. Employees also voiced the irony of a document developed in a top-down way describing a participatory and bottom-up culture. Satisfaction plummets. Over time, however, continuing conversation about the document and making revisions to it seems to allow employees to regain their sense of voice, eventually resolving the crisis.

Published in 2016 from fieldwork that ended in 2013, this account does not allow us to see how the conversational firm fared during recent events that have disrupted the structure, functioning, and culture of organizations—e.g. the isolation of Covid-19 pandemic, the migration to remote work, and questions about returning to the office.

In elaborating a theory of how firms can be conversational, decoupling decisionmaking power and voice, the book offers a useful framework for scholars examining the future of work and organizations, as well as other topics of enduring interest in Communication: the shifting relationship between firms and publics and the continued blurring of the public and the private in social media. Of key interest is the extent to which Communication theories about voice, the constitutive power of communication, and factors such as concertive control can be applied to these organizations.

Graduate students with an interest in ethnographic methods will find particular value in the blunt personal narratives that comprise an extended methodological appendix. Turco describes the process of gaining access to the company, gathering observations and interview data, and iteratively analyzing her notes and memos, all of which will be familiar to many. However, this section is unique in offering a series of self-critical reflections on the work of organizational ethnography, explicit description of the personal toll the work exacted from her, and the sometimes painful experience of receiving feedback from her subjects as the analysis emerged.

Ultimately, Turco argues that embracing open communication in firms is a transformative way forward. While we in Communication may agree, what remains for us is to investigate what it means: for how we understand voice in organizations and how we assess the role of technology and platforms for communication.

Sources of Underproduction in Open Source Software

Although the world relies on free/libre open source software (FLOSS) for essential digital infrastructure such as the web and cloud, the software that supports that infrastructure are not always as high quality as we might hope, given our level of reliance on them. How can we find this misalignment of quality and importance (or underproduction) before it causes major failures?

How can we find misalignment of quality and importance (underproduction) before it causes major failures?

In previous work, we found that underproduction is widespread in packages maintained by the Debian community, and when we shared this work in the Debian and FLOSS community, developers suggested that the age and language of the packages might be a factor, and tech managers suggested looking at the teams doing the maintenance work. Software engineering literature had found some support for these suspicions as well, and we embarked on a study to dig deeper into some of the factors associated with underproduction.

Our study was able to partially confirm this perspective using the underproduction analysis dataset from our previous study: software risk due to underproduction increases with age of both the package and its language, although many older packages and those written in older languages are and continue to be very well-maintained.

In this plot, dots represent software packages and their age, with higher underproduction factor indicating higher risk. The blue line is a smoothed average: note that we see an increase over time initially, but the trend flattens out for older packages.

This plot shows the spread of the data across the range of underproduction factor, grouped by language, where higher values are indications of higher risk. Languages are sorted from oldest on the left (Lisp) to youngest on the right (Java). Although newer languages overall are associated with lower risk, we see a great deal of variation.

However, we found the resource question more complex: additional contributors were associated with higher risk instead of decreasing it as we hypothesized. We also found that underproduction is associated with higher eigenvector centrality in the network formed if we take packages as nodes and edges by having shared maintainers; that is, underproduced packages were likely to be maintained by the same people maintaining other parts of Debian, and not isolated efforts. This suggests that these high-risk packages are drawing from the same resource pool as those which are performing well. A lack of turnover in maintainership and being maintained by a team were not statistically significant once we included maintainer network structure and age in our model.

How should software communities respond? Underproduction appears in part to be associated with age, meaning that all communities sooner or later may need to confront it, and new projects should be thoughtful about using older languages. Distributions and upstream project developers are all part of the supply chain and have a role to play in the work of preventing and countering underproduction. Our findings about resources and organizational structure suggest that “more eyeballs” alone are not the answer: supporting key resources may be of particular value as a means to counter underproduction.

This paper will be presented as part of the International Conference on Software Analysis, Evolution and Reengineering (SANER) 2024 in Rovaniemi, Finland. Preprint available HERE; code and data released HERE.

This work would not have been possible without the generosity of the Debian community. We are indebted to these volunteers who, in addition to producing Free/Libre Open Source Software software, have also made their records available to the public. We also gratefully acknowledge support from the Sloan Foundation through the Ford/Sloan Digital Infrastructure Initiative, Sloan Award 2018-11356 as well as the National Science Foundation (Grant IIS-2045055). This work was conducted using the Hyak supercomputer at the University of Washington as well as research computing resources at Northwestern University.

Let’s talk about taboo! A new paper on how taboo shapes activity on Wikipedia

Taboo subjects—such as sexuality and mental health—are as important to discuss as they are difficult to raise in conversation. Although many people turn to online resources for information on taboo subjects, censorship and low quality information are common in search results. In work that has just been published at CSCW this week, we present a series of analyses that describe how taboo shapes the process of collaborative knowledge building on English Wikipedia. Our work shows that articles on taboo subjects are much more popular and the subject of more vandalism than articles on non-taboo topics. In surprising news, we also found that they were edited more often and were of higher quality! We also found that contributors to taboo articles did less to hide their identity than we expected.

Short video of a our presentation of the work given at Wikimania in August 2023.

The first challenge we faced in conducting our study was building a list of Wikipedia articles on taboo topics. This was challenging because while taboo is deeply cultural and can seem natural, our individual perspectives of what is and isn’t taboo is privileged and limited. In building our list, we wanted to avoid relying on our own intuition about what qualifies as taboo. Our approach was to make use of an insight from linguistics: people develop euphemisms as ways to talk about taboos. Think about all the euphemisms we’ve devised for death, or sex, or menstruation, or mental health. Using figurative languages lets us distance ourselves from the pollution of a taboo.

We used this insight to build a new machine learning classifier based on dictionary definitions in English Wiktionary. If a ‘sense’ of a word was tagged as a euphemism, we treated the words in the definition as indicators of taboo. The end result of this analysis is a series of words and phrases that most powerfully differentiate taboo from non-taboo. We then did a simple match between those words and phrases and Wikipedia article titles. We built a comparison sample of articles whose titles are words that, like our taboo articles, appear in Wiktionary definitions.

We used this new dataset to test a series of hypotheses about how taboo shapes collaborative production in Wikipedia. Our initial hypotheses were based on the idea that taboo information is often in high demand but that Wikipedians might be reluctant to associate their names (or usernames) with taboo topics. The result, we argued, would be articles that were in high demand but of low quality. What we found was that taboo articles are thriving on Wikipedia! In summary, we found in comparison to non-taboo articles:

  • Taboo articles are more popular (as expected).
  • Taboo articles receive more contributions (contrary to expectations).
  • Taboo articles receive more low-quality contributions (as expected).
  • Taboo articles are higher quality (contrary to expectations).
  • Taboo article contributors are more likely to contribute without an account (as expected), and have less experience (as expected), but that accountholders are more likely to make themselves more identifiable by having a user page, disclosing their gender, and making themselves emailable (all three of these are contrary to expectation!).

For more details, visualizations, statistics, and more, we hope you’ll take a look at our paper. If you are attending CSCW in October 2023, we also hope and come to our CSCW presentation in Minneapolis!

The full citation for the paper is: Champion, Kaylea, and Benjamin Mako Hill. 2023. “Taboo and Collaborative Knowledge Production: Evidence from Wikipedia.” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 7 (CSCW2): 299:1-299:25.

We have also released replication materials for the paper, including all the data and code used to conduct the analyses.

This blog post and the paper it describes are collaborative work by Kaylea Champion and Benjamin Mako Hill.

FOSSY Wrap-up Bonus – Eriol Fox on User Research

Welcome to a bonus round of our series spotlighting the excellent talks we were fortunate enough to host during the Science of Community track at FOSSY 23!

Eriol Fox presented their talk, “Community lead user research and usability in Science and Research OSS: What we learned,” (due to scheduling issues, this landed in the Wildcard track, but it was definitely on-topic for Science of Community! Eriol introduced us to their work exploring how scientists and researchers think about open source software, including differences in norms and motivations as well as challenges around the structure of labor. They also brought along copies of their 4 super cool zines from this project!

You can watch the talk HERE and learn more about Eriol’s work HERE.

FOSSY Wrap-Up: CDSC presents Interactive Session — Let’s Get Real: Putting Research Findings into Practice

Welcome to part 7 of a 7-part series spotlighting presentations from the Science of Community track at FOSSY 23!

In this interactive session, Dr. Benjamin Mako Hill, Dr. Aaron Shaw, and Kaylea Champion hosted a series of conversations with FOSS community members about finding research, putting it to use, and building partnerships between researchers and communities!

This talk was (intentionally!) not recorded, but we’ve synthesized the resources we shared into this wiki page.

FOSSY Wrap-Up: Mariam Guizani on Rules of Engagement: Why and How Companies Participate in OSS

Welcome to part 6 of a 7-part series spotlighting the excellent talks we were fortunate enough to host during the Science of Community track at FOSSY 23!

In this talk, Dr. Guizani shared her work to understand the motivation for companies to participate in open source software development, encompassing the perspective of both small and large firms.

You can watch the talk HERE and learn more about Dr. Guizani HERE.

FOSSY Wrap-Up: Shoji Kajita on Research Data Management Skills Development Leveraged by an Open Source Portfolio

Welcome to part 5 of our 7-part series reviewing all the great talks we were fortunate enough to host during the Science of Community track at this year’s FOSSY.

In this talk, Dr. Kajita introduced us to the work being done as part of the Apereo (formerly JA-SIG/Sakai) to create FOSS platforms to serve as academic and administrative infrastructure in higher education. Research data management is a skill that emerging scholars must learn to do modern quantitative research — and this skill can be scaffolded and tracked via the Karuta portfolio tool.

Watch the talk HERE, learn more about Karuta HERE, and learn more about Dr. Kajita HERE.

FOSSY Wrap-Up: Kaylea Champion’s Lightning Talk on Undermaintained Packages

Welcome to part 4 of a 7-part series spotlighting the excellent talks we were fortunate enough to host during the Science of Community track at FOSSY 23!

Kaylea presented on her new research project to identify how packages come to be undermaintained, in particular investigating assumptions that it’s all about “the old stuff” — old packages, old languages. It turns out that’s only part of the story — older packages and software written in older languages do tend to be undermaintained, but old packages in old languages — the tried and true, as it were — do relatively well!

Watch the talk HERE and learn more about Kaylea’s work HERE.

FOSSY Wrap-Up: Anita Sarma’s Lightning Talk on Inclusion Bugs

Welcome to part 3 of a 7-part series spotlighting the excellent talks we were fortunate enough to host during the Science of Community track at FOSSY 23!

Dr. Anita Sarma gave us an excellent introduction to her and her team’s work on understanding how to make FOSS more inclusive by identifying errors in user interaction design.

Matt Gaughan delivered a rapid introduction to his dataset highlighting the numerous places where the Linux Kernel is using unsafe memory practices.

You can watch the talk HERE and learn more about Dr. Sarma HERE.