A work in progress. I am turning this from an academic study in the style of the Science and Technology Studies to a public essay. Ongoing revision process from an thesis outline written I wrote for an incredible seminar on Information—Computing—Infrastructure(History GR8479) taught by Professor Matthew Jones in the Fall of 2022.
Primary Supervisor: Professor Matthew Jones
Potential Second Readers:
- Professor Nathaneal Shelley (?)
- Professor Chris Wiggins (?)
- Professor Nick Seaver (?)
- Professor Christopher Kelty (?)
(?) => I need to check if they would be open.
- Computing Tastes - Algorithms and the Makers of Music Recommendation by Nick Seaver
- The Participant by Christopher Kelty
- Three Ethical Moments in Debian by Gabriella Coleman
- The Closed World - Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America
- Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy - The Many Faces of Anonymous by Paul Edwards
- Inventing the Internet by Janet Abbate
“A power user is a user of computers, software, and other electronic devices who […] might not have extensive technical knowledge of the systems they use but is rather characterized by competence or desire to make the most intensive use of computer programs or systems.”
Power users. From graphic designers integrating their IPads into their Photoshop workflow to first-year investment bankers analysts using macros to automate their tedious work in Excel, power users span technologies and a range of technical skills. Like the craftsman whose tools are well-worn, power users use technology in this way. As a tool for the most mundane to the most creative ends. Power users contrast what I will come to define as “passive users.”
Power use is a term that characterizes a way of using technology. They are nothing new. Arguably they are the first users of any technology, particularly of the early personal computer and the internet, because you had to know how to get the most out of your system to do anything remotely useful. Use of the term, as we understand it today, peaked in 1990 and has since been declining, according to Google Ngram.1 However, this understudied use of technology is not a relic of the past or a trivial fad. Power users are resurging in exciting and meaningful ways.
In this study, I aim to understand, locate, and clearly describe the “power” these users have that distinguishes them from other technology users. In the first section, I situate them historically and develop concepts we will use later. Starting with the free software” geeks” early 90s Christopher Kelty in Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software often associated with “Web 1.0”, then hackers of the mid-90s to late 2010s studied by Gabriella Coleman, and finally, more contemporary users of”Web 2.0” such as Instagram, Tik Tok, and Spotify relying on scholarship by Finn Bruton SPAM: A Shadow History of the Internet (2014) and Nick Seaver’s Computing Taste: Algorithms and the Makers of Music Recommendation. (2022). I use these different kinds of users to draw out relevant distinctions and similarities they have with Power User to argue for the need to conceive of them as distinct and help explore the implications of this kind of use. Understanding the power of this user not only helps to understand the history and future of computing and technology but can also help develop normative standards to understand our increasing reliance on technologies to form identity, express ourselves and form community, online.
This approach focused on use is informed by Matthew Allen’s claim that a better way to do the history of the internet and technology is in a discourse of use rather than one version. I use Web 1.0/2.0/3.0 reluctantly because, as Allen convincingly argues in (FIND ARTICLE), the versions are contested, revisionist, and often the product of marketing. Which aspects of the “Web” remain continuous and which change between versions depends on what story you are trying to tell. As such, I only use them insofar as they help me explain a particular kind of use. Once we have pinned down the use, I will refer to that use and user group — not to the “version” of the “Web” we take to symbolize a particular kind of use.
As we increasingly rely on and become more competent in specific technologies for work, life, and creative expression, producers recognize that some users might want to modify and extend their tools to do things creators didn’t anticipate. There is a rising technology, in particular software applications, that are designed to encourage precisely this. I will refer to these as “power user technology.”
A distinct and relevant distinct feature of power users, both software and community, is the unique way complexity is managed. Power users also do not necessarily need to be able to “code,” although many might learn if they need. Their desire to get technical or into the infrastructure is secondary to a higher-order goal. Namely, they are task-focused rather than tech focused. Instead of seeking to understand the internals of their tool, they are interested in learning enough about it to use it better. As such, power users benefit from an anchor in a sea of complexity. This might seem trivial, but it’s strategy developers often use when learning a codebase. This approach to complexity is supported and cultivated by power user native software and communities of power users. I will develop throughout this study.
The second section aims to clarify the concepts of a power user and a power user native technology by grounding it in a concrete example of a “power user technology.”
The second section is centered on a case study of personal knowledge management (PKM), note-taking software called Obsidian. Obsidian is designed to encourage power use. It is an illustrative example of a power user native technology. Obsidian has a vibrant community, quick forum support, a burgeoning ecosystem of plug-ins, and lots of user-generated educational material, even though it is primarily built and maintained by two developers. Obsidian has a unique user base within a crowded field of PKM and note taking. Obsidian then distinguishes itself from its competitors, such as Notion, OneNote, and Evernote, by appealing more to power users. It does this by offering key features that appeal to a user more likely to become power users, such as a local first markdown file format and exposing a framework and API to build and use plug-ins easily.
Methodologically I will rely on my experience as an early user and my use of it for . During the course of the study I will create a plug-in and interact with the power user community through the forum and Discord channels. By actively participating in the community and getting a sense of what it is and isn’t, I plan to avoid compelling theories detatched from reality.
The end of this section will review some of the claims of the identity-forming capacity of technology in light of this case study. I will write about the impact on digital identity formation and community finding of Obsidian power users who demonstrate agency and understand themselves as able to shape the technology. Finally, I end this section by contrasting Obsidian’s (a company of less than five people) technology and community of users with Notion, a more popular note-taking app with over 400 employees. Discussing the ways, both companies have benefited from catering and creating “power users.”
In the third section, I will compare the subjectivity formed through “power use” to that formed through “passive” use. I begin by reconstructing the conditions of what Nick Seaver calls the ‘Subjectivity Bewilderment’ and understanding the community (or lack thereof) of “passive users” in terms of Finn Brunton’s idea of the “reactive public.” Passive users, constructed and reinforced by specific technologies, cultivate an overwhelmed and defeatist response to complexity. Users have to trust and rely heavily on the technology they use to, in the words of Steve Jobs, “just work.” They are forced to trust the “black box” recommendation algorithms that drive their experience and never to question its constraints or the interface and technology of self-expression. Rather they buy into defeatist, bewildered responses to complexity. Technology, in their view, couldn’t be any other way.
In contrast, I argue that power user native software creates a ‘Subjectivity of Creativity.’ Power users are all about negotiating complexity with their producers. Producers don’t unnecessarily expose complexity that doesn’t help their users build or modify. Transmitting and sharing knowledge occurs naturally within a community brought together by this shared set of values. Finally, power users understand themselves as able to shape the technology they use and rely on both individually and collectively. Combined, these three are fundamentally different responses to complexity than bewilderment and overwhelm. Power users represent a use of technology that creates a subjectivity that sees itself as able to shape the world through a structured response to complexity. I believe that this Creative subjectivity, one of agency and structure in response to complexity, is at once similar to that of the “geeks” but overcomes the limitations of the “recursive public.” At once, preserving some of the early internet utopia visions while explaining its failure to manifest. Power users provide a compelling vision of use which we strive toward that is realistic and already underway. Technology, through their actions and community, is viewed as contingent. Users feel agency, regardless of technicality.
One of the most important is the degree to which the passive user and power user the degree they aware of their use and community. Power user, while not as reflexivley aware as hackers and geeks, are aware of the limitations of expression and of themselves as a community. Produer of passive users (which is the samee as producers of technologies that encourage passive users) rely on re-enforcing a sense in which it couldn’t be any other way. They have a vested interest in obfuscating the power dynamics of their user/producer relations. Passive users lack any sense of agency in shaping the technology (“sure I hate the algorithm, but I can’t get off Instagram”) and any awarness of a community as such their subjectivity is formed without any awarness. The normative implications of this are immense.
Scholarship that examines how media use shapes the identity and self-understanding of its subjects, especially new media studies, is notorious for being vague and hand-wavey. Methodologically, although this is the most conceptual of the three sections bordering on the philosophical, my claims will be based on a mix of compelling history, sociology, and anthropological scholarship on technology and grounded in the real world with the case study on Obsidian. This section aims to synthesize much of the conceptual work of the first and fieldwork of the section to substantively unpack and understand the normative implications of the power use of technology. We can then apply the lens of this concept, to name what certain GenAI companies are doing and not doing. We can point to direct things that producers do and do not do,
- Power-user - We all have the right to comment.
This is under development and will be changing as I read more. For a sense of timeline and road map you can see Process Document - Power Users
Section I: Power Use in History
In the first section, I aim to develop concepts and analysis centered around three distinct aspects of Power Users by situating them in the history of computer and internet use. Specifically, by comparing power users with:
- Freesoftware “geeks.”
- “Web 2.0”
- Passive Users
1.1 User/Producer Relationship:
Power users and power-use native producers have a unique relationship. Producers recognize they do not need to nor can they fully anticipate how users might use their technology. It is an ongoing negotiation and experiment as users ask for additional functionality and producers consider if they should allow it.
At the same time, they do not want to give them access to the source code necessarily. Not only because of issues with monetizing open source but also because their users don’t need it. Producers manage the complexity for users, exposing only useful API endpoints and ways to string together commands. This manifests in many ways, often as plug-in architectures, macro programming, custom keybindings etc.
Unlike hackers whose adversarial relationship with the software they are “hacking,” power users are in constant dialog and cooperation with the producers of the technology they power use.
1.2 Tool First, Purpose Driven
Power users clearly understand their technology as a tool.
There is deeper truth expressed when we might say power users know the “ins and outs” of their tools. They often know how to pipe in inputs and pipe out outputs from their tool. In this way power users often stich together tools together. Capturing some of the early UNIX philosophy.
1.3 Collaboration & Community:
A common feature of power user native software is active discussion forums. They often form communities to support one another as they learn the technology. A vibrant community of power users often creates educational content and contributes plug-ins. Running code is a form of argumentation. In this way, strong communities of power users are similar to the “recursive publics” of the freesoftware “geeks.”
However, unlike them, they are immediately concerned with the infrastrastructure as much as they are with the tool itself. Also their knowledge and use of the
1.3 Identity & Agency:
As a result power users feel a sense of agency in shaping technology for their use by negotiating with its producers (1.1). At the same time there is a structured response to complexity, and community that general transmits knowledge. (1.2 & 1.3)
Power user are more intimatley aware of the limitations of the technology they use. As such, they are more aware of the impact on their indentity.
Passive users, view technology as necessary and not contingent.
Section II: Case Study - Obsidian & Power User Software
The goal of this section is to ground the conceptual analysis done in the first section and to focus more on the producer side of the history.
One of the most distinct and interesting aspects of power users is power user native technologies. These explicitly encourage and cultivate power users, and thrive in a community formed by engaged users.
Power users and software designed for them however present lower technical barriers to entry. You get a lot out of the box, and power users tend to work at a higher level of abstraction than at the lower levels of infrastructure. Since they are guided primarily by instrumental use not infrastructure, they manage complexity better than the “recursive publics” Kelty discusses in Two Bits.
Plug Ins & User Modificaton
Portability: Open Standards for File Format:
Markdown (History) - Blending the right amount of structure and flexibility of human radable and machine-processable.
condition for plug-ins is the standardized markdown file format. An existing body of code has worked with reading in markdown, as well as tools designed for building applications on top of allow us to leverage existing “infrastructure”
Structured response to complexity.
- Expose what is useful through well defined APIs.
- Data Access / “Local First” over cloud
- The decision as to why they are NOT open source.
Compare Notion and the community of Notion to Obsidian.
Section III: Use & Subjectivity
Given that we live in an age with inescapable and increasing digital mediation, our relationship to technology as a tool, form of self-expression, and medium for constructing community matters. These technologies and our relationship to them shape how we interact with the world, form identity, and understand ourselves. Living in what Nick Seaver calls an Age of Bewilderment, our subjectivities today are characterized by information overwhelm.
They provide a fascinating window into how design not only drives use but also constructs its users. Given
- Identity forming as mediating and constraining self-expression
- Identity forming one the basis through whic
- The self-awarness of being able to shape technology and handle complexity.
This awareness distinguishes them from other user groups.
Producers give power to users, exposing complexity in a more structured and less overwheliming way, so cultive a Creative rather than Bewildered subject.
Overcome the problems with the recursive public.
- Infrastructure is that which enables you to build other things. Infrastructure creates the conditions of possibility. Wheras power users, use their tool for something else, something that builds on the infrastructure provided to them by the
Power users are uniquely aware of the limits and possibilities other contemporary passive users may not. Their power comes from an agency to shape the technology they rely on.
Collaboratively enabled by producers who have opened the software to be modified at a “useful level of abstraction.” A reflexive awareness of the existence and limits of power-users shaping capacity marks this unique relationship between user and producer.
Engender a different relationship to complexity and creation
Other Interesting Examples of Power User Native Software - Retool, Salesforce. Secondary market for consulting?
Counter Argument: Comparing Social Media to a tool like Photoshop or Obsidian doesn’t work because platform and the other tool.
- This is an interesting counterargument.
- But why do we think of social media as platforms rather than tools?
- What is the distinction between “infrastructure” (often associated with Free/Open Source Software),
- By positioning themselves as a platform they obfuscate the fact they are a tool. Tools that can be evaluated on the basis of their performance in accomplishing a function.
- Platforms are ballooned amalagmations of tools.
- We remind ourselves of the technologies encouraging passive use less as platforms and more as tools. Use
- But what about the network? Twitter vs. Mastadon
- Phrases like “platform” for “user-generated content” are language associated with a discourse of version rather than use.
Bibliography / Works Cited
Related: Process Document - Power Users