The Bot Multiple: Unpacking the Materialities of Automated Software Agents

2015 Annual Meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science


November 12, 2015
10:30am to 12:00pm
Denver, CO


Groups and organizations that communicate primarily through Internet-mediated channels are often called 'online communities.' We often conceptualize such communities as existing entirely within a particular software platform, and deliniate community activity to the set of all interactions within this virtual space. In fact, the names of these social groups are often metonyms of the technical platform they are most commonly associated with. This dissonance is most visible when such online communities gather in physical environments, and the title of this paper is taken from a quote by a keynote speaker at ROFLcon, a hybrid conference/convention on Internet culture that brought about 600 Internet enthusiasts, celebrities, and academics to a series of lecture halls at MIT. Anthropologist Chris Kelty delivered the phrase to thunderous applause, and I explore this and similar claims of presence which are often made when online communities meet in physical spaces. I explore this tension between online and physical environments in the case of two Internet-mediated platforms which are often invoked as communities or organizations: Wikipedia and 4chan. Both are often popularly and academically imagined as constituted entirely by isolated individuals interacting on the Internet, and the tendency is to focus on the activity at and However, I show how actions which are attributed to something like 'the community' occur in a diverse assemblage of spaces, both physical and computer-mediated. Each of these spaces are not cleanly delinated; rather presence must be articulated and is done so in many different ways. While still problematic, I argue that the term 'virtual' is far more productive than "online" to describe distributed groups of individuals who utilize many different kinds of tools, techniques, and technologies to interact.


R. Stuart Geiger

BIDS Alum – Ethnographer

Former BIDS Ethnographer Stuart Geiger is now a faculty member at the University of California, San Diego, jointly appointed in the Department of Communication and the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute. At BIDS, as an ethnographer of science and technology, he studied the infrastructures and institutions that support the production of knowledge. He launched the Best Practices in Data Science discussion group in 2019, having been one of the original members of the MSDSE Data Science Studies Working Group. Previously, his work on Wikipedia focused on the community of volunteer editors who produce and maintain an open encyclopedia. He also studied distributed scientific research networks and projects, including the Long-Term Ecological Research Network and the Open Science Grid. In Wikipedia and scientific research, he studied topics including newcomer socialization, community governance, specialization and professionalization, quality control and verification, cooperation and conflict, the roles of support staff and technicians, and diversity and inclusion. And, as these communities are made possible through software systems, he studied how the design of software tools and systems intersect with all of these issues.  He received an undergraduate degree at UT Austin, and an MA in Communication, Culture, and Technology at Georgetown University, where he began empirically studying communities using qualitative and ethnographic methods.  As part of receiving his PhD from the UC Berkeley School of Information, he worked with anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, organizational and management scholars, designers, and computer scientists.