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8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" 0 of 29

The definitive version of this paper will appear in the edited collection Compromised Data, Greg Elmer
and Ganaele Langlois editors!
Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Compromised "ata s#mposi$m
%http&''www!infoscapela(!ca'news'oct)28)29)collo*$i$m)compromised)data)new)paradigms)social)
media)theor#)and)methods+ and at the 20,- C$lt$ral .t$dies /ssociation conference!
Critical Reverse Engineering: The Case
of Twitter and TalkOpen
.ocial media present the critical media scholar with a *$andar#! 0irst of all a growing n$m(er
of scholars are fa$lting sites s$ch as Twitter for their erosion of privac# their desire to t$rn ever#
tho$ght into moneti1a(le *$antifia(le evidence of individ$al cons$mer desires their red$ction of
h$man interaction to ,-0 character ch$n2s their promise of openness while vicio$sl# protecting their
algorithms and datasets with laws$its and their s$scepti(ilit# to %if not downright compliance with+
government s$rveillance programs! 3n the other hand it is diffic$lt even for the most hardened social
media critic to den# the pleas$res of $sing these s#stems of ma2ing friends and connections and of
(athing in a stream of new ideas as it flows across the screen! 4or can the critic den# social media5s
$tilit# in political c$lt$ral and social organi1ing their centralit# in the erosion of mass media
gate2eepers or their part in the larger epistemological shift that is happening d$e to (ig data!
The critic5s relationship to social media is th$s compromised in man# senses! 0or some the
sites compromise critical in*$ir# 6$st as a vir$s compromises (odil# integrit#& critics (ecome infected
with la$dator# love for viral videos memes trends and the *$antified self ignoring the wa#s in which
s$ch practices reif# e7isting power relations! 0or others s$ch sites are compromised f$ll stop& the#
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" , of 29
cannot (e tr$sted! 0or them the d$al)headed s$rveillance s#stem comprised of states and transnational
corporations is simpl# too dominant in corporate social media and the onl# clear co$rse is to get o$t!
Revel or get o$t& it appears that these are o$r options and these options are largel# reflected in the
academic literat$re on social media!
8owever there is another compromise to ma2e with social media& ($ild #o$r own! 9e often
forget that we5re wor2ing with a networ2 of $niversal machines! /s the old sa#ing goes another world
is possi(le!
To this end : propose a methodolog# of 5reverse engineering5 to criti*$e contemporar# social
media software as well as esta(lish criteria for alternatives to that software! "rawing on the reverse
engineering literat$re as it is fo$nd in fields s$ch as engineering law and economics and inspired (#
critical science and technolog# st$dies and software st$dies : will arg$e that this approach is val$a(le
(eca$se of fo$r orientations& the pragmatic the genealogical the legal and the normative! These
orientations can g$ide the critic thro$gh the false choices of technophilia or technopho(ia $ncritical
love or endless criti*$e with no wa# o$t! To ill$strate reverse engineering as a critical method : will
$se the e7amples of Twitter and Tal23pen %a short)lived alternative to Twitter+ specificall# the wa#s in
which Tal23pen reverse engineered Twitter5s interfaces architect$res and imagined $sers! ;ltimatel#
: arg$e that instead of simpl# giving in or getting o$t critical social media scholars have a chance to
ta2e their theories and p$t them to the test (# constr$cting %or at least $sing+ new social media s#stems
that challenge the power of centrali1ed corporate social media!
Reverse Engineering and the Humanities
There are a variet# of definitions for reverse engineering across the literat$re :5m wor2ing with
here %engineering law and economics+! "rawing on them : wo$ld arg$e for this (asic
concept$ali1ation& Reverse engineering is a method of producing knowledge by dissociating human-
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" 2 of 29
made artifacts. This knowledge is then used to produce new artifacts that improve upon the old and yet
also bear a relation to the old.
:n other words d$ring reverse engineering a h$man confronts an o(6ect! The o(6ect (ears
information& how it was assem(led the material $sed in its prod$ction the choices made to reali1e it!
This information gest$res towards < ($t can never completel# reveal < a process of 5forward
engineering5 that implemented the o(6ect! The reverse engineer (rings tacit 2nowledge %these da#s
often prod$ced in him'her (# wa# of training and st$d#+ to (ear on that o(6ect in order to open it $p
ta2e it apart pro(e it test it stress it (rea2 it peer inside and learn how it wor2s! :n other words the
reverse engineer $ses man# techni*$es to read information the o(6ect (ears! The o(6ect th$s mediates a
relationship (etween the prod$cer who $sed tacit 2nowledge to prod$ce the o(6ect and the reverse
engineer who $ses tacit 2nowledge to ta2e it apart! .$ch movements across the engineering processes
are also oscillations (etween the concrete and the a(stract o(6ects and theories& the o(6ect m$tates
going from conception to concrete instantiation to conception again!
/fter reading this o(6ect)te7t the reverse engineer creates new 2nowledge and information
which can (e $sed to 5forward engineer5 a new o(6ect! The process of reverse engineering helps create
new tacit 2nowledge in the reverse engineer and ver# often the process (egets new information in the
form of doc$mentation and man$als! 9hen this 2nowledge and information are $sed to ($ild a new
o(6ect that new o(6ect (ears (oth the traces of the original o(6ect of in*$ir# and the traces of the
reverse engineer)c$m)forward engineer5s desires and intentions! The new o(6ect might wor2 in concert
with the old= it might (e meant to replace it= or it might (e something that offers new affordances that
on the s$rface (ear little relation to the old o(6ect! 8owever it is alwa#s internall# lin2ed to the old!
Reverse engineering is of co$rse an essential process in an# engineering field! >edagogicall#
it is one of the 2e# wa#s that engineers learn their craft! Economicall# it provides a tool for firms to
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" ? of 29
either compete with other firms maintain their stoc2s of artifacts %:ngle ,99-+ or generate
moneti1a(le information a(o$t their artifacts %especiall# in the form of patents+! Legall# as : will
e7plore (elow it provides a limit on laws that grant protection to trade secrets and th$s for engineers
reverse engineering is a sort of promise& go ahead a ($ild something ($t 2now that others will ta2e it
apart!
Given the 5new materialist5 t$rn in the h$manities mar2ed (# theories s$ch as /ctor)4etwor2
Theor# %/4T+ 3(6ect)3riented 3ntolog# %333+ and assem(lage theor# and given the t$rn to the
digital and to comp$tation in the h$manities %i!e! the digital h$manities+ : wo$ld arg$e that reverse
engineering is not onl# val$a(le to fields li2e engineering or ($siness= it also provides a wealth of
methodological theoretical and practical paths the critical h$manist can ta2e! There are man# wa#s to
criticall# delve into technoscience! @r$no Lato$r famo$sl# tells $s to 5follow the actors5 %Lato$r ,987+!
This is of co$rse a call for ethnograph# for the direct o(servation of the actors who do the associative
wor2 to constr$ct technoscience s#stems and disco$rses! @$t as .$san Leigh .tar s$ggests we can also
conceive of an ethnograph# of o(6ects %.tar ,999+! The technical o(6ects we confront contain within
them traces of the associations that (ro$ght them into (eing! The# are to $se a term from Aohn Law
5p$nct$ali1ations5 standing in for the networ2s of materials politics and disco$rses that constantl#
str$ct$re them %Law ,992+! Those o(6ects that appear sta(le (ecome infrastr$ct$ral or even fade into
the (ac2gro$nd can (e fr$itf$ll# and criticall# reverse engineered to trace their inner heterogeneit#! :n
this sense to ret$rn to Lato$r5s aphorism we can 5follow the actors5 (# t$rning to the artifacts the#
prod$ced and loo2ing for traces of their activities ideals and politics within them!
To ($ild on this : ne7t t$rn to the fo$r orientations fo$nd in the reverse engineering literat$re&
the pragmatic the genealogical the legal and the normative connecting these orientations to a possi(le
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" - of 29
critical methodolog#!
The Pragmatic rientation
Reverse engineers are pragmatic& the# consider the technolog# the# have at hand not an ideal
technological assem(lage! The# do not simpl# throw awa# older or poorl# designed technolog# ($t
modif# shape and alter it! The# accept the positive side of a technolog# while wor2ing against the (ad!
/s Batherine :ngle p$ts it when a #o$5re a reverse engineer confronted with a technical o(6ect
ever# time #o$ have a (etter idea #o$ will consider all the positive design aspects (efore
condemning an entire prod$ct! /nd for ever# time #o$ have had a (itter e7perience with a real
lemon #o$ will also roar! The roaring will die down when #o$ reali1e that #o$ have the power
and s2ill to change this $gl# d$c2ling of a design into a gracef$l swan %:ngle ,99- p! 2+!
:n other words for the reverse engineer technical and design shortcomings are not e7c$ses to throw
awa# an o(6ect ($t to ma2e a (etter one!
0or e7ample in terms of software most software $sed in firms is (o$ght not ($ilt! Coreover
most of the costs of software $se center on maintenance! 9hen a firm has software that does not meet
the firm5s needs or re*$irements it does not 6$st ma2e new software! Der# often it modifies the old!
This practical approach of co$rse entails reverse engineering!
/ great deal of this process entails the discover# of 5facts5 discerned thro$gh thic2 close
detailed empirical anal#sis of technical o(6ects! 8ow does the technolog# wor2E 9hat is it comprised
ofE 9ho ($ilt itE 9hat might their intentions have (eenE 9hat can we do with itE 8owever this is not
to sa# that reverse engineering is a simple positivism a search for one right wa# to constr$ct a
technolog#! Rather reverse engineering holds that there are man# wa#s to solve a pro(lem! ;nli2e
positivistic science which in the ideal see2s the one right verifia(le answer to a *$estion engineering
is a field of heterogeneit#! There are man# m$ltiplicities involved& m$ltiple pro(lems m$ltiple $sers
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" F of 29
m$ltiple implementations m$ltiple patterns and m$ltiple prod$cts of m$ltiple reverse engineering
approaches! /s software engineers @a7ter and Cehlich p$t it when one reverse engineers software
code 5different a(stract concepts map to the same code within one application5 %@a7ter and Cehlich
,997 p! ,0F+! :n other words code is not onl# heterogeneo$s in how it operates across vario$s settings
and times as /drian Cac2en1ie %200G+ arg$es= it is also heterogeneo$s in terms of the a(stract
theoretical ideas we might have a(o$t its f$nctions as well as in its theories of the $ser's$(6ect! :n their
prescription for reverse engineering @a7ter and Cehlich %,997+ arg$e for the prod$ction of an a(stract
specification from a concrete s#stem ($t the# recogni1e that s$ch a(stractions never map directl# (ac2
onto the original designer5s intentions! There are too man# perm$tations oscillations algorithms
optimi1ations paths thro$gh lines of code s$(6ective design decisions $se cases s$(6ective
re*$irements and ar(itrar# technical choices involved at ever# stage of the engineering process to ever
hope for a complete description of an software s#stem! ;nli2e positivistic science however reverse
engineers (# and large recogni1e this accept this and simpl# go for what wor2s %(# whatever standard
of 6$dgment the#5ve decided $pon+!
,
Reverse engineering provides this pragmatic approach to the techno)scape we confront& loo2 to
the technolog# #o$ have in front of #o$! Learn it! 9or2 with it! Tin2er! /lter it! .hape it! :magine
possi(ilities ($t don5t hold to some ideal (est wa#! Th$s reverse engineering avoids overl# idealist
approaches to socio)technical pro(lems! :t helps $s avoid morali1ing disco$rses a(o$t technologies as
in 5we need a wholl# new form of technolog# to solve pro(lems H I and J5 as if the latest version of
the technolog# will magicall# erase histor# ha(it and error! .$ch hope for novel 5revol$tionar#5
technologies is rendered naKve (# the reverse engineering perspective! : will e7plore this f$rther (elow!
, To (e s$re this pragmatism onl# goes so far! :n that same @a7ter and Cehlich essa# the# share a lamentation& if onl#
forward engineers wo$ld doc$ment ever# decision in a machine)reada(le consistent fashion we wo$ld never need
reverse engineeringL Given (oth the e7istence of proprietar# software and the m$ltiplicities of interpretation of designs
and code < 6$st to name two pro(lems < their sol$tion seems *$ite far)fetched to sa# the least %@a7ter and Cehlich
,997 p! ,0G+!
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" G of 29
The !enealogical rientation
Reverse engineers also consider the historical development of a technolog#! 0irst of all as its
name implies reverse engineering is forward engineering in reverse! The hegemonic engineering
process involves starting with an a(stract architect$re decomposing it into components and then
implementing each component in whatever material it will (e made o$t of incl$ding code! This ta2es
time and moreover involves man# s$(6ective decisions he$ristics accidents coincidences and acts of
la(or! This process is one that can (e comprehended temporall# < even historicall# < and one wa# to do
this is to start with the artifact and reverse the process!
/s @a7ter and Cehlich state 5hidden in this creative constr$ction of the program from the
specification are a set of o(vio$s as well as non)o(vio$s design decisions a(o$t how to encode certain
parts of the specification in an efficient wa# $sing availa(le implementation mechanisms to achieve
performance criteria %the wh# of the design decisions+5 %@a7ter and Cehlich ,997 p! ,0F+!The artifact
in other words contains within it traces of the design decisions made to (ring it a(o$t! 0or reverse
engineers the designer5s intentions conceptions of the $ser and s2ills can (e traced in and thro$gh the
artifact! To do this reverse engineers ta2e an e7isting technolog# and trace its genealog# (ac2wards
loo2ing at a whole host of artifacts and practices to $ncover how the technolog# was developed&
doc$mentation %L$ts2# ,99F+ white papers press releases organi1ations %their str$ct$res histories
and strategies+ %/i2en et al! ,99-+ theories of the $ser previo$s versions data(ases %8aina$t et al!
,99G+ van*$ished competitors handwritten specifications %Leite and Cer*$eira ,99F+ older
technologies and techni*$es and of co$rse lines of code! This is downright 4iet1schean in its
insistence $pon act$al doc$ments and $tterances and a search for historical a priori to the c$rrent
o(6ect! The goal is to wor2 (ac2wards towards something appro7imating %($t li2el# never e7actl#
reflecting+ the intentions of the designer which re*$ires a historical'genealogical sensi(ilit#!
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" 7 of 29
9hen this happens the artifact5s heritage is traced! @eca$se reverse engineering reverses the
hegemonic engineering approach %(egin with an a(stract architect$re= implement it in a concrete
artifact+ an intermediate res$lt of reverse engineering is the $ncovering of 5tho$ght (efore tho$ght5 of
the a(stractions that shape f$t$re actions! This is to sa# that reverse engineering reconstr$cts the
a(stract ideas the original designers may have held in the constr$ction of the artifact! :n a noopolitical
sense what this means is reverse engineering is a process of $ncovering the tho$ghts that incite
ind$ce or constrain f$t$re actions %0o$ca$lt 200? p! ,?8+ (# wa# of what 0o$ca$lt calls the 5(od#)
o(6ect artic$lation5 the prod$ctive lin2age (etween an artifact and a (od# %0o$ca$lt ,979 p! ,F2+! :n
La11arato5s %200G+ theor# of noopower 5tho$ght (efore tho$ght5 is a process (# which one mind %sa#
the mind of a designer+ ma# infl$ence the tho$ghts of another %sa# the mind of an end $ser+! Reverse
engineering traces this (ac2wards from the o(6ect spec$lating as to the conto$rs of power desired (#
the original designer! This is in this admittedl# grandiose sense a genealog# of software artifacts as
instr$ments capa(le of shaping o$r tho$ghts!
This is $sef$l not onl# (eca$se it traces the conto$rs of power ($t also (eca$se reverse
engineering provides an antidote to technological h#pe which consistentl# holds that new things are
radical (rea2s with the past! :n contrast to h#pe and the o(session with the new reverse engineering
$nderstands technolog# to have a histor# that is contingent a histor# steeped in power relations
discerni(le in part thro$gh genealogical in*$ir#! /nd (eca$se histor# and power are the prod$cts of
social str$ggle an# technolog# is open to changing and reshaping!
The "egal rientation
9e live in what Lawrence Lessig %200- p! 7iv+ has aptl# called a 5permission c$lt$re!5 That is
when we are confronted with man# of the technologies and te7ts in o$r lives we are hesitant to do
more with them than simpl# cons$me them on the prod$cer5s terms %Gillespie 2007+! 9e fear laws$its
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" 8 of 29
or criminal prosec$tion if we remi7 te7ts *$ote ideas cop# and distri($te items or p$t a technolog# to
$ses other than those intended (# their creators! :n the case of software the length# Terms of .ervice
and End);ser License agreements we clic2 thro$gh are f$ll of prohi(itions stip$lations and thinl#)
veiled legal threats! Th$s despite having a (ewildering arra# of fle7i(le networ2ed software s#stems at
o$r command we hesitate to pro(e alter or $se software in wa#s that the original prod$cers did not
intend!
8ere we can t$rn to the legal aspects of reverse engineering! Reverse engineering has a tradition
of legal protections in conte7ts s$ch as the ;nited .tates and the E$ropean ;nion %.am$elson and
.cotchmer 2002+! :n traditional man$fact$ring ;!.! co$rts have held that the sale of an o(6ect is a2in
to its p$(lication and th$s the legal owner of an# o(6ect is free to ta2e it apart st$d# it and even
prod$ce a cop# of it for sale! This sit$ation is a (it more comple7 with software (eca$se software is
sim$ltaneo$sl# ideational %in the sense that it is a materiali1ation in code of the idea of its creator+ and
f$nctional %Cac2en1ie 200G+! :n terms of the ideational side software is protected (# cop#right= :
cannot cop# lines of code from a cop#righted program into a new program! @$t in terms of the
f$nctional side $nless it has (een protected (# a patent we are free to replicate the f$nctionalit# of
e7isting software! /nd in order to do that we are in fact allowed to open $p pro(e test and
disassem(le software < even to ma2e copies of it in the process!
2

:n this sense the traditional legal protections afforded to reverse engineering is similar to the
fair $se e7ception in cop#right law in man# co$ntries! The fair $se e7ception allows people to *$ote
cop# remi7 and reprint te7ts for the p$rposes of ed$cation criti*$e and transformation! "espite their
power and desire the originators of intellect$al propert# %:>+ simpl# do not have a(sol$te control over
the $ses of that :>! The fair $se limitation sees to that! Li2ewise reverse engineering is a wa# to prevent
2 Two important cases that have esta(lished this in the ;nited .tates conte7t are #ega $nterprises "td. v. %ccolade, &nc!
,992 and #ony Computer $ntertainment v. Connecti' Corp! 2000!
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" 9 of 29
firms from monopoli1ing a technolog# %.am$elson 2002= .am$elson and .cotchmer 2002+! /n#
$npatented technolog# can (e ta2en apart and replicated (# others= witho$t this e7ception a simple
trade secret wo$ld (e a2in to a limitless monopol#! Co$rts have seen (oth fair $se and reverse
engineering as means to enco$rage new ideas and to limit the power of firms that originate ideas!
Coreover li2e fair $se reverse engineering is an e7ception that onl# wor2s when people $se it!
Esta(lished firms have consistentl# lo((ied legislators to (an the $se of reverse engineering
%.am$elson and .cotchmer 2002+0! The "igital Cillenni$m Cop#right /ct is one s$ch tro$(ling
e7ample! The onl# wa# to maintain the reverse engineering e7ception is to 2eep $sing it %and in some
cases 2eep fighting for it in the co$rts+ 6$st as fair $se activists have done! To (e s$re software firms
s$ch as Cicrosoft /pple 3racle Google and 0ace(oo2 have (ecome incredi(l# economicall# and
politicall# powerf$l which means the# have high)octane law#ers who will $se intellect$al propert#
laws to prevent critical access to their s#stems! 3ne s$ch techni*$e is the $se of Terms of .ervice
which e7plicitl# prohi(it reverse engineering! 8owever the enforcea(ilit# of s$ch license terms is in
*$estion& co$rts tend to loo2 as2ance at firms that $se them to prohi(it reverse engineering for the
p$rposes of ($ilding interopera(le s#stem or competing s#stems! /dditionall# %and : find this ver#
intrig$ing+ there are e7plicit e7ceptions in the "CC/ for reverse engineering of an# digitall#
protected software that invades one5s privac#!
?
0inall# in a rhetorical sense (eca$se reverse engineering has more acceptance in co$rts than
terms s$ch as 5hac2ing5 or 5cop#ing5 the term co$ld provide rhetorical power to the critic! : reali1e
5hac2ing5 is a fashiona(le term= : also 2now f$ll well that 5hac2ing5 does not mean malicio$s intr$sion
into networ2s to steal data! 8owever this negative connotation is $nfort$natel# pop$lar! @# adopting
? .ee .am$elson and .cotchmer %2002+! :magine if especiall# after the pop$lar revelations a(o$t government
s$rveillance and the coll$sion of ma6or social media firms with the state in the s$mmer of 20,? one co$ld $se this
e7ception in the "CC/ to reverse engineer social media s#stems li2e Google or 0ace(oo2L The# are in man#
estimations *$intessential privac#)invading software s#stems!
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" ,0 of 29
5reverse engineering5 a technolog# critic can fend off some of the negative associations of terms li2e
5hac2ing5 while drawing on the legal heritage : disc$ss a(ove!
The (ormative rientation
0inall# reverse engineers do not simpl# st$d# e7isting technologies= the# do their wor2 in order
to ($ild new s#stems! Th$s the# have a normative position al(eit often a ver# immediate and
rationali1ed one& $s$all# the# want to create a competing version of a prod$ct in order to sell it create
software that can interoperate with an e7isting platform or service or gain the 2nowledge needed to
maintain a s#stem themselves rather than rel# on the original prod$cer for maintenance! /s interested
as the# are in discerning the empirical properties of a technolog# %as : e7plored a(ove in m# disc$ssion
of the pragmatic orientation+ reverse engineers also see2 to change technological s#stems to meet their
needs!
9e can ta2e this f$rther and s$ggest a critical form of reverse engineering dedicated to
political'economic and media 6$stice! 9hereas critical engagements of social media often stop at
criti*$e the reverse engineering approach $rges $s to 2eep going! :t calls for s$pporting and even
(ecoming activists and technologists who are see2ing to create software alternatives! Reverse
engineering allows $s to trace the path (etween alternatives and their less e*$ita(le predecessors to see
how the new alternatives ta2e positive aspects of the old while avoiding the negative! /gain as : arg$e
a(ove in the disc$ssion of the pragmatic orientation reverse engineering isn5t a(o$t ideali1ed
technologies ($t rather ta2ing the technolog# we have decomposing it discerning a(stractions from it
and $sing this 2nowledge to ma2e something (etter!
This maps onto Car75s o(servation in the )*
th
+rumaire that 5Cen MsicN ma2e their own histor#
($t the# do not ma2e it as the# please= the# do not ma2e it $nder self)selected circ$mstances ($t $nder
circ$mstances e7isting alread# given and transmitted from the past! The tradition of all dead
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" ,, of 29
generations weighs li2e a nightmare on the (rains of the living5 %Car7 2008 p! ,F+! /s /ndrew
0een(erg %,98G+ writes a philosoph# of pra7is can (e fo$nd in the overdetermination (etween the
concrete circ$mstances of the present and the a(stract historicall#)developed concept$ali1ations $sed
to (oth comprehend it and shape it! Rather than start with an ideal and (emoaning a world that doesn5t
live $p to it critical theor# see2s o$t contradictions within the o(6ects it enco$nters! These fiss$res
provide $s with tangi(le wa#s forward new possi(ilities that are not simpl# a(stract timeless ethical
ideals! "rawing on this we can imagine a critical reverse engineering& start with the concrete
technological s#stem derive a(stractions from it and $se those a(stractions to plot and create a (etter
s#stem!
/gain this is a (it grandiose in relation to the act$al e7isting reverse engineering literat$re ($t
: propose that critical h$manistic in*$ir# can learn a lot from reverse engineering! :n the ne7t section :
will e7plore this f$rther with the case of Tal23pen a short)lived Twitter alternative!
Reverse Engineering Twitter: The Case of TalkOpen
@$ilding off of Lessig5s point that we live in a c$lt$re of permission : wo$ld arg$e that in the
case of social media we live in a c$lt$re that denies $s permission to p$sh past the interface to see how
s$ch social media s#stems are str$ct$red! Iet as Ganaele Langlois %20,?+ rightl# arg$es social media
software provides $s with infrastr$ct$res to live o$r lives= their str$ct$res have a ma6or infl$ence on o$r
online interactions! Therefore despite the an7iet# we might feel when we p$sh past the interface we
m$st reverse engineer social media s#stems in order to see how we are prod$cing o$rselves within
them!
3ne s$ch effort along these lines was a site called Tal23pen! Tal23pen doesn5t e7ist an#more
($t it is li2e a (lac2 hole! Io$ cannot see it ($t #o$ 2now it e7ists (eca$se of the gravitational p$ll of
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" ,2 of 29
lin2s Tweets
-
0ace(oo2 posts %3pE.R 20,2+ >aste(in chat d$mps %OTal23pen!info P /non
Comm$nicationsQ 20,2 OTRG ) th?6?Ft?r P tal2open!infoQ 20,2+ :mg$r screenshots %RAac2al/non
n!d! n!d!+ :nternet /rchive caches %OTal2 3pen ) 9elcome to The Tal2 3pen Comm$nit#Q 20,2+ and
a (rief mention in an information sec$rit# (log %.chwart1 20,2+ it left (ehind! These 9e( traces tell $s
that there was once something more to tal2open!info than what we see now& 5This we(site is for saleL5
F
0rom ro$ghl# ?, Carch 20,2 $ntil earl# A$ne of that #ear Tal23pen!info was a micro(logging
site specificall# ($ilt to (e an alternative to Twitter! :n that span of two months Tal23pen had a(o$t
2F0 people sign $p! /lmost all of the mem(ers had $sernames li2e 5"ar2net5 5Cpher5 5"o77#"o75 and
5/non8oo2er5 and their posts were a(o$t topics li2e /non#mo$s the 3cc$p# movement information
sec$rit# and hac2ing! /ltho$gh the $ser (ase was small it was *$ite active with new posts happening
ever# ho$r!
Two months on the :nternetE / $ser (ase of 2F0E 4ew posts (# the ho$rE /dmittedl# these are
not impressive n$m(ers! /nd moreover (eca$se the site did not have a large $ser (ase there are onl# a
few screenshots of it and no acco$nts of its $se (e#ond what : offer here! 8owever the case of
Tal23pen provides a window into the methodolog# of reverse engineering :5m descri(ing in this paper
and moreover : thin2 there is val$e in preserving the memor# of a failed technolog# in order to avoid
reif#ing s$ccessf$l ones as the onl# or (est possi(le ones! Coreover (# criticall# interrogating a
pro6ect that reverse engineered Twitter we also learn more a(o$t Twitter itself! Th$s : hope #o$ will
ind$lge me as : wor2 with s$ch 5small data!5
/s Tal23pen fo$nder HCpherH noted in an interview with me 5Twitter alternative is the foc$s
of the site!5
G
9hat does it mean to (e a 5Twitter alternative5E : will e7plore this thro$gh the fo$r
- 0or a collection of tweets a(o$t Tal23pen contact the a$thor!
F This is as of 22 /pril 20,-! >revio$sl# tal2open!info was comprised of a screen that said 5This acco$nt has (een
s$spended!5
G This interview was cond$cted via Tal23pen! :nitiall# : intended to provide a lin2 to this conversation ($t now of co$rse
that lin2 is lost! /ll *$otes from HCpherH incl$ded in this essa# come from that interview!
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" ,? of 29
orientations :5ve descri(ed a(ove!
Pragmatic
Tal23pen was a pragmatic response to the pro(lems of social media pro(lems : will e7plore
(elow! Rather than crafting a wholl# new online comm$nication s#stem it drew on something *$ite
familiar& the conventions of Twitter! 9e wo$ld recogni1e the site as a 5micro)(logging5 site which
contains man# conventions&
a character limit on posts
an interface that emphasi1es the new %Gehl 20,,+
/ client)server architect$re
individ$al)oriented acco$nt str$ct$res %i!e! the fields re*$ired for sign$p are (iased towards an
individ$al not a gro$p or other social entit#+
the follower)followed relationship
str$ct$red profile la#o$ts %#o$r profile image is F07F0 pi7els= #o$r $sername is limited to a
certain n$m(er of characters etc!+
navigational la#o$t with lin2s s$ch as 8ome Cem(ers .ign 3$t and .ettings
and the $se of hashtags and R signs in tagging and messaging!
These conventions co$ld appear to (e 5int$itive5 ($t if we act li2e Aohn Law5s %2002+ 5naKve reader5 as
this reader appears in the (oo2 %ircraft #tories we can start to see how this heterogeneo$s assem(lage
of o(6ects and processes m$st (e constantl# organi1ed in order to cohere! 4one of it is int$itive= for
$sers to wor2 with it there needs to (e a large amo$nt of pedagogical training that happens via the
interface! Th$s for an# wo$ld)(e social media alternative there is a pro(lem& do we create an
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" ,- of 29
assem(lage of elements so new that $sers won5t 2now how to $se itE 3r do we simpl# draw on the
conventions forged (# previo$s ones even if those conventions represent the ver# pro(lems we5re
see2ing to overcome with a new s#stemE Tal23pen opted for the latter! Th$s even tho$gh Tal23pen
was a Twitter alternative it did not a(andon the old form! /s HCpherH e7plained to me 5im afraid that
Mthe Twitter elementsN ma# (e ta2en awa# if we fiddle with it too m$ch so to spea2!!! 6$st have to (e
caref$l what we do'remove'add!5
Coreover Tal23pen was lin2ed to Twitter from the o$tset allowing Tal23pen $sers to post to
(oth Tal23pen and Twitter sim$ltaneo$sl# via R.. and the Twitter />:! Th$s altho$gh Tal23pen was
a 5Twitter alternative5 HCpherH made man# pragmatic decisions to maintain a lin2 to Twitter! This
allowed $sers to move to Tal23pen witho$t feeling as if the# were a(andoning Twitter altogether!
:ndeed man# of the posts Tal23pen $sers made appeared in (oth services!
!enealogical
Tal23pen was artic$lated into a larger historical moment < its potential place in the 3cc$p#
movement and in the networ2 politics of the hac2er gro$p /non#mo$s! /s s$ch Tal23pen might have
(een animated (# the Twitter that was& the Twitter that was large eno$gh to have a critical mass of $sers
involved in /non#mo$s or 3cc$p# #et small eno$gh to have not attracted the attentions of states! :n
other words Tal23pen might have (een redolent of Twitter (efore it was 5friended5 (# the state to $se
an idea of Aac2 @ratich5s %20,, p! G29+! Coreover this was a Twitter far removed from an :nitial >$(lic
3ffering %:>3+ of stoc2! :f there is an# moment in the histor# of a social media site that reveals the site
for what it tr$l# is < a s#stem to gather data on $sers and sell it for profit < the :>3 has to (e it!
:n other words Tal23pen might have (een intended to (e the pre)2G Aan$ar# 20,2 Twitter the
Twitter of S6an2F and Seg#pt the Twitter that in man# pop$lar acco$nts fomented revol$tions& the pre)
9all .treet org# Twitter! :n a famo$s (log post @i1 .tone %20,,+ wrote 5The Tweets C$st 0low5 in
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" ,F of 29
which he stated .ome Tweets ma# facilitate positive change in a repressed co$ntr# some ma2e $s
la$gh some ma2e $s thin2 some downright anger a vast ma6orit# of $sers! 9e donTt alwa#s agree with
the things people choose to tweet ($t we 2eep the information flowing irrespective of an# view we
ma# have a(o$t the content!
9rapped in the lang$age of free speech .tone5s post was seen as a promise to never censor e7pression
in Twitter!
8owever one #ear later on 2G Aan$ar# 20,2 Twitter anno$nced their intention to (loc2 certain
Tweets and Twitter acco$nts (# co$ntr# %OTweets still m$st flowQ 20,2+! :t t$rned o$t that in order to
grow into international mar2ets the 5Tweets C$st 0low5 in certain conte7ts onl#! /longside this
anno$ncement there was a growing perception among $sers < right or wrong < that topics li2e
9i2ilea2s 3cc$p# 9all .treet or /non#mo$s were (eing algorithmicall# e7cl$ded from Twitter5s
Trending Topics list %Aohnstone 20,0a 20,0(+! :n other words this was a concern that certain Tweets
might not flow as well as others! ;sers protesting these changes $sed the hashtag Stwittercensorship
starting in late Aan$ar# 20,2!
This was the moment in which Tal23pen reverse engineered Twitter to recreate the older
Twitter the Twitter of 5The Tweets C$st 0low!5 9e can see this easil# when we compare Twitter5s
Terms of .ervice
7
to Tal23pen5s Terms of .ervice %T3.+ statement which in its entiret# read
@# entering this site #o$ ta2e f$ll responsi(ilit# for whatever #o$ sa# or do and ac2nowledge
that Tal23pen!info neither in whole or part is responsi(le for #o$r actions! 9ith that (eing said
Tal23pen will 43T sell #o$r information to third parties or give $p an#ones MsicN information
to law enforcement $nless it is in regards to m$rder or cp Mchild pornograph#N! Io$ have o$r
word! Ta2e it or leave it &+
8
7 /vaila(le at https&''twitter!com'tos
8 This was Terms of .ervice .tatement as it appeared in Ca# 20,2! /s far as : am aware it was not altered d$ring the
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" ,G of 29
8ere Tal23pen5s promise is that the $sers < not the site < wo$ld (e 5responsi(le5 for their statements! :n
that sense altho$gh in ver# different words Tal23pen repeated @i1 .tone5s 20,, promise to 2eep the
statements flowing even if the site owners disagreed! Twitter $sers who defected to Tal23pen pic2ed $p
on this and (egan to recr$it $sers to Tal23pen in earl# 20,2! The# did so (# artic$lating the Twitter
hashtag Stwittercensorship with others incl$ding S3pCigrate and variations on Sanon#mo$s to
promote the site to an# $sers concerned that post)2G Aan$ar# 20,2 Twitter was losing its wa# as a site
of free e7pression!
:n this sense Tal23pen reverse engineered Twitter (# comparing its more recent version to
older iterations st$d#ing news reports and other para)doc$mentation on the service and $sing these
insights to ($ild a different #et redolent micro(logging service!
"egal
Tal23pen was ($ilt on .tat$s4et which is an open so$rce alternative to Twitter with roots
dating (ac2 to the late 2000s! .tat$s4et reverse engineered ideas s$ch as 5micro(logging5 to create a
Twitter alternative with the added f$nctionalit# of federation across m$ltiple servers via a social
networ2ing protocol %now called 3stat$s+! ;sing an open protocol and open so$rce software wo$ld
allow for a more distri($ted networ2 architect$re than the centrali1ed Twitter s#stem! /s s$ch
.tat$s4et is part of a long line of software pro6ects that reverse engineer first)comers to e7pand
interopera(ilit# and provide new platforms for $sers!
9

:n a sense a ma6or part of .tat$s4et5s reverse engineering of Twitter is to graft the 0ree and
3pen .o$rce .oftware %03..+ model onto e7isting social media s#stems! This is tr$e of other social
media alternatives s$ch as G4; .ocial and to a lesser e7tent "iaspora! @eing ($ilt on top of .tat$s4et
lifetime of the site! The emoticon was alwa#s incl$ded!
9 :mportant instances of reverse engineering of novel s#stems incl$de /ccolade5s reverse engineering of the .ega Genesis
and Connecti75s reverse engineering of .on#5s >la#station s#stem %#ega $nterprises "td. v. %ccolade, &nc. ,992 #ony
Computer $ntertainment v. Connecti' Corp. 2000+!
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" ,7 of 29
meant Tal23pen co$ld rel# on the long and s$ccessf$l histor# of legal engineering that is the G4;
s$ite of licenses! /s Ga(riella Coleman %2009 p! -2-+ e7plains s$ch licenses $se
cop#right law a M;nited .tatesN Constit$tional mandate to $ndermine the logic of cop#right
law! The MG4; General >$(lic LicenseN is ($ilt on cop#right ($t disa(les the restrictions of
cop#right to allow for modification distri($tion and access= it is also self)perpet$ating (eca$se
it re*$ires others to adopt the same license if the# modif# cop#lefted software!
@$t this $se of 03.. cop#left doesn5t e7ha$st the legal stor#! :n order for a software s#stem to
replicate the f$nctionalit# of another the histor# of protections of reverse engineering has to (e in
place! >art of 03.. prod$ction is what Coleman %2009 p! -2F+ calls a c$lt$re of 5legal e7egesis5 and
5legal training5 that helps 03.. developers navigate the m$r2# waters of intellect$al propert# law! .$ch
e7egesis and training res$lts in the legal 6$6$ts$ of cop#left which is precisel# written to $se cop#right
against itself!
This has implications for reverse engineering! /ltho$gh the emphasis on 03.. since the earliest
da#s of Richard .tallman5s wor2 has (een on free speech a corollar# emphasis has (een on the right to
open $p and alter the software one $ses& in other words in the 03.. ethos one has the right to reverse
engineer software! Coreover even if the "igital Cillenni$m Cop#right /ct %"CC/+ is often presented
as merel# a cop#right law its restrictions on reverse engineering co$pled with the fact that 03..
activists $niversall# despise it means that 03.. developers m$st engage with reverse engineering as a
legal categor# of action to resist the "CC/!
Th$s (eing ($ilt on .tat$s4et meant that Twitter drew on these legal tactics to reverse engineer
Twitter! :t en6o#ed the protection of (eing a part of a larger pro6ect within a legal conte7t where reverse
engineering is protected and with a long legal histor# of cop#left licensing! These legal protections are
5($ilt in5 when we start social media alternatives $sing cop#lefted platforms li2e .tat$s4et "iaspora or
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" ,8 of 29
Cra(grass!
8owever Tal23pen partiall# failed to ($ild on top of this legal histor#! 9hile well)engineered
legal doc$ments li2e G4; licenses can protect a pro6ect the far more (l$nt Tal23pen license %*$oted
in its entiret# a(ove+ simpl# doesn5t pla# the legal lang$age game! @ad grammar $nclear a((reviations
%5cp5+ and a strange transition %5/ll that said5+ rendered Tal23pen5s Terms of .ervice to (e somewhat
comical! 8ere instead of reverse engineering social media terms of service in the same wa# that
cop#left reverse engineers cop#right the Tal23pen T3. appeared to (e a flat)o$t rep$diation of
legalese li2el# < altho$gh : cannot (e certain < setting Tal23pen $p for dissociation if it were to come
into contact with the world of laws$its 4ational .ec$rit# Letters and prosec$tions!
(ormative
0inall# wh# ($ild a Twitter alternative $nless one has a goal in mindE The goal might (e 6$st to
ma2e another competitor in the ($siness of inciting digiti1ing and valori1ing $ser emotional la(or
%see for e7ample >interest+! 3r it might (e to ($ild a new la#er of a(straction on top of the 5platform5
that a site li2e Twitter provides developers %see for e7ample Tops#+! @$t in the case of Tal23pen it
was more a(o$t STwitterCensorship and /non#mo$s networ2 politics! The hashtag S3pCigrate has a
normative and pedagogical sense& ma2e the shift to Tal23pen! There #o$ can do all the same things
#o$ wo$ld in Twitter %(eca$se Tal23pen is pragmatic and ($ilt on that model+ ($t #o$ get new
freedoms!
:n this sense Tal23pen was another in a long list of pro6ects meant to (e alternatives to
mainstream social media& "iaspora G4; .ocial 0reedom@o7 Lorea and Cra(grass to name a few!
/s : arg$e elsewhere %Gehl 20,- 20,?a+ the technologists and activists ($ilding these pro6ects
recogni1e man# of the pro(lems that social media critics have pointed o$t& $(i*$ito$s s$rveillance
%/ndre6evic 2007+= the mod$lation of affect emotion and comm$nication for the p$rposes of lin2ing
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" ,9 of 29
interaction to cons$mption %Elmer 200-= Langlois 20,,+= the centrali1ation of the 9e( %Jittrain
2008+= the templated nat$re of the interfaces %/rola 20,0+= the e7ploitation of $ser creativit# for
massive profits %Terranova 2000+= the lac2 of democratic control over the social media s#stems %Gehl
20,?(+! To ($ild an alternative that does not have these pro(lems is indeed a worth# goal!
/nd #et as : e7plore a(ove in the 5>ragmatic5 section Tal23pen does not simpl# reinvent 5social
media5 totall# disregarding the design conventions of previo$s s#stems= this wo$ld (e an impossi(le
goal and moreover it wo$ld ignore the progressive aspects of social media! Tal23pen was a
recognition that m$ch good can come o$t of even the most centrali1ed social media s#stem! /ltho$gh :
wo$ld never red$ce 3cc$p# 9all .treet or the /ra( .pring to 5Twitter Revol$tions5 or 50ace(oo2
Revol$tions5 research has shown that social media pla#ed an important part in organi1ing movements
and shaping p$(lic perceptions a(o$t them %Corris 20,?+! Reverse engineering5s normative move is to
ta2e that good maintain design conventions that people recogni1e and are comforta(le with and avoid
the pro(lems of centrali1ed social media! This is what Tal23pen attempted to do al(eit $ns$ccessf$ll#!
What went wrong with TalkOpen?
@$t of co$rse Tal23pen failed! 9hat went wrongE
/s : arg$e elsewhere %Gehl 20,-+ one of the great animating ideas of the social media
alternative ($ilders is decentrali1ation and distri($tion! These networ2 architect$res are (ased on the
*$asi)m#thical fo$nding principle of the :nternet& red$ndanc# in networ2 paths! That is rather than
having all comm$nications flow thro$gh a central h$( the goal is to have them flow thro$gh m$ltiple
paths and nodes! This red$ces the li2elihood that an# one node (ecomes a wea2 spot in the networ2!
Cainstream social media sites s$ch as Twitter 0ace(oo2 and Google are not distri($ted= the# are
highl# centrali1ed $sing a client)server architect$re! /s we have seen in recent revelations a(o$t
government instit$tions s$ch as the 4ational .ec$rit# /genc# %;!.!/+ the Government
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" 20 of 29
Comm$nications 8ead*$arters %;!B!+ and the Comm$nications .ec$rit# Esta(lishment %Canada+ s$ch
centrali1ed data(ases of $ser comm$nications are tempting targets for state s$rveillance! /nd of co$rse
the sites themselves e7ploit their centralit# in the da#)to)da# comm$nications of (illions to collect data
on their $sers and sell them to the highest (idders! Th$s to ($ild an alternative to mainstream social
media one commonl# stated goal is to create distri($ted %or federated+ s#stems allowing $sers to host
their own node of a social media s#stem on their own comp$ters and lin2 these nodes across the
:nternet!
/nd #et this is e7ceedingl# diffic$lt wor2! Ca6or software engineering pro(lems in the
constr$ction of ($ilding distri($ted social media sites incl$de a$thenticating $sers allowing $sers to
find each other across installations and encr#pting comm$nication to prevent 5man in the middle5
attac2s! Coreover (eca$se mainstream social media is 5eas# to $se5 %thro$gh man# #ears of training
$sers in their partic$lar interfaces+ alternatives wo$ld have to do all of the a(ove and ma2e the s#stem
as 5int$itive5 as the mainstream sites! This is a tall order for an# wo$ld)(e social media reverse engineer!
Th$s it is not a s$rprise that social media alternatives often end $p replicating the client)server
architect$re! Tal23pen did 6$st this th$s ma2ing the site v$lnera(le to determined attac2ers! :ndeed
(eca$se Tal23pen was ($ilt for mem(ers of hac2er gro$ps /non#mo$s and L$l1.ec it attracted the
attention of the 5patriotic hac2er5 The Aester who claimed in :nternet Rela# chat to have ta2en down
Tal23pen!info on ?, Ca# 20,2 %OTRG ) th?6?Ft?r P tal2open!infoQ 20,2+! : cannot sa# for certain if
this is tr$e ($t the timing is right! Tal23pen might have (een too centrali1ed to s$rvive a determined
attac2 (# The Aester!
.etting aside the *$estion of centrali1ation : also wonder if Tal23pen failed to (ecome enough
of a Twitter alternative! :n other words in its attempt to reverse engineer Twitter Tal23pen might have
2ept too man# Twitter conventions! >erhaps it failed to acco$nt for the highl# individ$ali1ed personal
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" 2, of 29
(randing and micro) or macro)cele(rit# feat$res of Twitter! The rise of Twitter in the pop$lar
imagination was mar2ed (# the oddit# of /shton B$tcher (eing a highl# followed cele(rit#! @eca$se
Tal23pen reverse engineered Twitter and (eca$se Twitter5s core organi1ing principle is the relationship
(etween the individ$al follower and followed perhaps this organi1ing primitive is not compati(le with
the politics of Tal23pen5s $sers! To a degree < altho$gh certainl# not completel# < individ$al)to)
individ$al social media grates against the networ2ed politics of /non#mo$s and 3cc$p#! 9e have of
co$rse seen 5cele(rities5 heralded (# the anons& A$lian /ssange Chelsea Canning /aron .chwart1 and
now Eric .nowden! @$t the most compelling aspects of /non#mo$s and 3cc$p# are the politics of
networ2s and aggregations& we are the 99U! E7pect us! The iconograph# of /non#mo$s incl$des anons
wearing G$# 0aw2es mas2s or s$its with no heads! This is not a cele(ration of individ$alit# ($t rather
a statement a(o$t interchangea(ilit# and hiding in plain site!
>erhaps then Tal23pen5s replication of the individ$ali1ing str$ct$re of Twitter was not the
sol$tion to the riddle of prod$cing a social media alternative that more f$ll# meets the organi1ing
principles and politics of /non#mo$s! >erhaps then other social media alternatives < that is other
wa#s of reverse engineering mainstream social media < can learn from the c$lt$re and architect$re of
Tal23pen to prod$ce something more via(le!
Conclusion: Critical Reverse Engineering as a Bridge Between Engineering and Humanities
:n s$m as : hope :5ve shown here the methodolog# of reverse engineering co$ld provide social
media critics with a (ridge (etween the criti*$e of contemporar# proprietar# social media and the
prod$ction of (etter media s#stems! Reverse engineering does more than either cele(rating Twitter
0ace(oo2 or Google or ref$sing to ta2e part in them! :t also does more than simpl# critici1e social
media s#stems! :nstead it provides a method to (oth disentangle all of the threads that go into an#
specific social media s#stem and ($ild criteria for the prod$ction of (etter s#stems! 9hile the
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" 22 of 29
normative goals of traditional reverse engineering tend to (e instr$mental and $s$all# tied to ind$strial
ends critical reverse engineering can involve normative goals that tie into the goals of democrac# and
media 6$stice! Coreover the methodolog# is onl# complete when the critic (ecomes a ma2er and
attempts to ($ild a new s#stem that is related to the old while striving to ameliorate the pro(lems of the
old! /ll of this is achieved thro$gh a mi7 of pragmatic genealogical legal and normative orientations
that all appear in the reverse engineering literat$re! This chapter of co$rse is not a description of a
s#stem : m#self ($ilt= rather it descri(es Tal23pen which : participated in ($t did not help constr$ct!
:ndeed : do not claim to have the technical a(ilit# to easil# constr$ct a social media alternative on m#
own! 8owever reverse engineering is not often a solitar# activit#! :t involves m$ltiple steps from
identif#ing an artifact to reverse engineer decomposing it into parts researching its histor# across
different disc$rsive domains %s$ch as pop$lar ($siness legal and academic+ creating new a(stractions
from the old s#stem and then implementing those a(stractions in a new s#stem! /s s$ch it is well)
s$ited to colla(oration! Critical reverse engineering th$s has the potential to (e a practice that (rings
together h$manists and engineers! 0or e7ample critical scholars of social media who have done the
wor2 of dissociating Twitter 0ace(oo2 >interest etc! might consider partnering with technologists
who are ($ilding nascent social media alternatives! This might mean helping with design (road site
goals incl$ding social and c$lt$ral elements or specific elements of $ser)to)$ser or $ser)software
interaction! 9hile none of these practices is e7plicitl# tied to coding the# all can (e fo$nd in the (est
traditions of h$manities scholarship! Reverse engineering $nderstood in this wa# (ecomes a potential
5(o$ndar# o(6ect5 %@arle# et al! 20,2= T$rner 2008+ (etween engineers and h$manists allowing these
fields to (ridge disc$rsive and concept$al gaps to colla(orate!
@ased on the case of Tal23pen ela(orated here were : to wor2 with technologists creating a
social media alternative : wo$ld s$ggest several (road tentative goals for s$ccessf$l critical reverse
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" 2? of 29
engineering of social media! /n# new social media s#stem wo$ld (ear traces of the old ($t wo$ld (e
($ilt for social 6$stice! :t might (e compati(le with the old %in the traditions of software reverse
engineering+ and #et add la#ers of f$nctionalit#! :t wo$ld prevent the pro(lems of contemporar# social
media %i!e! s$rveillance red$ction of interaction to cons$mer choices and the valori1ation of free
la(or+! :t co$ld incl$de an interface that draws on e7isting design conventions ($t wo$ld also provide a
pedagog# for deeper $nderstanding of social media s#stems data privac# and val$e prod$ction! The
new s#stem co$ld e7pand the meaning of 5the social5 (# ($ilding on the older social metaphors %friend
follower etc!+! :t co$ld provide a level of a(straction a(ove the networ2 la#er < th$s hiding
implementations of decentrali1ation and encr#ption from end)$sers < while providing access to the
inner wor2ings of the social media s#stem allowing $sers to not onl# inspect the code ($t also alter it
to improve the s#stem!
Tal23pen failed to do these things ($t its fail$re does not invalidate the potentials of reverse
engineering social media!
8797 Gehl "Critical Reverse Engineering" 2- of 29
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