In the Public Eye: The Intermediary Role of a “Recursive Public” in the Free Software Movement

Free Software, as a movement, has transformed the public’s idea of how technological information should be developed and distributed. Approaching software infrastructures in a contained and linear fashion has been overshadowed by collaborative and capricious programming methods; more and more, veils of secrecy around source codes are seen as conservative and regressive practices. With networks of free software creation broadening daily over the seemingly infinite Internet space, technologists have worked endlessly to understand and support this dominating model. Standard practices have been outlined by the Open Source Initiative (, but it seemed necessary and appropriate to develop a specific discourse for these unsteady and murky waters.

One approach for navigating around this wild west has been to establish the concept of a “recursive public”. In his research on the cultural significance of Free Software, associate professor Christopher M. Kelty of UCLA describes recursive publics as an intermediary between the heterogenous but singular Internet and the Free Software developing on these grounds. He explains, “They exist independent of, and as a check on, constituted forms of power, which include markets and corporations” (Kelty 28). A recursive public is a lens through which we can both observe and analyze the specific open source practices within the Internet space, and further explore its capabilities for the future. But what I want to consider is whether recursive publics and programmers’ internal motivations and do-gooder aspirations are enough to galvanize and produce free, quality software, in an economically-invested, market-oriented society. Can a concrete industry be improved and emboldened by such a fluid concept?

A comparable way to comprehend recursive publics is to examine the notion of the Internet as the “Fifth Estate”. It is an extension of the term “Fourth Estate” that emerged in the eighteenth century (coined by Irish statesman Edmund Burke). This external body, also known as “the press” served as an omnipresent watchdog that was urged to evaluate the three powerful official states: the nobles, the clergy, and the commons. Similarly, a recursive public is an unofficial concept that is at once a part of this fragmented society, but mediates the issues within this environs from an independent standpoint.

In the twenty-first century, with the incredible amount of information networks available through the Internet, William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute champions the idea of a more encompassing estate. He argues “The Internet can support and reinforce many different forms of networking,each shaped by its stakeholders to reinforce or challenge the interests of individuals or organizations that form the Fifth Estate. These networks provide connections not only in the one‐to‐many pattern of the mass media, but also one‐to‐one, many‐to‐one, many‐to‐many, and so on” (Dutton). The complicated and intricate web of parties involved in the Internet space requires a mediating self-reflexive public that is also constantly in flux. A key attribute of a recursive public is that is contained within the discourse of the Internet and Free Software but also reacts to and against it and evolves accordingly.

The recursive public can also address the question of how to encourage and maximize free software creation without clear and structured compensation. In their study of motivations for open-source innovations, Alexander Hars and Shaosong Ou explore reasons other than altruism for supporting the Free Software movement. They posited that the onus is contingent on two parts: “Intrinsic motivation refers to the desire to feel competent and self-determined. External rewards include such factors as direct or indirect monetary compensation, and recognition by others” (Hars, Hu). Being a part of a community that upholds the recursive public and taking part in this discourse provides intrinsic validation for programmers.

The idea of professional camaraderie and acceptance is a mark of credibility that sustains the Free Software movement. Sociologist Steven Epstein attributes uses the term “enculturation” to account for this source of motivation for professionals in the same field. He uses science as his example, noting how being entrenched in the field with like-minded academics provides an insurmountable amount of validation for an individual. He argues, “No one could become adept at cutting-edge scientific work simply by reading a textbook or following a recipe; the “tacit knowledge” of how to run the experiment of build the device could be learned only through direct exposure at the right time and place” (Epstein). The support and knowledge from a large pool of experts that collaborate on open source tools can definitely encourage Free Software programmers. But can we trust this intrinsic motivation as a sufficient means for developing innovative infrastructures in the future? Does it compete with the allure of financial gains, accolades, full ownership and title of “originator” for proprietary programs?

Furthermore, is the concept of a recursive public far too arbitrary compared to the public sphere? Kelty argues that whilst a recursive public is a concept or a lens through which we can speak about the relationship of the Internet and Free Software, the public sphere is both a concept and a set of rules. In other words, the public sphere is an actual social construct. He argues, “In fact, if the public sphere exists as more than just a theory, then it has no other basis than just such a shared imagination of order, an imagination which provides a guide against which to make judgments and a map for changing or achieving that order. WIthout such a shared imagination, a public sphere is otherwise nothing more than a cacophony of voices and information, nothing more than a stream of data, structured and formatted by and for machines, whether paper or electronic” (Kelty 38). A recursive public does not seem as restrained and regulated as the public sphere, which is why it has incredible capabilities for mapping out free software architecture and opportunities in the future. Consequently, it is also far less acknowledged and validated than the public sphere.

Recursive public in Kelty’s terms seems overly fixated on a social imaginary. It’s strength is its flexibility and moldability, but without more concrete footing like the public sphere – the ideas generated in a recursive public could result in amassed organized chaos. Moreover, by keeping an arm’s length from the public sphere, there is the impression that the determinism of a recursive public is actually an act of exclusion and elitism. While the argument for a recursive public is compelling, I’m not sure that it’s convincing enough to enable the framework of the future of the Free Software movement.



Dutton, William. “ The Fifth Estate Emerging Through the Network of Networks”. Prometheus. Vol. 27, Issue 1. Feb 2009.

Epstein, Steven. “Culture and Science/Technology: Rethinking Knowledge, Power, Materiality and Nature”. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 619, Cultural Sociology and Its Diversity. Sep 2008. pp. 165-182

Hars, Alexander and Shaosong Ou. “Working for Free? Motivations for Participating in Open-Source Projects”. International Journal of Electronic Commerce. Vol. 6, No. 3, Communities in the Digital Economy. 2002. pp. 25-39.

Kelty, Christopher. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. University of Duke Press: Durham and London, 2009.

One Reply to “In the Public Eye: The Intermediary Role of a “Recursive Public” in the Free Software Movement”

  1. Oh hello.

    I can see why John wanted me to read your essay. I too am in doubt of the idea of an imaginary (read: abstract) group of people placed at the center of a revolving discourse. I figure if we’re talking about abstractions, then which one is the lesser evil? The “reader” in common letter-from-the-editor address, “Dear reader,” or Michael Warner’s “publics and counterpublics?” I feel like you may be having the same dilemma. Feel free to read my 2nd essay on “the reader is a lie” and let me know we’re speaking to a similar issue.

    With this in mind, I can’t help but agree with your position on the unconvincing idea of a “recursive public.” On the one hand, I think analysts need a name for their “sample size,” but what are the metrics involved? Is the recursive public generated (and regenerated) every time a new question or analysis is posed? I would think so, which lends to the flexibility you mentioned as it’s strength. But perhaps a better discussion for the time being is, how would you like to see this arbitrary group of people be organized? And what are we trying to analyze from them?

    Do you have an example to trace through? Something like users of Google Maps or some other even “more” open source software? With the abundance of free plugins, widgets, and other doodads, there certainly is a need to examine and pick apart the conversation around free software.

    This topic reminds me of the quote, “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” How does this integrate into your understanding of the user base at question? What about software on a freemium model?

    All in all, great dissection of Kelty’s “recursive public.” Let me know what you think about these tangents if you get a chance.

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