Critical Reverse Engineering: The Case of Twitter and Talkopen

Compromised Data. Eds. Greg Elmer and Ganaele Langlois, Forthcoming

28 Pages Posted: 28 Jul 2014  

Robert W. Gehl

University of Utah - Department of Communication

Date Written: July 23, 2014


As more scholars study digital communications, there is a pressing need for new critical methodologies that both draw on older methods while taking notice of new affordances and constraints built into digital systems and network architectures. To this end, this paper engages with the engineering and legal literatures on reverse engineering to propose a methodology for studying Internet-based communication systems: "critical reverse engineering."

Drawing on the reverse engineering literature, I will argue that this approach is valuable because of four orientations. First, reverse engineers are pragmatic: they consider the technology they have at hand, not an ideal technological assemblage. They do not simply throw away older technology, but modify it, hack it, and alter it. They accept the positive side of technology while working against the bad. Second, reverse engineers also consider the historical development of a technology. They take an existing technology and trace its genealogy backwards, looking at a whole host of artifacts to uncover how the technology was developed: white papers, press releases, previous versions, vanquished competitors, design specifications, and prototypes. This provides an antidote to technological hype which consistently holds that new things are radically new or radical breaks with the past. In contrast to this, reverse engineering understands technology to have a history. Third, reverse engineering is also useful in a time of proprietary software that lives on distant servers. The centralization of the Web and the skillful valorization of user labor has led to social media sites becoming incredibly economically and politically powerful. And that means they have high-octane lawyers. Reverse engineering has a tradition of legal protections in states such as the United States and the European Union. Finally, reverse engineers do their work in order to build new systems. Thus, they have a normative position: usually they want to copy something to sell it, or take a part a set of machinery to maintain themselves rather than relying on the manufacturer. We can take this further and suggest critical reverse engineering for political/economic and media justice.

To illustrate critical reverse engineering, this paper will explore the case of an alternative social media system, TalkOpen (a short-lived Twitter alternative). The paper uses the four orientations of reverse engineering to catalog how TalkOpen reverse engineered Twitter. This cases illustrates how Internet scholars can critically reverse engineer current social media sites and see how the resulting knowledge might be implemented in new, alternative social media sites.

Keywords: reverse engineering, Twitter, methodology, critical social media studies

Suggested Citation

Gehl, Robert W., Critical Reverse Engineering: The Case of Twitter and Talkopen (July 23, 2014). Compromised Data. Eds. Greg Elmer and Ganaele Langlois, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Robert W. Gehl (Contact Author)

University of Utah - Department of Communication ( email )

United States


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