57.3, August 2010

Consuming Digital Rights: Mapping the Artifacts of Entertainment

Liza Potts


Purpose: The case studies in this article look at user experience issues surrounding authorized and unauthorized media distribution, describing how researchers and practitioners can trace these experiences to learn how to empower social media participants rather than criminalize them.

Method: By using Actor Network Theory (ANT) to look specifically at instances involving digital rights management (DRM) issues in the United States and the European Union, we can discover how content distribution is as much an issue of protecting intellectual property as it is a critical concern for usability.

Results: Amazon’s response to the removal of Orwell’s books, Hulu’s expiration of content, and Pandora’s copyright restrictions cause numerous issues for consumers attempting to access this content legally.

Conclusion: As communicators, legal experts, and international policy contributors, it is imperative that we design for these experiences, rather than over and around them. Looking across these networks—documenting what technologies, organizations, and people are involved—we can create a better map of what is or will be affected by any further implementation of law or technology. By participating in spaces typically thought of as the realm of legal scholars, policy makers, and lawyers, technical communicators can be stronger user advocates for the participants of these systems.

Keywords: social media, experience design, usability, digital rights management, international communication

Practitioner’s Takeaway

  • Removing content from hardware without prior notice to or consent from consumers breaks the brick-and-mortar metaphor for user experience, leading to mistrust and legal actions.
  • While many viewers seek legal methods for screening television and film content online through services such as Hulu and Netflix, the availability of this content can have the unfortunate effect of driving viewers underground to find illegal material.
  • Because copyright laws are based on geographic location rather than citizenship, using Pandora in Europe is impossible for U.S. citizens.
  • Mapping the network of people, organizations, and technologies helps clarify user experience goals for the product team.


Pinpointing instances of information exchange, knowledge diffusion, and community building can inform legal scholars and technical communicators about the social, political, and economic issues affecting these situations. Locating such moments allows us to map out the networks of technologies and people involved in these exchanges. As technical communicators, we must understand these situations more fully if we are to improve the design of communication systems and influence business innovation. It is critically important for technical communicators to examine the relationships and connections between the primary participants and the people and technologies that surround them so that they can build interactions, systems, and procedures that allow for usable digital rights management (DRM) systems. Such active observations and interactions allow scholars to uncover problems relating to legal issues and to help practitioners create tools (including media-sharing Web sites, content management systems, and social media ecosystems) that can support the needs of their participants. In these DRM cases, they can also point to issues of communication, innovation, and distribution. The approach discussed in this paper can help technical communicators address these complex legal issues.

This article describes an application of Actor Network Theory (ANT) as a method for diagramming the active people, organizations, activities, and technologies relevant to the user experience concerns surrounding DRM issues. By exploring various issues from the perspective of consumers, researchers and practitioners can show how information within these networks flows through various actors—both as a way of illustrating distribution and use and as a call for more user-centered innovations. These actor networks are of particular importance to technical communicators who design the content and can influence the business rules for these systems. This article concludes with recommendations on improving the user experience for consumers trapped within these DRM issues. Such recommendations can be generalized to various information design issues. By visualizing which actors are involved in a given experience, technical communicators can be better prepared to deliver the appropriate information to their audiences.

Brief Background on Digital Rights and Copyright

DRM is a set of technologies intended to control access to licensed content. Numerous books (Boyle, 2008; Lessig, 2008; Litman, 2006; Logie, 2006; Vaidhyanathan, 2005) and articles (Allen 2008, Arnab & Hutchinson, 2005; Erickson, 2003; Samuelson, 2003), as well as a special edition of Communications of the ACM (Mulligan, 2003), have been written about this topic. Coupled with the laws of different countries, DRM issues are affecting organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. These organizations hope that DRM technologies “will prevent infringement of commercially valuable digital content, including music and movies” (Samuelson, 2003, p. 41).

DRM includes “a range of technologies that give parties varying degrees of control over how digital content and services may be used, including by whom and under what conditions” (Erickson, 2003, p. 35). These technologies include fingerprinting and watermarking. Fingerprinting refers to “finding some distinctive feature of content that is already there,” such as an “echo,” and watermarking is “a subtle thing that’s added to the content as it already was to make it distinctively recognizable,” such as “inserting a subtle echo into a piece of music” (Felten, 2009). Both technologies allow copyright holders to recognize their content. Technologies with DRM attributes include Apple’s iTunes and iPhone, Quicktime, Windows Movie Player, and digital video discs (DVDs). Also at issue are peer-to-peer (P2P) technologies that enable file transfers between individual computers online. The legal concern over these technologies was made infamous by the 2000 case against the United States-based company Napster, as well as the recent case against the Swedish company The Pirate Bay. Active locations where these issues are occurring include Hulu, Amazon, and numerous sites where users can download or view content—whether legally through sites such as NBC or illegally through other servers. Although sites such as Hulu and Netflix have the copyright holder’s authorization to host and distribute content, YouTube and other third-party sites are rife with illegal content. According to Arnab and Hutchinson (2005, p. 3), “while DRM protected media is often sold as the user ‘buying’ the digital work, the actual process is more like licensing.” It is the confusion over this issue that most affects the user experience, which is complicated by international issues.

Laws regarding DRM vary from country to country. For the focus of the cases later in this article, the laws of the United States and the European Union (EU) are most relevant. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is part of the United Nations. In 1996, the WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT) was signed, requiring member nations to implement laws against circumventing DRM. As part of this requirement, in 1998 the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was passed in the United States. In 2001, the EU adopted the European Directive on Copyright. In some instances, incidents occur when geography and citizenship come into conflict with these DRM laws. In mapping these experiences, the focus is on the perspective of users trapped within these systems. Certainly, mapping can be done from the perspective of the corporations, but that is not the goal of the types of design exercises for technical communicators discussed in this article.

In addition to preparing technical communicators for designing systems, an understanding of DRM and copyright issues can empower us as user advocates. These issues are critical to technical communicators because these laws, policies, and incidents have a direct effect on the experiences we build for our users. In light of recent decisions made by product managers, intellectual property lawyers, and policy makers, our role as advocates for our users is critical if we are to see improved experiences that can transcend nations, systems, and technologies.

Brief Background on Technical Communication and International Issues

To understand the impact of these issues for the field, we must briefly look at research in international and intercultural issues in general and copyright specifically. It is imperative that technical communicators be involved in these design and policy conversations. Regarding the issue of technical communicators working on these interface design issues, Bill Hart-Davidson (2001, p. 146) asked, “Why not us?”—a question that information designers, information architects, and content developers have already successfully answered as they take their places on product development teams. There is a strong, still-evolving movement within the field to focus on these issues. As Michael Albers (2005, p. 271) reflected on the future of the field, “The knowledge required for developing, arranging, and presenting information requires an understanding of the various technologies and tools available and an understanding of how the audience responds to those technologies and tools. Writing is only one element of providing that information; to ignore the other elements is to ensure both our long-term obsolescence and lack of power and respect within the project team and corporation.”

Recent moves in technical communication toward redefining our research and assumptions concerning international and intercultural issues have led to an emerging set of research aimed at investigations into “audience, purpose, rhetorical patterns, and document design” (Hayhoe, 2006, 141). Studies examining issues of ethics and intercultural issues (Voss & Flammia, 2007) give insight into the difficulties of navigating cultural differences in writing. Studies addressing issues of design give insights into localization (St.Amant, 2005) and internationalization (Zahedi, Van Pelt, & Song, 2001). Arguments for writing material in the context of the culture within which it will be used (Wang & Wang, 2009) are important for understanding how to design for your users. In the case of laws, policies, and interfaces for technology, such an understanding is critical.

In conducting international research, Thatcher (2001) stated, “For intercultural researchers to validly compare two or more cultures, they must focus on the more generalized patterns in each culture, which does not permit a close-up, ethnographic analysis of the differences in each culture.” The diagramming outlined in the next section seeks to mark these generalized patterns for technical communicators to develop appropriate communication tools for these scenarios and for legal scholars to respond to these issues.

As digital content moves across nations and cultures, user experiences are coming into conflict with various laws and regulations. Mounting concerns over how consumers should experience content are shifting traditional notions of content distribution and intercultural use. Overlaps and issues between culture and communication, copyright and DRM are issues that technical communicators must be aware of to work effectively in today’s global context of online interaction. Copyright holders, eager to see profits from the content they have produced, are being met by consumers who expect content to be delivered to them in immediate, context-aware ways. Technical communicators must understand the intersections between laws and expectations if they are to influence the design of these systems and policies.

Diagramming and Actor Network Theory

Diagramming system behavior and use is a critical step in the software development process. Depending on the team member’s role and the product’s state, a number of specific formats and templates exist to communicate design choices and system actions across development teams. It is also useful for legal scholars to understand how these systems operate so that they will know what kinds of intellectual property issues are in question within a given scenario.

For technical communicators, this diagramming approach is a central technique for usability studies. By mapping the use of these systems, we can locate missing steps and features, as well as test the logic of these processes. Such walk-throughs on paper help us discover issues before we invest in building technologies. Transferring the concepts of mapping for usability to more general technical communication practices can benefit our work. Mapping the macroscopic issues within these participatory experiences can help us visualize intercultural collisions, communication misfires, and policy issues. In doing so, we are better prepared to help influence the development of these systems and policies to benefit our users.

Figure 1. UML Use Case diagram for Hulu participants

UML Use Case diagram for Hulu participants.

One of the methods most often used for diagramming software design is the Unified Modeling Language (UML). UML diagrams such as the Use Case diagram illustrate possible operations that a system could support (Figure 1). Such a diagram maps what tasks a person could attempt within a given system, taking a macroscopic view of the activities that the system must support. These diagrams are useful when the product team is discussing the overall experience design of a given system or service.

Another UML format, the Activity diagram, lists a user’s workflow through a single task (Figure 2). While Use Case diagrams pinpoint the major scenarios that the system must support, Activity diagrams are flowcharts that pinpoint the systematic actions that users will take to interact with a system (Fowler, 2003). In this map, a specific scenario is captured to describe what activities must occur as the participant completes the task. Technical communicators can use this UML diagram to describe how users will accomplish their tasks within specific activity flows.

Software engineers also use UML Sequence diagrams to consider what processes and objects a system must support, often simultaneously, while different tasks are conducted within the system (Figure 3). In this diagram, the activities taking place within the system are documented to capture what kinds of information will be exchanged behind the scenes between the technologies involved. While there may be some mention of user behavior (in this instance, “Add Comment” and “Submit”), these diagrams focus on system responses (ACK, meaning that the system acknowledges the user’s “Submit” action). These diagrams are typically meant for the development team, although technical communicators can also use them to describe activities that require some user interaction.

Figure 2. UML Activity diagram illustrating activities and decisions of Hulu participants

UML Activity diagram illustrating activities and decisions of Hulu participants.

UML diagrams are useful when considering design interfaces and technologies. These diagrams are excellent for showing systems, states, and task processes related to these systems and states. UML is not intended to be a way to understand an entire ecosystem of actors participating in ordinary activities. It is even less capable of capturing the rapid communication at play among social entertainment participants. However, it is critical for designers to know what people, organizations, and technologies are active within these networks if they are to develop systems that meet the needs of both business and user.

Diagramming is a key activity within the information design cycle. It is critical that the entire product team be aware of the major people, organizations, technologies, events, and so forth before any design work begins. Activities such as contextual inquiry, field studies, and surveys can shed light on a product’s audience and context. After those activities, diagramming must begin—and it must happen before any serious design activities: before designing any UML diagrams, before any wireframing, before writing any documentation, before building a marketing campaign, before deciding on a policy. It is only after visualizing the actors, context, and relationships within these spaces can we can begin to design communication tools. Currently, no major system allows us to create such visualizations before moving on to more traditional diagramming methods.

ANT can help fill this void. ANT positions technology and people as equal agents of action and refers to them as actors. Described in more detail in Callon (1986), Latour (1996), Law (1992), and Mol and Law (1994), much of the work on ANT restricts the term actor to humans and technologies, but extending the term to encompass organizations and processes that associate with these actors is imperative. This can be especially useful when examining issues that extend across multiple, global systems, such as legal issues. Viewing these actors equally can help us consider whether our business processes and systems are useful for their actual audiences as well as their intended audiences.

Figure 3. UML Sequence diagram illustrating system processes for Hulu’s server and the participant’s client machines

UML Sequence diagram illustrating system processes for Hulu's server and the participant's client machines.

In practice, it is important not to exaggerate these relationships. For example, it is a realistic assumption that humans have more agency than their cell phones. By examining issues through this lens, we can focus more closely on the interactions taking place within these user experiences. Considering technologies as important members of the network allows us to build solutions that take these tools into account. This move toward using ANT to research issues in technical communication follows the recent innovations by scholars looking at similar issues of technologies, networks, and participants (McNely, 2009; Potts, 2008, 2009a, 2009b; Spinuzzi, 2008; Swarts, 2009).

To understand DRM legal issues, it is critical that we can find the key actors within these networks. We can then trace their activity as they move throughout the network. For example, by observing how participants consume digital content, we can learn which technologies are useful, which people are directing the participant activities, and which organizations are involved. Without tracing these actors and pinpointing their activities, we would be left only with metrics showing that these actors came and went, rather than telling us how these associations were made and how they looked across an entire ecosystem of technologies, people, and organizations.

Combining ANT with more traditional technical communication methodologies will help researchers wishing to explore legal issues in more detail to trace real-world scenarios. With such knowledge, technical communicators are better prepared to aid in the design of software, processes, and policies to support realistic, user-centered experiences. Diagramming the people, places, organizations, events, and technologies can empower design teams to know their audience’s context, relationships, and distribution before they attempt to create innovations. These diagrams can help teams reach common ground more quickly, sharing the visualization and discussing the implications on their proposed product designs, policies, and services.

Mapping with Actor Network Theory

The reasoning behind extending ANT and developing a mapping tool was to encourage awareness of these actors among software developers and designers. By considering the technologies, Web sites, users, and organizations involved in each scenario, these practitioners would be better equipped to build for these experiences (Potts 2008). While diagramming methods such as UML focused primarily on the process flows and system states for specific tasks and technologies (Fowler, 2003), these initial ANT attempts called on development teams to think globally about designing experiences not bound to a single system. UML methods tend to focus on a single user at a time, following as the user uses a single system to complete an individual task. In working through these maps over several projects, ANT mapping has proven useful in extending the view of networks to the many technologies, people, and organizations that extend the traditional boundaries of user experience (Potts, 2009a, 2009b).

As we examine specific artifacts with ANT as our framework, it is valuable to note three stages of mapping: actor networks; people, places, and things; and temporal relationships (Potts, 2008).

Adding Nouns

ANT diagrams are powerful: They can reveal people, organizations, technologies, places, and events that affect specific actor artifacts. By pointing to these specific artifacts, referred to as central actors, we can visualize these ecosystems. By doing so, we are more likely make more informed decisions concerning how we design for these artifacts. Such design work ranges from the most basic of interaction choices to more complex legal decisions.

At this stage, the goal is to locate the artifact that is at the center of activity. A basic diagram of lines and circles begins the brainstorming session (Figure 4). In Figure 4, we are mapping a central actor within an experience that would not exist were it not for the other actors within this diagram. After deciding on the central actor, the next step is to list all active actors. Active actors include any and all technologies, people, organizations, events, and any other human or nonhuman actors that must be present for the central actor to exist. Obviously, the detail of these diagrams can become incredibly microscopic—listing minutiae such as Internet connections, power cables, and so forth—which is why it is critical to focus on the concept of activity in defining these actors.

Figure 4. Basic Actor Network diagram lists all of the actors (nouns).

Basic Actor Network diagram lists all of the actors.

These diagrams begin to sketch the ecosystem in which the artifact exists. By documenting these nouns, the team can begin to see who or what any new interfaces, processes, or systems will affect. Understanding these ecosystems is critical to designing these experiences. Visualizing the people, organizations, and technologies involved in these experiences will help interdisciplinary teams share a common understanding about the context in which the user will approach these experiences. Such understandings are critical for the development of user-centered experiences.

Creating Noun Stencils

For the next stage, it is important to begin labeling these nouns by using unique stencils recognizable to whoever will be examining and using these diagrams. It is critical “to distinguish the actors by noun categories (people, places, things) pertinent to the community of practice for which developers are designing the system” (Potts, 2008, p. 3).

These diagrams also visualize shifts in cultural practice. Such mapping extends ANT’s vision of distributed agency, allowing designers, legal experts, and policy makers to view the actors. Within these visualizations, we can begin to discuss the design of systems, processes, and policies to support human work in a given scenario: “By listing the actors, we gain a sense of who will be interacting and what their motivations might be with regards to their use of these systems” (Potts, 2009b).

Figure 5 shows that many active actors come into play for any given artifact. In this diagram, the central actor is linked to various actors such as people, places, events, technologies, and groups that are present because they directly affect the central actor; without these supporting actors, the central artifact could not exist. By finding patterns across these actors, technical communicators can create stencils to communicate associations. For example, the pattern of groups can help describe organizations and differentiate them from individuals of importance within the ecosystem. Note that human and nonhuman actors are listed in this diagram, pointing to the sociotechnical network in which these artifacts reside. Such an understanding is critical to mapping out the needs of actors within these systems. Doing so allows us to ask questions such as what ecologies these actors can leverage and what groups have a stake in these artifacts.

The stencils in Figure 5 are not comprehensive; different situations will require the use of different sorts of stencils. These maps are created to allow us to “begin to understand what sort of structures must be in place to allow for the mediation of information across these systems” (Potts, 2009a). Creating a common understanding of these networks is key; ANT maps are meant as a starting point for these conversations. For technical communicators, this process is important because of our role as user advocates.

Showing Noun Relationships

Once your nouns are visualized and patterns emerge, another way to extend these diagrams is by visualizing shifts in practice. These shifts can be cataloged from a number of different perspectives: strength of ties, length of time, history of use, and so forth.

When examining the use of social software, technical communicators can choose to measure the strength of relationships relative to time (Potts, 2008). If actors spend a lot of time exchanging information, then the lines connecting the actors would be thicker. If the relationships seem more critical due to these information flows, then those lines would also be thicker. The less time and importance, the thinner the lines.

Figure 5. Stencils are created to visually describe the actors.

Stencils are created to visually describe the actors.

Figure 6. Lines are used to describe relationships between the actors and the central artifact.

to describe relationships between the actors and the central artifact.

A valuable use of these lines is to show relationships between actors across geography (see Figure 6). Tracing these associations makes visible the connections actors make across these ecosystems. Examining issues in relation to the timeline or importance of relationships can show policy makers, systems designers, and lawyers how information flows across actor networks so that they can design systems, processes, and laws to mediate these experiences appropriately. Understanding these relationships helps technical communicators be better user advocates. Mapping helps us visualize the context within which these interactions will take place, providing common ground for discussions across project and product teams. The remaining sections of this article present cases that reveal how technical communicators can use the ANT approach to mapping activities to interact more effectively in global contexts.


In the beginning of his article “When Cultures and Computers Collide,” Kirk St.Amant (2002) states that “researchers in both intercultural communicating and in computer-mediated communication (CMC) need to adopt new research agendas that focus on the nature of intercultural communication practices in CMC environments.” In part, he is talking about issues of contention across different academic disciplines. The areas of contention within the following cases stretch across technical communication, legal studies, and corporate decision-making.

There are myriad perspectives one could take to map these experiences. One could map the concepts surrounding these cases, such as uses of DRM, related corporations such as the Recording Industry Association of America, legal cases that are considered critical to intellectual property issues, and so forth. Another perspective would be to map the cases themselves, noting which people, technologies, and locations are involved. In taking this microlevel approach to these cases, the goal is to shed light on specific examples that engage technical communicators, developers, designers, and those in the legal profession.

In the following section, a number of issues facing these actors are outlined, and ways in which these maps can lead to a shared understanding of these experiences are explored. By visualizing these concerns, we can be better prepared to inform stakeholders who can aid in the improvement of these systems, processes, and regulations. In Jo Allen’s 1990 article, “The Case Against Defining Technical Writing,” she discusses the disqualification of certain forms of technical communication based on genre. She argues, “No definition will adequately describe what we do” (Allen, 1990, p. 76). In that spirit, the cases below represent another location where technical communication—in this case, the kinds found in the entertainment industry—represent a different genre than is traditionally thought of as “technical communication.” Certainly, discussions of technology and how we create user experiences to communicate the legal status, user experiences, and research designs of these systems is at the core of technical communication.

In looking at Amazon’s Kindle product, we can trace issues of DRM and DMCA that affect consumers internationally. Accessing video content through media such as video streaming on Hulu, physical DVDs on players, and BitTorrent P2P file-sharing systems brings up international concerns with regard to laws, policies, and experiences—concerns also seen with Pandora. In all of these cases, we see the resurrection of what Lawrence Lessig refers to in his book The Future of Ideas as the need for balance between the interests of copyright holders, new technologies, and consumers. Referring to Congress siding with record labels, Lessig stated, “We find that balance by looking for balance—not by giving copyright interests a veto over how new technologies will develop. We discover what best serves both interests by allowing experimentation and alternatives” (Lessig, 2002, p. 202).

As Samuelson (2003, p. 41) states, “The main purpose of DRM is not to prevent copyright infringement but to change consumer expectations about what they are entitled to do with digital content.” Many of these attempts to change expectations have faltered because consumers do not find them user-friendly. By examining how such legal issues affect user experiences, technical communicators can trace how these innovations clash with the entertainment practices of everyday users and take part in the legal issues surrounding these cases by examining them and using our research to aid in the design of more user-centered experiences.

DRM has a “history of frustrating consumers with compatibility problems, unreasonable restrictions on how legally acquired digital media can be consumed” (Allen, 2008, p. 5). The EU acknowledges the legal issues across nations, a consideration for companies and systems such as Amazon, Hulu, and Pandora, by stating, “These differences could create potential obstacles to the free flow of information and additional burdens for economic operators and citizens” (European Union Commission, n.d., p. 3).

How can we make these experiences more user-centered and less cumbersome? The current implementations, while making great inroads in the distribution of content, still suffer from issues of usability, timing, and sharing. As Latour (2005, p. 23) notes, “The task of defining and ordering the social should be left to the actors themselves.” In that spirit, we should focus on usability issues, tracing them through the people, Web sites, corporations, and technologies riddled with clumsy user interfaces and saddled with DRM pressures that threaten these experiences.

Mapping Experiences of Digital Reading

Amazon’s Kindle is billed as a “wireless reading device” that is “as thin as most magazines” and “lighter than a typical paperback” (Amazon, 2009). Amazon states that it has more than 350,000 items available for access through the Kindle, including books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs. Users can also annotate this content, allowing them to interact with the texts through bookmarks, highlights, and clippings.

Through the Kindle’s Whispernet technology, Kindle owners can download books or files. This case study looks at the issue of downloaded content, specifically examining how this technology also permits Amazon to remove downloaded content, a hotly contested issue for consumers and privacy advocates.

Kindle owners can download their content through traditional wireless networks or through Amazon’s Whispernet technology. At 10.2 ounces with wireless connectivity, Whispernet encourages portability. The newest Kindle model provides access to Whispernet internationally, with shipping available to more than 100 countries (Amazon, 2009). Coverage is available across many parts of the world, with faster 3G coverage concentrated primarily in Western Europe, Israel, Dubai, and South Korea (Cellmaps, 2009). Additional smaller concentrations are in South Africa, Japan, India, and Australia. Although there are additional international service fees for U.S. customers, service is available to consumers who travel abroad.

In summer 2009, Amazon deleted Kindle content after discovering that the third-party publishers did not own the license to sell the content. Arnab and Hutchinson (2005, p. 1) have noted that “DRM does not actually implement the fundamentals of copyright law, and is rather a mechanism for enforcing license and contract restrictions on digital data.” In this case, that enforcement meant remotely deleting content without warning. A basic diagram of this artifact can be seen in Figure 7. This map depicts numerous relationships: stencils indicating relationships between actor types and lines representing strength between the central actor and the supporting actors. The strongest relationships are between 1984, Amazon.com, the Kindle device, and users who own Kindles and 1984.

Figure 7. Current artifact experience for Kindle consumers

Current artifact experience for Kindle consumers.

While Amazon did issue refunds to the affected consumers, the company did not communicate the deletion to them until after the content was removed through Whispernet. In particular, the removal of two George Orwell texts, 1984 and Animal Farm, that drew the community’s ire. Users began posting to the Kindle community forum on Amazon and elsewhere (Kindle Community, 2009).

Some of these users speculated that the removal of Orwell’s works was simply some sort of prank, alluding to the books’ topics of governmental control, lack of freedom, and dearth of privacy. One user noted, “Sounds ironically like Big Brother is monitoring our Kindle content” (D. Parry, 2009). Another comment left on a technology-related blog noted that “if Amazon can delete books from your Kindle, presumably they can also replace those books with altered versions—to correct mistakes, delete defamatory remarks, bowdlerize naughty bits or even change an author’s arguments if they or their corporate friends didn’t agree with it. And you would never know” (Wetcoast, 2009).

One user posted, “I wonder if Amazon will send representatives to customers’ houses to retrieve dead tree copies? Orwell fans, lock your doors!” (Caffeine Queen, 2009). The allusion to physical space was noted numerous times in this forum, with one user stating, “It’s like having Barnes & Noble sell you a book, charge your Visa and then 3 months later change their mind, credit your card and DEMAND their book be returned” (Ron in Richmond, 2009). This comparison between physical and virtual spaces is of interest because “enforcement of copyright law has always been passive in the physical world” (Arnab & Hutchinson, 2005, p. 1). An even stronger statement by one user relates feelings of violation and theft of content by Amazon:

This happened to me too. What ticked me off is that I got a refund out of the blue and my book just disappeared out of my archive. I emailed Amazon for an answer as to what was going on and they said there was a “problem” with the book, nothing more specific. I’m sorry, when you delete my private property—refund or not—without my permission, I expect a better explanation than that. (Sunny Lady, 2009).

These comments allude to consumer confusion and outrage over current DRM practices. The same consumer added, “I liken it to a B&N clerk coming to my house when I’m not home, taking a book I bought from then from my bookshelf and leaving cash in its place. It’s a violation of my property and this is a perfect example of why people (rightly) hate DRM” (Sunny Lady, 2009). Here, the notion of theft is confounded further by the actual use of these systems, as consumers are not purchasing a product—they are purchasing a license.

As one researcher noted, “These technologies are not really about the management of digital ‘rights’ but rather about management of certain ‘permissions’ to do X, Y, or Z with digital information” (Samuelson, 2003, p. 42). In this case, the permission was to remove content from consumers’ Kindles. However, that permission was not made explicit in the Kindle’s terms of service.

On July 30, 2009, a class action suit was filed in the Western District of Washington (Case No. 2:2009cv01084) in response to these removals. This case, Gawronski v. Amazon.com, Inc., was settled on September 25, 2009, providing compensation to the customers and mandating that Amazon adhere to its terms of service.

On September 3, 2009, Amazon offered to restore the deleted content. Having secured the content licenses, the company was able to give customers legal copies of these works. In an apology posted to Amazon’s Kindle community forums, CEO Jeff Bezos called the handling of this event “stupid,” mentioning the criticisms the company received from consumers and consumer advocates:

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission. (Bezos, 2009).

While clearly these user experiences are broken, it is unclear how Amazon hopes to balance user expectations with content-licensing issues. As one poster to a technology blog noted, “This is why DRM is bad, kids” (Anonymous, 2009). The community hopes that such moves would include ensuring that any content sold through Amazon was licensed content (Sunny Lady, 2009). While Amazon’s business rule might be to sell only content that has secured the appropriate license, it certainly was not the business practice in this case. Another point made was the need to close the Whispernet backdoor that allows Amazon to delete content (Frauenfelder, 2009). As one researcher has stated, “Policies that are subject to many exemptions or based on conditions that may be indeterminate or external are difficult or impossible to automate with DRM” (Erickson, 2003, p. 36).

A post made on the group blog Boing-Boing, a respected technology blog, noted that such moves by Amazon “will encourage readers to visit Web sites in countries where the copyright has expired on Orwell’s books so they can get free un-stealable electronic copies” (Frauenfelder, 2009). Clearly, this is not a positive review of Amazon’s DRM implementation on the Kindle, and the company and policy makers will need to continue to look toward improvements to ensure that user experiences and content licensers can coexist to match Bezos’s concept of Amazon’s “mission.”

The Orwell incident is already having a global effect. In January 2010, leading French book retailers asked their government to create an eBook hub for publishers and retailers to sell their products (Laurent, 2010). They cited incidents such as the Kindle’s. In Germany, a similar system, named Libreka, is already in place. It is unclear whether location-based systems run by governments are the better alternative, although it is clearly an option being explored in Europe. Further research into the evolution of these systems will be necessary to help shape user experiences.

In this case, mapping would have alerted technical communicators to the users for whom they should be advocating, the technologies as they exist, the organizations affected, the context in which this event occurred, and the strength of relationships between these actors. While it is doubtful that Amazon intended to alienate, upset, or anger its user base, it is clear that it did not have a strong understanding of how brick-and-mortar retailers would have handled this situation. It also seems clear that Amazon did not make the connection between Orwell, his text, and the situation it created by allowing the purchase of this unlicensed version. Mapping the actors and relationships within their context can illuminate such issues so that technical communicators can advocate for their audiences, write better content, and help influence policy.

Mapping Experiences of Viewing Television and Film Online

From DVDs and network television to YouTube and subscription-based content, today’s television viewers are no longer restricted to any one system for viewing these materials. As content has migrated from VHS to DVD to the Web, consumers have a host of options from which to access this content. There are many methods of accessing content legally, but there are also a plethora of illegal access points. As one researcher stated, “With the advent of load sharing peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent, it is now virtually impossible to stop distribution of digital data on the Internet or to isolate all the sources of reproduction” (Arnab & Hutchinson, 2005, p. 1). In this case study, reasons why these illegal access issues may be occurring are examined through the lens of user experience.

In tracing issues of experience, DVDs present the obvious issue of fragility. A simple Google search for “scratched DVD” returns more than 911,000 results. Consider the use case of a Disney DVD, a DVD player, and a 5-year-old. Scratches happen, and with Disney releasing its content library piecemeal, you have a recipe for every parent’s worst nightmare: a scratched Sleeping Beauty. In its defense, Disney is trying to bridge this experience by offering digital media copies along with its physical DVD copies. Describing this new technology, Disney (2009) states, “DisneyFile Digital Copy is the Disney-branded Digital Copy experience, which enables buyers of DVD and Blu-ray to receive the standard definition digital version of the movie in their choice of iTunes or Windows Media formats.”

However, it is unclear whether such solutions are enough, given current usage statistics. According to a recent Pew report, 89% of Internet users ages 18 to 29 stated that they watch content on video-sharing sites (Madden, 2009). Moreover, the content that viewers want to watch is not always easily accessible. For example, perhaps the user wants to see a long-running television program that is in syndication. While the user’s DVR system is set to locate the episodes and tape them, these particular episodes may not be in syndication. Even if they are, it is unlikely that they will be broadcast at the exact entry point every consumer needs. What if the user already viewed season two and now wants to see season three?

An on-demand system is required for viewers to receive the content they want when they want it. Enter the Internet, with sites such as Hulu and YouTube, BitTorrent P2P file-sharing tools, indexing sites such as Pirate Bay, and a myriad of illegal viewing Web sites. Hulu bills itself similarly to Amazon, stating, “Hulu’s goal is to provide as much content as possible and to keep it all on our service permanently.” The site explains that its content licenses depend on “streaming clearances granted by our content partners” (Hulu, 2010). However, Hulu’s content can expire, and it notes this by explaining,

In some cases, an episode or movie may expire from Hulu. Streaming clearances can be limited by any number of legal or business agreements that differ from video to video. An episode or movie may expire due to myriad reasons, including music clearances, impending DVD sales and syndication deals, among others. It’s disappointing to us when a video must come down. As videos are the heart of our business, we’re always working to continue to expand streaming clearances. (Hulu, 2010)

While viewers may want to turn to legal content providers such as Hulu, this issue of expiration can be particularly frustrating, especially for new fans of these programs. About an American television series that ran during the late 1990s and early 2000s, one consumer applauded Hulu’s mission: “I missed Buffy in its original run, but I am loving the chance to catch up. More seasons please!” (Macabri, 2008).

There are numerous examples of how Hulu is winning new viewers for television programs, but the frustration over issues of expiration and availability are seen as counterproductive by its user base. These concerns become increasingly acute as Hulu’s expiration issue comes into effect, as it did for the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer in October 2009 (see Figure 8). This map represents relationships among various people, technologies, hardware, and content owners. The strongest relationships are shown with solid lines between the television show, audience, and distributors of the content.

Figure 8. Viewing Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Viewing Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

One viewer expressed concern in the show’s discussion boards on Hulu by stating,

One of the best shows out there!!!! When can we get more??? I was almost done season three!!!! and then they took it off! wonderful acting and actors and of course vampires = one heck of a show! Please put on more seasons including three!!!! I’m desperate to see more! (Pierson, 2009)

The time cost of using Netflix can also be burdensome to many users. Not all of the Netflix library is digital, meaning that consumers still need to rent physical media from the company rather than view streaming content over the Internet. Many television shows distribute their content on DVDs with little concern for user experience, often burning only two episodes per DVD. The task of synchronizing, viewing, and mailing can become tedious at best and extremely frustrating at worst. Juggling syndicated television, Hulu, Netflix, and BitTorrent: Are these the experiences we want for our users? As Gillespie (2006, p. 661) states, “What is really at issue here is not just expertise and innovation, but a broader question of user agency: a software design community that encourages it, a regulatory constraint that forbids it.”

While it is possible for these users to seek out other legal content providers such as Netflix, some consumers instead look to illegal Web sites and P2P networks from which they can download and view content. The argument can be made that these systems exist partially because of the lack of a strong user experience where they can access legal content. Hulu cannot keep these licenses indefinitely, and the difficulties of Netflix’s distribution may encourage consumers to seek other means to view content. As Lessig (2008, p. 145) stated, “There exists not just the commercial economy, which meters access on the simple metric of price, but also a sharing economy where access to culture is regulated not by price, but by a complex set of social relations.”

Mapping could have helped with technical communication activities within this context. Clearly, the thought of an experience is being misplaced in favor of individual delivery mechanisms. Users are looking for a single, seamless event in which they can watch content and participate within it. Maps can bring to light these user needs, illustrating the many ways in which today’s mass distribution of content is failing to meet those needs. Questions over how to write content for these sites, how to map activities for them—all of these issues become far more complicated when we examine the actual experiences of users, rather than simply hoping for the best case scenario within a single system such as Hulu or Netflix. It is up to technical communicators to point out these issues, help shape new policies, and be those users’ advocates if we are to see improvements in the distribution of this content.

Mapping Experiences of Music Listening in the United States and Europe

The case examines the difficulties in listening to music online, primarily looking at the use of social media and musicians’ Web sites as we trace complications for Americans, Europeans, and visitors to Europe. Issues of location and citizenship create a tenuous relationship between the technologies and people involved in these experience networks.

In the United States, there are numerous legal choices for listening to streaming music. One of these systems, Pandora, can be accessed through its Web site (www.pandora.com) and its stand-alone desktop application (Pandora One). The company positions Pandora as a “music discovery service” that uses the “Music Genome Project” to create music experiences that users will enjoy (Pandora, 2010a). The Genome Project uses “complex musical DNA” to build stations based on a particular song, album, artist, or genre chosen by the user. The user can then alter the station selections by voting for the song to stay in the collection (thumbs up) or be excluded (thumbs down).

To register for Pandora, a user must supply a U.S.-based zip code to prove residency; using Pandora is forbidden outside of the United States. In addition to zip codes, geographic location is confirmed via Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. IP addresses are assigned to computer systems based on location.

IP addresses outside of the United States are automatically blocked from accessing Pandora. Instead, IP addresses outside of the country receive a Web page stating that access is not permitted in the country in which they are physically located. Because copyright laws are based on geographic location and not citizenship, Americans in Europe who access Pandora’s system will be greeted by a message explaining this issue, listing the country in which they are located and their IP address.

However, some users are now circumventing Pandora’s system to access music outside the United States. Methods for doing so are listed across several Web sites; a simple Google search will turn up multiple ways to circumvent the system. One method is to spoof the IP address through a proxy server. Spoofing refers to faking the address to mask the identity of the computer. For example, users in Europe can spoof their IP addresses to make it look as if they were located in the United States, allowing them to impersonate a user who is legally able to access Pandora. There are numerous spoofing methods, such as man-in-the-middle, routing redirect, source routing, blind spoofing, and flooding (IBM, 2008). Without going into the technical details, such spoofing is complex enough to require a more sophisticated level of technological expertise than that of the average Internet user. However, the instructions posted on many sites have provided access information for more proficient users, in theory widening the availability of these circumvention methods.

Figure 9 illustrates how Pandora is accessed in the United States and in Portugal, highlighting the use of a proxy server to spoof the system. By accessing these proxy servers, the computer’s IP address is masked and replaced with a U.S.-based IP address.

What is critical to note in this diagram is the lack of a human actor; rather than people, we have countries and technologies. Geography trumps citizenship in this user experience. Pandora’s international frequently asked questions (FAQ) states that “only the current location of the listener matters for international licensing law—not citizenship, national origin, or country of permanent residence” (Pandora, 2010c). Even payment does not allow the user to circumvent this restriction, as Pandora’s FAQ states, “Similarly, source of revenue doesn’t matter—only the legal right to play the music in a particular country” (Pandora, 2010c).

While Pandora (2010b) states that they “don’t have the resources to pursue music-streaming licensing arrangements in many countries in the immediate future, but we do have the ultimate goal of being able to offer our service globally,” it seems that the legal issue of copyright is bumping up against the Genome Project’s innovation. With more users, it is more likely that the music Pandora is able to provide will be better targeted because of the participation features to vote on songs within these channels.

This argument returns us to Lessig (2002, 2008), whose work looked to balance the needs of copyright holders with the necessity to innovate technologies. Although this may seem a current impossibility, the idea of binding experiences based on citizenship would alleviate the difficulties encountered during travel. The details of such a solution are far too complicated and involved for this article. However, it is a critical issue for social media users who expect to take their usual experience with them as they travel.

Figure 9. Accessing Pandora across geographic boundaries

Accessing Pandora across geographic boundaries.

As this case shows, the maps we create can vary in type, size, and distribution. This case was chosen to illustrate the variation that ANT diagramming can support. No specific stencils were chosen to show similarities between nations or to show their dissimilarities in technologies. This move was made to illustrate how users do not necessarily take those issues into consideration when their primary goal is to receive content as they normally would. Such a diagram can help the technical communicator advocate for product improvements, as well as help those involved in these legal issues understand the issues from the user’s perspective.


By implementing ANT as a way to map these ecosystems, we can “see what users need and want within these current sociotechnical settings” (Potts, 2008b, p. 40). As communicators, legal experts, and international policy contributors, it is imperative that we design for these experiences, rather than over and around them. Looking across these networks, documenting what technologies, organizations, and people are involved, we can create a better map of what is or will be affected by any further implementation of law or technology.

For everyday users, navigating the thorny corners of DRM can be confusing and upsetting. ANT diagrams and their associated stencils are tools by which communicators and scholars can make visible the people and technologies that participate in these activities. In making these communities visible, technical communicators can more readily see the user experience issues. These diagrams can help influence stakeholders in the creation of more effective and efficient communication systems based on use rather than constraints, allowing us to plan for appropriate solutions to the problems affecting the usability of DRM experiences.

Readers new to these processes might wish to begin applying these concepts in the following ways. The best way to begin ANT maps is by creating them after the team has conducted some form of ethnographic fieldwork—whether a site visit, contextual inquiry, or some form of in-context exercise. For either new or current projects, begin by creating simple ANT diagrams that capture the many people, technologies, organizations, events, and other pertinent actors. Using these as talking points within the product team, technical communicators can begin to educate their peers about the experiences the users will have throughout a system. As the diagramming models mature, using stencils to start showing commonality among different actors can aid in clarifying these maps. As the product team discusses issues of experience, understanding can grow around how relationships between the actors are tenuous, strong, ambivalent, essential, and so forth. Through employing these methods to aid in the discovery of user needs and participatory contexts, technical communicators can help lead these exercises and have greater influence on designs. By participating in spaces typically thought of as the realm of legal scholars, policy makers, and lawyers, technical communicators can be stronger user advocates for the participants of these systems.

Using ANT can help us imagine ways in which the methods and theories we develop in technical communication can transcend our own professional community and be useful for those in other knowledge-making areas, such as the study of law in global contexts. By making such moves, we can continue our long-established tradition as user advocates. As one of our established scholars has stated, “The best judges of the making are not the makers but the users” (Dubinsky, 2004, p. 5). Although these areas can be seen as on the borders of our community, these diagramming methods can reminder us that the work we do, and the way we make knowledge, might prove very valuable to others, because we can provide new perspectives on existing issues.


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About the Author

Liza Potts is an assistant professor of writing, culture, and technology and the co-director of the CeME Lab at Old Dominion University. Her research interests include technologically mediated communication, experience design, and participatory culture. She has been active in the software and Internet industries since 1994, including positions as a director of design research, social experience strategist, information architect, user interface program manager, and technical communicator. She is the treasurer/secretary of the Association for Computing Machinery’s SIGDOC. Contact: lkpotts@gmail.com