Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2012

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Frances J. Ranney


Ever since its inception as a "humanistic" research discipline (Miller, 1979; Dombrowski, 1994), technical communication has striven to balance workplace exigencies with attention to the broader rhetorical, social and ethical issues within which technical communication is situated. Recently, this humanistic agenda has expanded from a simple awareness of contextual factors surrounding work (see, for example, Collier and Toomey, 1997) to calls for technical communication research in non-workplace and other non-traditional sites. Frequently these calls for "extra-institutional" research (Kimball, 2007) are driven by the assumption that users' indigenous technical communication is inherently more user-centered - and therefore more democratic - than the more traditional technical documentation underwritten by corporations (see, for example, Johnson, 1999; Kimball, 2007). This dissertation articulates and challenges our field's assumptions about the revolutionary nature of extra-institutional documentation. Drawing on Aristotle's broad classification of `habits of mind' or modes of inquiry outlined in the Nicomachean Ethics, as well as Johnson's user-centered theory, this dissertation examines 2 extra-institutional sites in which users generate and organize their own technical documentation:, a hacker database consisting of an intertextual network of hacks (which are short step-by-step instructions for hacking), and Black Hair Media, a virtual DIY hair extension community with an explicitly Afro Centric twist. Retaining characteristics of traditional proprietary technical communication and the "malleable, animated and visually complex" forms of communication associated with virtual communities (Bolter, 1991, p. 26), these two extra-institutional sites illuminate ways that knowledge and power are negotiated in digital spaces that lack a centralized regulatory power.