Knowledge, not the way you knew it: Studying the impact of Wikipedia on the reception of knowledge

On: June 13, 2011
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About Ilektra Pavlaki
Here I am in Amsterdam. Studying in the New Media Master Program and hoping that by the end of this year I will have gained new experiences, new friends, brand new goals. My bachelor was in Communication, Media and Culture in Athens. Then I found myself a 90% dreamy job as a copywriter in a global advertising agency (BBDO). Great boss, big clients, small income :) Fun Theory and Free Hug Campaign magnified my interest in new media. "So, there must be a way to combine passion -advertising- and curiosity-new media-. Let's find out" I said. So... here I am in Amsterdam.

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This is part of the final paper I submitted for the course “Culture of Spectacle”

17.000.000 articles. 91.000 active contributors. 270 languages.

No matter what words one would choose to describe Wikipedia, numbers cannot speak but the truth: Wikipedia, which was set out as an “experiment” in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, nowadays constitutes the largest free, collaboratively authored encyclopedia in the world.

There is a more important aspect however, that numbers won’t reveal: Wikipedia stopped being an encyclopedia a long time ago. Rather, it has grown into a socio-cultural phenomenon that changed – and keeps changing- radically the way knowledge is received, produced and disseminated.

From the individual voice to the voice of the collective.

For the past decade, Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”, has been inviting volunteers from all over the world to contribute to this collaboratively-authored knowledge project, entitling any user, expert or not, registered or anonymous, to join its editorial team. The three core policies of Wikipedia (Neutral Point of View, Verifiability and no original research) upon which any article should be edited, imply that contributors should try to write without bias, avoiding to state personal opinions or ideas; instead they are called to base their entries on the already existing and commonly accepted knowledge and to support them with inline citations to reliable, published sources. One more fundamental element of Wikipedia is the implementation of the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA) and the GNU Free Documentation Licence (GDFL). According to these and under certain conditions, most of the content of Wikipedia can be freely distributed, reproduced, copied, modified or even sold commercially.

From the above, one can conclude that this open-content, freely reproducible nature of Wikipedia is challenging the traditional notion of authorship. The idea of the one single author or of a small author team having the total control over the text is relegated. Every single article is a result of negotiation among the members of the Wikipedian community that work together- frequently not in harmony- in order to take editorial decisions. This unconventional means for decision-making, led many supporters of Wikipedia to relate it with the notion of the “hive mind”, as developed by Kevin Kelly (Kelly, 1995) or even with the theory of the “wisdom of crowds” (Surowiecki, 2005), which contends that, under the appropriate circumstances, large groups of people are able to take wiser decisions than an elite few.

At the same time however, Wikipedia challenges the concept of “authority” in a twofold manner: on the one hand Wikipedians produce their own product mainly by reproducing already finished products (published sources). That way, the already existing knowledge is presented within a whole new context set; on the other, they themselves must accept the fact that their creations are also open to modification, deletion or reproduction. Simply, because from the very moment they get published in Wikipedia’s digital pages, they stop being their creations and they become common property.

Even though Wikipedia is not the first project that attempts to create a collaboratively-authored, freely-shared encyclopedia (Joseph Reagle mentions Paul Otlet’s Universal Repository and H. G Wells’s World Brain as Wikipedia’s ancestors), its unexpected success, along with its challenging attitude towards the established concepts of authorship and authority, alarmed numerous academics, theorists, librarians, authors or even bloggers. The librarian Michael Gorman for instance, interpreted the emerging collective intelligence model, frequently used to explain Wikipedia’s production mode, as “a direct assault on the tradition of individualism in scholarship that has been paramount in Western societies” (Gorman cited in Reagle, 2010: 148).  In a similar fashion, the author Jaron Lanier passionately argues that if we want to rescue the market economy and along with it the “individuality, self-determination and dignity” (Lanier, 2010: 102) that thrive within this system, we have no other solution but to “kill the hive”. (ibid, 2010: 128).

The fact that there are so many voices decrying the changes that come with the spread of the hive mind mentality is indeed striking. Especially if one compares the “keep-it-as-it-is” way of thinking of certain contemporary theorists to the progressive observations of some thinkers of the past. Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, among others, deconstructed the notion of authorship. Even though all of them were writing in times that the dominance of the Author was rarely disputed, they did not hesitate to criticize it and to voice radical thoughts; that radical in fact that many of their ideas are still timely today and illuminate several aspects of the new reality we are experiencing in face of the rise of user-generated media.

As early as 1936, Benjamin provided a new conceptualization for the roles of the artist, the artwork and the audience in modern times. In his best-known essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Benjamin records the groundbreaking transformations in the nature of the artwork, brought by the technological development and the advent of the new medium of his time: film (Benjamin, 1969).

For him, the most significant change in the modern era was the elimination of the notion of the “aura”, perceived as the sense of distance between the artwork and the audience or more broadly seen as the distance between the artist and society. The desire of the masses to “bring things “closer” spatially and humanly” (ibid: 223), satisfied by the reproduction potential of the new techniques, led also to the deconstruction of “uniqueness”, “authenticity” and “authority”, concepts inextricably blended with the sense of the aura.

These profound changes could not have but profound consequences: the work of art is emancipated from the mystery that surrounded it and finds a more social function. Therefore, more people “gain access to authorship” (ibid: 232) and to the collective experience. That implies that with the advent of mechanical reproduction, spectators have the potential to pass from the passive contemplation to the actual action, which makes the blurring of boundaries between author and reader, artist and public, producer and consumer inevitable.

Reading Benjamin’s essay, one should not jump to the conclusion that he is being utopian or overly optimistic. Instead, he exhibits a deep understanding of the dangers that lurk in the capitalistic exploitation of the new modes of production. However, Benjamin, contrary to other members of the Frankfurt School, like Adorno and Horkheimer, who claimed that the new modes of mass production resulted in the commercialization of art and culture and that they denied the audience “any dimension in which they might roam freely in imagination” (Adorno, Horkheimer, 2002: 100), believed in the revolutionary potential of the new media.

Even though several ideas of Benjamin have been redefined in the era of the media globalization, he could be acknowledged as a forerunner of the participatory culture. Like film, but on a much larger scale, user-generated media “brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” (ibid: 218) in order to subvert the rituality of the artwork and to give the many the potential to participate actively in its creation. That means that in the Wikipedia era, the Encyclopedia must give up its sacredness and the Author with the capital A (Barthes, 1967) must leave the center stage. The article pages (contrary to the discussion pages) don’t give voice to the individual personality but to the voice of the collective, “composed of the many individual, fluid and constantly evolving communities gathered around any one of its entries”.

Why is it so hard to accept the change?

Wikipedia’s unprecedented success constitutes a great victory of the participatory culture against the traditional notions of “authorship” and “authority”. Making no a priori judgments on who is expert enough to write an encyclopedia and on what topic is valuable enough to be included in an encyclopedia (Bruns, 2008), Wikipedia has achieved to deconstruct traditional notions and to come up with own alternative suggestion for the perception and the production of knowledge; a suggestion that, as it was analyzed above, will not be accepted without conflict.

Thus, the questions that emerge are: when will the “system” stop treating Wikipedia as a threat? When will the ‘institutions” realize that Wikipedia is not aiming at their elimination, but at suggesting them ways out of the dead ends that the “system” itself built? When will the “experts” accept the fact that the world is no longer shaped by nerds and pundits, but by anyone?

And finally: Why do I have the feeling that these questions won’t get a reply in the near future?

References

Adorno, T.W. and Horkheimer, M. (2002) The Culture industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception in “The Dialectic of Enlightenment”, Stanford: Stanford University Press

Barthes, R. (1967). “The Death of the Author”. Aspen Magazine 5/6

Benjamin, W. (1969). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in “Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books.

Bruns, A. (2008). “Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage”, New York: Peter Lang Publishing

Kelly K. (1995). “Out of Control: The new Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World”. Cambridge: Perseus Books Group (reprint edition)

Lanier J. (2010). “You are not a Gadget: A Manifesto”, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Reagle J. M. (2010). “Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia”. Cambridge, London: The MIT Press

Surowiecki J. (2004). “The Wisdom of Crowds”. New York: Doubleday

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