The revolutionary potential of Wikipedia’s equipotential paradigm.

On: June 19, 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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http://shampoohelps.wordpress.com    

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

As shown in the previous post, the “anyone can edit” philosophy of Wikipedia is often viewed with great skepticism in academic circles, while its collective intelligence function model is occasionally treated as a threat to authority, individuality and creativity.

In this post, another issue will be examined, that is also closely affiliated to Wikipedia’s “fertilizing openness” (Sanger in LarrySanger.org, 2004). That is the collaboration of amateurs and experts in the extension and editing of its entries. This unconventional process of content-production stands in contrast to the traditional mode with which encyclopedias have been created, edited and reviewed till now. Wikipedia is the first encyclopedia to renounce the “experts-only-can touch” label, breaking down the barriers between producers and consumers. Today, we are both. In Axel Brun’s words, we are “produsers” that collaborate in this “continuous building and extending of existing content in pursuit of further improvement” (Bruns, 2008:2).

Wikipedia’s collaborative process has been jubilantly praised and harshly critiqued at the same time. To its advocates, it constitutes an inspiring paradigm of online democracy, within which experts and amateurs manage to work together and produce content of high quality. To its detractors however, the entrance of the amateurs in the scene has detrimental effects, on both Wikipedia’s credibility and on traditional knowledge institutions’ stability in general. The internet critic, Andrew Keen for example is relentless in the critique he provides in his book “The Cult of the Amateur”, where he argues that Wikipedia is “killing the traditional information business” (Keen, 2007: 131) by “empowering the amateur [and] undermining the authority of the experts who contribute to a traditional resource like the Encyclopedia Britannica” (ibid: 44).

Certainly, one cannot deny the fact that Wikipedia’s current organization is far from being perfect or democratic and that the cautiousness of Keen and the other similar-thinking scholars is, to a certain extent, justified. On closer examination though, arguments like the one cited above, reveal something deeper: the agents that have represented knowledge so far (scholars, theorists, researchers, scientists, librarians etc) are not willing to give up their authority without resistance. Therefore, they attempt to identify expertise with quality and amateurism with sloppiness and misinformation.

Contrary to Walter Benjamin, who celebrates the potential of the new reproduction techniques “to put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (Benjamin, 1969: 220), the conservative authors of today proclaim themselves the guardians of originality. Instead of investing time on understanding the emerging social functions of new media, they proceed in a theologizing of knowledge (paraphrasing Benjamin’s “theology of art”, ibid: 224) framing it with concepts of the past.

Wikipedia has triggered even greater concerns over issues of authority, autonomy and liberty (Reagle, 2010). Not only has it taken the encyclopedic knowledge down from the bookshelves to bring it to our screens, not only has it invited users, amateurs or experts, to edit its content, but also it has been demystifying the whole editing process. How does it achieve that? Unlike traditional encyclopedias that present their audience the finished articles, Wikipedia brings the public to the backstage: every single change is recorded in the History page and every single discussion is reflected in the Discussion page (Stein, 2006). Nothing stays behind the scenes. Thus, the production process is emancipated from its rituality, giving the audience the opportunity to gain a more critical experience.

Driven by the desire to relegate the mob from what they have atavistically marked as their territory, the critics often promote professionalism over amateurism and try hard “to spur the interest of the masses through […] dubious speculations” (Benjamin, 1969: 233), exactly like the representatives of film industry did in Benjamin’s time. Maybe that is the reason for which Wikipedia has been so frequently accused of anti-expertism and anti-elitism.

Wikipedia is neither. Instead, it warmly welcomes contributions made by both knowledgeable participants and people that have no credentials to exhibit. Therefore what best describes its collaborative model is the “anti-credentialism” (Jimmy Wales quoted in Time.com, 2006). Indeed, by inviting experts and amateurs to work together without any a priori restrictions, Wikipedia avoids “the inherent fetishization of external experts only” (Bruns, te2008: 204) and presents its alternative to the traditional expert system: the ad hoc meritocratic system, within which participants earn recognition by adding high quality contributions.

No doubt, the symbiosis of experts and amateurs within Wikipedia is not always peaceful and the relationships between the members become more complex as the community grows in size and scope and develops organically. Even if the infrastructural features of Wikipedia facilitate participants to find their roles within the system, the fact that these roles are not clearly defined can make coordination more difficult (Welser et al, 2011). In such a malleable and ever-changing organization as Wikipedia, “questions of who is an expert, and on what topics, and what defines and documents such expertise” (Bruns, 2008: 203) cannot be easily answered.

From the above, one can conclude that Wikipedia’s equipotential paradigm (Bauwens cited in Bruns, 2008), according to which all contributions could virtually be equally worthy- no matter who makes them- has many flaws and obscure sides. That, however, doesn’t stop it from being challenging. If anything, it has an inherent revolutionary potential that, under certain social conditions and with the appropriate education, could provide the users, us, with an even more dynamic social role.

Therefore, maybe it’s high time we stopped mourning the death of the Author and the Expert. Rather, as Foucault suggests, “we should reexamine the empty space left by the author’s disappearance; we should attentively observe, along its gaps and fault lines, its new demarcations, and the reapportionment of this void” (Foucault, 1977: 121). User-led media in general and Wikipedia in explicit, open up whole new avenues of thinking and raise a whole new set of questions: Will we quit the role of the “absent-minded” examiner (Benjamin, 1969) in order to get into the real action? Will we, as amateurs, try to learn from what experts have to teach us? Will we, as experts, share the knowledge and be open to objections or new suggestions? Will we use the potentials of the new media only to assert our rights of free access and free expression or we will also dare “to take up the responsibility mandated by the exercise of those rights” (Battles in Britannica Blog, 2007)?

The options are there. We just have to pick the right one.

References

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

Foucault, M. (1977). “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter-memory, Practice, Ed. D.F. Bouchard, trans. D.F. Bouchard, Sherry Simon. New York: Cornell University Press

Keen A. (2007). “The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s internet is killing our culture”, New York: Doubleday

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

Websites

Larry Sanger Blog (2004), Larry Sanger, “Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism”. Available at: http://larrysanger.org/2004/12/why-wikipedia-must-jettison-its-anti-elitism/

TIME (2006), Chris Anderson, “Jimmy Wales”. Available at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1187286,00.html

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