>The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.

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“Wikipedia: T-Shirt” by Quartermane, Flickr Creative Commons

Along with my colleagues Gill Creel and Dominic Saucedo, I teach an online research writing course that focuses on Wikipedia.   The previous link takes you to the course’s blog, which is where we have established the week-to-week activity for the course, and from there, one could also follow links to the course wiki, where students post their writings and collaborate with others.  As I write this, the students are beginning the 12th week of the semester, and they are immersed in the most dynamic assignment of the semester: in small groups, they are revising a Wikipedia article (the link takes you to the assignment definition).

When Gill suggested that we use Wikipedia as a site for our research writing course, II hesitantly agreed to collaborate.  When we first taught the course, we each taught a face-to-face section that was a bit rough around the edges.  While I was on sabbatical, Dominic and Gill moved the course online (which was the plan from the beginning) and made great improvements.

Students write three essays.  The first one is a response to approximately a dozen short articles that explain, critique, enthuse, and analyze Wikipedia.  The second writing assignment has students using Wikipedia: Feature Article Criteria to analyze the shortcomings of a non-Feature article of their chosing.  The students then form small groups of 2-3 people and work for three weeks to improve a Wikipedia article.  The final essay asks students to reflect upon and analyze their efforts.

There are many reasons why we think that this course works well.  One reason I think it works is because the third assignment – improving a Wikipedia article – draws on a series of civic engagement impulses.  Teams of students work to improve an item that belongs to the commonwealth.  In the process, they often encounter other Wikipedians working to improve the same articles that they are addressing.  When this happens, it adds a public dimension to the students’ thinking and writing.  It is not always a pleasant exchange, since these encounters often result in student edits being reverted, but if students are patient and persistent, they learn valuable lessons about how to work with others in online environments where their writing is they only way that they can represent themselves.

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>What does Wikipedia have to do with civic engagement?

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Google images



Reagle, Joseph Michael, Jr.  Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia.  Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London:  The MIT Press, 2010.  173 pages text; 244 pages with endnotes, index.

Joseph Reagle’s ethnographic study of Wikipedia examines the inner workings of Wikipedia, and in particular, Reagle focuses on Wikipedians, the people who create the articles, and the rules and policies that have evolved over time (not much time, since Wikipedia celebrated its tenth anniversary only in 2011).  Since Wikipedia claims to be “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” then I suppose we are all Wikipedians in waiting if we aren’t already editing articles.

Google images

I suspect that Good Faith Collaboration is Reagle’s dissertation revised for public consumption.   His research approach – ethnomethodology – provides him with an insider’s view of Wikipedia.  I suppose for some readers, it is a bit like watching sausage being made: unappetizing but informative.The title in part comes from one of Wikipedia’s policies, which is to “assume good faith.”  To assume good faith cajoles Wikipedians to encounter one another favorably or at least benignly.  It speaks volumes to the early vision of Wikipedia established and reshaped by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia’s co-creators.  They wanted to co-create with others a body of knowledge that was open to revision.  It’s hard to believe that an Ayn Rand objectivist – Wales – would create a tool that embraces a social construction of knowledge, but there it is.

To answer the question posed in the title of the post, Wikipedia is a “place” where individuals interested in a topic can “gather” to build something: in this case, an encyclopedia article.  While doing this, they learn the rules of the discourse community, rules that help them “play nice” with others, even if they adamantly disagree with one another.  When it works, Wikipedia is this great social experiment where people with a vested interest in an article (actually, their interest is not the article itself, but what the article (re)presents) can exchange ideas, debate, deliberate, and create.  How many civic institutions exist today that can promise the same?  In an era where the left goes to left-wing media and the right goes to right-wing media, it is becoming harder and harder to find or create environments where individuals can wrestle with one another in meaningful ways to build something of value to both sides (and other sides) of an issue.

If you like to read ethnography – described by many as “thick-description” – then you might enjoy Good Faith Collaboration.  I realize that is a very small audience.  Or if you are interested in the behind-the-scenes workings of Wikipedia (which, by the way, are available for viewing by everyone who visits a Wikipedia article: all one needs to do is click an article’s edit history or talk/discussion tab to see what is lurking beneath the surface of any given article), then you might be interested in the book.  If you want to consider Wikipedia within a historical context of other encyclopedias, then this is a great source.  If you want a quick overview of criticism targeting Wikipedia, the chapter titled “Encyclopedic Anxiety” will meet your needs.  I read the book because I teach a course that focuses on Wikipedia, and I am particularly interested in how Wikipedia challenges our usual notions of audience.

There are many interesting quotes in Good Faith Collaboration, but my favorite is something called “Zeroeth Law”:

The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice.  In theory, it can never work. (169)

I’ll write more about this practice in future posting.

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>Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus

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Shirky, Clay.   Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  New York: Penguin Press, 2010.  213+ pages.

I finished Shirky’s second book (for the longest time, his first book – Here Comes Everybody – was my constant recommendation to anyone who would listen).  This book is not as eye-opening as the first book, but Here Comes Everybody is a tough act for anyone to follow.  That said, Cognitive Surplus is now at the top of my recommendation list.

One of Shirky’s most effective rhetorical strategies is his use of stories to tell a larger story.  This is true in Cognitive Surplus, which begins with a wonderful story about the Gin Craze of London in the 1720s and ends with a delightful tale of a friend’s child watching a DVD movie and then suddenly leaping from the couch because she was “looking for the mouse” (212).  In between are many anecdotes that Shirky brings to life so that the reader might understand how the read/write web (Web 2.0) has provided us a space for our cognitive surplus.

Shirky does not look kindly on television, even as he admits to his own voracious viewing habits as a young person.  He asserts that for much of the second half of the twentieth century, we spent our cognitive surplus watching television.  He writes amusingly of his own television viewing habits, describing them variously as a “job” and an “obligation.”  In a section titled “More is Different” from the first chapter, Shirky muses:

Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and they don’t?  I saw that one a lot when I was growing up.  And every half hour I watched it was a half hour in which I wasn’t sharing photos or uploading video or conversing on a mailing list.  (21)

He commits the bulk of the book to analyzing and critiquing the elements of cognitive surplus – means, motive, opportunity, and culture –  and he devotes entire chapters to each.  Throughout, he weaves the primary motives for participating: autonomy and creativity, sharing and generosity.

The final two chapters explore the potential of collaborative uses of our individual cognitive surplus, and I am particularly interested in his chapter devoted to “Personal, Communal, Public, Civic” uses. 

Read the book.  If this posting doesn’t convince you, take fourteen minutes to watch this video on youtube:

Clay Shirky, “How cognitive surplus will change the world.”

Posted in Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus, technology | 1 Comment

>Public v. Private: Pew Research and new Facebook settings

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I have written about public v. private issues as they play out in social media in the past, and I have used exchanges with my seventeen-year-old daughter as an example.  She and I had another interesting exchange last night.

She is looking for a bathing suit for the upcoming summer, and she and her mother had a disappointing first try at finding something that a) fit and b) was inexpensive.  So my daughter went on Facebook with a request, asking people for advice about where she could find a bathing suit.  She even listed her price range.

At supper, we started discussing Facebook again (the family is pretty tolerant about these forays).  My daughter and I are not Facebook “friends” – she thinks it would be creepy.  That said, I told her that I saw the posting, and then I corrected her about her price range.  She blew up – “How did you see that?  That is so wrong!”

Of course, I took an inordinate amount of glee in this (what’s the use in parenting if you can’t tweak your teen-ager every once in a while?), but I couldn’t explain to her why I could see this posting without being her “friend.”  Is it because I might be a “friend of a friend?”  Then again, isn’t everybody?

I think that Facebook’s new privacy settings will make it easier to manage the level of privacy, but I doubt that our individual digital footprints will shrink.  Part of what makes Facebook so successful is the massive network (400 million worldwide), maintained on the back of people’s personal information and data.  They won’t slay the dragon that breathed fire (and $15 BILLION+) into the network.

(Even writing this post makes me a little uncomfortable, writing as I am about my daughter, my spouse.  I know that I can leave them unnamed here, but that that information is probably a search engine, a couple of search terms, and three clicks away for anyone who wants to track it down.  That is unnerving.)

I still maintain that young adults have a different notion of public and private, but that certainly doesn’t mean that young adults somehow care less about these boundaries.  In fact, the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s new report “Reputation Management and Social Media” (26 May 2010) provides evidence that young adults care deeply about these distinctions, and at least when it comes to social media like Facebook, they are more cautious about their digital footprint than older generations.

I like what  danah boyd wrote in her post “Pew Research Confirms that Youth Care about Their Reputation” (26 May 2010):

Of course, reputation and privacy always come back to audience. And audience is where we continuously misunderstand teenagers. They want to make sure that people they respect or admire think highly of them. But this doesn’t always mean that they care about how YOU think about them. So a teenager may be willing to sully their reputation as their parents see it if it gives them street cred that makes them cool amongst their peers. This is why reputation is so messy. There’s no universal reputation, no universal self-presentation. It’s always about audience.

As a writing instructor, I applaud boyd’s observation, since it is true of ALL writing and speaking: audience is everything.  Often, when our communications fail to accomplish what we set out to do, it’s because we have misjudged the audience’s needs and expectations.

My daughter is “out there” with her friends, and when I see what my younger extended family members are making public on Facebook, some of them are even further “out there.”  That said, none of them are especially pleased that an old fuddy-duddy like me can see their “stuff.”  They think it is “sick” and “perverted.”  My retort is that if I can see it, who else can see it?  “Inside conversations” on social media are rarely “inside”:  it is more like having a conversation in a fish bowl or a cage at the zoo – people who wander by can stop and listen, stop and read, at their leisure.

Take a moment to look at the graphics below, courtesy of the “Reputation Management and Social Media” Pew report.   There’s more where that came from.  If you are interested in how the different generations approach social media, this is a great report to read. 

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