At a time when schools still emphasize the autonomous learner and most kinds of research collaboration get classified as cheating, the Wikipedia movement emphasizes a new kind of knowledge production Pierre Levy has described as collective intelligence. As Levy notes, collective intelligence exploits the potential of network culture to allow many different minds operating in many different contexts to work together to solve problems that are more challenging than any of them could master as individuals. In such a world, he tells us, nobody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what any member knows is available to the group as a whole at a moment’s notice.
Indeed, such groups are strongly motivated to seek out problems that are sufficiently challenging that they can engage as many members as possible:
“Members of a thinking community search, inscribe, connect, consult, explore…Not only does the cosmopedia make available to the collective intellect all of the pertinent knowledge available to it at a given moment, but it also serves as a site of collective discussion, negotiation, and development….Unanswered questions will create tension with cosmopedic space, indicating regions where invention and innovation are required.”
What holds a knowledge community together is not the possession of knowledge — which can be relatively static — but the social process of acquiring knowledge — which is dynamic and participatory, continually testing and reaffirming the group’s social ties. The Wikipedians bond by working together to fill gaps in their collective knowledge.
Wikipedian Kevin Driscoll proposes a suggestive analogy for thinking about such collaboration:
“The only thing that i can think of in my life that’s similar in an “off-the-internet” kind of way is sometimes when you go to the beach there will be a bunch of people making a sand castle. And you can just come over and start making another part of the sand castle and then join them together. And then somebody sees like “wow those guys are making a huge sand castle.” And then they get involved and then the thing gets so big, you might not even ask the other peoples’ names. You still built the thing together. And nobody owns that sand castle. You all built it together. You’re all proud of it. And you all get the benefit of each other’s work so you’re all really relying on each other. And Wikipedia is like that sand castle except no ocean is going to wash Wikipedia away.”
Part of what young people can learn through contributing to, or even consuming, Wikipedia is what it is like to work together within a knowledge culture.
It might be helpful to trace some of the ways that this idea of a knowledge-generating culture contrasts with what Peter Walsh has called the Expert paradigm:
1. The expert paradigm requires a bounded body of knowledge, which can be mastered by an individual. The types of questions that thrive in a collective intelligence are open-ended and profoundly interdisciplinary.
2. In the expert paradigm, there are some people who know things and others who don’t. A collective intelligence assumes that each person has something to contribute, even if they will only be called upon on an ad hoc basis.
3. The expert paradigm uses rules about how you access and process information, rules which are established through traditional disciplines. Within the collective intelligence model, each participant applies their own rules, works the data through their own processes, some of which are more convincing than others, but none of which are wrong at face value. Debates about rules are part of the process by which knowledge gets generated.
4. Experts are credentialized; they have gone through some kind of ritual which designates them as among those who have mastered a particular domain, most often through formal education. While participants in a collective intelligence often feel the need to demonstrate how they know what they know, this is not based on a hierarchical system and knowledge that comes from real life experience may be highly valued.
(These ideas are developed more fully in the Survivor chapter of Convergence Culture.)
Learning how to weigh different claims about expertise should be part of Hobbe’s “informed skepticism.” We might, for example, ask young people to talk through the differences in the kinds of expertise displayed by a couch and a ballplayer, a librarian and a researcher, an actor and a director, a mechanic and a race car driver, an architect and a construction worker, or a biologist and a nurse. Some of these people gained their expertise from formal education, other through practical experience; they know different things because they play different roles in a shared process; and having all of these people contribute to the production of knowledge is likely to result in richer and more valuable insights than weighing one’s perspective above the others. At the moment, I am playing the part of an expert in writing this article. Perhaps some individual readers see themselves as having greater expertise than I do and at least some cases, they may be right. But there’s no question that there is more knowledge in the combined readership of this article than I have at the time I am writing it. The Wikipedia movement is allowing people with very different backgrounds to work together to share what they know with each other.
Of course, Wikipedia is simply one of a broad range of online activities that involve the collaborative and coordinated production and circulation of knowledge. For example, alternative reality games — large-scale informational scavenger hunts — are being designed so that they occupy the interests of several hundred players working together: any given problem might require a mix of skills and knowledge drawn across different disciplines and domains. Writers
like Steven Johnson and Jason Mittell have shown that television narratives are becoming increasingly complex, involving many different characters and subplots, as they are being consumed in very active and collaborative ways by online fan communities.
Games researcher T.L. Taylor has shown how the guild structure of a massively multiplayer game such as World of Warcraft may encourage people with very different skills to work together to meet challenges that are designed for this kind of coordinated activity; the community may develop its own mods and toolkits that help them to monitor and organize such large-scale activities. Similar tools, institutions, and practices have emerged around Wikipedia as the community has sought to flag problems to be addressed and identify people with the skills and knowledge needed to solve them. The Wikipedians we interviewed stressed the broad range of skills needed for the project to succeed.
Participating in the Wikipedia community helps young people to think about their own roles as researchers and writers in new ways. On the one hand, they are encouraged to take an inventory of what they know and what they can contribute. The school expects every student to master the same content, while Wikipedia allows students to think about their own particular skills, knowledge, and experience. Wikipedia invites youth to imagine what it might mean to consider themselves as experts on some small corner of the universe. As they collect and communicate what they know, they are forced to think of themselves writing to a public. This is no longer about finding the right answer to get a grade on an asignment but producing credible information that others can count upon when they deploy it in some other real world context.
On the other hand, participants are encouraged to see themselves as members of a knowledge community and to trust their collaborators to fill in information they don’t know and challenge their claims about the world. Composition theorist Kenneth A. Brufee has emphasized the power of collaborative writing to change how young people think about the relationship between readers and writers:
“Most of us are not in the habit of thinking about writing nonfoundationally as a collaborative process, a distanced or displaced conversation among peers in which we construct knowledge. We tend to think of writing foundationally as a private, solitary, ‘expressive’ act in which language is a conduit from solitary mind to solitary mind….When each solitary reader in the socially unrelated aggregate reads what we write, what happens, we suppose, is that another mind ‘absorbs’ the thoughts we express in writing. Our goal is to distinguish our own distinct, individual point of view from other people’s points of view and demonstrate our individual authority….Once we understand writing in a nonfoundational way as a social, collaborative, constructive conversational act, however, what we think we are doing when we write changes dramatically. The individualist, expressive, contentious, foundational story we have been telling ourselves about writing seems motivated by socially dubious (perhaps even socially immature) self-aggrandizement…. We use a language that is neither a private means of expression nor a transparent, objective medium of exchange, but a community construct. It constitutes, defines, and maintains the knowledge community that fashions it. We write either to maintain our membership in communities we are already members of, to invite and help other people to join communities we are members of, or to make ourselves acceptable to communities we are not yet members of. “
Contributing to the Wikipedia might encourage students to adopt the very different kinds of rhetorical goals and mindset Brufee claims emerges through collaborative writing activities.
Again and again, the Wikipedians we interviewed for our documentary made reference to certain shared principles that shapes the group’s activities and offers a framework for adjudicating disputes. Rather than arguing each point, the group agrees to work together to insure that all points of view get heard. This is what Wikipedians call adopting a “neutral point of view“, which is understood here as a goal or ideal shaping the writing process as much or more than it is seen as a property that can be achieved by any given entry.
This focus on neutrality takes on special importance when we consider the global context within which the Wikipedia operates. While Wikipedia projects are being created within a broad array of different languages, many of which are dominated by a single national context, all of these groups want to insure that their perspectives are fairly represented in the most widely consulted English language edition. So, we might consider the very different way than a topic like the Winter War, the Russian invasion of Finland during the Second World War, gets represented in Russian and Finnish history textbooks as opposed to the challenges of producing an account acceptable to Russians, Finns, Germans, Americans, and everyone else within the shared space of the English language Wikipedia. Mastering the protocols concerning “neutrality,” then, might provide young people with good skills at navigating across the cultural differences that they will encounter elsewhere in the digital domain. Network culture is bring people together who would never have interacted face to face given geographic distances but who now must work together to achieve shared goals.
What Knowledge Counts…
The decentralized nature of knowledge production in the Wikipedia movement results in some surprising gaps and excesses. Historian Roy Rosenzweig notes,
“It devotes 3,500 words to the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, more than it gives to President Woodrow Wilson (3,200); American National Biography Online provides a more proportionate (from a conventional historical perspective) coverage of 1,900 words for Asimov and 7,800 for Wilson.”
Rosenzweig models one of the core critical activities that students might perform in examining Wikipedia: systematically comparing how the same topic gets dealt with within traditional and emergent kinds of reference works. In doing so, we can flag the selection process which goes into the production of any kind of texts. How do we decide how much space to devote to any given topic?
Remember that the relationship of space to prioritization operates differently within the economy of scarcity that dominated print culture and the plentitude that surrounds a digital resource. The amount of space given a topic in a printed encyclopedia reflected its relative importance because space cost money. Wikipedia space is free and unlimited so the amount of space devoted to a given topic might reflect a range of other factors, including how much the community knows or feels able to communicate about the subject, how many people know about the topic, and what kinds of contexts this information gets used. There isn’t someone out there — an editor or publisher — deciding how much space to grant a given topic, though the group may sometimesprune entries that they feel are over-inflated. Rather, someone who cares deeply about a subject takes the first crack towards writing an entry and others who share her interests may also contribute, thus often swelling its word count.
The Wikipedians discuss this issue in terms of what they call “systemic bias.” Our documentary on Wikipedia features the following exchange between Wikipedians Mark Pellegrini and Jim Giles:
Jim Giles: Some groups of people really like Wikipedia, like scientists, computer programmers, mathematicians. Technically-minded people seem to like Wikipedia. So they write really good articles. So on those topics, Wikipedia is likely be stronger than on say, poetry.
Mark Pellegrini: It’s called a systemic bias is how we refer to it as. We, originally our draw was, yeah, people who are really technologically savvy, you know, white males in the Western world. And so the hope is that as we get larger, the systemic bias will kind of go away.
The greater focused place on a science fiction writer over an American president reflects this systemic bias: early participants in the Wikipedia project were more likely to reflect the biases and values of geek culture. The solution, the Wikipedians argue, is to become more inclusive, to draw together a more diverse range of participants, and thus to expand what
topics get discussed and what kinds of information get included. Collective intelligence places new emphasis upon diversity: the more diverse the participants, the richer the final outcome.
Accordingly, the Wikipedians argue that the question isn’t what knowledge matters but rather what knowledge matters to whom under what circumstances for what purposes. Indeed, the whole point is to produce a work which can serve many different purposes and thus which may offer many different structures of information. This is consistent with what David Weinberger argues in his new book, Everything is Miscelaneous; one of the defining characteristics of a networked culture is that it enables information to be configured and reconfigured in many different ways:
“It’s not about who is right and who is wrong. It’s how different points of view are negotiated, given context, and embodied with passion and interest….It’s not whom you report to and who reports to you or how you filter someone else’s experience. It’s how messily you are connected and how thick with meaning are the links… A topic is not a domain with edges. It is how passion focuses itself.”
While networked culture will generate many different institutions and social structures which individually and collectively help us to sort through information, the final decision about which process works rests not with traditional gatekeepers but with the community of participants.
The Wikipedia Project’s openness to knowledge not valued in academic settings, for example, has made it possible for young people to more actively contribute:
Ndesanjo Macha: Most of the kids who come to our Boys and Girls Club are very very good consumers of information tools and knowledge. They know how to chat, how to email, how to do MySpace, Facebook, how to play video [and] computer games, very very good consumers. But they’re not producers of knowledge and information. And if knowledge and information are going to be the key elements that are going to define this moment of history, I think it’s very very important for kids in schools to start being producers of these things.
Andrea Forte: So one of the things that happens on Wikipedia that makes it different from other encyclopedias is [that] people start writing about popular culture. So this is an area where young people far far outstrip their older peers when it comes to being able to contribute new knowledge about the world.
Kevin Driscoll: Some of my students are super big fans of a T.V. show or a sports team. And I think that those two are things that people document really heavily. Because what happens is that there’s a new–another football game every week. And there’s another episode of the TV show. So there’s something new to add to the Wikipedia entry.
Similarly, people from different class, race, religious, ethnic, and gender backgrounds will choose to write about different topics, including many which are under-represented in standard reference works. This again places new emphasis upon the problems caused by the participation gap: by locking some segments of our society (let alone the world’s population) out of full participation online, we deny the society at large access to the things they know and the ways they know them.
As Levy suggests, a knowledge culture sees such gaps as an incitement to activity. It is certainly valid to ask what information is not included in the Wikipedia and why. However, critics then should roll up their sleeves and taking responsibility for making sure that topics that matter to them gets full and adequate representation
At their most passionate, they see Wikipedia as part of a larger process of insuring a more democratic culture by taking seriously what each member has to contribute:
Joe Abraham: The idea that a few “experts” tell us how we should live our lives,what battles we should fight in, is going to, I think, go by the wayside and we as a collective community, as a democracy, as a world of equals will decide together where we should go and what we should learn. “Raymond’s law,” that is destined to be one of the great comments of history, which is funny because it’s a rather geeky expression: “Given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.” That if enough people are looking at something, that you will find the bugs–the errors. And once you identify the error, you will almost always very quickly find the solution.
Mark Pellegrini: If you look at the “What the Wikipedia is Not,” it says “Wikipedia is not experiment in democracy” and I know that because I wrote it! But it has the trappings of democracy, which is to say it’s driven by the collective will of the people.
Joe Abraham: What makes a democracy so different is that each of us has our hand on the wheel of the ship of state.
Kevin Driscoll: I imagine that Wikipedia is the beginning of a much larger movement for us to be sharing our knowledge with one another in a real, world-wide way. So there are all of these parts of our culture and parts of our society that have not yet been experimented-on the way that the encyclopedia was experimented-on. And Wikipedia proves that it’s possible to find a different way to build these things–a cooperative way–that people who don’t ever meet each other can work together. But I believe that this idea will endure, because it’s so powerful. And people care about it so much. And when you see that happening, that is something that can’t be beat.
If we understand the Wikipedia movement as fostering civic engagement, then it becomes all the more important that we insure the diversity of participation. We should take steps through classroom and after school activities to broaden who gets to participate in this process of knowledge production and evaluation.
I have tried to suggest throughout this essay that the Wikipedian movement might be one space where young people could acquire the kinds of social skills and cultural competencies necessary to meaningfully participate in the new media landscape. The Wikipedia movement is a place where young people and adults work together to achieve shared goals. The group itself has worked to make its standards, practices and protocols as transparent as possible, giving us the tools we need to evaluate the information the group produces. Wikipedia assumes an active reader who asks questions about the factual claims presented, the evidence supporting the claims and the sources that were consulted.
In particular, I have identified several key skills which are potentially enhanced through active engagement with Wikipedia:
Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others towards a common goal.
Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information source.
Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize and disseminate information.
Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative sets of norms.
But, we need to help our students to develop a larger context for identifying the strengths and limitations of its particular model for knowledge production. As we do so, we need to return to the core questions which Project Look Sharp has central to the Media Literacy movement and rethink them in relation to this changing context of media production, circulation, and consumption.
1. Who made – and who sponsored – this message, and for what purpose? In this case, we need to understand this question from the perspective not of someone who is consuming media produced elsewhere but of someone who is invited to actively participate in the production and circulation of media content.
2. Who is the target audience, and how is the message specifically tailored to them? In this case, we need to focus on the sets of norms and shared ideologies that are shaping the Wikipedia movement.
3. What are the different techniques used to inform, persuade, entertain, and attract attention? In this case, we need to focus on the rhetorical tools which establish credability or motivate participation.
4.What messages are communicated (and/or implied) about certain people, places, events, behaviors, lifestyles, etc.? In this case, we need to consider the different kinds of expertise that different participants in the Wikipedia movement bring to the project, looking at the ways that these diverse perspectives get negotiated through the production of any given article.
5. How current, accurate, and credible is the information in this message? In this case, we need to focus attention on the devices which make the research process more transparent and the ways we need to deploy them to test the reliability of the information.
6. What is left out of this message that might be important to know? In this case, we need to reflect on the systemic biases of the project and how they emerge from the participation gap and from other obstacles which limit individuals ability to access technologies and participate within networked culture.
Clearly, the media literacy community has lots of work to do if we are going to develop as rich and nuanced an understanding of Wikipedia as we have created together over the past several decades around older media forms such as print advertising or television news. But I hope that this article — and the documentaries and curricular guides being produced by Project nml — will represent a step towards integrating Wikipedia into the range of topics that media literacy education seeks to address.
Special Thanks to Alice Robison, Neal Grigsby, and Anna Van Somerin for their help in developing and presenting this paper and to the MacArthur Foundation for their ongoing support of Project nml.
Since I am getting a new influx of readers from the Media Literacy world as a result of my talk on Monday, I wanted to provide a few links to earlier posts which may be of interest to you:
Of course, most of the other topics we cover here are also very relevent to media literacy instructors so I hope you will browse a bit and then settle down as regular readers.