Wikipedia elites?

There's been a bit of debated in the blogosphere about a blog entry claiming that Wikipedia practises exclusionism through what could be thought of as "wiki literacy".
The fundamental argument is that wikipedia is built on Media Wiki and Media Wiki has quite a complex editing system. In order to successfully make edits on Wikipedia that do anything more complex than simple text changes you do need to be competent with wiki mark up. This can is especially marked in the discussion pages which can look like a soup of odd characters when you switch to editing view. The author gets a little wild-eyed and claims that this is deliberate attempt to make editing difficult. (Not as difficult as trying to type a blog with a cat on your keyboard mind you.) If only people with a "masters degree in media wiki" can seriously contribute then, he claims, what you have is a system that self-selects contributors. One commentor succinctly parodies the argument as:

1) Hi, you've created arguably the most successful community of user generated content in history.
2) You're doing it all wrong.

Is there, though, some merit in the argument?


There is no doubt that Media Wiki is not an easy platform to use. In fact many web2.0 platforms are far from easy to learn – Moveable Type being a case in point – but judging from my experiences in answering questions about wikis, wikis are uniquely intimidating and Media Wiki may be the most intimidating of them all. Hasn’t stopped it being successful and certainly, if the draw is strong enough, people will learn how to use the system. “A Million Penguins” demonstrates that quite nicely.
I would venture, however, that generic wiki literacy and specific competence with Media Wiki is still a relatively rare skill. Whether we want to think of the contributors to Wikipedia as either digital immigrants (will the next generation of web-users be bored of Wikipedia) or early adopters or enthusiasts, there is no doubt that they are required to acquire a degree of wiki literacy. As with any community, we would expect that members will acquire status and different levels of competency. Furthermore, given the tendency for communities to coalesce around symbolic traditions and shared practices, I would posit that attempts to simplify the interface will cause upset. There would be cries of “dumbing down” among other things.
To be honest I suspect that the original blogger has a point but that it’s not necessarily the point he thinks it is. Any community is, by definition, somewhat exclusionary. Often times, the stronger the internal ties of a community are, the harder it is to enter that community. Thus the communal nature of a web2.0 site can sit uneasily with the “open source” philosophy that may underpin it. Literacy in terms of the community’s communicative practice and expertise within that literacy will be an element of identity for community members.
This has obvious implications for transliteracy. Wikipedia has become something of a lightning rod when it comes to web2.0. The latest news story about a Wikipedia contributor providing false credentials speaks to cultural understandings of expertise and what it is that constitutes authoritative knowledge. Jess, who also blogs here, uses this case as an “example of why I discourage students from using wikipedia.” I disagree with her viewpoint but it does indicate the role of Wikipedia as a culturally contested domain. The contest is, I believe, over authority and whether, to put it crudely, the mob or the elite controls knowledge.
My feeling is that something more interesting is happening; Wikipedia contributors are a community of shared practice. They form a heterogeneous group and as with any group they have boundaries with those outside the group. As with Usenet examples from the dim and distance past, we’re starting to see splinter groups as those unhappy with the community form their own versions. For example, religious conservatives have formed their own version of Wikipedia.
So far we’ve been thinking of transliteracy as something akin to, if different from, media literacy. One issue that does need exploring though is the notion that web2.0 is really about people-to-people interactions via web services. Transliteracy is going to need to pay attention to, for example, communicative norms within web2.0 based communities. To come up with a strapline, we need to think of transliteracy and culture.

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2 thoughts on “Wikipedia elites?

  1. Vocabulary Soup

    An interesting issue has emerged from a fascinating JISC Techwatch report into web2.0. The issue concerns the author’s attempt to differentiate a “folksonomy” from a “collabulary”. Poul Anderson writes “…there is a distinction between a folksonomy (a…

  2. Excellent points. There is certainly something to be said for not resting on 2.0 laurels and continuing to look for improvements to (media) wiki systems – they are a long way from intuitive, and this surely does raise barriers to entry. Yet as you say there will always be some level of exclusivity, if not caused by the system then by the learned cultures that exist within the system, such as wiki etiquette and theories of knowledge; and beyond that the basic fact of the digital divide.
    The idea that simplifications in interface might cause some to moan about dumbing down is very amusing, given the claims of exactly this against wikipedia in general. Naturally these claims seem to come mainly from within academia, another relatively exclusive culture that creates knowledge ‘experts’, in terms of specific fields, the wider epistemologies and all the related conventions (spelling, grammar, the standard systems of footnote and bibliography notation, etc. etc.)
    How many academics does it take to change a wiki?
    None – that’s what research students are for.

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