Session 8.8: The Wisdom of Wikis: Public Ownership of the Means of Instruction
Matt Barton (St. Cloud State University) and Bob Cummings (Columbus State University)
Matt Barton began this session by a discussion of the metaphors we use to describe wikis. He noted that wikis are often described as palimpsests, and perhaps rightfully so, and that their creators and the people that cite them in essays are seen as “moral degenerates.” In seeking a metaphor to describe how wikis train people to write in them, specifically in Wikipedia, he decided, then, to look at the medieval hierarchy and specifically at guilds.
Barton believes that game guilds are a decent way to explain the way users move up from being a “noob” to an “officer” then a “master” instead of from an apprentice, to journeyman, to master. Likewise, Wiki users move from being registered users, to admin/sysop, to bureaucrat/stewards (there is also a Board of Regents, who are the developers, but most ordinary users will never make it that far). There is a system available on Wikipedia to “train Wiki Jedis” wherein new members are “adopted” and submit themselves to editorial review, assistance, and coaching. There are also communities and discussions that work on the building of portals, projects, and larger scale collaborations within the Wiki itself.
He believes guilds are a decent descriptor of how a wiki gets made because they emphasize the community and social aspect of wiki building rather than the technological, while also encouraging collaboration. They also build a sense of ownership over the entire community, a sense of responsibility, ethics to what is included, and a duty to include the best information and writing possible. These Wiki guilds are also resistant to corporate influence or top down style management that might try to change them.
Bob Cummings then spoke on whether or not collaborative writing could only be done if style was sacrificed. One of the reasons that people view Wikipedia as “hell” run by a bunch of “moral degenerates” is certainly because it can tend towards the unreadable. People like Robert McHenry (an Encyclopedia Brittanica Editor) do not believe that collaborative writing can be precise, even if much of it happens when more prestigious encyclopedias are published. He noted that in Wikipedia, earlier revisions of many articles were actually more exact than later ones. A study was then performed on both the Encyclopedia Brittanica Online (EBO) and Wikipedia to find inaccuracies for Nature, and on science related topics it seems that for every four inaccuracies published in Wikipedia, there are also three in EBO. However, this study did not look at style or structure. Cummings then went on to summarize the work of another researcher—Mark Bell—who looked at the reading level of EBO and Wikipedia, and found them to have no significant difference, or be less than one grade level apart.
Cummings is interested in factual coherence and a logical progression of ideas, voice coherence amongst authors, ethos, form, and harmony—the awareness of multiple points of view. He examined the pages in both (EBO’s free version vs. Wikipedia) about William Faulkner, since this was a topic he could fact check easily. For Wikipedia he found that there was little logical progression of ideas, the content was uneven, grammar issues made parts of it difficult to understand, the voice coherence was poor, that readers who were familiar with Faulkner wouldn’t find new or much information on the page, and that there were significant mistakes in form, grammar, and spelling. However, the Wikipedia page did present many different points of view (which were all cited neatly) which could have caused some of the problems listed above. Additionally, there were pages devoted to many of Faulkner’s works that are ignored entirely on the EBO page.
On the EBO free page, Cummings found that the facts about Faulkner were presented chronologically creating a sort of factual coherence, it was obviously written by a single author, would have credibility with a Faulkner audience but still was missing a lot of information, the form was not distracting, but it did not represent multiple points of view. Clearly, the Wiki entry wins in “harmony.”
In conclusion, Cummings noted that the way writing happens in Wikipedia is key to understanding how large scale collaboration projects work and effect writing. He does not feel that McHenry was correct in his notion that revisions lead to worse factual errors and writing, and he suggested that a longitudinal study would be necessary to note whether or not McHenry’s statement held further weight.