Monday, September 10, 2007

Wikipedia's Style Guide, Gender-Neutrality and the Future of The Internets

For those who might be interested in the topic, which I believe includes some readers of this blog, there is a rather heated debate on the gendered pronouns going on Wikipedia if anyone feels the desire (and has the time) to contribute.

I find the whole idea of Wikipedia interesting. If this had been a style guide published by a press, I am sure that this topic would (and has) certainly been debated, but it would have taken years on the turn-around time. One edition is published every two years, minor edits are made when people (probably in academia) object to the usage. Then, after edits are made others (again, probably in academia) would charge that standard usage shouldn't be changed so easily and the entire purpose of a guide is to use practice and, therefore, even if it might be gender-biased, we shouldn't revolutionize the world of style guides. The printed style-guides then might add that there are two acceptable ways to write with gendered pronouns.

Now, this entire debate has occurred in the process of six days going back and forth. And, while this is certainly more "democratic" than the discussions in publishing houses and academic journals, it now privileges people who can, if they desire, spend all day at the computer debating the ins and outs of usage or any of the other debatable topics on Wikipedia. If I miss a day or two in one of these discussions, or even more than a couple of hours, I might as well not participate.

It makes me think that there might be a whole new ethic of professionals that is going to develop who can do this for a living. I mean there are allegations that corporations manipulate Wiki entries and Wikipedia is often the first site someone goes to in an effort to get information on a topic on which they know nothing. We also already see professional bloggers, Markos Moulitsas, Michelle Malkin, Andrew Sullivan, etc. who have been able to give up their "day jobs" and convert blogging to those very jobs. But, if it requires constant attention to run a good blog and that blog can be converted to ad hits and the like, how long before we some kind of consolidation of the profession into large conglomerates?

I know that I am not the first to mention this, but it just seems interesting to me how the nature of Web 2.0 can change the dynamic to be both more and less democratic. It is also interesting to see if there are new rules to integrating empires including the role that blogs play in the dissemination of information. Will they continue to do a better job expressing opinions and analysis than the established print and television outlets, or will they evolve into news-gathering organizations with budgets to do the kind of investigative reporting that outlets like the New York Times, the major networks, CNN, Fox News, etc. are able to do (and, I might add, often do poorly)? Also, what will be the role of research in this world? Will academics begin to care more about Wiki entries in their topics and work on them? Will this require some kind of credit professionally (the same way one gets credit if one writes an entry for a subject encyclopedia or a textbook on a subject) and will this insertion of "experts" lead to fewer "non-experts" contributing to sites like Wikipedia? These questions bring up the democratic potentials potentials in the sense that participation is not locked to certain physical locations (e.g. newsrooms, universities, television stations). But, the ability to be able to participate in these discussions requires either a) an abundant amount of flexible time (usually associated with professional work) or b) that one gets paid enough to make a living to continuously contribute (and, therefore, creating a profession rather than a democratic "netroots" control).

I am sure that Squires and the folks at Orgtheory would have a much more elegant description of this process and its potentials, but I think that it represents a fascinating intersection of language, organizational theory and markets that still has many potential avenues along which to develop and, potentially, to influence that development. Who knows, it might even affect the progress of mankind humankind...


pc said...

I want to comment on this very badly, but I don't have time this morning. This comment is a placeholder.

Basically, though: The idea that Wikipedia is somehow a more democratic source of knowledge because its contributors are made up of "non-experts" is becoming more of a joke to me. What they specify that their entries should be is basically a recapitulation of whatever is already published about the topic, within well-defined limits about what constitutes "published" or "established" or "already-produced original research." [Actually, I confess that my experience with this is largely about Wiktionary, where I've looked up the rules a lot, and not Wikipedia - but I do assume there's some similarity in how things are created - if there's not, then that's *really* interesting.] So the only thing separating it from Britannica or something, is the time factor, as you note, and the space factor: Wikipedia can happen fast, and the network of links can grow and grow and grow. Is the information any qualitatively different because it's amalgamated by a circle of "non-experts"? I think it's mistaken to think that it's honestly aiming for that.

And I am REALLY running late, but I want to come back to this - language-type study that people have done about online interaction often finds that the same patterns of discrimination that obtain in F2F interaction (based on gender, for instance) also hold in online interaction. So what is touted as being some kind ultra-"democratic" or "non-hierarchical" social space just gets turned into that by the effects of people's established habitus (? it's too early in the morning to talk about Bourdieu, but I'm going there). I wrote a paper about this last year...

dave3544 said...

I don't think it's "fair" to hold Wikipedia accountable because the people who use it tend to recreate the biases that exist in society. I thought the purpose of the Wikipedia project was to create the space for a more democratic society. In this sense, of course Wikipedia will tend to reflect the society that contributes toward it. And, like the larger society, the "knowledge" on Wikipedia will tend to reflect the perspectives of those that have the time to spend on the issue in question. Those that are passionate, not necessarily "right," will tend to win out.

What Wikipedia does well is create the space for that battle to happen. Do you passionately feel that General Van Dorn has gotten a bad rap over his decision to split his forces before the Battle of Pea Ridge? Then fight it out with those who disagree with you. If no one really gives a crap, then, um, no one really gives a crap. The thing is, there is no "right" answer as to whether is was a bad idea for Van Dorn to do this. At least one scholar has said yes and there it is. Of course, we can't really know what might have happened had the forces not been split, so...

Of course, this is also part of the Wikipedia project, pointing up the fact that all of our knowledge is contingent knowledge. It is biased knowledge. Subjective knowledge.

Anyone who has spent even a year in academia knows that who gets to claim the mantle of authority that derives from a professorship is only tenuously linked tot he quality of one's scholarship. Job openings, location, personality, race, class, gender, and so many other factors contribute to who works in academia that it is a little bit silly to to say on those who "make it" should be allowed to opine. We know this. And we also know the difficulty of being heard without those credentials.

Wikipedia creates the space for everyone to be heard. That what we end up ultimately producing is the same old, same old is a shame, although I would say that Wikipedia has expanded the knowledge base and still leaves open the possibility for broader knowledge to be created. While it is true, that Wikipedia will be dominated by those with the free time to write it, I think we can agree that academia is dominated by those with a spare seven years to get an advanced degree.

Mike3550 said...

It's never too early for Bourdieu!!! I agree that there is something to the habitus that contributes to the development of the kind of online community that Wikipedia engenders. I find it to be an interesting question, particularly who might find space in this kind of community that might not otherwise be able to find it (i.e. smart people who are interested in academic topics but don't necessarily work in academia/knowledge "production" professions - the kind of people Dave talks about being able to participate in the discussion).

BUT, the question that I find more intriguing is the more structural framework. Is the development of technologies like Wikipedia, Blogger, WordPress, etc. going to create a new "field" along which there will be competitive battles. Early-adapters, who are able to mobilize resources from other fields such as education, technological capability, unstructured time in order to gain an advantage in this new form of production -- even if it ends up producing similar knowledge the actual people producing that knowledge are different. I think that has already happened where the netroots has intersected with traditional political competition and changed it (local campaigns for congressional seats or senatorial races can now become national campaigns based on effective mobilization -- just ask Ned Lamont). Being able to use technological resources and having the social networks to introduce a person to the possibilities created a way in which more people have the option of contributing to a discussion about something that they care a great deal about.

For the past ten years, there has not been a kind of recognized market along which these competitions formed. As the resources required to participate are made more widely available and thus diminishing the advantage of early adapters, this is likely to change the market and dynamics. I guess this is one of those times where I can see several different directions that this process can follow and that is why I think that it is so fascinating, from an organizational and market perspective to study. I don't see it as a matter of fairness to say one is more democratic than another -- I simply think that studying the possibilities are interesting.

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