Wikis, Authority and the Public Sphere

Panel Abstract

As social computing practices continue to modify and transform how cultural texts can be generated and circulated, written communities fostered and sustained by wikis offer some insight into the possibilities and pitfalls of dynamic, group authored content production. The fame (and infamy) of Wikipedia as an example of on-line wiki-activity begins to address some of the theoretical issues about authorship raised in late structuralist and poststructuralist thought. For many in the humanities and social sciences, the de-centering of authorship in favor of discursive and systemic modes more attuned to power and historicity across the field of representation has led to novel methods for critical interpretation and evaluation. As such, this panel will consider the avenues by which wiki activity and related social computing phenomena further complicate traditional notions of authorship and, thus, associated issues of authority, originality and value.

Wikis are software programs that allow users to create and edit web pages with a web browser. The implications of open access on the creation and editing of content is profound. In an unprecedented way, wikis allow for discourse to emerge that is continually negotiated and articulated through a community of users; sometimes, literally, thousands of interlocutors. The properties of texts that have emerged from active collaboration test the boundaries of established avenues of knowledge production and modern institutions of knowledge and authority. The recent controversies surrounding Wikipedia speak to the sense of encroachment felt by many established media and information outlets.

This panel seeks papers that analyze and assess prominent examples of wiki collaboration from various theoretical perspectives. We seek papers that address how wikis function in the context of established media and the public sphere. As wikis present the attendant risks associated with any social forum (misrepresentation, hate-speech, hoaxes, vandalism, and the like), how do wiki communities debate, shape and regulate the mores, practices, even the terminology, of public discourse?

UNICEF Fundraiser Flyer

Designed flyer for a 2006 UNICEF trick-or-treat fundraiser I organized.

I co-organized the fundraiser in 2005 and 2006 with a fellow student after writing an editorial in Reporter, RIT’s student-run news magazine, advocating for similar projects ahead of RIT’s Thanksgiving break [see link below for editorial text].

Flyer Design


Editorial Tear Sheet


2006 Golisano College of Computing Student Delegate Speech

Full Text

Fellow 2006 graduates of the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, I have a confession to make:

When I was a freshman, I had a torrid romance with a beautiful, Russian bride.

It started out innocent enough. I received this amazing, unsolicited e-mail from a young Russian woman, named Olga. She talked about her family, and her job, and what her hopes and dreams were. While I, instead of being immediately suspicious, convinced myself that she had simply found my e-mail address on one of the many personal profiles I had scattered about the internet. She was impressed with what I had to say… right?

I wrote her back. I played hard to get—nothing terribly personal—but asked a lot of specific questions, just to make sure it wasn’t a hoax. After three or four e-mails, we were madly in love.

Well… she was madly in love with me. I, instead, had quickly realized that she was really a bot—a spambot to be precise—simply trying to engage me in a vague, shotgun romance online, while asking for personal checking account numbers, to help pay for her visa and plane ticket to the U.S.

The final piece of evidence came when I replied to her after neglecting the “relationship” for several weeks, out of boredom. When Olga wrote back, her artificial intelligence script had apparently been reset. I ended up receiving the same e-mail that had started the whole sordid affair.

The story of Olga and I is not uncommon. There is an entire website devoted to revealing these charlatans called I found Olga’s profile there, along with hundreds of other fake Russian brides.

Such circumstances bring up a slew of ethical questions, that we as the emerging experts in computing and information science must face—questions that do not have clear answers. You might say that Spamming should be illegal. But aren’t Spammers just clever entrepreneurs, simply capitalizing on your trust that your information is really private?

Then again some spam, like my example, is actually an attempt to commit fraud—an action that is patently illegal. Yet, some might argue that if you are stupid enough to fall for such a ploy, you deserve to lose your money. Now that’s a bit harsh, but so is the job climate in countries like Russia, where men and women resort to hacking and spamming, in order to feed their kids and pay the rent.

The ethics of the situation soon become relative. Throw in issues of government surveillance, and we find ourselves having an increasingly difficult time trying to distinguish who or what is good, and who or what is evil, in the world of computing and the internet.

Now, I’m not trying to be alarmist here, but what all of us have learned in a classroom, or taught ourselves, is more than enough to be dangerous. And this is where you must act with integrity and form a personal agenda, and goals, based on the question: What does being ethical mean to you?

Does it mean developing open source software, free to users? Does it mean pirating software, because you believe the retail costs are extortive? Does it mean working for a corporation, that tries to be everything for its customers, at the cost of its competitors? Does it mean posing as a Russian bride so that you can feed your family?

Asking myself such questions, reminded me of Google’s informal,

corporate motto: Don’t Be Evil.

Of course, we all hope that they are serious about their motto, considering the database of personal information, on each and every Internet search user that Google controls.

But really, as we leave the protective fold of RIT, and journey on to the proverbial “future,” we must think about our ethical position and how it relates to our careers.

Some of you have already accepted job offers. Some of you will be headed to grad school. And some of you will be going back home, to try to figure out what it is you really want to do with your life. But all of you, at some time or another, will be trying to decide which career path is the right one for you to take.

And as you make these difficult decisions and mature as students and citizens of this world, remember to be true to yourself, act with personal integrity, and do what you believe is best for you and those around you.

In three words: Don’t Be Evil.

2006 RIT Academic Convocation Student Speech

Full Text

Before I begin, I would like to thank President Simone, Provost Stan McKenzie, Vice President of Academic Affairs Kit Mayberry, and Vice President of Student Affairs Mary-Beth Cooper for the opportunity to say something to my graduating class.

And while many of you will forget what I am about to say—probably sometime early next week—it is still a rare honor to stand before you today and deliver your student convocation address.

So here it goes: the clichéd graduation speech on “doing something with your life.” I have spent a lot of time thinking about this topic—roughly twenty-one years. And after that brief bit of life experience, as well as four years of undergraduate education, I still feel less than qualified to deliver any officially sage-like advice to you on the “doing something with your life” topic.

And so for this exercise I will rely, in part, on a conversation I had with my mom during the summer following my sophomore year at RIT.

Here’s the story: I was on co-op at the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center in Fairbanks, Alaska. One sunshine-filled evening, my mom started up an instant messaging conversation with me. After going through the usual “your dad did this, your sister did that,” she asked me about my plans. I decided to tell her about what I had just done the previous night,

which was: nonchalantly snuck into a bar, down the street, that wasn’t checking IDs.

Being the under-21 college student, when I relayed this to my mom I placed heavy emphasis on the conversations I had, while in the bar. There was one particular conversation, with a grad student from Germany named Wolf, which stuck out.

Wolf told me about how he stopped studying physics in Berlin, after two years, in order to start studying medicine. At the time, he was on an exchange program, mid-medical-degree, at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, to work on a thesis concerning Genomics. His plans were to, then, return to Germany and finish the clinical work for his M.D. And, after all that, he hoped to go back to studying physics again.

Besides Wolf’s academic path sounding less-than-straight, and even a bit insane from a career-oriented perspective, his aspirations were, and still are, inspiring to me. His dedication to learning as much as possible, in a variety of fields, in order to generate new knowledge and benefit those around him—is something I find extremely impressive, and indicative of something I find to be of utmost importance: the idea of learning as intrinsic to one’s life, work, and goals.

In other words, being a lifelong learner.

I’ve had the opportunity, as I’m sure you’ve had, to work with, and meet, many other lifelong learners—among peers, coworkers, professors, administrators, and of course family members.

All of us here in the Gordon Field House are aware, that when your eager hands accept the RIT diploma now due to you, your education does not, in fact, stop. But lifelong learning is more than just this simple truth. And although, I can’t exactly present you with a comprehensive, universal definition of lifelong learning, I can give you a few things that I believe it is and isn’t.

Obviously, lifelong learning isn’t staying in school forever. Nor is it simply reading the newspaper everyday. However, it is reading multiple news sources, to try and get the real picture of current events; it is picking up a little sign language to get a sense of the vibrant culture, alive just next door; it is going to hear a lecturer you don’t agree with, in order to at least understand his argument.

Lifelong learning is about actively engaging in, and with, your life. And most importantly, it is about learning what your values are and how you want to be remembered.

Wolf was a lifelong learner and by relating his personality and ambition to my mom, she helped me investigate what being a lifelong learner really means.

I had just finished telling her how I couldn’t be satisfied with what someone would call (quote/unquote) “traditional goals,” when my mom replied:

“Right now you are a taker not a giver. When we begin our education that is how it has to be. You are preparing to give back, but you need to get a lot first. Learning feeds your spirit…

“You will have to have your own definitions of work, success, and failure and no one else needs to understand them. Everyone just needs values to feel good about themselves at the end of our lives. If people remember you were a good person—kind, useful, worthwhile to spend time with—what greater accomplishment is there? Think about what it takes to meet those criteria—it is a huge task—but the most worthwhile.”

Congratulations Class of 2006 and Thank You.

RIT Information Technology Honors Thesis

I won an undergraduate research grant to work to build a prototype of a web platform in Ruby on Rails that would enable users to add personal annotations to government documents and share them with other users. I continued work on the prototype and wrote up the documentation in Spring 2006 for my honors thesis.




This undergraduate Honors capstone project involves the creation of the novel web application called .GOVernator. The purpose of this social software tool is to allow users to “markup” government documents, like the Bill of Rights, with XML tags using an interface that does require in-depth knowledge of XML. The application is programmed using the Ruby on Rails framework with JavaScript and its implementation in Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX), XHTML, CSS, XML, and XSLT. The resulting program is prototype for allowing users to create an account via registration, navigate their own home page allowing them to select government documents to markup (a.k.a scrutinize), and then use a browser-based interface for adding XML tags to government documents—storing tag names to a database for later analysis. All program functionality, except for the critical markup functionality, is in place. Help documents are also still needed to guide the user through interaction with the application’s interface. The future of the project is further development (programming) of the .GOVernator web application, a case study involving 10-30 users, and a proposal to the Lab for Social Computing as an adopted project for school year following this publication of this paper.