Reviewing the Author-function in the Age of Wikipedia



“Wikis invoke a multitude of the theoretical issues regarding authorship raised in late structuralist and poststructuralist thought. For many in the humanities and social sciences, the decentering of authorship in favor of discursive and systemic methodologies more attuned to power, historicity, and a dynamic “field” of representation has led to novel methods for critical interpretation and evaluation. However, such models have not become a significant component in how communication is understood within the public sphere. The singular author is very much the model that governs the expectations of most readers. By complicating traditional notions of authorship, wikis affect associated issues of authority, originality, and value.”

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?

WWW / Wiki Wacky Web?: Wikis, Authority and the Public Sphere

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Wiki Communities in the Era of Cultural Individuation


“Essentially, Wikipedia provides an example of poststructuralist principles operating online—an idea impressively illustrated by the “history flow visualizations” of Wikipedia article revisions generated by Fernando B. Viegas, Martin Wattenberg, and Kushal Dave. The original analysis of Wikipedia article evolution by the team “revealed complex patterns of cooperation and conflict” (575). These stem from the community-enabling editing capabilities built-in to the “Talk” and “History” article pages, as well as the “Watch List” option available to registered users providing an alert system for vigilant writer/editors to defend the integrity of specific articles. The goal of these discursive provisions is informal oversight of content, which can be subject to “malicious editing” —one of the strongest criticisms against Wikipedia. The history flow visualizations mapped three categories of wiki article revisions: 1) editing of content on average, 2) a malicious mass deletion of content, and 3) a mass deletion replaced by obscene content. The median survival time of the first category was 90.4 minutes, which broke down to 21% of edits reducing page size, 6% reducing it by only 50 characters—such numbers primarily indicating tightened prose and the elimination of irrelevant information (579, 581). Of course this dynamism is what makes citing Wikipedia problematic. This downside—most apparent when trying to perceive Wikipedia in the vein of a traditional encyclopedia—is balanced by the fact that new content is quickly and easily added to articles as events unfold. For instance, the study refers to how within a week of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 an entry devoted to the topic was written, and had even tripled in size in a few subsequent weeks (581). The fast-responding character of the Wikipedia user community also catches and repairs mass deletions at a median delay of 2.8 minutes—1.7 minutes for those involving obscenities (579). The data produced indicates, to at least those versed in poststructuralist insights on language, that Wikipedia’s neoteric authorial/editorial community is attempting to maximize the radical functionality/medium of wiki technology—publishing, editing, and re-publishing content (with self-governing oversight) at a frequency unimaginable in other media.”

Cited: Viegas, F, Wattenberg, M, Dave, K. 2004. ‘Studying Cooperation and Conflict between Authors with History Flow Visualizations.’ Conference on Human Factors in Computing, Vienna, April 24–29.