The Unfixedness of Knowledge: Discourse, Genre, and Mode in Wikipedia

Wikipedia (http://wikipedia.org/) is the world’s largest online free-content encyclopedia. This means that unlike the content of traditional encyclopedias, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, the content of Wikipedia is free. But perhaps a more important distinction is that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, at any time. This may sound counterproductive, as the purpose of an encyclopedia —one generally assumes— is to fix knowledge, not to open it up to constant and unsupervised manipulation. However, Wikipedia is proving to be a successful endeavor: as of the time of this writing (April 2005), it contained approximately 1.5 million articles in more than 90 different languages. Wikipedia is challenging our ideas about the permanence of knowledge, and in the process allowing us to ask interesting questions about the nature of large scale online collaboration, the act of critical reading, and the emergence of new social literacies. In this paper, I will briefly discuss some characteristics of Wikipedia, mostly from the perspective of Gunther Kress’ (2003) concepts of discourse, genre, and mode.Kress (2003) argues that “[c]ommunication —whatever the mode— always happens as text” and that “text is the result of social action” (p. 47). Thus, we can examine Wikipedia as a text by asking the following questions: 1) “’what is at issue’, ‘what is being talked about’” (p. 47) or in other words, how institutions shape the Wikipedia text (what Kress calls a text’s discourse); 2) how the text is shaped by the social relations of participants, in other words, “who is involved, with what purposes, what roles, what power, in what environments” (p. 47) (what Kress calls genre); and 3) how the text is being shaped by its material form (what Kress calls mode, or a “culturally and socially fashioned resource for representation and communication” (p. 45)).

What goes on in Wikipedia? What is the “text” about? Which institutions determine this? Wikipedia strives to be an authentic encyclopedia. This means that the content consists of encyclopedic articles (alphabetical arrangement is inconsequential, given the non-linear access nature of the web). The text, in other words, is a compendium of human knowledge written in an accessible format. Although there is considerable buzz about the ‘openness’ of Wikipedia, how the text is written (its ‘tone,’ ‘voice’ or ‘style,’ in common terms) is established by the founders of Wikipedia, a non-profit organization called the Wikimedia Foundation. The Wikimedia Foundation has established policies regarding the ‘tone’ of Wikipedia: “Wikipedia requires that its contributors observe a “neutral point of view” when writing… If achieved, Wikipedia would not be written from a single “objective” point of view, but rather fairly present all views on an issue, attributed to their adherents in a neutral way.” (retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia on April 19, 2005). A detailed look at how ‘neutrality’ is constructed in this context, and to what degree Wikipedia articles reflect or fail to reflect this neutrality is beyond the scope of this paper, but an issue that deserves being raised nonetheless. Suffice it to say for the moment that the discourse in Wikipedia is anything but open or haphazard, but intentionally shaped by the Wikimedia Foundation’s goals of creating an ‘authentic’ encyclopedia, and social conventions of what an encyclopedia should ‘sound’ like.

While what goes on in Wikipedia is an interesting story, how it is happening is equally so, at least from a technological perspective. The device that allows anyone to manipulate the content of Wikipedia at any time is a web program called a wiki. What makes wikis innovative knowledge management tools is that they save and archive every change made to a web page, so that not only can anyone edit any page, but anyone can also revert back to a previous version if they wish. In this manner, users can create new pages, edit existing pages, completely re-write pages, or revert to older versions of pages at will. Additionally, users can discuss pages or suggest changes. And the technology behind this is fairly simple to use, so that most computer users can learn the skills required to edit Wikipedia articles in minutes.

Who participates in Wikipedia? What different roles do they play? In order to meet its goal of “creat[ing] and distribut[ing] a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language” (Wales, 2005), Wikipedia relies not on professional editors or writers, but on volunteer authors. According to the Wikipedia site, “authors can be asked to defend or clarify their work, and disputes are readily seen” (retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia on April 19, 2005). The Wikipedia community believes that exposing all content to multiple authors will eventually increase, not decrease its quality (this sentiment is based on an open source philosophy of many programmers approaching the bugs of a software program).

While volunteer authors are responsible for writing all Wikipedia articles, they are by no means its only users. Apart from authors, there are other users that can be classified as browsers, vandals, and administrators. Browsers are users who go to Wikipedia to look up content, but who do not participate in any of the authoring activities. According to the Wikipedia website, the domain receives close to 50 million hits a day. Most of this visits are by browsers. Vandals are functionally similar to authors, except that in their case their intention is not to create useful knowledge, but to destroy it. As mentioned above, wikis make it easy to deal with vandalism by reverting to a previous version of a page. Some types of vandalism are blatant, while others are harder to detect, but both have negative repercussions for the Wikipedia community. Lastly, administrators are volunteers who have accumulated enough trust in the community to be given high-level functions, such as ‘locking’ a page (preventing further changes), deleting or moving pages, expelling users from the community, etc. The following quote encapsulates the distribution of power in Wikipedia: “Its articles are not controlled by any particular user or editorial group, and decision-making on the content and editorial policies of Wikipedia is instead done by consensus and occasionally majority vote, though Jimmy Wales [the founder of Wikipedia] retains final judgment” (retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia on April 19, 2005). As a result, at any given moment the text of a specific article indirectly reflects the application of these levels of decision-making, which become directly visible only in the log of changes to the page, found in the page’s History tab.

What material shape, or mode, does the text take, and how is this mode socially constructed? While visual and audio media are present, Wikipedia’s primary mode is written text, or to be more precise, hypertext. This has a number of important implications. For one, it means that a Wikipedia page, although composed mostly of words, shares many of the characteristics of a screen image identified by Kress (2003): its reading is approached in blocks (such as separate blocks for navigation, article content, discussion, and editing), and there is no single point of entry to the page. Kress’ argument about new forms of hypertextual reading applies perfectly: “Reading is the imposing of the reader’s order on this entity, and order which, while of course responding to what is there, derives from criteria of the reader’s interest, disposition and desire: (2003, p 138). In other words, a browser, an author, an administrator or a vandal will approach a Wikipedia page in very different ways, scanning and making sense of a page according to their needs and desires.

This brings us to another important implication of the hypertextual mode of Wikipedia: that every page is the result of social dynamics that are never completed (even if a page is locked at some point, it can be unlocked later). “Wikipedia does not declare any article finished” (retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia on April 19, 2005). This means that we are dealing with a ‘live’ mode, a mode that refuses to be fixed, and that is ever sensitive to social influences. Critics of Wikipedia claim that its content is worthless because it is not subjected to any form of authoritative review. For those who believe in the fixity of knowledge, this might be a reassuring argument. But I believe that the new mode of text embodied by Wikipedia can teach new generations about the responsibilities of social collaboration, the act of critical reading (applied even to Reference materials), and the permanently unfinished state of human knowledge.

References

Kress, G. R. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. London: Routledge.

Wales, J. (2005). Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://mail.wikipedia.org/pipermail/wikipedia-l/2005-March/038102.html on April 19, 2005.

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