Social literacies: Some observations about writing and wikis

In Literacy in the New Media Age, Gunther Kress (2003) argues that the image is displacing writing as the main resource for communication in Western societies. This does not mean, obviously, that writing is disappearing. But as Kress would put it, the world told is increasingly being replaced by the world shown—with all the social and cultural changes that this entails. An analysis of the considerations that go into how text is arranged and displayed on a web page, for example, suggests that Kress is correct in pointing out that writing is being treated more and more as a visual entity. No longer is the unbroken, uniform, left to right flow of text the norm. Instead, in the new media especially, text plays a secondary role to images, meandering around them, adjusting its visual properties (such as font, size and color) to fit the overall layout of the screen, and signaling different entry points into the non-linear flow of meaning. Think of a blog: although it is basically full of text, how you make sense of the blog has a lot to do with the visual arrangement of the text: how posts are organized, what information goes on the sidebars, where the link to the RSS feed is usually located, etc. Interacting with a blog has as much to do with the reading of the text as with the watching of the screen.

But is this ‘visual turn’ as totalizing as Kress suggests? Will all forms of writing in the new media age become increasingly organized according to the logic of the image? We must keep in mind that (because of bandwidth capacity) the internet was first and foremost a textual medium. This means that probably for a long time to come, conceptualizing innovative ways to do things online will involve the manipulation of textual symbols in some form or another. Consider the case of wikis. While their use and popularity remains relatively limited, they are a clear example of a new media technology grounded as much on the workings of text as on those of the image.

A wiki, for those unfamiliar with the tool, is a collection of web pages that can be edited by anyone using nothing more than a web browser. Technically, a wiki is a piece of software residing on a server that facilitates the creation, editing and hyperlinking of text files, which are displayed as online pages (it is also possible to embed images on the text). Two of the most salient features of a wiki are that the editing is open to anyone (hence the process is referred to as open editing), and that the creation, formatting and interlinking of pages requires very simple syntax. For example, to create a link to a new or an existing page, a user needs only to enclose the title of the page in brackets. While the tool itself is not very technologically sophisticated (hence part of its beauty), the collaborative and democratic affordances of wikis are giving us plenty to think about.

For one thing, wikis are challenging and redefining our notions of how text itself works. While hypertext changed our understanding of textual linearity and flow, wikis are changing our ideas about the ‘social’ life of text. Of course, in a way writing has always been social. Even when the writing is done by an isolated author, that author is nonetheless responding to social conventions and interests. No one writes in a vacuum. But wikis make writing social by allowing for the direct, continuous manipulation of a text by a group of people.

The idea of collaborative writing is not entirely new. Margaret Fleming’s work (1988), for example, recognizes that many professional occupations require that people cooperate in the writing of texts. However, such approaches have always assumed a group of people who come face-to-face to plan and discuss their actions. A wiki is different in that authors don’t have to be in the same physical space, don’t have to have a previous relationship with each other, and don’t need to plan their actions in any way. The wiki not only captures the content, but also the process; or rather, the wiki is the content and the process.

Wikis engender a new form of literacy: a social literacy. The word literacy is used loosely these days to define all sorts of competences (viz. visual literacy, musical literacy, computer literacy, and so on). Here, I am using Kress’ more exact definition: literacy as the “term which refers to (the knowledge of) the use of the resource of writing” (2003, p. 24). This definition makes it possible to separate literacy from other resources (such as speech), as well as other ‘metaphorical extensions’ of the concept (such as musical literacy, cultural literacy, etc.). The intention is to re-focus literacy exclusively on writing. Thus, social literacy (as I am using the term) is not a metaphorical extension of the concept and does not refer to the skills necessary to perform in society, but to the use of the resource of writing in social contexts. Social literacy amounts to the textual practices not (as has been true so far) of a single author, but of multiple and simultaneous authors. Wikis make social literacy apparent by allowing us to witness the evolution of text in time, and evolution that reflects the decisions not of a single individual, but of a community.

Brian Lamb (2004) summarizes some of the characteristics of wiki writing as follows:

Content is ego-less, time-less, and never finished. Anonymity is not required but is common. With open editing, a page can have multiple contributors, and notions of page “authorship” and “ownership” can be radically altered. Content “cloning” across wikis—sometimes referred to in non-wiki circles as “plagiarism”—is often acceptable. (This attitude toward authorship can make citations for articles such as this one a tricky exercise.) Unlike weblogs, wiki pages are rarely organized by chronology; instead they are organized by context, by links in and links out, and by whatever categories or concepts emerge in the authoring process. And for the most part, wikis are in a constant state of flux. Entries are often unpolished, and creators may deliberately leave gaps open, hoping that somebody else will come along to fill them in.

In wikis, the process becomes the product. What is important is not who changed a sentence in the text, but that the sentence has been changed and can be changed again, if someone doesn’t like it. As the following quote suggests, wikis significantly alter our ideas about the ownership and stability of text to an extent that not even earlier forms of electronic text achieve:

Concern with this openness – concern with the ability of others not only to read but to change what’s been written – is a measure of how closed we take writing to be. Even on the web, it seems, words are written in stone, and what’s more, we own the stones we write on, damnit! (WikiAsCulture, n.d., emphasis in original)

In a wiki, writing is so open that it ceases to be owned by any single individual. The surprising thing about wikis is that, although all the openness sounds like a recipe for disaster, committed communities seem to avoid chaos and actually manage to give shape to collectively shared meaning.

Which is not to say that wikis do not pose challenges to the articulation of meaning. Crystal (2001), while not writing about wikis specifically, enumerated some of the problems of social literacy. He argues that contrary to most traditional printed texts which have a single author, on the web:

[t]here are multi-authored pages where the style shifts unexpectedly from one part of a page to another. The more interactive a site becomes, the more likely it will contain language from different dialect backgrounds and operating at different stylistic levels—variations in formality are particularly common… People have more power to influence the language of the Web than in any other medium, because they operate on both sides of the communication divide, reception and production. They not only read a text, they can add to it. (Crystal, 2001, pp. 207, 208)

Which raises the question of how author/readers are able to write for and make sense of this new type of multi-styled text. Are authors/readers learning to ‘filter out’ the noise of multiple styles, and becoming more adept at developing a holistic understanding of the wiki text? In other words, are they becoming comfortable with textual bricolage, with a ‘genre’ of writing (cf. Kress, 2003, Chapter 6) characterized by the impermanence of genre? Or are authors/readers learning to write in a uniform, globalized form of wiki-speak? What are the social and cultural implications of each scenario?

Another area that merits attention is the educational affordances of the wiki. Wikis can facilitate a shift from an objectivist theory of learning to a constructivist or situated perspective. Instead of authors producing texts with ‘fixed’ meanings for the consumption of learners, groups of people collaborate in the production of the text, and meaning emerges out of these social interactions at the level of the text. This collective intelligence is something that can be encouraged both inside and outside the classroom. Learners can use wikis in the classroom for class projects, helping define the curriculum as they do so. But wikis can also be used outside the classroom for learners to pursue more personal interests and research agendas. It is important to keep in mind that, more than mere texts, wikis represent communities, online places where a group of people who share an interest come together to collaborate and learn. These communities can intersect the boundaries of school and non-school interests.

A final recommendation, based on personal observations, is that wikis in education should not be used to attempt to facilitate dialogue. There are plenty of other online tools better equipped to support an Initiation-Reply mode of conversation (such as discussion boards for collective dialogue, or blogs and email for more individualized forms of exchange). If appropriate, these tools can be used in conjunction with wikis. But the whole point of wikis is to de-prioritize the individual voice in favor of the collective voice, which dictates the structure and content of the text. This, of course, is a literacy which most individuals in our societies are unaccustomed to. Which is why scaffolding wikis with other technologies that support more traditional forms of communication might be an adequate strategy.


Crystal, D. (2001). Language and the internet. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fleming, M. B. (1988). Getting out of the writing vacuum. NCTE Committee on Classroom Practices in Teaching English, Focus on Collaborative Learning: Classroom Practices in Teaching English, 77-104. Urbana: NCTE.

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

Lamb, B. (2004). Wide open spaces: Wikis, ready or not. EDUCAUSE Review, 39, (5), 36–48. Retrieved on March 1, 2005 from

WikiAsCulture. (n.d.) Retrieved on March 1, 2005 from

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  1. Social literacy durch Wikis?

    Ulises Ali Mejias fragt sich in seinem Weblog ideant, wie Autoren und Leser wiki-typische Texte verstehen und an ihnen mitschreiben k?nnen, Texte, in denen sich unterschiedliche pers?nliche Stile vermischen:

    Are authors/readers learning to ‘filte…

  2. Hey, interesting piece. As I’m sure you’ve picked up from some of the reading in Chuck’s classes, literacy is a term that is still being hotly debated, even amongst those in the field of literacy research and education. We’re also debating the term in my adolescents and new literacies class (which i’m blogging here). I would venture to say though that your reworking of the term –

    “… social literacy (as I am using the term) is not a metaphorical extension of the concept and does not refer to the skills necessary to perform in society, but to the use of the resource of writing in social contexts.” –

    comes pretty close to working definitions put forward by scholars in the New Literacy Studies that see literacy not as fixed and singular, but as multiple and fluid and, notably, embedded in sociocultural contexts – “literacies – the social practices and conceptions of reading and writing” according to Street (wish I could find the date on this article). So I’m not sure that you need a new term, “social literacy,” given that the socialness of literacy is embedded in the concept of literacies as put forward by New Literacy Studies (which Kress, among others including Alvermann, Lankshear & Knobel, Moje, Cammack, Kinzer, Gee, etc. are associated with). It would be interesting, for example, to examine wikis-in-use through the lens of literacy practices… part of that description would include what I think you’re describing as the social nature of wikis, i.e. their tendendcy to be authored by multiple people.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Sarah.

    As far as my use of the term ‘social literacy,’ I agree that perhaps we need a different term. I was trying to differentiate it from current ways in which we understand literacy to be ‘social’ (I shouldn’t have called it ‘social literacy’ then, right?). You are correct: thanks to the work of the New Literacy folks, we recognize today that literacy is, as you say, multiple and fluid. But I think what most people have in mind when they think of literacy as social is the idea of intertextuality: texts relate to each other socially by referencing and linking to each other. However, we are still talking about individual text authored by individual people.

    What I find interesting about wikis is the emergence of a truly multi-authored text, to the point where it is impossible to see who wrote what (most wikis do not have ways to identify individual contributions unless the author inserts a signature or something). Although one could argue that multi-authored texts have been around for a while (eg, the Bible), I think wikis make them possible in a unique way. It’s a whole new set of affordances. Thus, I was trying to come up with a term for this new form of literacy, but you are right: ‘social’ is too broad and associated with earlier trends. I didn’t want to call it ‘wiki literacy’ because that would be too flavor-of-the-month. Any suggestions? Do we even need to name this rose?

  4. I enjoyed reading and musing on your thoughtful essay, Ulises. Your take on the “social,” in terms of conjoint constructions in Wikis, gives us more insights on different literacy practices. Halliday, Street, Barton, Gee, and many others before them (my favorite is Volosinov) have wanted us to pay more attention to what was always true, that text is the product of social action. Volosinov states, “any utterance—the finished, written utterance not excepted—makes response to something and is calculated to be responded to in turn” (1929/1973, p. 72). He characterizes verbal interactions (spoken and written) as organized across a range of social situations and notes that people have a repertoire of “genres,” which they evoke according to these situations.

    Kress and others dealing with multimodality address this notion, too, but they also take into account other semiotic resources such as image, which you are not trying to focus on here. You are asking us to look more closely at co-constructed texts. I wouldn’t argue, though, that this is an entirely new phenomenon since even in workplace environments people sit down and collaborate to write things like proposals to win programs, etc (and remember interactive fiction that was popular around 15-20 years ago?) But you do argue convincingly that Wikis have a shape of their own, with mixtures of styles and the added feature of long-distance co-authorship. You also note that the Wikis develop in an organic fashion and even include a certain kind of checks-and-balances function much like the kind that Lankshear and Knobel discuss with regard to e-Bay users. Thanks. You are making us think more about social literacies.

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