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, the free encyclopedia, is “largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet,” according to the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia (Wikipedia, n.d., para. 1). Alexa.com currently ranks Wikipedia as the sixth most popular website in the United States and the seventh most popular website world-wide. The encyclopedia is the result of years of collaboration and knowledge sharing from users, known as Wikipedians. As a medium, Wikipedia is perhaps the largest collaborative writing environment available in digital or print form. With so many different users contributing to the vast knowledge base, certain affordances have the potential to lead a chaotic assembly of competing ideologies and meanings. So why has Wikipedia endured as a successful medium of public information and knowledge building? This paper will discuss how people use Wikipedia, the collaborative nature of the environment, how ethos is established through Wikipedia entries, the notion of Wikipedia as a democratic space for public information, and the effect of blurred lines between authors and readers. Wikipedia is often used as a general knowledge base – users can either search entries to find answers to specific questions, or browse categories to gain a broad overview of a specific topic. The accessibility and wide scope of topics covered make Wikipedia “a central part of a fundamental shift in the way information is being transported between people” (Nelson, 2008, p. 275). Increasing the accessibility of information on Wikipedia is the fact that articles “dominate Google search results, making it a primary source of information for millions” (Mangu-Ward,
20). when pressed to find information quickly.” but participation in process. For example. there is a large contingent of professors that believe students should seek “quality information. 1964. para. 275). p.” in favor of more global. Wikipedia’s former editor in chief. It is widely accepted in academia that Wikipedia as a source of scholarly research is inefficient. ultimately leading to a more informed public. generalized information (McLuhan. 1960. 2005.2 2007. so too should students and general information seekers. does not allow his students to cite Wikipedia articles because the collaborative nature of many “encourages people to discredit the importance of expertise” (Taylor. p. as one professor pointed out. this mosaic form has become a dominant aspect of human association. a collaborative environment “eliminates long established roles based on highly specialized knowledge. However. not just convenience. Since many members of higher education exploit the nature of Wikipedia as a quick source of information that can lead to more credible sources. p. 575). This leads to a larger base of knowledge. 210) . 2008. 3). Wikipedia as a Collaborative Environment “With the speed-up of printing and news-gathering. p. Larry Sanders.” that Wikipedia affords (Jaschik. for the mosaic form means.” (McLuhan. 6). easily discredited. Many universities have attempted to place outright bans on the student use of Wikipedia for academic research. the medium is “just so much more convenient than sifting through a traditional encyclopedia or finding an original article or book” (Nelson. and inappropriate for substantial contributions to the creation of knowledge. As a source of information. not a detached “point of view. 2007. p. accessible by more people through a vaster network of contributors. As the speed with which we access information increases.
2009. The popularity and success of Wikipedia leads to an assumption that users are confident in the collaboration and shared knowledge of a very diverse body of contributors – Wikipedians are confident in the checks and balances set up to ensure the integrity of information provided on Wikipedia. which eventually becomes knowledge suspended in relation to the time and context that it was . This idea represents a fundamental shift in the way that knowledge is produced and information is transferred – no longer is information. through the contributions of many users. p. As Surma argues. As opposed to a scholarly journal or more accurately. p. knowledge production in Wikipedia is composed of “a multitude of simultaneous interactions performed by a potentially infinite population” (Terranova. an Encyclopedia Britannica entry. The prospect of shared knowledge. Through Wikipedia as a medium. This leads to an effect of “spontaneous productivity [that is] intrinsically related to the distributed and decentralized organization of large numbers of interacting peers” in the creation of knowledge (Terranova. p. 358). p. 120).3 Wikipedia is a prime example of a bottom-up. this also means that the content is dynamic and fluid in nature. 111). information and knowledge building is left to the masses. as opposed to the expert accounts of a few. 2004. decentralized network of information. Similar to biological computing described in the ideas of network theory. Content is produced organically. information relies on “some level of reciprocal contact between writer…and reader” to become material or useful (Surma. Wikipedia entries are less the result of “an authoritative product” and more the result of “a forum showcasing the evolving and contentious nature of knowledge” (Purdy. easily edited by users changes the way that we produce and consume information. 2004. 2005. 84) Since the content posted on Wikipedia is the result of collaboration.
and contextual frameworks in a medium that encourages the collective knowledge of a community through a format that strives to present objective information.” the same can be said of those contributing to the knowledge base (Wilcox. Establishing Ethos through Wikipedia “…identity formation as the creation of human character is closely associated with Aristotle’s understanding of ethos as “more than our knowledge of someone’s prior reputation. Conflict is inherent in any such environment. 2005. 255). 2009. to author and refractor any page” (Purdy.” but rather constructed “through a receiver’s entire social structure and belief system. 360).” (Zappen.” . but… also.4 produced. bound by their associations. in the course of interaction. importantly.C. ideologies. but it is now adaptable in accord with the collaborative nature of the medium. p. and while no “message is received in a vacuum. Morgan indicates” the result “is that the quality of the content rises when everyone is allowed. a product of ongoing performance itself. and through imaging the good intentions of others. even encouraged. 129). p. to an extent. 323) It is through faith in collaboration and the collective knowledge of many that ethos is established in Wikipedia – both through ourselves as reader-writers. Collaborative environments do present their problems however. & Agee. Individual users and contributors alike are. p. As “wiki enthusiast M. As we alter the way that we receive information by the “active hashing through of competing accounts rather than something to be digested from authoritative sources. made on the fly. Ault. 2004. It is idealistic to assume that the contributions of everybody will result in a “mythological landscape of a utopia to be realized” with communal respect and accurate knowledge absent of conflicting ideologies (Terranova. 1992. p.
227). 2005. Larry Sanger notes that he discredits the medium’s use in the classroom because his students simply “confirm anything they like by adding it themselves” (Taylor. This is not to say that the possibility and reality of misinformation on Wikipedia is not relevant. reference lists. including an extensive list of style guidelines and a set of three basic principles. p. the emergence of a community of moderators to validate the accuracy of information provided. Wikipedia employs a strict set of guidelines that governs how contributors should add content. 1960.5 credibility is intrinsically coupled with the knowledge of the masses and collaborative processes. Ethos and credibility are established as much through the process of disseminating knowledge on Wikipedia as it is on the character of those contributing to the knowledge base. 566). However. p. whether we are willing to admit it or not (Jenkins. is not conducive to the “habits and patterns of delegated authority. Wikipedia offers a robust set of checks and balances through the establishment of a strict set of guidelines for editing content. is the mandate that all articles maintain a neutral point of view: “All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopedic content must be written from a neutral point of view. 2006. This is largely in part because the quantity and speed of information that is produced on Wikipedia. proportionately. and revision histories. with its hierarchy of separate and subordinated functions” (McLuhan. Fundamental to Wikipedia contributions. representing fairly. Former Wikipedia editor-in-chief. and as far as possible . 3). Inaccurate and skewed contributions to Wikipedia are one of the many reasons that people are so quick to discredit it as a medium of objective information dissemination. p.
the emergence of a group of moderators. A neutral point of view and the mandate that all content be verifiable also lead to an increase in the credibility of information on Wikipedia. 1). estimated to be somewhere between a few hundred to 75. n. and relevant external links. These references have the effect of increasing credibility through the process of verifying information and creating “gestures of connectivity” to tangible scholarly work that users can easily associate with verifiable sources (Purdy. recommendations for further reading. para. The universal style of writing and structure on Wikipedia pages is the direct result of the rules that govern content creation is conducive to the idea that users “like to hear new things in accustomed ways” (Ewan. p.d. 1996. all significant views that have been published by reliable sources.000 users. Most Wikipedia articles contain references to verifiable sources from trusted authorities and depending on the length of the article a robust list of notes.. While most students are discouraged from Wikipedia as a means of academic pursuit. The two other cornerstones to maintaining the integrity of information on Wikipedia are that: 1) all information posted on Wikipedia should be verifiable through credited sources and 2) articles are to contain no original research. Although anybody can edit the content on most pages of Wikipedia. p. 168). this goes a long way to establishing credibility and building ethos by verifying and presenting all sides of an issue in a uniform fashion. While most casual users of Wikipedia are unaware of these guiding principles. 364). 2009. .6 without bias. professors and students alike readily admit that Wikipedia is a good starting off point for more rigorous endeavors. This is non-negotiable and expected of all articles and all editors” (Wikipedia: Neutral point of view.
downplay the extent of vandalism on Wikipedia articles. p.” and ultimately user faith in the collaborative process (Sampson. One of the primary tasks that Wikipedia administrators are faced with is to combat vandalism – blatant attempts by immature. According to one source. 2006. p. Although many. Take for example Stephen Colbert’s challenge to users to “find the Wikipedia entry on elephants and create an entry that stated their population had tripled in the last six months. vandalism on Wikipedia is reverted .7 diligently volunteer their time to ensure that all of the content on Wikipedia adheres to the style guides and three basic principles described in the previous paragraph. and even one editor named Stephencolbert to purposely put false information on the site. but rather grew organically through a bottom-up network of users that saw the need for control and “the corresponding power to shape democratic process” of information dissemination through Wikipedia (Jenkins. The pages were locked for editing and as of the date of this paper. amateur users to exploit the anybody-can-edit component of the medium for no purpose other than to create a virus-like effect within the medium that can “threaten to destabilize established sociocultural-political order. This quickly prompted an overwhelming response of casual users. Wikipedia editors can certainly be thought of as information police – a “bureaucracy of sorts” given the self-appointed task of controlling misinformation and resolving disputes through “a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control" (Wikipedia.d. the phenomenon has reached a public stage through the mass media. 6). 42).. This relatively small faction is not the result of a hierarchy of power established by Wikipedia founders. a fact he freely stated to not know if it was "actually true" (Spring. para. including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. 2006. 31). n. 212). para. 2009. are still protected from contributions by the general public.
through its focus on writing as idea generation” (Purdy. This provides a forum for a sort of behindthe-scenes verification of information through the collaborative process. Wikipedia as a medium maintains credibility and establishes ethos as much through the process of contribution and collaboration as it does from the actual contributions of users. p. Every article contains a history page that documents every change made from the articles inception. however minute. Additionally. The effect of the documentation of revision is that users are given a concrete view of how the process ensures accurate information by “polishing and perfecting texts. users are able to access all historical versions of a Wikipedia article.8 “in a median time of 2. Users and editors alike have the opportunity to comment on changes and discuss why changes were made in the first place. thereby positioning a correct end-product as the goal. 2009.8 minutes” and in less than two minutes when obscenity is involved (Purdy. credibility. increasing the fluid nature of the medium and establishing a new sense of kairos. 2009. Wikipedia a Democratic Source of Public Information . p. One of the strongest components of Wikipedia that increases the integrity of information. 354). 351). and ultimately the ethos of the medium. The system of checks and balances that has emerged from a bottom-up network of users both ensures the integrity of information presented is in place and that the dynamic nature of knowledge building on Wikipedia has a forum to grow. are the use of historical revisions in articles. through which credibility is to some extent suspended in time and place. Revisions are timestamped and include the usernames of every editor.
Behind-the-scene debates in the discussion portion of revision histories. with the goal of producing objective data to be used for reference. go a long way to combat the potential for conflicting ideologies and skewed representations of information. 2005. p. 86). 78). 209) As a medium. The idea of a shared body of knowledge in a public space increases the accessibility of information.9 “These forces are apt to emerge first in cultural forms – a changed sense of community. p. Since information on Wikipedia can be accessed and edited by the public. where “public opinion is a collection of views held by persons interested in the subject” (Wilcox et al. which range in . 2006. encouraged collaboration and the potential for anybody to contribute and to the body of knowledge in environment such as Wikipedia is democratic in nature. less dependence on official expertise and a greater trust in collaborative problem solving…” (Jenkins. and our writing as part of the democratic process of power sharing” (Surma. 1992. One of the greatest challenges to the democratic nature of Wikipedia is that contributors are forced to accommodate conflicting ideologies. as well as our own perspectives. the democratic nature of the medium is still predicated on “the degree to which readers. a greater sense of participation. 234). This leads to an effect in which the rhetoric of Wikipedia entries can be easily compared to public rhetoric – a diverse collection of views. are motivated to become active in those texts’ mobilization as part of the democratizing process” (Surma. parallels can be drawn between Wikipedia content and commonly held notions on the formation of public opinion. p. 2005. While mandates to maintain a neutral point of view. This broad access to information leads to the fact that Wikipedia texts and Wikipedia users “can more readily acknowledge our texts as public texts. carefully crafted to represent the ideas of many.. which is only limited by a user’s ability to access a computer. as concerned participants and as citizens. p.
However. to the equal representation of information on controversial issues. is democracy in action at its purest form. and understand all of the . and edit content to maintain the integrity of the medium. 2). which includes the power of Wikipedia administrators to lock the ability to edit potentially controversial topics and those entries that are rampant with vandalism diminishes the democratic intent of Wikipedia as a truly collaborative medium. stringent processes.10 magnitude from everything to punctuation. Further hindering the ability of anybody to contribute are the obstacles that users must learn “a specific brand of HTML. learn and adhere to predefined templates. according to Wikipedia’s Lists of protected pages (Wikipedia: Lists of protected pages. para.d. p. and the affordances provided through Wikipedia as a medium are democratic in nature. the process by which information comes to life through collaboration. para. As such. fluidity. Although many of the pages listed are functional components that help the Wikipedia webpage operate. with the strict guidelines set up by Wikipedia and the emergence of a group of editors and contributors strictly monitor. the ability for just anybody to contribute is not exactly as it appears to be on the surface.” follow all of the proper formatting guidelines. 2006. moderate. Semi-protected pages are only able to be edited by users who have “been registered at the site for at least four days.. Preferential treatment and a sense of elitism amongst those that frequently update material on Wikipedia according to the guiding principles has lead to a less democratic trust in the collaborative process as “edits placed by casual users are much more likely to be edited than those by those in the inner circles” (Janes. 4). the verifiability of information. 2009.” which to some is comparable to the waiting period necessary in some state to purchase firearms (Hafner. there are well over 500 protected pages and far more semi-protected pages. the checks-and-balances system set up over the years. 44). Additionally. n.
bottom-up beginnings as a network of contributors to a vast body knowledge is not salient to the idea that “network emergence does not result in a democratically distributed equilibrium of connectivity” (Sampson. Wikipedia’s humble. much like the fluid and dynamic nature of the process of information dissemination on Wikipedia. While “network politics can be thought of in . These hurdles were not a steadfast mandate sent down from the authorities that operate the Wikipedia Foundation. 2009. and from the bottom-up. 2009. Rather the emergence of a group of primary editors and contributors and the seemingly bureaucratic steps that the casual user must go through to make contributions were created as Wikipedia grew. one can argue that they are the result of the democratic process. and not a detriment to the democratic nature of Wikipedia. While the numbers might be a little more skewed. 46). Such a disparity between users that label themselves as readers and users that label themselves as both authors and readers in such an open-source is indicative of the natural progression of any distributed network.11 technical jargon that accompanies making edits to a Wikipedia entry (Fernando. p. but rather a strategic system of checks-and-balances with the intent of maintaining the integrity of the medium that. While the hurdles that make it difficult for the casual user to make contributions to the vast body of knowledge certainly undermine the purely democratic façade that Wikipedia projects to the public. Holden. p. According to the Universal Principles of Design. 9). 12). emerged and continues to evolve as the result of the collaborative process. the 80/20 rule states that “a high percentage of effects in any large system are caused by a low percentage of variables” (Lidwell. Additionally. p. 2003. 2010. as by one account “more than 50 percent of edits are made by less than 1 percent of Wikipedia users” (Fernando. & Butler. the basic principle still applies. p. organically. 9). the creation of new Wikipedia articles is only allowed by registered users.
Blurred Lines Between Readers & Writers “Earlier new media theorists argued that these new genres. but participatory culture.” (Losh. is far from utopian – not everybody that references Wikipedia is going to contribute the knowledge base. p. The democratic nature of information on Wikipedia is the result as much of the collaboration of many as it is the process by which that information came to be. Similarly. like that of the United States. The relationship between readers and writers. obviated many of the distinctions between author and reader. 2009. many characterize Wikipedia users as reader-writers or author-users. like the process disseminating .12 terms of power relations established when nodes connected to a network become susceptible to repetitious contagious events. The United States government is not truly democratic in the same sense as the public forums of Greece.” the 80/20 rule tells us that this phenomenon is just the course of human nature (Sampson. p. but are systematic in the means through which information is delivered to the public. especially in such a widespread network. Perhaps a better way to think of the democratic nature of Wikipedia is by drawing comparisons to a representative form of government. The checks-and-balances system helps against potentially contagious material on Wikipedia. 53). 2009. Given the potential to modify texts and contribute to the body of knowledge. sender and receiver. but officials represent democracy and the desires of many through extensive debate and deliberative process. particularly digital documents connected by electronic links as hypertext. 48) Like many other digital environments. affordances of participation and collaboration in Wikipedia lead to blurred lines between readers and writers. Wikipedia’s affordances are representative of a democratic environment.
which “not only invites readers to participate in making the text.” the ability to contribute a . The largest effect that the lack of distinction between readers and writers in Wikipedia has is through the shared production of meaning through potentially infinite networks of interpretation. 322-323). requiring both readers and writers to become ‘co-learners. different writingreading relations. If. adds additional levels of reciprocal discourse that are not available on regular hypertext documents (Zappen. 2010. banner ads. users bring these same ideologies and associations to the production of that text. 80). emails. Following the ideas of semiotics. associations. is dynamic and reciprocal because of the potential “for readers to become writers too: to review texts. at different points in time. In addition to the hypertextual navigation features of Wikipedia. there is always some sense of subjectivity across such a diverse body of collaboration in terms of kairos and each contributing user’s frame of mind. to revise them to suit different contexts. 2005. 97). and so on) can and will forever signify a multitude of things to different individuals in different situations. p. 2005. as Jacques Derrida proposes that “all signs (words. which stems from its core principles. Although an encyclopedia strives to produce an objective content and a neutral point of view is one of the mandates for users. such as Wikipedia.’” the collaborative nature of the environment. p. and the context in which that text is read.13 information on Wikipedia. readers already negotiate the meanings of static texts through their ideologies. but forces them to do so. In participatory and collaborative environments. different purposes” (Surma. not simply the shared production of knowledge making. images. The interactivity that is associated with producing content on Wikipedia can be thought of in terms of “transactions of meaning [which] are established between the encoders and decoders of media messages” (Ward.
but rather informed Wikipedia users contributing to the body of knowledge. that we can even begin to consider a Wikipedia text suspended in time. to one source “Internet users are twice as likely to check Wikipedia as The New York Times” for information regarding current events (Bowman & Willis. 79). it is only through a user’s intentions at any particular moment that we can consider the reader-writer relationship static. p. which is only for the sake of maintaining integrity. p. Similarly. These articles are not being posted by traditional news outlets. .14 new multitude of signs increases the notion that meaning is negotiated exponentially (Ward. the network of interpretation through which a reader-writer negotiates meaning. Nearly every component that constitutes a Wikipedia entry is dynamic – the fluid nature of the entry. All of this is conducive to an environment that allows “users to employ the medium as an aid to individual or collective reflection and education: to access a diversity of texts and writers in relation to a given issue.” and many of these are related to the “coverage of current events…an unexpected development of Wikipedia” (Fernando. alternative texts to share with others and continue to debate. It is only through the documentation of historical revisions. the relationship between readers and writers becomes dynamic. 98). 2010. As such. The blurred line between readers and writers is most obvious through a recent and emerging phenomenon – Wikipedia’s coverage of current events. 2005. 8). According.” which over time will continue to evolve (Surma. and to produce new. 2010.000 articles per week. p. and the Wikipedia network itself. which grows and expands organically. p. 9). to reproduce or modify texts and text genres. Wikipedia users post “some 10. 2005.
2006. 8). 9). networks of interpretation. p. Not only does this present a “shift from the individualized conception of the informed citizen toward the collaborative concept of a monitorial citizen. Conclusion Wikipedia represents a fundamental shift in how we receive information through new media. p. p.” which is the direct result of the collaborative and participatory affordances of Wikipedia (Bowman & Willis. 2010. While this new type of citizen exploits the advantages of the quick dissemination of information. and even real life accounts are all factors in the production of current event articles on Wikipedia.15 This phenomenon has lead to a new form of “citizen journalism” that looks “to engage citizens not only as readers but also as coproducers [that] see themselves as facilitators to the community. Current events articles posted on Wikipedia are perhaps the most dynamic – as current events change in real time. p. Ideologies. This places an emphasis on kairos as it relates to the development of information simply by the fact that “a current event gets updated rapidly by users” (Fernando. most are unaware of the ethics and unbiased nature of journalism. 2005. motivated individuals” is subject to the earliest stages of the semiotic nature of meaning formation and knowledge creation on Wikipedia (Bowman & Willis. This shift is directly related towards a preference towards the knowledge of the masses as opposed to the expert knowledge and the development of information as a dynamic process . so do their corresponding articles. 2005. 8). associations. The contributions of new articles on current events that are “regularly blazed by passionate.” but it also alters how we form information on current events as readers and as potential Wikipedia contributors (Jenkins. 208).
so too will the way that we use the mediums available to us. As the speed by which we receive information and build knowledge increases. Wikipedia is constantly evolving to accommodate a diverse body of users that are placing more trust in collaborative communication through the adaptive processes and systems of information dissemination.16 through a dynamic network of collaboration. .
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