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This was originally posted at my blog Cyborgology – click here to view the original post and to read/write comments.

This brief essay attempts to link two conceptualizations of the important relationship of the on and offline. I will connect (1) my argument that we should abandon the digital dualist assumption that the on and offline are separate in favor of the view that they enmesh into an augmented reality and (2) the problematic view that the Internet transcends social structures to produce something “objective” (or “flat” to use Thomas Friedman’s term).

Instead, recognizing that code has always been embedded in social structures allows persistent inequalities enacted in the name of computational objectivity to be identified (e.g., the hidden hierarchies of Wikipedia, the hidden profit-motive behind open-source, the hidden gendered standpoint of computer code, and so on). I will argue that the fallacy of web objectivity is driven fundamentally by digital dualism, providing further evidence that this dualism is at once conceptually false, and, most importantly, morally problematic. Simply, this specific form of digital dualism perpetuates structural inequalities by masking their very existence. Read More »

Larry Sanger, the co-founder of Wikipedia, wrote a wonderful piece on the rise of a new geek anti-intellectualism. The essay sparked much discussion and Sanger has done a terrific job responding to comments and even offering a thoughtful follow-up piece. However, I would like to write a short critique on a couple of points that have yet to be addressed.

Larry Sanger

First, I have to mention that contemporary anti-intellectualism was really my first academic interest, spurred in 2000 when I heard that Al Gore lost debates to George W. Bush because Gore “sounded too smart.” Hyper-focused on epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) at the time, it was learning about the differences between Wikipedia co-founders Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales that first got me interested in technology as a topic of research. Sanger, himself having an epistemology background, wanted Wikipedia to have a component of expertism on the site. When that was rejected he left and started the Citizendium project. At war are two epistemologies: one based in populism and the other expertism (though, this conceptualization is far too simplistic, it will have to do for this short post). Read More »

As media became truly massive in the middle of the 20th century, many theorists discussed the degree to which individuals are powerless -e.g., McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message.” In the last decades, the pendulum of dystopian versus utopian thinking about technology has swung far into the other direction. Now, we hear much about the power of the individual, how “information wants to be free” and, opposed to powerful media structures, how the world has become “flat.” The story is that the top-down Internet was “1.0” and now we have a user-generated “Web 2.0”. The numbering suggests the linear march of increasing democratization and decreasing corporate control.

The pendulum has swung too far.

I have tried to argue elsewhere (here and here and here) that Web 1.0 and 2.0 both exist today, sometimes in conflict, other times facilitating each other. On this blog, I have noted that sometimes “information wants to be expensive” and how the iPad marks a return to the top-down as opposed to the bottom up. Zeynep Tufekci and I have a paper under (single blind) review that discusses the iPad as the return of old media and consumer society by way of Apple’s Disney-like closed system.

Steven Johnson recently wrote a powerful op-ed in the New York Times titled “Rethinking the Gospel of the Web” that makes a similar argument. He portrays Apple’s closed system as incredibly innovative, stating that “sometimes, if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.”

Opposed to the current orgy of writing about the powerful agent/consumer, Free, democratization, revolutionary potential, flat worlds and so on, let’s remember how structures and top-down corporate control remain important.

  • access is still unequal
  • how people use the web is unequal, something I’ve discussed as the post-structural digital divide
  • the “revolutions” of Wikipedia or open source are basically knowledge or software being produced by a few white men to now being produced by a few more white men (revolutionary this is not)

This world is not flat, and if the success of Apple is any indication, it is not getting any flatter. ~nathan

by nathan jurgenson

I recently came across a tool that has been around for a couple of years. GenderAnalyzer claims that it can determine the gender of the author of any text that you point it to. It learns to do this by looking at thousands of blogs and the corresponding gender of the author.

Give it a try: genderanalyzer.com

As of today, it looks like it has a 63% success rate; not impressive but better than chance. Leaving aside how serious we should take this particular tool, many feel that men and women write differently. These different performances of gender through the creation of text can be documented and predicted. This study concludes,

[…] females use many more pronouns and males use many more noun specifiers. […] female writing exhibits greater usage of features identified by previous researchers as “involved” while male writing exhibits greater usage of features which have been identified as “informational”.

All of this made me think of how Wikipedia strives for a “neutral point of view” in its articles. That is, “without bias.” For fun, I picked some Wikipedia articles and ran them through the GenderAnalyzer to see if they were deemed male, neutral or female. Results indicate a strong male bias in my very small and non-random sample:

  • Male: Coffee; bell hooks; oil; love; hip hop; rugby football; philosophy; sex; web 2.0; sexism; feminism; WNBA; Ani DiFranco; men’s health; welding; women’s suffrage.
  • Gender neutral: Childbirth; bread; donuts; gravity.
  • Female: Quilt; knitting.

Whatever the validity or reliability of GenderAnalyzer, the research cited above begs the question of how Wikipedia would best be organized given different male and female writing styles. Would the ideal Wikipedia contain only the gender neutral voice? Or would it strive for a more even distribution of male and female voices throughout?

Finally, is Wikipedia’s effort to achieve a “neutrality” a male endeavor? Some feminist epistemologists (Gilligan, Harding, etc.) have argued that objectivity and value-disinterestedness are inherently male. Thus, is the neutral voice actually quite gendered? ~nathan

On this blog, I typically discuss the intersection of social theory and the changing nature of the Internet (e.g., using Marx, Bourdieu, Goffman, Bauman, DeBord and so on). In a chapter of the new third edition of the McDonaldization Reader edited by George Ritzer, I argue that what we are seeing is a general trend towards the deMcDonaldization of the Internet.

The shift from a top-down centrally conceived and controlled “Web 1.0” to a more user-generated and social “Web 2.0” is a shift away from the dimensions of McDonaldization as Ritzer defines the concept. For example, a corporate-generated website that does not allow user-generated content is paradigmatic of Web 1.0. The site is produced efficiently by few individuals, making it predictable, controllable and relatively devoid of outside human input. Web 2.0, alternatively, is not centered on the efficient production of content [I’ve made this argument previously]. User-generated content is, instead, produced by many individuals, making it much less predictable –evidenced by the random videos we come across on YouTube, articles on Wikipedia, or perhaps the best example is the downright capricious and aleatory experience of Chatroulette. The personalization and community surrounding social networking sites are hard to quantify and make the web far more humanized. Thus, Web 2.0 marks a general deMcDonaldization of the web. Examples of these points are further illustrated in the chapter.

This conclusion also counters the thesis that McDonaldization is something that will only continue to grow – opposed to the “grand narrative” that Ritzer (and Weber before him) put forth.

Finally, further consideration needs to be given to the various ways in which Web 2.0 remains McDonaldized, rationalized and standardized. Many of the sites that allow for unpredictable user-generated content do so precisely because of their rationalized and standardized -and thus McDonaldized- underlying structure. In many ways, our Facebook profiles all seem to look and behave similarly. The rationalized and standardized structures of Web 2.0 seem to coexist comfortably with irrational and unpredictable content they facilitate. ~nathanjurgenson.com

by nathan jurgenson

I’ve written many posts on this blog about the implosion of the spheres of production and consumption indicating the rise of prosumption. This trend has exploded online with the rise of user-generated content. We both produce and consume the content on Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, YouTube and so on. And it is from this lens that I describe Apple’s latest creation announced yesterday: the iPad. The observation I want to make is that the iPad is not indicative of prosumption, but rather places a wedge between production and consumption.

From the perspective of the user the iPad is made for consuming content. While future apps might focus on the production of content, the very construction of the device dissuades these activities. Not ideal for typing, and most notably missing a camera, the device is limited in the ways in which users create content. Further, the device, much like Apple’s other devices, is far less customizable than the netbooks Apple is attempting to displace (which often use the endlessly customizable Linux OS).

Instead, the iPad is focused on an enhanced passive consumption experience (and advertised as such, opposed to their earlier focus: can’t resist). Unlike netbooks, the iPad is primarily an entertainment device. Instead of giving users new ways to produce media content, the focus is on making more spectacular and profitable the experience of consuming old media content -music and movies via the iTunes store, books via the new iBookstore and news via Apple’s partnership with the New York Times.

Thus, the story of the iPad’s first 24hours, for me, is the degree to which the tasks of producing and consuming content have been again split into two camps. The few produce it -flashy, glittering and spectacular- and the many consume it as experience. And, of course, for a price.

Does this serve as a rebuttal to an argument that the trend towards the merging of the spheres of production and consumption into prosumption is inevitable? Or is prosumption indeed the trend for a future Apple seems not to grasp? Or will the applications developed for the device overcome its limitations? ~nathan

by nathanjurgenson

51gZ8phgHXL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_I have a number of posts on this blog regarding the user-generated web (what has come to be known as Web 2.0), usually focused on social networking sites or the changing relations of production and consumption online, leading to the rise of prosumption and the prosumer (briefly, prosumption involves both production and consumption rather than focusing on either one or the other). Some of these ideas are published as a chapter in the new book, The Culture of Efficiency, edited by Sharon Klienman. The chapter, co-authored with George Ritzer, is titled “Efficiency, Effectiveness and Web 2.0”.

There, we argue that there has been an explosion of user-generated content, creating a virtual world of general abundance. We maintain that efficiency thinking –getting the most output from a given input or using the least input to generate a given output- only makes sense to the degree that scarcity exists. Web 2.0 is, largely, an abundant system, requiring a post-scarcity focus on effectiveness rather than efficiency.

For example, it matters little the amount of input that goes into a Wikipedia entry. Many hundreds of authors putting in many hundreds of hours into an entry that is never finished is highly inefficient from the standpoint of content-production. Simultaneously, however, it can also be a highly effective way of building a base of knowledge, as the sheer size of Wikipedia illustrates.

Our essay is a small part of the larger book which looks at how people deal with new technological developments in modern, digital life –a timely and important topic. ~nathan

by nathan jurgenson

600px-wikipedia-logo1The very idea of Wikipedia -the open-source encyclopedia that anyone with an internet connection can edit- has sparked many discussions about knowledge construction, such as the politics behind truth, the social construction of knowledge, the tyranny of epistemic expertism or populism, and so on. In these discussions, the Encyclopedia Britannica is often posed as the antithesis to Wikipedia. So it came as big news earlier this year that the Encyclopedia Britannica, the model of old-school expertism, is going to begin to allow user-generated content.

Users will be able to write new content, which then goes to one of the thousands of paid Britannica editors to accept/edit/reject. Ideally, Britannica wants new edits to appear on their site within twenty minutes and are planned to be incorporated into subsequent print editions.

Outside of the debates regarding knowledge production mentioned above, there is another point to be made here: Britannica is a for-profit model in contrast to the not-for-profit status of Wikipedia. There has been no indication on the part of Britannica to pay users who make good edits. The underlying point is much the same as can be made regarding “our” free labor that we donate to Facebook: that, simply, Britannica is trying to improve its costly operation and its profit-potential with unpaid user-labor. Britannica has, in part, “crowdsourced” production to its consumers, highlighting the highly efficient business model of turning consumers into unpaid “prosumers” (those that consume that which they produce). A further discussion might begin with asking how has Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia also profited from the prosumer business model (for example, by “branding” the Wikipedia name)? This will be a topic for a later post. ~nathan