The Emergence of Meaning: Wikipedia As Object-Centered Sociality

This is the first in an occasional series in which I hope to develop an argument for the continued development of critical literacy skills in “new media.” I am hoping to argue that it is not enough to grapple with the products and artifacts of these new media as “media types” (e.g., video, audio, animation, etc.), but it is also necessary to be mindful of an epistemology in process, made all the more difficult for many of us because of its distributed and emergent nature rife with uncertainty and indistinctness. We must neither reject these ideas out of hand nor accept them with nary a critical mind; instead, it is my hope to be open to new ideas, learn from past experiences — both philosophically and empirically — and work for a better future.

Looking for extremes in a discussion and then working toward a more tenable position can be instructive. Recently, Wikipedia has been batted about and criticized for issues concerning accuracy. As Wikipedia has become an important — if not always consistent — source of information for many learners and educators, it’s worth considering what’s going on. Surveying the blogosphere for takes on the Wikipedia debate, here are two opinions:

Nicholas Carr, Let Wikipedia Be Wikipedia Chris Anderson, The Probabilistic Age
(via if:book)
Wikipedia is not an authoritative encyclopedia, and it should stop trying to be one. [Wikipedia is] a free-for-all, a rumble-tumble forum where interested people can get together in never-ending, circular conversations and debates about what things mean. Maybe those discussions will resolve themselves into something like the truth. Maybe they won’t. Who cares? As soon as you strip away the need to be like an encyclopedia and to be judged like an encyclopedia — as soon as you stop posing as an encyclopedia — you get your freedom back.
(emphasis added)
When professionals–editors, academics, journalists–are running the show, we at least know that it’s someone’s job to look out for such things as accuracy. But now we’re depending more and more on systems where nobody’s in charge; the intelligence is simply emergent. These probabilistic systems aren’t perfect, but they are statistically optimized to excel over time and large numbers. They’re designed to scale, and to improve with size. And a little slop at the microscale is the price of such efficiency at the macroscale.
But how can that be right when it feels so wrong?
There’s the rub. This tradeoff is just hard for people to wrap their heads around.
(emphasis added)

Both positions shed some light on the issues; the premise of Wikipedia, verification through community regulation, may not be “authoritative” in the traditional, centralized sense, but there is value to this form of emergent meaning making. As Umberto Eco writes in Serendipties: Language and Lunacy, “After all, the cultivated person’s first duty is to be always prepared to rewrite the encyclopedia.” In a sense, Wikipedia has been fairly successful. Despite, or maybe because of, the range of contributors, the journal Nature has found that Wikipedia is almost as accurate as the print-standard Britannica).

Yet questions still linger. The duality of authority and certainty are difficult concepts from which to break away. So much of the Western philosophical tradition has craved expressions of predictability that it is difficult to disambiguate these constructs from one’s own sense of self; it is almost as if it is human nature to accept what is “written” in one form or another.

I agree with Nicholas Carr that Wikipedia is not in many senses an “encyclopedia;” it is more a successful example of object-centered sociality. Thinking about Wikipedia as an example of object-centered sociality helps to realign what is considered when reading an article on the site. Whereas there is a certain amount of trust given to publishers to find appropriate authors for articles, no such guarantee exists with community-driven information sites like Wikipedia. It is important, therefore, to think about how the article you are reading emerged into its’ current state. Wikipedia provides two tools for discerning this process: the “discussion” and “history” tabs. Clicking on these tabs will provide you with a window to the communal thought process that results in the articles we read on Wikipedia. At least one person has lamented that knowledgeable potential contributors have only contributed to the discussion and not the article itself. As an encyclopedia, the behavior is to be admonished; as an example of object-centered sociality, this is a legitimate form of participation. Readers of Wikipedia should be aware of this range of legitimate participation, from authoring, to editing, to discussing.

Screenshot of Wikipedia with 'discussion' and 'history' tabs highlighted

It is useful in discerning “truth” and meaning in Wikipedia to consider the tensions between what is written in the article and the discussions and edits which occur more-or-less behind the scenes (unless you are in the know). It would be an interesting exercise to develop an interface for Wikipedia where the discussions and edit histories are more up-front, formatted more like a page of Talmud than like a page of Britannica. Jews have been dealing with this emergent form of meaning making for centuries (full disclosure: I am Jewish). As Joann Sfar writes in the graphic novel The Rabbi’s Cat,

Westerners want to resolve the world. Turn multiplicity into oneness. That’s a delusion, says the rabbi.
Cat: But, master, doesn’t Judaism also try to turn multiplicity into oneness?
Rabbi: Yes. But not in the same way…. Western thought works by thesis, antithesis, synthesis, while Judaism goes thesis, antithesis, antithesis, antithesis….

In any case, the tensions between accuracy, discussion, and emergence highlight the continual need for critical literacies; given the changing nature of these information sources, however, the necessary skills are slightly different. Let’s continue to delve deeper into this discussion over time.

One thought on “The Emergence of Meaning: Wikipedia As Object-Centered Sociality

  1. One of my most favourite quotes is Alfed North Whitehead’s

    “There are no whole truths: all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.”

    I loved the ideas you have collected in this post – I am captured by notions of “object centered sociality” and I rely upon Wikipedia – both what it does and what it can make happen.

    “What does it do?” takes precedence (as my fellow bogger Insouciant Femme would say over what it might mean.