What started out as eagerness to engage in a collaborative effort to construct knowledge soon turned into a progressively frustrating exercise these past few weeks. Our class was tasked with creating a wiki, a collaborative article on a subject in popular culture. The subjects were “stubs” - articles requiring further information – in Wikipedia, the online collaborative encyclopedic repository of information and knowledge. We could work on our article independently or in groups, but we would all be required to contribute to articles outside our own authorship. At the end, we would post our articles in Wikipedia.
Well, I’m not a pop-culture connoisseur. I’m not really a “buff” of any kind. Music, cinema, literature, television… they’re all just passing fancies of mine. I like the distraction and I’ll even delve a bit deeper into something that is more interesting to me, but not at any level that you could consider fanatical and usually not into anything that could be considered popular at the time. I’m just not really in-tune with the current goings-on. I guess I could blame that on my digital video recorder. Pop culture is the life-blood of so much that graces the small screen between the few television shows that I record and watch, and I simply fast-forward right past it. But pop culture goes beyond that. It is pervasive in all forms of media. The fact is that I’m just not that engaged. So the blame really rests on my inner [grumpy] "old-man” who is increasingly making himself known to all around me with phrases like, “Is that what the kids are into these days?” or, more directly [grumpily], “What the hell is that?” So my lack of interest in the subject matter was the initial reason for my frustration. Selecting a subject to research and write about in a genre where I have little interest or knowledge was a bit daunting.
Finally after much searching and deliberating, my partner and I selected Jake Gold as the subject of our wiki. Gold is most commonly known (at least to me) for his work as a judge on Canadian Idol. But through some less-than-scholarly research, I discovered that he is quite an accomplished and well-respected manager in the Canadian music biz. In fact, he managed the early career of a band that I had more than a passing interest in during my post-dropping-out-of-university, pre-finding-some-direction-for-my-life years. So now I had some connection to the subject matter, something to get the mental gears grinding. But as I said, that was just the beginning of my frustration.
We next set to the task of drafting our article. But this isn’t as simple as crafting a document in a word processor or even through a web-based interface such as a blog. Wikis have their own language, their own rules for presenting and organizing information. And the wiki-to-English dictionary available out there on the tangled World Wide Web isn’t that clear either. I suspect that it was crafted by a bunch of people in a wiki as well – more insight into my rationale can be found in the next paragraph. But after much back and forth with cheat sheets and less-than-helpful help articles and videos and after many hours of squinting at symbols and letters in 8 point Courier font, we finally produced an article that looked and read like something you might find on Wikipedia. And it had some information that may have been of some use to somebody somewhere. That was until some of our classmates provided their contribution. Enter the next phase of frustration and much Lewis Black-esque ranting and raving on my part.
As others contributed to our article, it became less and less our own. We had lost control of the content and the format. One misplaced backslash by a contributor and I was thrust into many hours of hair-pulling punctuated by exasperated expletives. What’s more, after reading content that I had re-formatted, I found myself saying, “Is that right?” And after re-researching I found myself saying, “No, that isn’t right at all!” It was at this point that I arrived at a revelation: If I had struggled with the format and content for our article, and others had struggled in their contributions, what were my contributions to others’ articles like? What were we really creating here? Knowledge? Not likely.
Manuel Castells, in his 2005 paper, The Network Society: from Knowledge to Policy, takes umbrage with the term ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’ to describe society today because knowledge and information have always played a critical role in our society no matter whether we were progressing from mere survival to agricultural sustenance or from rural living to industrial life in cities. Rather, he suggests we now live in a network society broader in reach and potential than at any other time in our history, aided by communication technology. And he asserts that we are now at a crossroads where “unfettered communication and self-organization” are “challenging formal politics” and creating a dichotomy: we want to “praise the benefits” of a networked society, but we fear losing control (p. 20). Sound familiar? Well, it did to me.
I felt the sting of that double-edged sword myself: keen to engage in a collaborative effort with a network of people to construct some knowledge but frustrated by the lack of control that I had over the final product. My classmate, Ann, provided her assessment of Wikipedia this week in her blog: “Wikipedia is maintained by thousands and thousands of volunteer authors and editors and we can now number ourselves among them. In essence, Wikipedia is an information repository by the people, for the people.” Wikipedia, she contends, is an exercise in democracy in this Information Society. I’d have to agree with her contention. But I’d also have to add something that many a politician and political pundit have said: democracy is messy.