Net Culture

You are currently browsing articles tagged Net Culture.

Any of you who are so inclined who could please vote for the panel I’m co-planning with a couple of other chaps for SXSW 2008 would have my undying devotion. Or at least some good inkblurtian karma :-)

Check it out here: 2008 Online Identity: And I *Do* Give a Damn about My Bad Reputation

Come on, any panel that riffs on a Joan Jett song has gotta be good.

I finally got a chance to listen to Bruce Sterling’s rant for SXSW 2007 via podcast as I was driving between PA and NC last week.

There were a lot of great things in it. A number of people have taken great notes and posted them (here’s one example). It’s worth a listen either way — as are all of his talks. I like how Bruce is at a point where he’s allowed to just spin whatever comes to mind for an hour to a group of people. Not because all of it is gold — but because the dross is just as interesting as the gold, and just as necessary.

A lot of this year’s talk was on several books he’s reading, one of which is Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks. It’s fascinating stuff — and makes me want to actually read this thing. (It’s available online for free — as are some excellent summaries of it, and a giant wiki he set up.)

In the midst of many great lines, one of the things Sterling said that stuck with me was this (likely a paraphrase):

“The distinctions just go away if you’re given powerful-enough compositing tools.”

He was talking about commons-based peer production — things like mashups and remixes, fan art, etc. and how the distinctions between various media (photography, painting, particular instruments, sculpture, etc) blur when you can just cram things together so easily. He said that it used to be you’d work in one medium or genre or another, but now “Digital tools are melting media down into a slum gully.”

First, I think he’s being a little too harsh here. There have always been amateurs who create stuff for and with their peers, and they all think it’s great in a way that has more to do with their own bubble of mutual appreciation than any “universal” measure of “greatness.” It just wasn’t available for everyone to see online across the globe. I’ve been in enough neighborhood writer’s circles and seen enough neighborhood art club “gallery shows” to know this. I’m sure he has too. This is stuff that gives a lot of people a great deal of satisfaction and joy (and drama, but what doesn’t?). It’s hard to fault it — it’s not like it’s going to really take over the world somehow.

I think his pique has more to do with how the “Wired Culture” at large (the SXSW-attending afficianados and pundits) seem to be enamored with it, lauding it as some kind of great democratizing force for creative freedom. But that’s just hype — so all you really have to do is say “we’ll get over it” and move on.

Second, though, is the larger implication: a blurring between long-standing assumptions and cultural norms in communities of creative and design practice. Until recently, media have changed so slowly in human history that we could take for granted the distinctions between photography, design, architecture, painting, writing, and even things like information science, human factors and programming.

But if you think of the Web as the most powerful “compositing tool” ever invented, it starts to be more clear why so many professions / practices / disciplines are struggling to maintain a sense of identity — of distinction between themselves and everyone else. It’s even happening in corporations, where Marketing, Technical Writing, Programming and these wacky start-up User-Experience Design people are all having to figure each other out. The Web is indeed a digital tool that is “melting” things down, but not just media.

glider emblem

This is delightful. A sort of logo for hacker culture. Not hackers as in criminals (hacker culture calls those people ‘crackers’ among other things) but hackers as in lateral-thinking technology heads.

The graphic … is called a glider. It’s a pattern from a mathematical simulation called the Game of Life. In this simulation, very simple rules about the behavior of dots on a grid give rise to wonderfully complex emergent phenomena. The glider is the simplest Life pattern that moves, and the most instantly recognizable of all Life patterns.

I love this emblem because it really does reference so many things I adore about the internet, what’s happening on it, and the culture that I believe to be the beating heart of it.

Here’s some of the explanation from Frequently Asked Questions about the Glider Emblem

The glider is an appropriate emblem on many levels. Start with history: the Game of Life was first publicly described in Scientific American in 1970. It was born at almost the same time as the Internet and Unix. It has fascinated hackers ever since.
In the Game of Life, simple rules of cooperation with what’s nearby lead to unexpected, even startling complexities that you could not have predicted from the rules (emergent phenomena). This is a neat parallel to the way that startling and unexpected phenomena like open-source development emerge in the hacker community… The glider fulfils the criteria for a good logo. It’s simple, bold, hard to mistake for anything else, and easy to print on a mug or T-shirt. It could be varied, combined with other emblems, or modified and infinitely repeated for use as a background

I’ve been going on and on about how the internet has given rise to a “game layer” to the world we live in: a sort of subcutaenous skin of data that connects everything, and mirrors the logic of our world. (Hence the number of friends you have on MySpace; the location you’re twittering from in Twitter; which songs you listen to the most on your iPod; the ability to track a UPS package at every turn; and on and on). Everything we attach to the network becomes more data, and if it’s data, it’s game-able.

Hacking itself is a kind of game, and the culture is very playful. I can’t get enough of this idea that “play” and “game,” once expanded some in their meaning and context, show us entirely new frames of reference that help explain what’s happening in the world.

Yeah, I modified the title a bit… but that’s the gist of what I’ve scanned so far. Basically, all this worry over teens naively posting all their personal information for predators to poach may be somewhat overblown. The kids are alright, and savvier than we think.

Pew Internet: Teens, Privacy and SNS

Some 55% of online teens have profiles and most of them restrict access to their profile in some way. Of those with profiles, 66% say their profile is not visible to all internet users. Of those whose profile can be accessed by anyone online, nearly half (46%) say they give at least some false information. Teens post fake information to protect themselves and also to be playful or silly.

I wasn’t aware there was such debate over what makes a blog a blog, and a wiki a wiki. But Jordan Frank over at Traction Software makes a sensible distinction, one that I could’ve sworn everybody took for granted?

What is a Blog? A Wiki?

And that, finally, brings me to a baseline definition for both blogs and wikis:
A system for posting, editing, and managing a collection of hypertext pages (generally pertaining to a certain topic or purpose)…
Blog: …displayed as a set of pages in time order…
Wiki: …displayed by page as a set of linked pages…
…and optionally including comments, tags or categories or labels, permalinks, and RSS (or other notification mechanisms) among other features.
Both “blog” and “wiki” style presentations can make pages editable by a single individual or editable by a group (where group can include the general public, people who register, or a selected group). In the enterprise context, more advanced version control, audit trail, display flexibility, search, permission controls, and IT integration hooks may also be present.

He goes into the history of various debates over the terms, which I found enlightening. Mainly because they show that people invest the idea of “blog” or “wiki” with lots of philosophical and political baggage and emotional resonance.

Evidently some folks believed “A BLOG is what it is because it allows comments and conversation!” But that seems silly to me, since to some degree the grandfather of blogs was “Robot Wisdom” where a slightly obsessive polymath simply posted quick links (a “log” — like a ship captain’s log — of his travels on the web, hence “web log”) and little one-line comments on them. I’m happy to see that, as of this moment, he’s still at it. And it doesn’t have any comment capability whatsoever.

In fact, it’s very lean on opinion or exposition of any kind! But it is, in essence, what Jordan defines above — a system for posting a collection of pages (or, I would actually say, ‘entries’) in time order. Quintessential “weblogness.”

Now, I suppose some could argue that somewhere between “weblog” and the truncated nickname “blog” things shift, and blogs are properly understood as something more discursive? But I don’t think so. I think the DNA of a blog means it’s essentially a series of posts giving snapshots of what is on the mind of the blog’s writer, both posted and presented in chronological order. That might be a ‘collective’ writer — a group blog. But it’s what it is, nonetheless.

But that doesn’t mean the emotional attachment, philosophical significance and political impact aren’t just as important — they’re just not part of the definition. :-)

[Edited to add: while it’s true that a wiki & blog *can* both make pages editable by one author or a group, in *practice* a blog tends to be about individual voices writing “posts” identified with author bylines, while a wiki tends to be about multiple authors writing each “article” through aggregated effort. Blogs & wikis started with these uses in their DNA, and the vast majority of them follow this pattern. Fore example, most blog platforms display the name of a post’s author by default, while most wikis don’t bother displaying author names on articles, because there’s an assumption the articles will be written & refined over time by multiple users.]

What Mashups Mean?

I’ve been thinking a lot about mashups recently. I’ve been asking myself the question: as a user-experience designer, what happens when the experience I’ve designed gets usurped, or disintermediated, by people taking what they want of it and leaving the rest behind? What does that mean to me as a designer: i.e. what is it, then, that I should be designing??

I’ve half-started several blog posts about this, and then stopped when some distraction came up.

And then today, a day or two after everybody else, I hear about this:

O’Reilly Radar > Pipes and Filters for the Internet

Yahoo!’s new Pipes service is a milestone in the history of the internet. It’s a service that generalizes the idea of the mashup, providing a drag and drop editor that allows you to connect internet data sources, process them, and redirect the output. Yahoo! describes it as “an interactive feed aggregator and manipulator” that allows you to “create feeds that are more powerful, useful and relevant.” While it’s still a bit rough around the edges, it has enormous promise in turning the web into a programmable environment for everyone.

Yeah. Yahoo’s new service called Pipes.

I know there’s tons of buzz about this, and I feel silly jumping on the Internet obsession of the week. But this really is big. I agree with Tim O’Reilly: it’s a milestone. It may not be the mashup service that ends up leader of the pack, just like Mosaic (or even Netscape) didn’t end up being the de facto browser.

But it underlines a key truth that’s becoming more and more clear. And it’s a bit of a paradox: in order to keep your audience’s interest, you have to relinquish control of that interest.

Are you “somebody?”
Let me start at 1997: I remember getting out of grad school and how it dawned on me in my first web-related job, that in the post-web world, not having a website was like not having your name in the phonebook. Remember Steve Martin in The Jerk? When he saw his name in the phonebook, he ran around screaming, “I’m somebody!” It wasn’t far from the truth: if you were a business, especially, the Yellow Pages essentially had an extortion scheme — if you weren’t paying to be in there, you might as well not exist. And as a private individual, you were essentially a hermit if you had no phone book listing. Why? Because it was how people found you… your phone number, address, everything.

So, by the late 90s, the web was turning into the same thing. Everybody knew, by about 1999 at the latest, that if they didn’t have a significant presence online, they were out of the conversation. The marketplace would just move along without them.

Staying in the Conversation

Another similar thing has happened with open standards and APIs. Now it’s not enough to just have a web site. If you want to have a part in the larger conversation, you need to open up your content and even your tools, whatever they may be, to be syndicated and reconstituted in other contexts. When Google first saw someone doing a mashup with their maps API, they considered suing them. But, being the new-paradigm-aware folks they often are, they realized they were much better off helping mashup makers create fabulous things with their tools and content.

It only increased their prominence and value in the marketplace — and with a viral swiftness, they’re everywhere, not just at their own domain. You literally can’t get away from Google. I know it’s more complicated than that: they have to make money with advertising, and if someone uses their API without directing traffic that sees Google’s ads, then they lose money… but look at the most successful Google API mashups, and you’ll see Google adwords right there. Why? Because Google made it super easy to use adwords, just as easy as their other APIs, and if I made a mashup that gets millions of hits a day, I want to make money on it… so I up Adwords, and Google and I both share the spoils. (Yeah, if only! Why didn’t I stick with learning XML back in 2000?)

Designing for Survival of the Species

As Dick Hardt said a year or more ago: “Simple and open wins, always.” I suggest we call it Hardt’s Law. The idea is that, just like in the natural selection of organic species, the ecosystem of the Web rewards openness and simplicity. Object-oriented, elegant, universally pluggable… all qualities that help one species thrive over another.

So, what happens when, in 10-15 years (I may be overshooting that; lately, stuff that I thought was going to take a decade happens in the next week… ) Yahoo! Pipes isn’t the exception, but the rule? When everyone (or most people actively engaged in the ‘net) has not only the tools available, but the language — the literacy — of programming their own info-aggregation? If you don’t have something out there for them to aggregate, structured in such a way that they can filter it and parse it however they please, you might as well not exist.

That’s not even touching on the fact that you have to have content or value that they give a damn about. But that’s a whole other challenge.

As a designer, I now see my job as not only to create the best self-contained user experience I can. Now it’s also to think in terms of objects — modular components — and how well they break apart. How well do they carry their own context with them? How might they be useful in other contexts I haven’t thought of? Will that even be OK? (Gut reaction: it had better be — every tool or paragraph that isn’t remixable by someone I’ve never even met is one more chance lost to ‘infect’ the global conversation.)

It’s no longer about whether something is open or not, or if it has a feed or not. Assuming the content is something people want, it’s also about understanding how my users may want to filter or mash what I’m making available. Or how well it might fit into another format that doesn’t even exist in the original context. For example, my blog has an RSS feed, so other people can read it in things like Bloglines. Luckily, the software I use already puts things like comments and such in an open standard so that Bloglines can also syndicate how many comments were made on any given post. It also picks up on category metadata. But what else, in the near future, might readers want to be able to filter for? I don’t have any metadata that says if my post contains a photograph or not, or if it’s an “article” versus just a “check out this link” post. Those are just the first things that come to mind.

For me, and my modest little blog here, it’s not that big of a deal. But if I’m the New York Times, or Forrester Research, or even some low-cost provider of mutual funds that’s wanting to get market information out to millions of financial advisors — it might be very very important.

Design is as much about the remixability of what we make as it is the primary intended experience. Even beyond just content, if I design a tool that helps people count their calories, or keep up with their checking account, the old-school thinking would be: make it great so they’ll come to you and stick with you as long as possible. But the new thinking is going to have to be: make it so elegant and self-contained, and openly compatible with everything else, that people can use it on their MySpace pages and their cell phones.

Simple, open, and letting go. It’s starting to sound downright spiritual.

OmniShrine Wiki

Using the wonderful tools available over at WetPaint, I have now set up the OmniShrine Wiki
For years I’ve had a post here about Omni Magazine, something I used to love to read when I was growing up. Over those years, many people have added comments on that post, explaining particular stories or art they had enjoyed, asking if people remembered or had available particular issues or excerpts, and even offering back-issues for sale. Since then I nicknamed it the Omni Magazine Shrine.
But nobody ever answers those comments because it’s not set up for discussion or sharing, just commenting. So I figured I’d make a community spot for people to share. Who knows, it could turn into something?
Do you have a personal remembrance about the magazine in general? A question? A topic to discuss? Maybe you have a favorite story, article or illustration you want to share with others or ask about? Go for it.

Second Life hype

I just posted another bit about Second Life a little while ago, and though to myself, “Why are you posting so much about it? You hardly even go there!”

It’s true. I really don’t actually use SL much. I love thinking about it, reading about it, and checking out the occasional amazing build there, but I haven’t found it consistently engaging enough to really spend a lot of time there.

There are several reasons for this, in my case:

1. I don’t especially like socializing there, because I don’t want to go into that sinkhole. I’ve had experiences in my past where a virtual community of one kind or another has drawn me in, and it keeps me disconnected from my present life. Some people are better at balancing this, but not me. And it’s even worse in some ways than an IRC channel or a MOO/MUD situation, because it’s so highly visual. There’s so much to keep track of visually that you can’t take your eyes from the screen, while on IRC or a MOO you can do other things online while ‘hanging’ out with your chat friends. But I don’t even do that anymore. I’ve tried hanging in some friendly spots like the Elbow Room in SL, but after a while it just gets to be so repetitive.

2. I honestly prefer *building* things in virtual places like this. When I messed around more in MUSH and MOO environments, the biggest draw for me was designing stuff, figuring out the kludgy but learnable code, and creating interactive objects, or even just lushly described environments. But even if you didn’t know the code, you could modify others’ objects or make really cool stuff mainly by just describing it in text. It was a collaborative storytelling tool, with real-time “third-place” community as the other killer ingredient. But in Second Life, you can’t just write up something cool and put a bit of code with it and make an enveloping, narrative experience. To do something that effective in SL, you have to understand 3D motion geometry, have a gift for 3D CAD work, and be willing to learn a full fledged programming language (LSL). It’s frustrating to not be able to just create great stuff without having to become a full-time craftsperson. Even the thrill of describing your character (writing your description in a MUSH) is ruined in SL, because you either have to know how to create your own clothes (using very advanced Photoshop techniques, hard to find textures, and 3D modeling skills) or you have to buy the stuff other people make. Which essentially makes it so much like real life, I figure, what’s the point? I learned just enough to make some tattoos and t-shirts, so that I could at least feel like I had a hand in my avatar’s sartorial expression, then I stopped, because it’s not like somebody’s paying me to do this stuff.

3. Which leads me to the last issue. Money. SL has been hyped like mad as all about the money. Which makes it very different from the Web, in many ways… because the Web is about openness, which it has in its DNA, to make a web page, you’ve always been able to just look at someone else’s source. Even now, with AJAX and other technologies making it more complex, the leaders in these techniques (Yahoo, Google) are publishing their source code openly, in the spirit of the Web. Second Life, however, encourages people to keep everything a secret, to lock their source code because they may be able to sell something for a few hundred Lindens. True, on MUDs and such people can lock their objects as well, trying to make some virtual cash in whatever MUD they’re on, and hide the source. But if they really want bragging rights, they know they should make something that works really well and share it with others, because that currency is actually worth more in the long run — social currency. With SL, however, the virtual money is *real* money — because it’s exchangeable with US dollars. Nothing wrong with capitalism, of course, but it’s caused hundreds of people to glom onto SL and turn it into a giant, ugly shopping mall — not a nice one, but one of those nearly-third-world bazaars where you think you’re driving by a giant junk pile but it’s actually stuff for sale. The worst part of this, to me, is that it makes so many people in SL protective and closed, and paranoid, about the stuff they made… and every little bauble someone comes up with is something they think they’re going to get rich by selling.

So… there you go. Does that mean I hate Second Life, like (otherwise very pleasant friend of the IA community) Matt “Blackbelt” Jones and cohorts at ? Well, no. I actually still think it’s fascinating. But only as a sort of initial foray or experiment. I don’t see that SL is the ‘future of the web’ — I believe the real future of the web is in simple, basic interfaces that connect us more easily and cheaply and ubiquitously wherever we happen to be. This is quite the opposite of having to be glued to my desk chair in front of a computer powerful enough to push the software and content streaming from Linden’s servers.

That said, I think SL is a fascinating *archetype* for what that future of ubiquitous, simple, cheap computing is going to be. (As I’ve said in “We Live Here” and other places.) I don’t think it’s taking over the web, but it could very well infect our imaginations. That’s really its key power… that it’s opening thoughts, conversations and possibilities about what else we could do with technology, how richly it can connect us, and what it might feel like to walk around in a world where every object has a unique id and talks to every other object, including us.

It’s also useful in more concentrated, planned ways, as a place where distantly connected people can meet “in the flesh” — there’s an interesting psychological effect that’s different in SL that you don’t get in text chat. The corporeal presence of the other person, even though they may be dressed like a fairy or a robot — it’s just a more exaggerated version of wearing a particular cologne or cool sunglasses, things we do all the time to express ourselves. I’ve been in meetings with people from organizations I’m part of, people whom I rarely or never meet in person, and there’s an intimacy to the conversation when looking around at their avatars and talking that you just don’t get in a text-only experience. Also there’s a sense of “place” that feels more substantial than a mere website — having a presence in Second Life, a company or organization can provide something that expresses “if we had a building you could come and visit to get to know us, this is what it’d be like” and that’s pretty powerful.

That’s why I think Clay Shirkey’s post is kind of missing the point. Shirkey will have plenty of people jumping in to agree or disagree with him, so I won’t go to great lengths.

I’ll just say I think he’s dead right about the hype: Linden is overplaying it. Philip Rosedale has gone on record saying SL is like the new Web, and that it’s like Burning Man… a utopia of which he is the visionary and lord. That’s fun for him, but not so much squared with reality. Linden Labs is a business, and SL is proprietary and limited to a giant warehouse of servers in California. Not quite the open Web of Tim Berners-Lee. And corporate America is having its field day for now, but it’ll wind down soon enough. At this point everyone feels obligated to have at least a kiosk there, just so they don’t look like squares.

But SL or something like it will continue to be there, and will grow, and will likely morph into something much less literal and (as Shirkey puts it) “conceptually simple” and much more a hybrid of walking around in real space + walking around in virtual space + using more efficient interfaces when appropriate for all the things that the virtual/real merged layers present us.

Bruce Sterling’s blog at Wired has a post summing up and riffing on the most recent “Future of the Internet” whitepaper at Pew:

The future of the Internet lies not with institutions but with individuals. Low-cost connections will proliferate, encouraging creativity, collaboration, and telecommuting. The Net itself will recede into the background. If you’re under 21, you likely don’t care much about any supposed difference between virtual and actual, online and off. That’s because the two realms are penetrating each other; Google Earth mingles with Google Maps, and daily life shows up on Flickr. Like the real world, the Net will be increasingly international and decreasingly reliant on English. It will be wrapped in a Chinese kung fu outfit, intoned in an Indian accent, oozing Brazilian sex appeal.

I haven’t made my way through this yet, but Boyd’s the go-to-person for social network thinking these days:

Friends, friendsters, and top 8: Writing community into being on social network sites

Friending is deeply affected by both social processes and technological affordances. I will argue that the established Friending norms evolved out of a need to resolve the social tensions that emerged due to technological limitations. At the same time, I will argue that Friending supports pre-existing social norms yet because the architecture of social network sites is fundamentally different than the architecture of unmediated social spaces, these sites introduce an environment that is quite unlike that with which we are accustomed.

I must seem Second-Life obsessed… there really are other things going on in my life. (Getting over a horrible horrible cold, for one.)

But this seems to be the week of Second Life. They just hit a million registered users … and their media coverage has hit the tipping point. It’ll be amazing if they really have the hardware to keep up.

I had the pleasure of going to a big-time media event last night. The W Hotels company was promoting their Virtual Aloft hotel prototype thing, and it was in partership with Sony promoting Ben Folds’ new album. I lucked into a ticket in their ‘lottery’ and got to go chill on the new Aloft island (and the new Sony Media island). Apparently only about 60 people were able to go (mainly because of limits on how many avatars a given ‘sim’ or region in SL can handle at a time).

At first there was dancing to your basic dance stuff, and then Ben Folds showed up and they played music from his new album. He didn’t perform it or anything, he just introduced songs and danced with us. They had some sound issues here and there, but he was a blast — he really got into the zaniness of having an avatar that allows you to do whatever you want. (Like run around shirtless with a can of Duff beer, falling all over the floor, then attacking people with a lightsaber.)

We all got to give questions to a guy beforehand that he’d ask him (they were doing the interview live at Sony BMG in NY and streaming it). Since I kept telling myself I wished my kid could see this, I put one in that I thought my daughter might ask — who is Ben’s favorite character in Over the Hedge, the movie he did the soundtrack to. Turns out it’s Hammy :-)

ben folds secondlife 1 Ben Folds on stage Ben folds with lightsabre
Pictures (click for the big version): First one shows Ben Folds on stage greeting everyone, and me in the bottom left evidently pretending I’m a bouncer or something. Second one is a closer look at BF. Third is BF after some partying, having ‘slain’ a fan with a lightsaber somebody handed him.

What’s very strange to me about all this is that it doesn’t take long to feel like you’re really there. The avatar eventually blends into your sense of self in a powerful way, and it’s like you really did ‘go’ to an event like this.

More SL related stuff:

The Infinite Mind public radio program has had a series going on:

The Infinite Mind programs
We here at The Infinite Mind relished the opportunity to enter the 3D arena of virtual technology and within eight weeks had constructed our own 16 acre virtual broadcast center in Second Life. From our virtual studios we went on to produce live broadcasts with guests including author Kurt Vonnegut; singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega; internet visionary Howard Rheingold; and world-renowned designer John Maeda, of the MIT Media Lab, along with others who plan, build, live, work and play in on-line “virtual worlds.” The series was taped for broadcast, in front of a live audience, from inside The Infinite Mind’s virtual studios and broadcast center on Second Life.

I haven’t heard it, but I’ll listen to the podcasts (hm, I’m not sure if they have them though).

To support Suzanne Vega’s visit, they got an SL resident to construct a beautiful guitar model for her that will supposedly help her look as if she’s really playing it along with her performance. Here’s a pretty amazing video of the guy building it in-world … I suspect this is tricked out animation wise, because I can’t see that he could possibly build that fast, no matter how good he is. Still… it’s very pretty to watch: (that may not work later, when another showcase item is up, and they didn’t have a permalink… but you should be able to see the Quicktime version here.)

The New Yorker has a very good article on Wikipedia this week. It acknowledges both the positive and negative aspects of the site. I have to agree that Wikipedia will ever supplant the usefulness of a peer-reviewed traditional publication, but it will serve as a useful foil.

Over breakfast in early May, I asked Cauz for an analogy with which to compare Britannica and Wikipedia. “Wikipedia is to Britannica as ‘American Idol’ is to the Juilliard School,” he e-mailed me the next day. A few days later, Wales also chose a musical metaphor. “Wikipedia is to Britannica as rock and roll is to easy listening,” he suggested. “It may not be as smooth, but it scares the parents and is a lot smarter in the end.” He is right to emphasize the fright factor over accuracy. As was the Encyclopédie, Wikipedia is a combination of manifesto and reference work. Peer review, the mainstream media, and government agencies have landed us in a ditch. Not only are we impatient with the authorities but we are in a mood to talk back.

One point the article makes clear is that Wikipedia is, if defined mainly by writing activity, a community where people discuss things. The talk and discussion pages get more use than the actual articles. And that’s part of what I really love about it. Wikipedia (like the Web in general) records and makes explicit all the tacit conversations that go into collective truthmaking.

Evidently the guy who started Wikipedia with Jimmy Wales, Larry Sanger, is now working on a new project — a hybrid of Wikipedia-like opennness with editorial peer review. Depending on how that’s handled, it could be extremely powerful. And why couldn’t Wikipedia be the breeding ground of what eventually ends up there?

Anyway, the article also makes the point that Encyclopedias have always been challenges to hegemonies …

In its seminal Western incarnation, the encyclopedia had been a dangerous book. The Encyclopédie muscled aside religious institutions and orthodoxies to install human reason at the center of the universe—and, for that muscling, briefly earned the book’s publisher a place in the Bastille. As the historian Robert Darnton pointed out, the entry in the Encyclopédie on cannibalism ends with the cross-reference “See Eucharist.”

It’ll be strange to look at something like Wikipedia one day and think of it as a dusty, traditional way of sharing knowledge. But for now, it’s fun to watch the fight.

« Older entries