Web 2.0 is not a democracy (and some disparate thoughts on Wikipedia & authority)

Web 2.0 is not a democracy…. but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I tell my university students to be leery of the Wikipedia: since anyone can write/edit an article, how can you be certain of its authority? Apparently though, only a small hand-full of people are responsible for the majority of its articles and edits. So there is editorial control, and other user-content sites are similarly not democratic. From Slate, ‘Digg, Wikipedia, and the myth of Web 2.0 Democracy’:

It’s getting harder to be a Wikipedia-hater. The user-generated and -edited online encyclopedia—which doesn’t even require contributors to register—somehow holds its own against the Encyclopedia Britannica in accuracy, a Nature study concluded, and has many times more entries. But even though people are catching up to the idea that Wikipedia is a force for good, there are still huge misconceptions about what makes the encyclopedia tick. While Wikipedia does show the creative potential of online communities, it’s a mistake to assume the site owes its success to the wisdom of the online crowd.

Social-media sites like Wikipedia and Digg are celebrated as shining examples of Web democracy, places built by millions of Web users who all act as writers, editors, and voters. In reality, a small number of people are running the show….

What is interesting in this article – from the point of view of one who has followed the whole PDQ discussion from its inception – are the different models for generating what amounts to ‘authority’ in formats that are supposed to be ‘democratic’. Authority emerges despite the best efforts to the contrary… If PDQ is going to be successful (that is to say, accepted by the wider academic community beyond those of us who spend far too many hours on the internet) , it has to find its own model for generating authority – or perhaps it will emerge anyway? – in order to demonstrate its value to those who prefer the current models for academic publishing.

Another disparate thought: What of the creation end of thing? Students are quick to use Wikipedia; Martha Groom and Andreas Brockhaus make this a virtue and have used publishing a term paper via Wikipedia as a forum for demonstrating to their students just what is really involved in getting something up on Wikipedia, and as a model for the peer-review process (!). Happily, they also found it was an excellent exercise for getting her students more engaged in the process of creating academic writing. Their powerpoint is available here; their conclusions:

Writing a Wikipedia article can be a more sophisticated learning experience:

  • Enhances quality of research and writing
  • Enhances student understanding of the research process
  • Highlights importance of using verifiable and credible sources
  • Increases pride in work
  • Encourages collaborative model of knowledge creation

I tried to use a wiki-writing experience in a media studies class I taught at the high school level (the anglophone online high school in Quebec) and I have to say I did not find the same thing with those particular students. They never really understood the point of Wikis, to my astonishment. Part of the problem there though was that the students in question were all taking my course since their own schools did not know what else to do with them: they were the students who had fallen through the cracks in the regular programs. They didn’t have computers at home. And part of the problem was one that Groom and Brockhaus identify in their presentation, the problem that our students, for all their presumed internet savvy, often do not know how to do such basic things as marking up text, logging properly, saving work, and so on. My little class never got to the point where their materials were ready to go live. I find this is true even of my university students.

Lesson learned for next time.

Finally, on a similar theme, Scott Moore is chronicling his experiences with a class on Digital history that he is conducting, and I recall that in one of his posts he identifies much the same problem. He has also recently tackled the problem of assessing the authority of a website with his class – and happily, student feedback from that session shows that it was a good thing to do. This is a lesson for all of us. We can’t assume that our students already ‘know’ how to understand what they find on the internet. We have to make our students aware of where the authority lies.