I just discovered Jon Udell’s wonderfully archeological screencast about the evolution of a wikipedia page. In eight and a half minutes, he beautifully demonstrates how a community negotiates knowledge construction when nobody is the boss, anybody can edit, and there are no formal processes. As we know, this is a particularly vexing question to many faculty, who are used to editorial authority being defined by a single blessed and credentialed editor or a small number of blessed and credentialed jurors in highly specialized content domains. In contrast, Udell takes an extremely specialized topic–the history and conventions of using umlauts in the names of heavy metal bands–and shows how entirely different editorial mechanisms can work very effectively.
If you do share this with your faculty colleagues, I recommend emphasizing the following points:
- Although the topic is obscure, the internet makes it possible to harness the resources of interesting parties around the globe by dramatically lowering the barrier to participation. The content is easy to find, easy to access, easy to edit, and easy to monitor. Consequently, a small army of casual participants can do the work normally done by one paid, dedicated editor.
- The kinds of expertise involved in editing even a seemingly specialized page are shockingly diverse, including heavy metal culture, cinema, linguistics, and even web typography. This is another benefit of the wikipedia approach.
- The kind of editorial process in wikipedia is neither inherently worse nor inherently better than traditially scholarly editorial processes. It’s just different. For example, ma contentious point (e.g., the relationship of the heavy metal umlaut to Nazism) may get different editorial treatment when negotiated by consensus rather than by a particular editor with a singular point of view. The differences are important, fascinating, and too context-specific to summarize with a blanket judgment.
- Motivation for participation in wikipedia by scholars is different than it is for participation in more traditional scholarly media, since there is no “by-line” or editorial credit and there is currently no way to get credit in most tenure or promotion processes. So not only does wikipedia represent a different way of negotiating scholarly knowledge and authority, it also represents a different way of negotiating scholarly identity.
Finally, I would challenge interested faculty to pick a wikipedia page on a topic that is important to them and conduct a mini archeological project similar to Udell’s. This would give them a more intimate sense of how the process works in their discipline and, just as importantly, a sense of how they feel about the results when the topic is something that they really care about.