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Political Wikis, Wiki Politics

The next session this second day of WikiSym 2007 is on political wikis, but opens with a paper by Renée-Marie Fountain on co-constructed development via communal constructivism in an educational environment. She begins with a nod towards the idea of the wisdom of the crowds, and especially perhaps of student crowds which we touched upon yesterday, and notes that in constructivist approaches students are invited to construct learning for as well as with others. This pursues what can be described as 'impossible public goods'.

In educational contexts, wiki texts are written by peers (in a potentially more accessible language); contextualised (linked to educational use); and critiqued (evaluated for relevance); Renée's work appears here to be similar to what we've done with New Media Technologies in that students develop a shared resource about new media technologies and concepts which also examines what is at stake in relation to each concept (linking it to others). Students prefer to research and elaborate concepts; they understand the concepts better once they read the peer-elaborated, contextualised-for-education texts.

As part of the process, Renée evaluated students' understanding of a number of related texts on the same concept, and examined which texts they found most useful, and for what reason - building on notions of intertextuality and intratextuality. She asked students to rework a number of related texts into one, to examine the stucture of the final result in comparison with its constituent parts. Does this facilitate conceptual development, and how do students negotiate authorship? What reworking, feedback, conceptual elaborations, identification, complexification, rectification of problems occurs - is homogeneity re-enacted in the final outcomes?

From here we move to Kevin Makice, who is delivering his paper on politicWiki, a project for collaborative politics, over the phone. PoliticWiki was an open wiki developed over six months which turned out to be a mixed success due to its inability to attract a critical mass of contributors and content. There also was an all-too-respectful engagement with content, with many users holding off editing existing content in the wiki. Suggestions for improving this model which emerged from the experience were to make issues smaller, to harness users' more personal connections with issues, to allow for contextual comments, to show stronger leadership, conduct better marketing, and the pursue implementation of a social structure for the wiki.

Kevin now explains political involvement by highlighting the different daily routines of average voters, and of the political machines. To do something new, using collaborative technologies, forces the voter to go out of their way to access political information; instead, technology needs to be placed at points of natural overlap between voters and politics, or to change voters' routines altogether. Ultimately, conversation takes place where people are, however - so it's important to examine voters' movements.

The size of the group is important in this - as it rises, diversity and power increase, but empathy and production decrease, so there is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle where the most empathy and diversity form a happy balance. What wikis enable is to allow for interaction and content creation at a local level but connect these together to tie into larger, national issues. This also relates to mutuality, which moves away from a view of the individual as autonomous and towards a relational model which focusses on the connections between individuals.

We are seeing this realised in the rise of social networking, but the increase in social networking sites also disperses networks; what will be necessary is to design technologies which enable users to take along their social networks as they move between sites. A system like Freebase (an open, shared database of knowledge) may help here, Kevin suggests, as does the WikiCreole language which is being developed as a more unified language employed across a number of existing wiki technologies. Kevin also points us to Political Base, a community around the 2008 U.S. primaries and Presidential election, as well as listing a number of other communities operating in various political contexts for collaborative political development.

The next speaker is a political activist whose name doesn't seem to be listed anywhere. He describes grassroots politics as building on the will of the people, and as pursuing a deliberative rather than contest-based political process; a project he's been involved in, in fact, developed its 2004 national platform for the U.S. election campaign through a wiki environment. This is a significant advance from many traditional forms of face-to-face participatory politics, which is often mired in conflict and anymosity.

Much has been learnt from the 2003/4 Howard Dean experience, and there are now many collaborative political environments exploring multiple political points of view in a deliberative fashion. The Living Platform project, which recast its political platform as a wiki-style living document, was covered in some detail as a novelty by the mainstream media, who given their conventional understanding of politics had no conceptual tools to understand how the project operated.

Such mainstream media misunderstandings (which were also evident in the Howard Dean coverage) are something I've written about in some detail, and another comment from the floor also notes the problems in formatting the outcomes of a wikified deliberation process in a way which enables their further dissemination through the mass media (especially as the process of deliberation will continue beyond this point, so that - as in all of produsage - there are no truly final outcomes).

Our activist now suggests that the aggregating machine of the mass media and the political system it sustains will always have the power (which could be seen as undermining any hope for grassroots deliberative processes). The discussion here is becoming rather U.S.-centric, and really highlights mainly the shortcomings of the U.S. political system with its reduction of most major political issues to a very narrow choice between Republicans and Democrats, allowing little opportunity for a more nuanced, multiperspectival range of views to exist.

Another comment from the floor points to Wikipedia as an alternative model, which (within the confines of the Neutral Point of View doctrine) offers a space for various points of view, but has also been joined by additional wiki-based encyclopaedias focussing on more specific ideologies (such as the Conservapedia for right-wing views). Sal Humphreys now returns us to the question of the living document, and highlights the similarities between institutional resistances to this model in the mass media and in the educational establishment. Targetting media organisations to drive them to evolve their understanding of such content is as important as targetting educational institutions to develop an understanding of information as editable and knowledge as emergent, wiki-style.

Renée Fountain also notes the prevalence of dogmatism in established institutions, and Kevin notes that this is common to most group dynamics - willingness to change is dependent on the extent of change which people experience around them. Change is based also on a willingness to understand alternative points of view; the more people think differently and try different approaches, the more there is an opportunity for politics to work differently on a larger scale. Our activist ends on a positive note that we can achieve this as citizens at the grassroots; he also notes that we must do so in the current environment where mass politics (certainly in the U.S.) is demonstrably broken and must shift. He uses the example of the collapse of the Soviet Union in this context (although I would suggest that the collapse was due in good part to the almost accidental election of a progressive leader from within the Communist hierarchy, rather than to Soviet people power...).

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