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Looking under the Hood of Wikipedia

After some drama getting here (note to self: Qantas may be in trouble at the moment, but avoid Scandinavian Airlines like the plague), I'm now in Copenhagen, and we're about to start the programme proper of the ninth annual Association of Internet Researchers conference. Although the presentation by Dr. Hala-Seuss which runs in a parallel session was very tempting, I'm starting the day in a session on wikis. Timme Bisgaard Munk is the first presenter, presenting on his study of the Danish Wikipedia.

Vibewire 3: Wonderful Wikis?

I've just posted another contribution to the ongoing discussion on the Vibewire e-Festival Ideas forum. This was triggered by discussion about the New Zealand Greens' use of wiki technology to develop their policy platform, and the perhaps overly enthusiastic endorsement of this model from some of the contributors on the forum. In response, I suggest a somewhat more nuanced view of what contribution wikis and other open produsage approaches might be able to make.

Well if a bunch of people are writing policy together on a wiki it's better policy in that it's a better representation of what the group wants because its written by everyone, rather than one or two people who may filter what other people want.

OK, I'm going to take issue with this statement, at least in this very general formulation (which has quite a techno-determinist ring to it - it sounds like you're saying that policy written using wikis is automatically better/more representative policy because wikis were used in writing it).

I agree that this can be the result, but whether it is or not depends crucially on the dynamics of the the group of people participating in the process. Wiki-based projects are no more and no less subject to groupthink, flamewars, and conceptual blind spots than any other collaborative content development projects. Whether they 'work' or not (that is, capture a wide range of views and achieve a consensus that most contributors can live with) depends on whether there's an active desire (driven by the community of contributors) to listen to, engage with, and come to a consensus with these diverse views.

Collaboratively Testing Enterprise Management Webware

It's a day of keynotes today, but for the last one we're back in the smaller WikiSym 2007 setting, for a talk by the inventor of the wiki, Ward Cunningham. He is also a pioneer in software design patterns research (the field for whose uses he invented the wiki, of course), and in what's called agile software development, however. He begins by noting that wikis are ultimately an exercise in simplicity - focussing on some very simple processes upon which large structures such as Wikipedia can be built.

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'.

Communities in the Wiki World

The final session at WikiSym 2007 today is on wiki communities, and starts with a paper by Joseph Reagle, whose research focusses on open content communities in general (probably close to what I would describe as the communities of produsage), and is interested in particular at the role of leaders in such communities. He notes seven features of what he calls authorial leadership: leadership is emergent, and is conferred based on merit and exercised through 'speaking softly'; there is mixed governance, combining meritocracy, autocracy, anarchy, and democracy at various times; leadership is an informal status, and a role as 'benevolent dictator' remains limited and temporary; leaders' key role is to channel momentum towards the development of a community culture; leadership operates through persuasion, arbitration, and defence against disruption, and accrues 'idiosyncrasy credits' (the more respected a leader, the more are they able to act idiosyncratically, autocratically, dictatorially, in the interests of the community as a last resort); there is a danger of overreaching if leaders exercise their power too enthusiastically or are positioned as uncontradictable authorities; but there is also a humour and good faith culture which militates against a glorification of the benevolent dictator. Ultimately, then, the title of benevolent dictator is a kind of tin crown, Joseph suggests; such leaders still need to tread very carefully and need to participate constructively in the community, and they cannot rest on their laurels.

Using Wikis in Education

We're now starting the post-lunch session on the first day here at WikiSym 2007, and the first paper is by Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman, who examine the use of wikis as a toolkit for collaborative learning. Andrea begins by noting tha there is a significant deficit in media literacy amongst high school students - they don't necessarily have sufficient skills to evaluate the information they're confronted with. She suggests constructionism as a pedagogic framework for building such literacies.

Constructionism has been articulated by Seymour Papert - he suggests that people learn particularly well when engaged in the construction of public artefacts: when others see what you know and have done, when you can take pride in the work, and when the work is persistent into the future. This connects very well with working with wikis, of course, but also goes beyond them - it builds on students working on personally meaningful goals, and harnesses learners as capable, curious, and tenacious active practitioners. Online, especially, there are constantly new opportunities to employ constructionist learning.

What Makes Wikis Work?

The next session here at WikiSym 2007 begins with a short paper by Sarah Guth from the University of Padua, on wikis in education. She's done some work using social software in teaching environments, and discusses the question of whether such teaching should take place in public or non-public social software environments. Using (public) wikis enables collective authoring (which enables critical reading and responsible writing); raises issues of individual and collective ownership (challenging conventional Western epistemologies of individual intellectual property); and highlights content as ego-less, time-less, and never finished while enabling continuous development. Publishing online also empowers students, and history and discussion functions focus on writing as process, not product.

Welcome to WikiSym, Welcome to the Future

After the fun and excitement of AoIR 2007, I've made the quick but painful overnight trip to Montréal for the two-day International Symposium on Wikis, which takes part here in association with the much larger OOPSLA conference (in case you're wondering as I was: apparently this stands for Object-Oriented Programming, Systems, Languages, and Applications). Happily, Montréal is enjoying a very pleasant Indian summer which is a welcome break from Vancouver's incessant drizzle... Naturally, the WikiSym conference also has its own wiki, which should be worth checking for comments on the presentations over the next few days.

Communities? Wikipedia, YouTube, and Other Projects

The next session at AoIR 2007 begins with a paper by Ralph Schroeder and Mattijs den Besten on the section in the Pynchon wiki which has sprung up to collaboratively annotate Thomas Pynchon's much-anticipated novel Against the Day. There are some interesting statistics on how user participation shifted from the Pynchon mailing-list before the release of the book to the wiki once it was released; today, the wiki works as a reference source, as a tool highlighting connections to other Pynchon novels, and interpreting the content of the book. By July 2007, it had 200 contributors, 5000 entries, and contained some 400,000 words.

Off to Canada

I'm heading out to Canada tomorrow, to present three papers at two conferences, and I've uploaded those papers and presentation Powerpoints here now. As a counterpoint to my solo work on the produsage book, I've really enjoyed working in collaborative teams this year - in addition to the ARC Linkage projects for edgeX and Youdecide2007 (and the Gatewatching group blog and ABC series with Barry and Jason from Youdecide), I'm also working in cross-institutional teams on couple of Carrick Institute projects examining teaching and learning in social software environments and building a network of Australian creative writing programmes. So, it's perhaps no surprise that all three papers on this trip are co-authored works - two with my colleague Sal Humphreys from QUT, and one with Lars Kirchhoff and Thomas Nicolai from the Universität St. Gallen in Switzerland.

What's worked out particularly well this month is the timing of the conferences - I'm headed first to the Association of Internet Researchers conference in Vancouver on 17-20 Oct., and from there it's just an overnight flight to the International Symposium on Wikis in Montréal on 21-23 Oct. Given how long it takes to get anywhere from Australia, being able to do a number of conferences on the one trip is always very useful - and I'm particularly looking forward again to AoIR, since due to my role as conference chair at last year's conference in Brisbane I missed most of the presentation sessions except for the keynotes and those sessions that I presented in myself. As always, I'm planning to blog everything I'm attending, and I'll try to record and slidecast my own papers. For now, here's a preview of what's to come:


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