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Democracy begins at home Last week – discussed the ways in which the Internet might (or might not) bring democracy to non-democratic regimes. But some people on both left and right complain about the state of democratic culture in advanced industrialized countries like the US too.

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Democracy begins at home

  • Last week – discussed the ways in which the Internet might (or might not) bring democracy to non-democratic regimes.

  • But some people on both left and right complain about the state of democratic culture in advanced industrialized countries like the US too.

    • Lack of public participation in politics and public debate

    • Emphasis on private gain versus collective endeavor.

  • This reflects a set of value judgements that everyone may not share.

  • But to the extent that this might be a more general problem, can the Internet provide an alternative?


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Lecture format

  • In this lecture, we will discuss whether the Internet provides for a more participatory media culture, and thus a more responsive democracy.

  • Particular attention to the role of Wikipedia – arguably the largest and most successful volunteer-run project ever.

  • Provides an example of how decentralized collaboration can work.

  • But also, according to its critics, of how it can get gummed up with increasing bureaucracy.


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Broad debate about Web 2.0

  • New technologies such as blogs, wikis, social networking sites allow the building of thriving, self-selecting, communities of debate.

  • As discussed in class on blogs, this has led to some criticisms that it may polarize debate etc.

  • But also some people (Yochai Benkler) argue that it is likely to have highly benign consequences.

    • Creates a more participatory culture.

    • Provides an open and non-bureaucratic means for people to come together and participate in common projects.

    • Avoids stranglehold of large firms on media.


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Benkler on the Wealth of Networks

  • Benkler – takes some of the arguments about civil society and the public sphere – and applies them to the US.

  • Argues that we have a relatively weak public sphere, because of the dominance of large media firms, and the difficulty of access to broadcasting/print technologies.

  • Result is a largely passive public.

  • But new technologies may be changing things …


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Participation

  • Web 2.0 technologies allow people to become much more than passive consumers of culture.

  • Instead, they can become participants.

  • Sometimes geeky:

    • People who make their own Star Wars movies

  • But the point isn’t that this necessarily leads to great art – but that it allows people to participate directly in creating.

  • New tools allow for the creation of a networked public sphere.


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Advantages of a networked public sphere

  • It allows people to come together to (a) express shared interests that may be relatively rare, and (b) to build on them through decentralized cooperation.

  • Benkler argues that much more of our economy is built around sharing than we realize.

    • Private life and family life contribute substantially to economic activity.

  • The Internet allows us radically to expand these sharing activities and to engage with new partners.


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Examples

  • Wikipedia - millions of people who don’t know each other working together on a common information resource.

  • Open source software (to be discussed at end of semester).

  • Creative commons licenced music and remixes.

  • Full length feature films (albeit not-very good ones).


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Neither traditionally leftist nor libertarian

  • These arguments don’t fit neatly into traditional political categories.

  • Sound a little left-leaning … but leftists usually like hierarchy and the state.

  • Sound a little libertarian, but libertarians usually like markets and are suspicious of people doing things for free


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Criticisms of networked public sphere

  • Three major sets of criticism of Benkler.

  • (1) Cass Sunstein and others – does this result in a connected and coherent public culture, or in one that is fragmented and unhealthy?

  • (2) Andrew Keen and others argue that we need experts and genuine artists to be creating this content, not amateurs.

  • (3) Nicholas Carr and others argue that participatory structures are unsustainable in the long run, and will devolve into power-games or profit seeking.


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Sunstein v. Benkler

  • Sunstein agrees that breaking the monopoly of various “general interest intermediaries” (traditional newspapers, TV stations etc can have positive consequences.

  • But argues that these intermediaries played a positive role contra Benkler in creating a public space for debate.

  • Claims that people need a set of common experiences in a heterogenous society.

  • Having shared reference points and celebrations such as MLK day, Super Bowl allow us to speak with each other more easily and identify with each other.


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Sunstein on the Internet

  • According to Sunstein, the Internet endangers all this.

  • He claims:

    • (1) that Internet allows people to filter out information and viewpoints that they don’t want to hear.

    • (2) That this detracts from our common culture, and means that we don’t have a shared set of cultural reference points any more.

    • (3) Is inferior to old idea of ‘public forum’ where people are exposed to a wide variety of views.


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Elitists – should we defer to the experts?

  • A second point of view suggests that we are endangering the quality of public life.

  • This is an elitist view (in the non-pejorative sense) – it suggests that cultural production should be left to the artistically talented, and that the accumulation of knowledge should be left to the experts.

  • Argument that traditional high brow media should be left to do what they do best.


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Andrew Keen/Encyclopedia Britannica

  • Two related versions of this argument – from Andrew Keen and from people associated with Encyclopedia Britannica.

  • Claim that collectively produced art is pretty bad.

  • That collective knowledge gathering endeavors such as Wikipedia are full of errors and badly written.

  • And that idea that ‘amateur’ can produce worthwhile material is sheer nonsense.


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Is this networked public sphere sustainable?

  • Finally – arguments from people like Nicholas Carr about sustainability of collective projects like Wikipedia.

  • Claim that Benkler’s arguments about non-hierarchical production by volunteers are grossly overstated.

  • In practice, these schemes don’t tend to work for very long.

  • Either people get greedy and try to game the system, or get swamped in bureaucratic rules.


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Devolution of system

  • People getting greedy.

    • Many of these systems can be gamed in various ways.

    • eBay reputation system, Digg, Reddit etc are all vulnerable to Sybil attacks and similar exploits.

    • Result may be breakdown of system over time.

  • People getting bureaucratic.

    • Some level of hierarchy is often necessary to get things done.

    • But may degenerate into petty bureaucracy …


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Wikipedia

  • Approximately 8.29 million articles in 253 languages (includes German, French, Chinese versions etc).

    • English Wikipedia has just over 2 million articles.

  • Has 6.8 million registered users worldwide.

    • Plus plenty of drive-by users.

  • Where did this come from?

  • How does it work?


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Where Wikipedia came from

  • Wikipedia was the result of a failed experiment in creating an expert-based encyclopedia.

    • Lots of money spent, arguments had, but very few articles produced.

  • After this failure, one of the founders, Jimmy Wales, came across the idea of a Wiki.

    • Simple way to make a highly modifiable web page.

  • Decided to turn the encyclopedia into a wiki that was open to the public – and Wikipedia came into being.


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Norms and rules

  • Wikipedia runs on a complex system of norms and guidelines delimiting

    • What kinds of articles can be accepted.

      • Has to be about something or someone who is ‘notable’

    • What kinds of writing should be present in those articles.

      • ‘Neutral Point of View’ NPOV

    • What sources are acceptable

      • No original research

    • How disputes over articles should be conducted.


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Internal structures

  • Possible to edit Wikipedia articles anonymously (although you can’t create new ones).

  • Logged-in users can create articles (after a period), modify them, and engage in easier communication. Also have greater voice in disagreements.

  • Administrators are active Wikipedians who overview debates over whether or not articles should be deleted and can protect pages and temporarily ban users.

  • Bureaucrats are administrators who can appoint other administrators.


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How does this work in practice ???

  • A not so randomly chosen example …


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Evaluating Wikipedia

  • On one level, Wikipedia seems like an astounding success.

    • One of the most popular sites on the Internet

    • Wikipedia definitions almost always first or second results on relevant Google searches.

    • Has become the bane of high school teachers everywhere

  • But how does Wikipedia fare according to the criteria laid out by Benkler and his critics?


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Benkler’s version

  • Wikipedia seems to provide proof-in-practice of Benkler’s major claims.

  • Allows for people who don’t know each other (and may never know each other) to come together and collaborate on a common project.

  • Provides something that is manifestly useful to many millions of users.

  • Fifteen years ago – would anyone have imagined that something like Wikipedia existed?


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Sunstein on Wikipedia

  • In more recent writings, Sunstein is much less critical of projects such as Wikipedia than other Internet related phenomena such as blogs.

  • Why?

    • Wikipedia forces people with different initial points of view to come together and forge a consensus.

    • “Neutral Point of View” creates public space for discussion.

    • May not work all the time – some articles (Israel/Palestine, 2004 elections) have become battlefields.

    • But does a good job most of the time in getting people to articulate what they have in common.

  • Other projects using wikis (dKosopedia, Conservapedia) are much less attractive from Sunstein’s point of view.


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However, may be subject to other criticisms

  • Some claim that Wikipedia is being taken over by an unaccountable elite and strangled by rules.

  • Nicholas Carr talks about the ‘rise of the deletionists’ – administrators within the Wikipedia who delete new articles on sight.

  • “The development of Wikipedia's organization provides a benign case study in the political malignancy of crowds.”

  • People want to delete articles – even if they are good articles – because this allows for the development of ever more arcane rules (that increase their own power and sense of prestige).

  • Result – a supposedly voluntaristic organization that is in fact becoming a bureaucracy.

  • Counterclaims are possible – Wikipedia still seems to be growing despite the deletionists.

  • But anecdotal evidence suggests that many volunteers give up when faced with people who have a stake in the system and who use rules to justify arbitrary decisions.


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Is Wikipedia low quality?

  • Some critics have argued that Wikipedia articles are badly written and full of errors (Andrew Keen, also people associated with Encyclopedia Britannica).

  • A Nature study seems to show that Wikipedia articles don’t have many more errors than standard Enclyclopedia articles.

    • But this study has been criticized for the way that it defined and captured errors.

  • Some evidence that Wikipedia is lower quality than standard Encylopedias on topics that are (a) complex and (b) have a lot of people who think they understand them.

  • But also covers many issue areas that standard encyclopedias don’t.

    • And often covers them in an excellent and useful way.

    • Offers many things that standard encyclopedias don’t – such as up-to-the-minute updates on unfolding issues or crises.


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Summation of Farrell’s take

  • There is some validity to the criticisms of Wikipedia and similar projects.

    • Can get bogged down in technical rules, and silly self-elected hierarchies.

    • Quality may be somewhat variable.

  • But nonetheless, it’s a pretty extraordinary achievement.

  • Suggests that a public sphere has emerged on the Internet that can allow forms of discussion and collaboration that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

  • Long term effects on politics are uncertain.

  • But within certain areas of human endeavour, allows for voluntaristic cooperation on common projects, and creation of very interesting new forms of culture.


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