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?
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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?
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.
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.
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.
How does this work in practice ??? • A not so randomly chosen example …
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.