Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Communities of Detail: new media notes

I've been having a great time lately learning how to use and edit Wikipedia. It makes me want to stop and reflect upon the use and abuse of the new instant publishing outlets that the Internet has made possible.

Wikipedia and Blogger are very different platforms, but both afford the illusion of cutting out the middleman, i.e., of getting around the barriers established by the peer review process. The quickest way to disabuse yourself of this illusion is to begin to use these outlets. The peer review process is simulated in the two media in different ways. On blogger, the quality, consistency and, often, the brevity of your writing determines whether or not you have a readership. (Keep in mind that that is all your journal editor and peer reviewers do as well: determine your readership.) On Wikipedia, your outrageous ideas are likely to be cooly "reverted" until you can provide proper sources and a neutral point of view from which to present them. Language and knowledge are, here as elsewhere, social affairs.

Once this is understood, you quickly begin to use the Internet with the humility that befits such unrestricted access. Your ideas are prima facie as good as anybody else's. To have an impact (and to be impacted) your ideas have to be clearly articulated, interestingly framed, and relevantly situated. This is why mainstream thinking, established ideas, dominant paradigms, and so forth, have very little to fear from the Internet in general. The social nature of communication has a natural inertia that writing a blog post or making a wiki edit will not automatically overcome. The order of discourse applies, as always.

(Most of the readers of this blog, for example, are embedded in a common social context that grants me whatever soapbox I think I have, viz., a university PhD programme.)

The point is that neither Wikipedia nor Blogger are in and of themselves good ways of promoting your ideas. They can be good places to develop them, however: to hone and to test them in a semi-public forum. They also have the very real potential to gather a group of people together on some particular point of shared interest. The most enjoyable writing that is done on the Internet arises when a group of people set themselves to working through an issue in elaborate detail. Such discussions are sometimes ruined by the intrussion of "egos" but, while they last, such "communities of detail" (as I'm thinking of calling them) can be an excellent respite from the often lonely business of advanced research.

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