Putting Politics in Command

Wikipedia is an Internet treasure, a publicly-composed encyclopedia kept constant by volunteers, and embedded with links for further research. It is my first destination on many new topics. Given its success, I’ve wondered whether it might be a template for what Dan Gillmor christened citizen media (aka citizen journalism). So I read with interest a 13-page essay entitled, “Wikipedia as a learning community : content, conflict and the –common good’.”

The essay was written by Wikipedian Cormac Lawler, who is studying for an advanced degree at the University of Manchester. While I enjoyed his essay and am awed by Wikipedia itself, my short, brutal assessment suggests that its governance is not applicable to citizen journalism because the cataloging of knowledge requires a different intellectual temperament than the acquisition of new information — which is, or should be, the throbbing heart of journalism.

But I have jumped the gun and failed to offer a précis of the essay by Lawler or, as he is known inside the Wikipedia community, Cormaggio.

Wikipedia had 2 million articles in over 200 languages at the time of Cormaggio’s writing in 2005. Co-founder Jimmy (Jimbo) Wales had receded into the background, allowing the group to organize itself and create its own ethos, conserving his founder’s prestige for rare intercessions if and when conflict threatens the core function. And conflict, Cormaggio writes, is central to the learning that occurs inside the Wikipedian community:

“Conflict arises for many reasons in many guises, whether through differences of culture, ideology or belief or simple misunderstanding … These conflicts often spill over into flame or edit wars, sometimes with little or no discussion on potential solutions, but simple deadlock.”

But such conflicts are obviously resolved and Wikipedia functions, to the benefit of us all. I wish I knew more about the composition of the user base: its numbers, whether it functions under the 80-20 principle (that 20 percent of the contributors do 80 percent of the work), and from whence its membership is derived. My sense is that the core group is comprised of academics, who perform this role out of mix of professional pride, public service and a desire for peer recognition. But this is an inference from Cormaggio’s essay and not an explicit finding. Some empirical data about the community would have been helpful.

In any event, my quick journalistic take — arrived at by reading the essay last night and waking early to pound out this rant before I race off to a meeting — is that the Wikipedia model is inapplicable to journalism. “Wikipedia is … building a learning community where leadership is distributed and in so doing creating a new kind of academic community,” Cormaggio writes.

And there’s the nub. Journalism is not an academic undertaking. It is, or at least it should be, an irreverent, inconsiderate, in-your-face confrontation with powers that would like nothing better than to obscure their workings from people who might object. Journalism is short, sharp and rude when need be. Even in this Internet Age, when publishers can theoretically pour out words and images ad infinitum, journalism must boils the most complex fact-sets all down to a headline. Because journalism is the discovery of that which is new. And sometimes it has got to smack you — – or the powers that be — upside the head just to get attention.

So while I am grateful for the existence of Wikipedia, and the time that its participants spend in its composition, I do not think it is a template for what I hope will be the next Net-spawned revolution of citizen journalism. I like to think in terms of movie metaphors. They’re probably the one cultural reference that cuts across classes and even nations. And, maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t see “Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf” meets “The Front Page.”

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media