free culture

e-media comes of age
The internet was one of the most important innovations of the 20th century, and now in the 21st century it will take interactivity to new levels. Forget about TV on-demand and MSN – it’s UGC, blogs and wikis that the internet was made for…
of information were also the producers of that information. On social In 1999, Sir Tim Bernersnetworking sites, on YouTube Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web looked back and other sites which rely on UGC and on wikis this vision on the previous decade and is finally coming true. Here, complained: the divide between institution I wanted the Web to be and audience is slowly being what I call an interactive broken down. space where everybody

Just a glorified TV channel?

to every single person on the planet in their own language.
Its content is written and edited entirely by volunteers, working collaboratively. Therefore there are no ‘experts’ and no centralised control over what is published in the encyclopaedia. The role of the institutional gatekeeper, who can privilege some knowledge, and some points of view – the role that has typically worked in favour of the wealthy and thus aided hegemony – may finally be open to challenge. Of course, this may just mean that another set of viewpoints is privileged instead – the institution becomes dominated by young techy types:

Alex Schenck, 19, volunteer site administrator, New York Times, 2006 Vandalism and misinformation
Robbie Williams eats hamsters; Beckham is a Chinese goalkeeper from the 18th century. One of the downsides of open editing is the regular vandalism or deliberate misinformation that occurs. Above are just two recent instances of vandalism. In fact some people see it as the pleasure of the site regularly to amend entries. More amusing changes can be found in Chittenden’s article (Sunday Times, 2006). Such ‘vandalism’ is usually discovered and changed within a few hours. As wikis retain a copy of all previous versions, reverting or rolling back to a previous, un-‘vandalised’ entry is relatively straightforward.

Of all the wikis, Wikipedia is the best known, but the ideas behind it are true for all wikis. James Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, often emphasises that it is ‘an encyclopaedia, not an Watching re-runs of TV experiment in democracy’. programmes, downloading films and music, reading news Wikipedia may, however, represent a change in the and looking up information way culture is produced and on static websites is only the accessed. start of e-media’s journey. Wikipedia aims to: What Berners-Lee really create and distribute wanted was the internet a multilingual free to be the place where encyclopaedia of the readers were also writers highest possible quality and where the consumers

can edit. And I started saying ‘interactive,’ and then I read in the media that the Web was great because it was ‘interactive,’ meaning you could click. This was not what I meant by interactivity.

An encyclopaedia, not an experiment in democracy

One of the running jokes is that there are better articles on Pokémon than on certain kinds of science.

Is Wikipedia valid?
Does the institution lose its credibility if it has amateurs rather than experts producing it? In her article ‘The Neutrality of this Article is Disputed – Inside Wikimania 2006’ (August 2006), Katherine Mangu-Ward quotes Weinberger as saying:

If you open up a copy of Britannica you are right to believe that what you read is credible. Something gets credibility simply by being in Britannica, though it is not necessarily true. If you open up Wikipedia randomly, what you see is not credible. Simply being there doesn’t give you some sort of probabilistic credibility.
However, Weinberger continues by suggesting that because ‘Wikipedia is not shy about putting up notices about its own fallibility’ it paradoxically becomes more credible. The credibility of the institution
english and media centre | April 2009 | MediaMagazine


lies in its acceptance that not all knowledge is necessarily true, and in the reduction of barriers between audience and institution.

Free culture
The ‘free culture’ movement seeks to distribute knowledge more freely and widely, and overlaps with wikis’ anti-centralisation ethos wherein we can all be experts. In a small way, all UGC is part of this. The home videos that make it onto the news privilege proximity and immediacy over skill and professionalism in recording news images, even though the news providers still act as gatekeepers and controllers. Blogs are another aspect of ‘free culture’ or ‘open source’ culture. While corporations, political campaigns and other formal institutions have begun using these tools to distribute information, many blogs are used by individuals for personal expression, political organising, and socialising. Blogs allow other voices to be widely heard and even to become as influential as those of the ‘experts.’ In the recent US election, noncorporate blogs played an increasingly important role in shaping mainstream public opinion.

On the downside, whatever its potential for a revolutionary change in the distribution of, and access to, cultural capital, wikis are still dominated by those with established and easy access to technology – currently still America, Europe and parts of Asia, and often the people within those societies for whom education and technology is most easily available. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, suggests:

While this is likely to perpetuate existing privileges and biases, there is certainly a shift in terms of the generational bias, with knowledge lying in the hands of the younger generation, and increasingly accessible to those for whom the great libraries and built infrastructure are not available, or are culturally unapproachable. Noam Cohen, writing in The New York Times, says:

Katherine Mangu-Ward’s web article ‘The Neutrality of this Article is Disputed – Inside Wikimania 2006’ (August 2006. See: http:// show/36969.html) Noam Cohen’s article in The New York Times, ‘In Egypt, a Thirst for Technology and Progress’ (July 2008. See: http://www.nytimes. com/ 2008/07/21/ business/media/21link. html) Maurice Chittenden’s The Sunday Times article ‘Comedy of errors hits the world of Wikipedia’ (February 2006. See: http:// www.timesonline. article730025.ece) Robert Levine’s article in The New York Times ‘The Many Voices of Wikipedia, Heard in One Place’ (August 2006. See: http://www.nytimes. com/2006/08/07/ technology/07wiki.html)

Follow it up
Bourdieu’s ideas of cultural capital; and issues around ‘free culture’ and ‘open source culture.’ Not sure what these are? Look in Wikipedia!
Cartoon: © Neil Paddison, 2009.

Wikipedia versions are currently available for only 250 of the world’s 7,000 languages. Establishing Wikipedias in more African languages will enable speakers of those languages to more actively participate in the global exchange of knowledge. Additionally, it may, in a small way, help to preserve those languages. Connecting us to the outside Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing. Wales, 2004 interview

In Egypt, Wikipedia is more than a hobby.
Cohen quotes Ahmad Belal, a 23-year-old medical student who came from Cairo to attend the ‘Wikimania’ conference, saying:

For Egyptians the visa procedure for any country is very difficult. You need a visa to visit any country in the world. Facebook and Wikipedia connect us to the outside.
So, more than just a dodgy, second-rate encyclopaedia, Wikipedia could be the first step on the long road to equality and freedom. Sara Mills teaches Media at Helston Community College, Cornwall and is an AQA examiner.


MediaMagazine | April 2009 | english and media centre

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