Monday, August 22, 2011

Wikipedia, Twitter & Mobility

A recent New York Times piece, written by Noam Cohen, asked the question, "When knowledge isn't written, does it still count?"  The inquiry targets a recent effort by those within the Wikipedia movement criticizing how the online encyclopedia structures its dependency on written secondary sources for article validation.  A documentary made by Achal Prabhala, Zen Marie and Priya Sen, titled 'People are Knowledge', dives into the issue of using 'oral citations' as a means of documenting and thus validating information obtained from cultures that do not currently have a wealth of textual accounts- in the vernacular or otherwise- for use on the largely text-based Wikipedia.  Using a variety of examples, such as the evolution of play and rules on games indigenous to local regions in India and South Africa, the documentary makes a powerful case for the inclusion, or at least discussion, of oral citation methods.

Yet the potential use of oral citations caused a stir among fellow Wikipedians, some of whom see the use of non-authoritative primary source material (essentially oral interviews) as anathema to the larger mission of the online encyclopedia.  They point to one of the central pillars of Wikipedia- No Original Research- as the source of primary objection.  What is at stake with this issue is the larger question of certified knowledge, or, more precisely, the methods utilized by encyclopedic efforts in order to make the claim that their presentation of knowledge is, indeed, certified.  While the case discussed above specifically deals with a cultural conflict within Wikipedia, the issue of knowledge certification looms large over many disciplines now finding their traditional hierarchies of authority questioned or laid low by a wave of culture digitization and digital models of knowledge production.  But, on an even larger scale, the question over the applicability of 'oral citations' has roots in a debate that surrounds the intersection of both oral and written knowledge that go back to the onset of the printing press- further even to be sure, though the focus of this survey lies in the Gutenberg era and its pursuant centuries.  I would like to use this post to discuss how the 'oral citation' debate now underway in the Wikipedia community is tied to a much larger question on the nature of transferring oral culture into written culture that is best explained, in my opinion, through the lens of mobility potentials.  This approach brings a greater understanding to not just knowledge production and certification methods of the past but also in the present, marked by the arrival of new social networking platforms.

In my response to Federico Giordano's essay 'Almost the Same Game', I argued that an essential characteristic separating digital and analog games was their difference in mobility potential.  Elaborating on Claude Shannon's understanding on the nature of information, that a transmitted message contains no information if its outcome can be predicted (specifically in the realm of math, but also in more mundane notions), I suggested that the next definable quality of information should be its capacity to undergo modification through transmission cycles.  The range by which information could be modified through circulation, by either the transmitter or recipient, I defined as mobility potential.  This characteristic is not solely defined in terms of actual, physical action, but rather through the very nature of the means by which knowledge is transmitted.

Take the book, for example.  Despite the ease with which its contents may be transported in the physical sense, when examined under the definition of information provided above, the book, in fact, possesses a low mobility potential.  Why?  Because the text, the informational message contained within, cannot be modified, in any great degree, through transmission.  If you and I both read copies of Moby Dick, there is little chance we will come to the end and read different endings.  The words on the page will remain the same today and tomorrow. This low mobility characteristic provided the book with both strength, in that the very low capacity of having the printed message of the book transform through transmission provided relative stability in the larger process of dispersing knowledge, and weakness, in that the informational content could not be modified unless the writer or publisher made modifications and printed an updated edition.  Limitations on modifications notwithstanding, the stability of printed knowledge greatly trumped all concerns as the immeasurable effect on the spread of knowledge books conferred paved a route towards modern power structures embodied by the rise of renaissance, then enlightenment, ideals.

When compared to the high mobility potential embodied in oral culture, it is no wonder scholars and elites preferred the use of low mobility constructs to buttress their growing power structures.  Oral constructs of knowledge tend to have a very high capacity to undergo modification through transmission.  While oral knowledge can be spread across distances comparable to the book, its progress can be sporadic and often the journey alters the informational content, sometimes to a great degree.  Folktales provide a good example to explore the idea of high mobility potential in oral knowledge.  Unlike the book, a folktale relies upon modification in order to find use outside of the locale from which it originates.  Oral transmitters of a folktale often altered pieces, or entire sections, of a folktale in order to tailor it to the situation or audience presented.  Recipients, in turn, re-transmit the folktale to others and engaged in their own modifications based, again, on the situation or audience presented.  Whereas the book finds strength in its printed word stability, the folktale conversely grows weaker under such stability, or stasis, as its message and informational content cease to be modified and find applicability with wider audiences.  Conversely, where the book would lose its value if it could be changed every time it's retransmitted, the folktale gains new life and takes on new forms as it is retold and modified over and over.

While every culture has its own cultural tradition in generating and spreading folktales, due to my familiarity with Russian history I would like to bring up the Skomorokhi from the era of Kievan Rus' and Muscovite Russia- roughly the span between 1000-1648- as an example of how high mobility potential can influence the development of culture.  Russell Zguta, in his article "Skomorokhi: The Russian Minstrel Entertainers", discusses the evolving role these minstrel's played in the development and spreading of Russian folktales, songs, early theatre, games, and the enrichment of the cyclical festivals/celebrations central to the agricultural workers world. Their impact on Russian culture was massive- emerging not from the elites, but rather the lowly ranks of the peasantry, the skomorokhi were able to fuse the high-minded literary style of heroic poetry, derived from elite patronized Gusliari (think court minstrels/entertainers), into the more common and popular folktales told by peasants.  As the skomorokhi traveled around the area of Novgorod, and later Muscovite Russia, they spread their amalgamation of tales and songs and inspired revivals/preservation of cultural traditions that had lain dormant. Freely mixing elements of one story into another, the skomorokhi were able to tailor their performances to the audience as well as stimulate the creation of new folktales or songs that integrated elements of high culture with the causes and concerns of regular people. It was because of their great supporting role in maintaining Slavic folk culture among the lower orders that the skomorokhi were eventually persecuted, as both the growing power of the Muscovite state and the presence of the Orthodox church worked to stamp out the vestiges of 'pagan' belief often associated with peasant traditions and celebrations.

It is interesting that a construct of low mobility, namely the proclamation "On the Righting of Morals and the Abolition of Superstition" of 1648 that banned skomorokhi activity, was issued to combat the influence of high mobility folktales and songs that often put into question issues of justice and morality then being enforced by secular and sacred authorities. Again, this comes back to the issue related to oral citations use on Wikipedia- certification of circulating knowledge. One reason Muscovite authorities felt threatened by wandering skomorokhi centered on the issue of asynchronicity between high mobility and low mobility knowledge constructs.  Going back to the example of the book, if I take a copy, place it in a time capsule and then dig it up fifty years later, the text will not change even if the 'knowledge' or 'opinion' stated within underwent significant revision over the course of the past fifty years. High Mobility constructs, like the folktales described above, are constantly changing through the process of transmission and circulation, meaning that they are more capable of being informed/transformed by the milieu of its temporal evocation. The conflict arises when the two forms of knowledge constructs attempt to operate in similar, or exact, spheres of activity. As Muscovite authorities attempted to enforce 'moral' behavioral norms, their edicts and proclamations found sharp criticism in the values espoused by folktales and songs. While the written edict conveyed power to literate functionaries (the Grand Prince/Tsar made the laws- not other upstarts or usurpers) it could not change its wording through transmission (to do so would have been a crime against the Grand Prince/Tsar himself) and so found itself at the mercy of interpretation through the prism of peasant mentalite, influenced directly by high mobility culture.

While authorities could always point to a document in question as the source of power, the interchange between oral and written culture proved that a more interdependent relationship existed. Daniel Field investigated such interdependence in his essay, 'The Year of Jubilee' (part of larger collection in Russia's Great Reforms, 1855-1881), describing the process involved in carrying out the emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861. When laws regarding the emancipation of serfs in Russia were finally put together in February 1861, their announcement was delayed to coincide with the beginning of Lent. Why? The Tsar and his advisors knew full well how monumental edicts had a tendency to be 're-interpreted' by the peasant masses, who spread rumors and other ideas through their oral networks challenging the established notion of 'knowledge' the document in question contained. During Lent, peasants were to abstain from alcohol consumption in addition to observing fasting restrictions. Authorities hoped that would make the populace less restive and prone to 're-interpret' the emancipation edict that was lengthy, complicated and monumental in terms of reshaping the basic foundation for much of the relationship between society and state. In effect, the delay of announcing the emancipation edict demonstrated the influence peasant usage of high mobility oral networks possessed on the promulgation of low mobility constructs, such as laws. Because peasants could 're-interpret' the pronounced edict with surprising flexibility and speed, any printed document had to be handled with great care. The government could not hope to match the speed of constantly evolving 'knowledge' spread through high mobility constructs with an equal flurry of matching printed statements and counters to circulating rumors or beliefs- the very nature of the printed low mobility object prohibited this kind of response! Hence the use of more tried and true methods to back the printed word- force. In addition to delaying announcement for the beginning of Lent, the Tsar dispatched elements of over 80 military regiments across the country where the edict was to be delivered so as to bring quick support to local civil officials and put-down any peasant disturbances.

Asynchronicity between constructs of high and low mobility was, and continues to be, a defining feature in the interdependent relationship between both potentials prior to the rise of widespread near-instantaneous communicative networks. In areas where communication networks are of poor quality or nonexistent, asynchronous 'knowledge' gaps expressed in different mobility potential constructs can produce waves of reconfiguration, disruption or backlash, especially when the issuers of low mobility constructs wish to regulate the sphere of high mobility discourse. This was the problem largely encountered by the Imperial Russian government during its tenure of power. Yet when networks of increasing complexity arise and grant the capacity for more instantaneous communication, the asynchronicity 'gap' between high and low begins to dramatically shrink- a factor made apparent and amplified with the rise of the internet. This decrease in asynchronicity impacts, significantly, the established hierarchies of power behind low mobility constructs, for example the newspaper, and brings to the fore questions on the certification of knowledge established by said constructs. The 'knowledge' gap transforms into a 'credibility' gap. Hence the debate that once occurred in the journalism community over the role of 'citizen journalists' and the current debate surrounding the validity of oral citations on Wikipedia. Looking at the model of inspiration Wikipedia drew upon, that being the enlightenment era notion of the universal library, it becomes easier to see how the real debate on oral citations centers on the issue of Wikipedia acting as a transition point for the interchange between high and low mobility constructs.

Adrian Johns briefly surveys the quest for a 'Universal Library' in his work, Piracy: Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg To Gates. Idealists of the enlightenment period saw in the printing-press book a tangible way to preserve knowledge and facilitate progress as the intellectual riches of minds past could be made stable and accessible to all- to many this was a considerable upgrade from the often turbulent reliance upon word of mouth or sluggish pace of scribal reproduction. Yet not everyone saw in the printing revolution a sign of progress- Samuel Egerton Brydges, an independent printer who favored reproducing antiquarian texts, felt that 'Universal Libraries' would become "infinitely large reservoirs of triviality" as the sheer volume of works being produced did nothing but glut potential holdings with works divorced from 'genius'. He believed that, prior to the commercial age of printing, the 'popularity' of a text closely aligned with authorial merit- a relationship all but destroyed by the state of (then) modern printing. The quote of Brydges provided below speaks not only to his fears of unfettered publishing but also to the concerns expressed by Wikipedia specifically, on the issue of oral citations, and other pundits generally, on the contention that the digital age of information is bringing a 'post-idea' age to fruition:
"If the reverence and celebrity which in enlightened ages have attended 'Authorship' are destroyed, by giving equal preservation and the same place of distinction to whatever the Press vomits forth, who will forsake the inviting pleasures of youth, and the enjoyments which court the senses, for the solitary lamp, and the anxious and abstracted toils by which the capacity for the higher sorts of literacy composition, or success in the more difficult branches of science, is cherished and attained?"
It was one thing to produce knowledge, another to produce useful knowledge. This was both the promise and peril of attempting to build a 'Universal Library' and, by extension, a 'Universal Encyclopedia'. Defining knowledge in terms of what should be deemed 'useful' and 'certified' and what constituted 'large reservoirs of triviality' became the central issue at stake when attempting to produce a 'universal' compendium. Traveling closer to the modern period, another advocate of the 'Universal Library' concept, H.G. Wells, best expressed the potential benefit a stable, authoritative source of knowledge could bring when he stated that such a construct would become a "clearinghouse of misunderstandings". (Well's quote and insight provided by Joseph Reagle's Good Faith Collaboration) In both viewpoints we see a desire to avoid dilution of the authoritative nature of low mobility constructs through gatekeeping of what can be considered 'certified' knowledge. High mobility constructs, according to Brydges and Wells, have no place in encyclopedic efforts as their high degree of potential modification through transmission made them unsuitable for the desired effects of producing the compendium; to enable the 'capacity for the higher sorts of literacy composition' as a means of creating a 'clearinghouse of misunderstandings".

Wikipedia is both a continuation and radical reshaping of the enlightenment era notion of the 'Universal Encyclopedia' because it is a digital high mobility construct that, while completely capable of being modified through transmission, ultimately relies upon 'certified' low mobility constructs to establish its authoritative knowledge base. One of the central pillars of the Wikipedia effort that enshrine this high/low coexistence is reliance upon a 'neutral point of view' facilitated by use of 'verifiable' sources:
"The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth- whether readers can check that material in Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether editors think it is true. ...This policy applies to all material in the mainspace- articles, lists, sections of articles, and captions- without exception, and in particular to material about living persons." (Entry on Wikipedia: Verifiability, emphasis in the original and accessed 18 Aug 2011)
Two things immediately stand out, especially under the lens of mobility potential.  First, the separation of verifiability from truth and, second, the absolute insistence that material on the lived experience must be 'verified' though low mobility constructs, i.e. 'certified' knowledge that has been published. The first observation is a clear deviation from the original purpose envisioned for the 'universal encyclopedia', that being a source of truth that provided a guide to true genius while also eliminating misunderstandings. This is understandable as Wikipedia is a high mobility construct that constantly redefines the essence of truth as its 'knowledge' content undergoes modification through use and transmission. However, this creates a necessity to find some source of 'knowledge' credibility and provides the reasoning behind insisting on use of low mobility published material to verify the Wiki entries. By combining the high mobility nature of the Wiki construct with the 'veracity' of low mobility published sources in a digital communication network, Wikipedia takes on the form of a transition point between high mobility and low mobility. 'Transition Points' represent a new form of knowledge interaction and construction made possible by near-instantaneous communication networks in that they both speed the transmission cycle of low mobility sources and reduce the asynchronous effects historically generated when high mobility and low mobility constructs interacted.  

The second observation acts as a sort of demarcation of acceptable material, a filter point, whereby high mobility constructs are declared off limits in use of 'verifying' knowledge. In part this is tied to the implications of the first observation because to suggest that high mobility constructs can act as verifiers of knowledge would invalidate Wikipedia's claim to possess an authoritative source of knowledge and completely divorce the project from the enlightenment model that inspired its creation. By stating that published material is the only acceptable arbiter of the lived experience, Wikipedia in effect creates a temporal barrier that ensures high mobility constructs will not upset its current configuration as a 'transition point'. The real concern is that inclusion of oral citations would re-introduce asynchronicity effects in the interplay between high and low mobility constructs creating, once again, a 'knowledge' gap that calls into question the validity of authority Wikipedia desires to have effused through its content. Given these influences and imposed constraints on the operation of Wikipedia, the question now shifts to how the group backing the inclusion of oral citations have structured their argument.

In response to the question of when alternative methods of citation could be useful, the 'People are Knowledge' filmmakers propose three criteria. First, alternative citation methods are useful "when there is not a single printed source on a subject of lived reality." Second, "when there are some printed sources on a subject, but the sources are effectively lost, by being housed in libraries that are inaccessible to the general public and/or whose catalogue is not online." Finally, third, "when there are some accessible printed sources on a subject, but the sources are incomplete or misleading by way of being outdated or biased." (Criteria are presented at 9:16 in the film)

In seeking to create space for the use of alternative methods, like oral citations, the filmmakers of 'People are Knowledge' are challenging the standard of validation itself by attacking the 'filter' created to remove the influence of high mobility constructs. This line of argumentation would find good company in many claims made by Russian peasants regarding the implementation of tsarist edicts or laws, in that both groups are using reconfigurations of knowledge spurred by high mobility constructs to challenge the influence of more stable, less changing low mobility constructs. The logic used in 'People are Knowledge' turns the question of validity upon itself, in effect demonstrating the asynchronicity presented through rejection of oral citations. How can Wikipedia claim to be an 'authoritative' knowledge source if it is 'blind' to certain subjects of 'lived reality' or, worse, using 'validated' knowledge that is, in fact, biased? Yet, interestingly, the solution proposed by 'People are Knowledge' seeks to form the same compromise between high and low mobility constructs that Wikipedia currently facilitates.  While the oral nature of knowledge is indeed a high mobility construct, something that would be considered not subject to 'validity' under current guidelines, by making a low mobility recording of the oral knowledge and using that as the source cited for 'validation', the supporters behind 'People are Knowledge' are attempting to carve out an increased role for high mobility while also restricting the asynchronous effects produced by sourcing their 'validation' through low mobility constructs.  The goal is not to undermine Wikipedia as a 'transition point' but rather to expand the domain of knowledge under Wikipedia's 'transitional' authority. By laying the groundwork for the process of high/low interaction, future discourses of power can begin to take shape.

The debate over the functioning role of digital high mobility constructs acting as 'transition points' extends beyond Wikipedia. Although it operates in a manner quite different, Twitter produces similar reduction of asynchronicity when facilitating 'transition point' interaction between high and low mobility. Tweets have the capacity to be modified through their transmission, via the re-tweet, either through restructuring the message itself or adding commentary to existing sentiment. When containing links to essays on blogs or even Facebook photos, tweets reduce the asynchronous effects these low mobility constructs often encounter when interacting with high mobility constructs. You read an essay that is thought provoking and tweet about it. I see your tweet, read the essay and begin to think of my own take, or response, to the points presented. I can then create a low mobility response, like a blog post, and then tweet about that, linking it all back to the original essay read. Or I can produce my own high mobility tweet, containing my thoughts, and link back to the original essay read. Some view this 'transition point' function as, at least, superfluous to real knowledge creation or, at worst, a stifling of the entire creative process in the name of informational narcissism. This is the view taken by Neil Gabler in a New York Times opinion piece titled, "The Elusive Big Idea". Here is a quote from that piece:
"Even though there are sites and blogs dedicated to ideas, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, etc., the most popular sites on the Web, are basically information exchanges, designed to feed the insatiable information hunger, though this is hardly the kind of information that generates ideas. It is largely useless except insofar as it makes the possessor of the information feel, well, informed. Of course, one could argue that these sites are no different than conversation was for previous generations, and that conversation seldom generated big ideas either, and one would be right. 
BUT the analogy isn’t perfect. For one thing, social networking sites are the primary form of communication among young people, and they are supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated. For another, social networking sites engender habits of mind that are inimical to the kind of deliberate discourse that gives rise to ideas. Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show. While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe."
According to Gabler, tweeting is much like "giving equal preservation and the same place of distinction to whatever the Press vomits forth" in that it dilutes the potential for big ideas to develop and divorces 'authorial merit' from popularity. While he recognizes the new role networks like Twitter provide, calling them 'information exchanges', Gabler fails to see any utility in their operation. His claim that 'tweets' or other high mobility constructs cannot serve as inspiration or fuel for new 'big ideas', once taken into consideration using a mobility potential framework, proves demonstrably false. If nothing else, this essay serves as a counter-example to the theme of Gabler's message. I discovered his opinion piece via twitter the same day it was published and began to immediately formulate his position into my own explanation on why Twitter is more than just an 'information exchange', even though that in of itself would be a wonderful venture. Twitter allows me to become familiar with a greater range of intellectual topics and produce quicker iterations of my own thought process and beliefs. Networks that act as 'transition points' will continue to push the boundaries on what constitute knowledge production and certification, leaving those who remain tied to protecting low mobility constructs as the sole means of establishing these activities increasingly in the past.

In conclusion, I would like to say that this brief exploration on mobility potentials is only the beginning of elaborating the complex interaction of information that occurs through use of near-instantaneous communication networks.  While the past is replete with examples of clashes between low and high mobility constructs, the modern period brings a curious mix of asynchronous effects generated in places with slow communication networks (the recent movements behind the continuing Arab Spring come to mind) but also new hybrid forms of 'transition points' that greatly reduce asynchronicity but create new questions over what is credible and certifiable, in terms of knowledge production and circulation. Although this essay used a binary distinction between mobility potentials, it should be noted that many artifacts or constructs contain a variety of features that bring them from low/high and high/low (and all points in-between), depending on the moment of use.  A cassette tape is one such artifact, a prime example of low mobility when just being played yet possessing the capacity to be 'modified' through re-recording in an outfitted tape deck. By taking a concept like information and focusing the scope of inquiry to 'can it be modified through transmission' allows a more in-depth explanation to the workings of discourse as elaborated by Foucault. It not only informs the present, as evidenced by the comments of people like Gabler who dismiss social networks as mere triviality without realizing their greater 'transitional' authority, but also the past, as noted above in interpreting the actions of peasant behavior in Imperial Russia. Viewing informational behavior through a mobility potential framework also promotes an understanding of how seemingly old or antiquated behaviors are, in fact, still very much alive today and integral to how we as people come to and interact with social media.

(Editors Note: A previous version of this post mistakenly attributed 'Good Faith Collaboration' to Jonathan Reagle.  The author is, in fact, Joseph Reagle- thanks to the commentator below who noted the error!)


  1. Joseph -- rather than Jonathan -- Reagle.

  2. Thank you so much for pointing out the error! I made a correction and noted it at the end of the post.