Electronic Literature

What Matter Who's Speaking: Access, Wikis, and YOU

The "Great Man" theory of history is usually attributed to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that 'the history of the world is but the biography of great men.' He believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species [...] But look at 2006 through a different lens and you'll see another story, one that isn't about conflict or great men. It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. [...] The tool that makes this possible is the World Wide Web. Not the Web that Tim Berners-Lee hacked together [...] as a way for scientists to share research. It's not even the overhyped dotcom Web of the late 1990s. The new Web is a very different thing. It's a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software (40).

--Lev Grossman, Person of the Year: YOU (Time Magazine, 2006)

Now it is just a dirt-packed, oblong circle in the center of my parent’s garden patch. But once upon a time, a grand old oak tree stood in its place, the kind that seemed to have been created just for small children and hot summer days. Or at least I used to feel that way, as I would climb to its highest limb and dangle my legs from the thick, well-worn branch. And there I would stay (until beckoned inside), with a small wire-bound notebook (the one with the image of a lasso-twirling Wonder Woman on it), a Number 2 pencil, and an active ten-year-old imagination. Years later, I still spend many hours of each day curled up in a corner, writing. The oak tree has been replaced, however, by a fully-wired study, the Wonder Woman notebook is now buried in my closet alongside the pencils, and I spend my days “keyboarding” on my Inspiron E1505 Dell laptop. Indeed, nothing in that ten – year -old imagination could have foreseen my current life as an “avatar – editor,” collaborating with other anonymous editors from around the globe in Wiki-based, online environments. I wonder (at times) how I got from there to here and what the implications are of such a transition.

Questions that correlate the nature authorship with the materiality of writing machines are not new to either literary criticism or to New Media scholarship. However, the environment of Web 2.0, (c. 2003-present) must, by its very nature, develop and expand these questions. If the “death of the author” led to “the birth of the reader” (in an environment where information was primarily linear and controlled by publishing companies), and the electronically-based “hypertext author” raised new possibilities for multi-linear writing (beyond print-based works such as Joyce’s Ulysses), what then are the implications of environments constructed entirely by web-based, social networking applications? As never before, we can now turn to Foucault and ask, “What matter who's speaking?” (Note 1)

The clear demarcation of Web 2.0 environments lies, as Juan Cristobal Cobo Romani indicates, in “the interaction of many to many […] what is Web 2.0? It refers to a supposed second generation of Internet – based services such as social networking sites, Wikis, communication tools, and folksonomies – that emphasize online collaboration and sharing among users.”(Note 2) Which is not to imply that collaborative writing is an entirely new phenomenon. Within the context of previous writing machines, however, the act of collaboration between writers was still highly limited. On the other hand, the Wiki application enables an untold number of editors to contribute to one document. In the realm of Web 2.0, access is everything.

This increased level of access has created a new paradigm within the history of writing. Earlier technologies such as the pencil or the typewriter were tools that required a one to one ratio (one user, one “writing machine”). The transition during the 1980’s to the Macintosh and the IBM-PC continued to perpetuate an environment that adhered (in many respects) to concepts of knowledge constructed by the constraints of the printing press. The notion of hypertext or non-linear writing, essentially located within applications such as early versions of MS Word, PageMaker, HyperCard, or StorySpace continued to reflect expectations relative to traditional forms of print as did the era of Web 1.0, (c. 1991-2003). Indeed, Michael Jensen notes of the early days of the web that “the business models for online publishing were variants on the standard ‘print wholesaler’ model, duplicating the realities of a physical old as we garbed new business and publishing models in 20th century clothes.” (Note 3)

It has only been within the environment of Web 2.0, which brings “together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter” that new questions about the nature of collaborative authorship arise.(Note 4) This is particularly true of the Wiki application (“wiki” is the word for “quick” in Hawaiian). (Note 5) The first Wiki (WikiWikiWeb) was developed by Howard Cunningham in the mid-1990s and quickly followed by a number of similar products. One of the most powerful and popular Wiki applications today, MediaWiki, is used to power The Wikipedia as well as the Stanford Wiki and the UCLA Wiki.

The Wiki is perhaps the most “postmodern” of all contemporary writing tools as it is a “hybrid” of an HTML editor, a chat room, email, and word processing software, lacks both a center and boundaries, is multi-linear, multi-vocal, and is “dynamic” (or always in a state of change). While the interface of different Wiki products may vary (just as MS Word varies from WordPerfect), most possess the same features that distinguish them from previous writing machines. Such a move forces us to return again to Hayles’ prescient comment that, “as the vibrant new field of electronic textuality flexes its muscle, it is becoming overwhelmingly clear that we can no longer afford to ignore the material basis of literary production. Materiality of the artifact can no longer be positioned as a sub-specialty within literary studies; it must be central.” (Note 6)

A structural overview of a the popular Wiki application, The Wikipedia, and the “Featured Article,” on the 20th century author, James Joyce, raises new and interesting questions to add to the existing debate concerning New Media and authorship.(Note 7) This process begins not with a writer, or reader, but rather with an “avatar-editor” who (once connected to the Internet) opens the James Joyce Wiki website.(Note 8) The interaction between the avatar-editor and the website (which is a “mosaic” of dynamic text, images, and hyperlinks), is always active. Indeed, whether through the process of “reading” or contributing edits to the article, the user exists within the realm of Barthes’ notion that “a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author.” (Note 9)

However, this "reader" is perhaps closer to the imaginary "author-function" postulated by Foucault as gender and identity are virtually always "masked." (Note 10) At the most elementary level, a user who makes an edit by clicking on the “edit this page” tab is represented by an I.P. address listed in the “history tab” and is referred to as an “anonymous user.” As The Wikipedia is a virtual community (masked as a dynamic document), these users are encouraged to join by registering (a procedure which does not require the use of real-world identities) and adopting a username or text-based avatar. In doing so, the user develops an identity similar to the ones constructed during the era of MOOs and MUDs (or early Web 1.0). His or her consequent activities as an avatar-editor to articles in The Wikipedia supports Landow’s contention that “hypertext reconfigures- rewrites-the author in several ways” by creating “an active, even intrusive, reader.” (Note 11) However, just as Barthes and Foucault were writing with “the book” in mind, much of the contemporary scholarship on hypertext was written within the context of applications such as “StorySpace” or environments such as “Web 1.0” (although Landow does refer briefly to blogs in the 2006 version of Hypertext).

Within the context of Web 2.0, we need to ask a new set of questions, particularly about the ramifications of an environment such as the Wiki, where the word “author” is replaced by “editor” or “administrator” (roles differentiated only by levels of access). Even then, neither role is allowed absolute control over the content of a page in a Wiki, except in the case of versions that have been tailored for the classroom (such as the course management system, Moodle, which has modified its Wiki to give the instructor complete control over content). The Wikipedia, for example, is controlled only by a labyrinth set of rules “authored,” “edited,” voted upon, and enforced by the virtual community of editors who contribute to it (those editors who do not conform to these rules are first warned and then blocked by high level administrators).(Note 12) While conceivably anyone may edit an article in The Wikipedia, its contents are controlled by these rules rather than by a single editor. Thus, another editor may challenge any additions which have been made to an article, particularly those which do not adhere to the rules (as well as communicate on these issues with other editors via “discussion” pages connected either to a user-name or the article itself). Such edits are “reverted,” moved to the “discussion” page for further analysis, or deleted (as in the case of vandalism). The Wikipedia website on James Joyce, for example, consists of two parts: the main article and the interactions between editors (or at times battles) that take place on the “discussions” tab. One could argue that the merging of reader, author, and hypertext writer has taken its final form not in the article itself, but rather on the “discussion” page that ultimately shapes the article.

As the Wiki is at present the least well-known of Web 2.0 applications, it is difficult to predict its final role in the further development of the discourse concerning hypertext authorship. And yet, the ability of the Wiki to create a document edited by potentially millions of anonymous user/editor/administrators in a dynamic, online environment marked by debate marks it as significant. In other words, Wikis matter not because they are created by “authors” or “readers.” They are significant because they are created by “YOU.”(Note 13)

Works Cited

  • Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” In Vincent Leitch, et al. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001:1464-1469.
  • Bolter, David J. Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2001.
  • Cobo Romani, Juan Cristobal. “Learning 2.0.” Global Leapfrog Education, Vol. 1, No. 1, December 2006: 7-14.
  • Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author.” In Vincent Leitch, et al. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001:1622-1635
  • Grossman, Lev. “Person of the Year: YOU.” Time Magazine (December 25, 2006)
  • Hayles, Writing Machines. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.
  • Jensen, Michael. “The New Metrics of Scholarly Authority.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. (June 15, 2007) http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i41/41b00601.htm>
  • Landow, George. Hypertext 3.0. Baltimore Maryland: John Hopkins University, 2006.
  1. Michel Foucault, "What Is an Author," in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent Leitch (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 1636.
  2. Juan Cristobal Cobo Romani, "Learning 2.0," Global Leadfrog Education 1, no. 1 (2006): 7. (Hereafter cited in text).
  3. Michael Jensen, "The New Metrics of Scholarly Authority," , June 15, 2007. (online)
  4. Lev Grossman, "Time Magazine, Person of the Year: You," (December 25, 2006), 40.
  5. Wikis are "open writable web pages that offer the possibility for anyone to become a collaborator; by modifying, amplifying, or enriching the published hypertext multimedia content. Its open qualities facilitate the creation, editing and hyperlinking of text files. This open architecture, allows Wikis to facilitate the collective construction of information-knowledge with a special focus on virtual communities and learning environments." (Cobol Romani, 8-9).
  6. N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 19.
  7. I have chosen MediaWiki (which powers The Wikipedia) as an interface for exploration due to the fact that it is the most well known Wiki application to date. For a list of alternative Wiki applications, see <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wiki_software> In addition, I have chosen to use The Wikipedia as an example due to its current status as the most well known application of the Wiki tool. A Featured Article within The Wikipedia is one which has gone through a peer-review process developed by the Wiki community. For an explanation of this process, see <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Featured_articles>
  8. James Joyce: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Joyce
  9. Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author," in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent Leitch (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 1469.
  10. "We can easily imagine a culture where discourse would circulate without any need for an author. Discourses, whatever their status, form, or value, and regardless of our manner of handling them, would unfold in a pervasive anonymity [...]
    New questions will be heard:
    'what are the modes of existence of this discourse?'
    'Where doe sit come from; how is it circulated; who controls it?'
    'What placements are determined for possible subjects?'
    'Who can fulfill these diverse functions of the subject?'
    Behind all of these questions we would hear little more than the murmur of indifference: 'What matter who's speaking?' ""
  11. Geroge Landow. Hypertext 3.0. (Baltimore Maryland: John Hopkins University, 2006), 125.
  12. See "The Five Pillars of the Wikipedia" at: http://en.Wikipedia.org/Wiki/Wikipedia:Five_pillars
  13. Time Magazine, 2006 Person of the Year: YOU