In Jaron Lanier’s essay, “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism,” he discusses the troubles of collective action and how it does not yield the same results or have the same standards as individual action. To further his points he criticizes Wikipedia and the way it “has come to be regarded and used; how it’s been elevated to such importance so quickly.” Through Wikipedia Lanier argues that we have dumbed down our standards, there is no voice, and when text is copy and pasted from other sites it looses its value. I don’t think this is a collective action problem, but rather a lesson in new media literacy skills.

Cory Doctorow who is a Science Fiction novelist, blogger, and Technology activist responded to Lanier’s essay and made some valid counter arguments to his critic of Wikipedia. Doctorow said that Wikipedia is a useful resource that is not trying to be a traditional encyclopedia like Britannica. There is value to be found in Wikipedia by how it was created, how pages are edited, and the lesson it gives in media literacy.

I completely agree with Doctorow when it comes to his point about new media literacy. There are those who believe everything they read on the Internet and those who believe nothing they read; both are wrong and that is what media literacy is trying to combat. Wikipedia is a perfect example of a site where media literacy is extremely important. When reading a Wikipedia entry we need to use caution and judgment when it comes to what we believe to be true or false information. Many school teachers tell their students not to use Wikipedia as a resource because anyone can edit it, but instead maybe they could use Wikipedia to teach their students to use good judgment and learn media literacy so they don’t fall into one of the two categories of believing everything or believing nothing.

The Wikipedia talk pages are also a valuable resource because they give you a “behind the scenes” view of why certain information is on a Wikipedia front page. The composer Frédéric Chopin, has been the subject of an edit war when it comes to his nationality. By reading the arguments between editors we can make our own conclusions. This is another lesson in media literacy that we can gain through Wikipedia. This is also something that is not offered through traditional encyclopedia. When reading a page out of Britannica we assume every fact is correct and we do not question the author. On Wikipedia there are numerous authors and we are allowed the option to question them, argue with them, and generate our own conclusions. We learn to use our own judgment and smarts to determine if this collective action as a whole has been correct or not.

Wikipedia as a whole is impressive if we take the time to really think about. We have an enormous amount of collective information at our fingertips for basically free. Do I believe everything I read on the site? No. Do I think it has dumbed us down? No. I believe instead of criticizing the collective action of Wikipedia we need to take a lesson in media literacy. These points can be said about most websites. The Internet has been exponentially growing for decades now with vast amounts of information. We need to learn how to treat it like the collective entity it is and not compare it to its analog counterparts, like the encyclopedia books.

2 Comments

  1. I think Lanier and Doctorow both make excellent points. While Lanier finds the danger in the collective as being ‘all-wise,’ Doctorow says Wikipedia has its strengths, like being great at being free, universal, and instantaneous.

    Wikipedia has the regular users, but also has a structure of influencers in place that greatly affect the masses. These can be seen as moderators and the people behind the scenes keeping the tool going. No matter how purely collective they are seem to be, there are influencers in there that hold a larger sway of information whether users realize it or not. This relates on some level to the Talk pages of each Wikipedia article.

    Like you, I think I side more on the Doctorow way of thinking, but not necessarily for Wikipedia. What’s missing in Lanier’s essay is the argument for the benefits of the online collectivism. A collectivist service could better service its users if the processes the “hive mind” and the democracy that emerges from a large group worked together, while maintaining a layer of influencers, but with some additional honesty and transparency about those influencers. That would aid in adding the conext and voice necessary for many of these communities, help readers be a better judge what is created within the communities, and make it easier for them to spot the useful pieces of information that pop up.

  2. The strongest responses to Jaron Lanier’s essay distinguished collective action from collectivism, meaning that Wikipedia, though the product of a collective, is still maintained by individuals acting on their own. Though we shouldn’t put complete faith in Wikipedia, we should also remember that it is a product of many individuals’ knowledge, and thus still worthwhile.
    But though the responses to Lanier’s piece seemed to render his argument weaker, Lanier’s aversion to the trend of measuring metadata is well-founded. It is in the aggregations provided by meta-sites that individual voices can be lost. Sites like metacritic.com add up reviews from publications into one score. Users can read and visit each individual review, but one could also just look at the aggregate score, which rolls each opinion of dozens of reviewers into one number. This is as if the “voice” of Internet criticism has given whatever product this single score. This is the kind of collective intelligence Lanier is right to warn us of: the meta aggregation.
    Personal responsibility is the key to processing information from places like Wikipedia, as you point out. We need to know what we are looking at, understand how it operates, and what advantages or disadvantages it has.

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