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Contemplating wikinomics and communities of practice

November 4, 2012

As I begin to write this post, I am inadvertently paying homage to the two facets which make up its title. Firstly, I am downloading a free album from Amanda Palmer – cue Wikinomics. Secondly, the writing and publishing of the post itself is part of a collaborative exercise for my MA DAH class – and so, communities of practice enters the stage from the left. I say “left” as a doffing of the cap to the communist accusations against collaboration as seen in “Wikinomics”, which state that Bill Gates “cites the movement to assemble a global “creative commons” that contains large bodies of scientific and cultural content as a potential threat to the ability to make profits in knowledge-based industries such as software. Many top executives are lining up along side Gates to harpoon what they see as newfangled “communists” in various guises.”. In this post, I will outline the benefits of collaboration between people in general as I believe that its advantages reflect the range of possibilties for the future of books, learning, mass collaboration and, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, life as we know it.

One of my recent blog posts described Goldcorp’s position, where it encountered problems when trying to tap into gold deposits. It overcame this obstacle by casting its net wider than usual and putting its problem to the world. However, one does not necessarily have to look at corporate examples to witness the influence and fruits of collaboration. As is the case since the beginning of this academic year, collaboration happens in the form of shared ideas on blog posts and comments. One blog post may spark a thought and spawn a spin-off post on another blog. In some cases, an established blog may inspire an amateur writer to start their own. HASTAC is a more organised form of collaboration, while THATcamp pays tribute to a looser form. THATcamp in particular throws old hierarchical ways on the Hallowe’en bonfire and instead places a focus on real life collaboration – a pop-up shop of sorts. The 21st century “participation revolution” is not limited to one fixed area, instead it plays an active role in “workplaces, communities, national democracies, and the global economy at large”. Our use of Twitter during this course is an example of a more spontaneous form of collaboration. Again, it is important to reiterate that one gets out of a process what one puts into it – it is up to the user to determine how beneficial these tools will be and to which types of blogs and articles they pay the greatest attention, like a student choosing a book in a library. A previously respected authority once said that the world was flat. Perhaps a peasant in a field knew the truth but we were not listening.

I have said it one too many times already but, since beginning the MA DAH, I can see in black and white the benefits of regular interaction with classmates, be it through email, blogs, Moodle or Twitter. In “Communities of Practice – a brief introduction”, Etienne Wenger propounded the idea that “communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” This can be seen so far in the form of the proposed collaboration on our class DH glossary or at times when we share links such as Abby Mullen’s blog post, which provided comfort for our collective feeling of DH fraud. During the year, it is likely that we will reenact these collaborations but also encounter new forms. As you will see from my previous blog post, a Skype chat with digital humanists from around the globe is in the works. By taking a closer look at Participad, Buddypress and The New York Times Integrated Content Editor, we are taking steps towards actively engaging in our own subsection of the larger academic community. These will all be intentional collaborative attempts, however the use of a more normal method of communication and discussion, such as email, is a more routine form of collaboration. Although we are aware of the interaction and networking through email, we may not be as aware of the knowledge we have gained from others. “A New Culture of Learning – Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change” states that like a young boy utilising an interactive programming game, what we “learned most of all is how to learn from others”. Times change in unexpected ways. We need to be ready. Each blog post in for tomorrow’s class is a catalyst to this change. At the end of each day, irrespective of the outcome of collaboration, we will have learned something new and tucked it away in our backpack of skills.

To revisit an earlier point, although I have framed the notion that blogs are an important component of online collaboration and learning, this does not always mean that they are of a good standard. In Chapter 1 of Wikinomics,  “Renowned computer scientist, composer, and author Jaron Lanier worries that collaborative communities” will suffocate “authentic voices in a muddled and anonymous tide of mass mediocrity.” We recently discussed in class the swamps of badly written blogs, including DH blogs (hopefully this blog will not count as one of them!). There is certainly a necessity to have a built-in mental filter which disregards blogs of poor quality and retains information from the better crop. However, this can be said for all areas of life – with a flush of good things come a shoddy selection. Although there is a personal responsibility to ensure that one creates the best blog that abilities allow, it obviously follows that readers need to be selective in choosing which blogs they follow. The internet can be full of mindless data but, like data visualisation, it is up to a user to decide how they will be affected. If someone walks into a bookshop, there will be endless pillars of popular paperback books that have been churned out in an assembly-line style. However, this does not stop people picking up an Edna O’Brien book or reaching for a copy of The Origin of Species. The weaknesses of a few cannot overshadow the great work of many. It would be quite dictatorial to try to dismiss a contribution based on a peculiar view of what is good or bad. To repeat what Wikinomics nicely surmises: “whereas communism stifled individualism, mass collaboration is based on individuals and companies employing widely distributed computation and commnunication technologies to achieve shared outcomes through loose voluntary associations.” Collaboration will not be pushed upon an individual or a company and neither will Jaron Lanier’s so-called “collective stupidity.” Collaboration should not be viewed as enforcement but as enlightenment.

In a way, the internet is going through a similar process to television in that it has become a focal point in our lives and in our rooms but it also meets with a certain amount of resistance. I am guilty of lagging behind the changing world. Wikinomics states that there is a “danger for societies, corporations, and individuals that fail to keep up with relentless change.” Outside of recent academic use and some anonymous interaction, I resisted online social networking. The failure to keep up with change can also be seen in my experiences of World of Warcraft, as described in my post, “Digital Pedagogy – Thoughts on ‘A New Culture of Learning’.” Even when I dabbled in gaming for years and had an internet connection, I was loyal to standard PC games over online involvement or social use of consoles. Eventually, I subscribed to a virtual pet community called Neopets and then, in more recent years with WoW. Over the past number of weeks, I have learned to reassess these digital tools, although I no longer use them. I now see the benefits of academic and professional use of social networking and also the importance of having a visible online identity with regard to same.

Although the development of web 2.0 will change the way we live, it does not have to change who we are. I remained (somewhat unintenionally) true to myself in the way I used and continue to use the internet. Until now, I blogged under a nom de plume and learned to accept the digital world in a way that suited my life and personality. Now, while retaining my values on social networking in my personal life, I am building an online academic persona. I found the style of collaboration that worked for me, which is a message that learners, the corporate world, academia and institutions in general are starting to grasp. Collaboration needs to find its footing in our society.

As I am now nearing the finish line of my reflection, I should take what I have learned about collaboration and touch on the subject of books. It is clear that the concepts of interdisciplinary collaboration, communities of practice and the existing web 2.0 are likely to be the structures on which the future will have its foundations. The Wikinomics text is symbolic of this change: “It is our hope that this book will transcend its physical form to become a living, real-time, collaborative document, cocreated by leading thinkers.” After reading what I believe to be its suitable introduction to mass collaboration, I will be brave and say that mass collaboration when editing a book could be an extremely successful way forward in publishing. Although I previously stated that we cannot adopt a fascist view of collaborative efforts, in order to publish a refined and finished document there needs to be an element of quality control. Again, is it for us to say that this is reached by utilising a select few instead of the willing many? After all, we only need to look at two elected representatives, like Silvio or Enda, to see why the mass are often as, if not more, valuable than a chosen few.* If we start with bringing together the people, we can look to a future where openness is the order of the day. The different forms of collaboration outlined in this post are just an appetiser. This may sound grandiose, however many great things have been built on outwardly highfalutin theory. Exit centre stage.

*I am absolutely in no way endorsing communism (although, the way it functions in the 21st century is not as it was once defined…..)

Works cited

Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction. June, 2006. Web.

William, Anthony D., Donald Tapscott. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. 2008. Web.
Thomas, Douglas and Seely Brown, John. A New Culture of Learning – Cultivating the Imagination of a World of Constant Change. Self-published. 2011. Print.
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6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2012 1:24 pm

    I enjoyed what you were saying about retaining your identity in how you use the internet. ” I remained true to myself in the way I used and continue to use the internet”. Since starting this course this has been at the centre of my concerns. I think it’s all about getting the balance right, although sometimes I feel like I am an impostor in this world of DH, quite like the Abbey Mullen blogpost. Mass collaboration in editing is a unique idea. It could change the face of editing forever it if became practice, however I think there would be many who would express the view that ‘two many cooks spoil the broth’ in this case.

    • November 6, 2012 9:25 pm

      I think the ‘too many cooks’ idea is very apt here, much like the idea of ‘mas mediocrity’. It’s nice to think of everyone having a say and input, but look at Wikipedia: though I absolutely see the site’s merits, and use it regularly, I do think it can foster the mentality that ‘everyone is an expert’. There would have to be some sort of strict honour code, or vetting system, if mass collaborative editing were to become widespread. That in turn would beg the question of who should police it, who decides what makes one person’s opinion expertise as opposed to speaking for the sake of making noise.

    • November 8, 2012 11:01 pm

      *too many cooks. My typing is terrible!

  2. November 6, 2012 9:32 pm

    I don’t feel at all that you are “lagging behind the changing world”; you are one of the most present in our class on Twitter, and your desire to learn and read extensively is very clear in your blog posts. Even some of the phrases you use in this post – Participad, Buddypress, Web 2.0 – are things I don’t even understand, and we have been in this course for the same amount of time. Don’t be so hard on yourself, you are far from a fraud!

    I remember the days of Neopets too, and was just thinking about that recently in relation to our class. I have “spoken” to classmates more via Twitter and these blogs than I have in person, and it reminded me of the chatrooms on websites like Neopets. It’s funny how, someone can talk openly to people they might never see, or hold group MSN chats with friends of friends, but clam up when “real-life” social interaction was required. I don’t think we are quite that bad as a class, but it is certainly odd for me to put faces to some of the blogs I read when we have our core module.

    Love the blogger picture, by the way!

  3. November 11, 2012 6:58 pm

    I would absolutely endorse communism if I thought such an ideal could ever exist in such a competative species. At its ideal best, all people being equally respected for what they contribute to the society, and being content that their contribution was as important but no more important than any other communist’s contrbution would be nirvana. However no version of human communism has ever come close to this ideal, and I strongly susspect that it never can, due to the competative, individualistic nature of the human condition. This monumental change in human instinct would be a pre-reqisite, as far as I’m concerned, if the collaborative utopia envisaged in articles like wikonomics is ever to become a meaningful reality, rather than a marketing strategy or academic exercise.

  4. November 11, 2012 7:02 pm

    PS. Love your use of images, and find your contribution to the subject illuminating.

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