Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 3, 2008

“The Wiki-Fallacy:” Increasing Democracy and Complexity (pt.2)

Filed under: Discussion — Jacob Burch @ 7:12 am
Before being swamped with illness and general swamped-ness, I posted on wiki-pedia and its anti-elitist approach towards information handling.  While it is an interesting example of  how people in a new-media age get their information (what is readily and quickly available instead of authoritatively correct), I meant to bring up the example as a case-study to a much general failing that grows with the popularity of new media.
So what is this fallacy? Earlier I briefly summed it up as: “Just because you have the tools does not mean you should be allowed to use them.”  To better understand what I mean when I talk about the wiki-fallacy in general sense, I’ll dissect the two unique aspects of new media that contribute to the problem.

1) Internet for all, internet for “you”!

Youtube, Myspace, myGoogle — the internet is a place where people of all color, title and class can come, create and receive a tailor-made good or service and plaster “mine” all over it. And with startups increasingly preferring for “free” business plans on startup companies, people can usually get it for free: have your cake, and why not have it at a free lunch, too. This has always been a selling point of the internet and many forms of the digital movement (starting as early as the idea of the PC), and served as a crucial aspect of the appeal–not to mention capitalization–of the internet. This trend has sky-rocketed with Web 2.0 and other advancements focusing on ease-of-use: one no longer needs to be a nerd or speak that techno-jargon to claim territory on the world wide web.  Not only can users customize their Google homepage with widgets or upload and stream their own videos with no nerd-knowledge, with relatively easy-to-learn software and Dummy/Idiot books for HTML and javascript, they can even setup a blog or a dot com within mere seconds. Buy software, type, type, click, hit enter, and voila–there it is. The page has their words and thoughts, and from the view of their browser on that date, the formating is perfect and is available for the world to see: it “works”.

2) Our blogs are part of our organism and no less complicated*

Beneath the “system of secrecy” of our browser, there is  complex system of software, databases, hardware and an a intense amount of layers of abstraction. Although the “anyone can do it” philosophy suggested previously does it best to hide the fact, there is a great number of elements that go into some of the simplest functions of the internet. On services as common as blogs, the multiplicity of content and users extends the number of composing elements to a myriad of various technologies. As users come to expect more dynamic content with more buzzes and whistles, so does the amount of software systems on a single page.Despite Kittler’s best hopes, the most common methods of web publishing are at a nauseating level of abstraction. Even the most rooted web programers–the ones who can pride themself in their “down to earth” approach of being able to program in notepad–still find themselves coding in php (originally an abstraction of C), talking to a mysql, sqlite, or postgres database (all complications of SQL) on an apache server (C++), ad nausium. These tools aid users in a number of performative issues, but largely have been developed to allow users and programmers the ability to do more with less understanding. The growing democratic and complex natures of the internet have given birth to the exponential level of abstraction in web software. As more users with less understanding want access to the powers the internet can give them, the digital tool makers came to realize how little faith they could have for their target audience. This realization led to a golden axiom of user-connected systems programing: never trust the client. This rule is based on the simplified understandings of Murphy’s Law and Ockham’s Razor: The more and more access you give the user to a system, the more and more likely they will mess something up. In the same way that Wikipedia gives inappropriate authority to people without authoritative knowledge, the democratic trend of the internet allows users access to power without the necessary knowledge to maintain it.
* – With apologies to Wittgenstein  


  1. there’s something interesting to me in all this about who deserves access or license; about what constitutes authority.

    i can see how there’s something discomfiting about blackboxing, about the guts being hidden from the average user under more and more functional GUIs . . . but it also reminds me how our access to almost *everything* is mediated. we don’t run around touching the Real in other aspects of our lives; we receive most of our information modified, edited, shaped, processed for our convenience or toward an explicit or implicit political aim . . . Liu writes that “Information consumed without concern for technological mediation . . . is our contemporary habitus.” and Jacob, maybe that’s precisely what you’re getting at (if I’m reading you correctly), but i’m not sure we should hold the facebook-using technoproletariat to a higher scrutiny than we do the general (American, privileged, fill-in-the-blank) public, doing general life stuff. doxa, ideology, whatever you want to call it–we didn’t make it, but we use it and call the proceeds our own.

    i wonder if using blogger to publish your diary is sort of akin to getting your news from CNN: in neither case is there any pretension that the end user is somehow drilling down to the source. you’re accessing a tool that someone else provides you, maybe without actively realizing it’s a tool at all. in blogger, at least you get to pick a template.

    and, yeah, it’s a template you didn’t create, and yet you feel some ownership toward the product–you could say the same thing about someone’s clothes, or her religion. i guess there is something a little creepy about constantly playing on the surface without recourse to or knowledge of what roils beneath, but we do it nearly everywhere else . . . why not on mySpace?

    Comment by lindsaybrandon — March 3, 2008 @ 10:55 pm | Reply

  2. This is the fallacy of chopping up what is one huge cluster in my brain into parts–i get the benefit of parsing things out one point at a time, but run the risk of jumping an argument.

    I have no real problem with the myspaces and the widgets of the world (well, I have a problem with myspace, but that’s a different argument)–and perhaps leaned on them as evidence of the first trend too much. The problem arises when people are so used to this instant-access, that when they come across the ability to make their own webpage with many tools that give the appearance of being easy to use (HTML and, in turn, browers come to mind), that we start getting into some serious issues.

    You’re absolutely correct in that there is no real need to ever care about what goes on when you log into facebook or myspace, except ensuring you’re not the victim of a phish attempt or some sort. knowing the database structure of myspace’s notification system offers essentially nothing. But the danger lies when people carry this over into even some basic levels of programing, where they may very well get desired results (Making a website on early–even modern–version of FrontPage is a great example of this) without actually having a great grasp of what’s behind the scene they are intended to create.

    I could ramble on more, but that’s for part 2.5 (my presentation tomorrow), which will come likely at the wee hours after i hash and slash a text file that’s sitting on my computer.

    edit: I suppose to sum up what I’m guessing is the structural flaw of the above post is to stress it is not these two trends on their own that make for a problem. There is nothing wrong with my grandfather being able to email e-vites to his grandchildren for his birthday party without knowing what the heck a “jigga-wat” is, nor anything wrong with the advent of many many technologies that can be shoved into a single webpage to make it slick and quick. It is when these two collide in a user-created system that we run the Wiki-fallacious risk.

    Comment by Jacob Burch — March 3, 2008 @ 11:09 pm | Reply

  3. RE the Wikipedia entry for Pop-Tarts:

    “The Pop-Tarts page is often aflutter. Pop-Tarts, it says as of today (February 8, 2008), were discontinued in Australia in 2005. Maybe that’s true. Before that it said that Pop-Tarts were discontinued in Korea. Before that Australia. Several days ago it said: “Pop-Tarts is german for Little Iced Pastry O’ Germany.” Other things I learned from earlier versions: More than two trillion Pop-Tarts are sold each year. George Washington invented them. They were developed in the early 1960s in China. Popular flavors are “frosted strawberry, frosted brown sugar cinnamon, and semen.” Pop-Tarts are a “flat Cookie.” No: “Pop-Tarts are a flat Pastry, KEVIN MCCORMICK is a FRIGGIN LOSER notto mention a queer inch.” No: “A Pop-Tart is a flat condom.” Once last fall the whole page was replaced with “NIPPLES AND BROCCOLI!!!!!””

    This quote is from a relevant article by Nicholson Baker in the NYRB from March 20, 2008. (Yeah, dates are weird on the internet.)

    Basic argument: First, the author suggests that the brilliance of Wikipedia is that it functions as a game rather than an encyclopedia. Teams do constant battle over inclusions, deletions, and revisions. This makes it weirdly beautiful, fun, and addictive. See, for example, the Pop-Tart quote above. Second, the author is a strong supporter of inclusiveness when it comes to Wikipedia articles, arguing that the necessary expertise will reach an article eventually as long as that article (1) is not a work of imaginative fiction or blatant self-promotion and (2) is not subject to unnecessary, childish, preemptive attacks by rabid bands of exclusionists. This resonates with some of the concerns expressed in class in relation to databases and what is ultimately left out of those databases. This central battle at Wikipedia takes place in terms of “notability”–the question being which articles are subject to deletion because they discuss “non-notable” subjects. Maybe un-becoming is an abject longing for notable “non-notability” or “de-notability”?

    Comment by jeremysc — March 4, 2008 @ 7:45 am | Reply

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