On Clay Shirky, Wikipedia Rejection and Asphalt

This time last weekend I was in the middle of what could only be described as a Shirky-a-thon. Clay Shirky is a currently a teacher of New Media at NYU and has written about the social and economic impact of the internet.  My fiancé,  Mark, who is doing his Masters in Economics, was familiar with Shirky’s work and we were both excited that our fields overlapped momentarily when my Digital History reading was Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody.  Before I knew it, I was watching video interviews of Shirky, watching Ted Talks, and listening to Econ Talk podcasts. It was a bit intense.

The underlying premise of Here Comes Everybody is that the internet has dramatically decreased the transaction costs (meaning money, time and effort) associated with organizing groups.  Because it is so easy for people to gather through the web, we are faced with a vast, new potential for the output we can create collectively (and we are seeing this potential in such forms as Wikipedia and Flickr). We can now afford to write web-articles, attend virtual meetings and create online exhibits for obscure and lesser known topics.

Shirky makes many good observations that are applicable to my field, but here are a few that really stuck with me.

1) Share and then gather. Internet media and social tools have changed the way we share information.  Instead of gathering people together (in a conference or classroom) and sharing information, we are now able to share information (on a blog or on Flickr, for example) and then gather.  If someone is interested in Romanesque sculpture, they don’t need to find an organization dedicated to its study, pay a membership fee or incur the costs of attending a conference.  They could simply join this group on Flickr and participate in the conversations that are happening there.  What’s also exciting about this, to me, is that it allows people to explore interests that don’t necessarily relate to their formal education or their current profession.

2) There is no shelf in the digital world. If you haven’t already watched the video of Shirky speaking at Smithsonian 2.0, I highly recommend it.  He speaks about how systems of arranging and presenting artifacts have been necessarily linear (and therefore limiting) for traditional museums.  He uses the example of the Library of Congress’ history catalog, which was broken down by geographic area (plus a category for Gypsies!).  However, in the digital world, museums don’t need to assign an artifact to a single category or shelf. Rather, they can use a variety of words (or tags) to describe an object, thereby increasing the number of relationships that exist between objects.

3) The internet lowers the cost of failing. Shirky argues that we have an opportunity now to experiment with the tools and the potential of the web.  Because the cost of forming groups and sharing information has been lowered, people and institutions can now experiment with projects that they likely could not before.  Historical organizations, which are traditionally limited by resources, finally have an opportunity to be creative, fun and innovative!

4) Public vs. expert discourse. An audience member at Smithsonian 2.0, said that some people in her profession felt that participatory actions, such as tagging in Flickr, resulted in a “trivialization of their content.”  Shirky’s response was the web has created a space that blends the public and expert spheres.  It’s not that the web is fostering a casual or inane culture, it’s that museum professionals are simply hearing audience reactions for the first time.  Although comments such as “awww” or “cool” may not sound particularly intelligent  when posted on a museum’s message board, these are the same responses people have when they are in a traditional museum.  It seems that museum workers should not be too concerned with the quality of audience reactions (however they would define that) and should instead embrace the opportunity to hear and interact with their audience.

5) You don’t need to be an expert (or publish, then filter). The collaborative processes that the web enables (through Wikipedia, for example) mean that people don’t need to be the authoritative voice on a topic in order to contribute.  If you have an idea, it doesn’t need to be completely researched and perfected before you present it. As Shirky points out, the asphalt article on Wikipedia, which is now a fairly substantial two part article, began with just one sentence. This allows ideas and projects to expand organically.

6) Wikipedia is a process, not a product. This idea cannot be attributed to Shirky and it seems that this is a concept that has been out there for awhile.  I wish someone had told me about it earlier, as it really helps me sort out my feelings for Wikipedia.  I personally use Wikipedia for just about all of my (very) preliminary research, but don’t feel comfortable having it as my only source of information, especially for history-related topics.  However, I now understand a bit more about Wikipedia as a process and I see it as much more than an online encyclopedia.  The conversations that occur on the discussion page give you a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the articles and gives you more information about the thoughts and beliefs of the people who are creating an article.

Inspired by Shirky’s positive view on the use and potential of Wikipedia (oh – and because it was assigned homework), I  decided to get in on the conversation.  I mentioned in a previous post that there was very little information on the web about the unveiling ceremony for the Famous Five monument in Ottawa.  I thought that would be a good place to start my Wikipedia experimentation.  In hindsight, I should have taken on a less ambitious article than the one on Parliament Hill.

In the section for the Famous Five monument, I wrote the following sentence: “It was unveiled on October 18, 2000 in a public ceremony that included French and English singers, Inuit dancers and speeches by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and Prime Minister Jean Chretién.” I had to reproduce my sentence in this post, because it  was removed from the Wikipedia site within 8 hours for being an “unneeded detail.”

I knew that my sentence was fairly vague and its relevance was not apparent. But, it didn’t take me very long to write and, after my Shirky-a-thon, I had visions of this one tiny sentence turning into a whole article about the ceremony, thereby solving the “permanence problem” associated with commemoration.  I’m not sure what my next Wikipedia move is going to be.  The assignment is to edit Wikipedia and then monitor your contribution, so I will have to think of some way to get in on the conversation.

I wonder if I know anything about asphalt…..


5 thoughts on “On Clay Shirky, Wikipedia Rejection and Asphalt

  1. I am happy to hear I am not the only one swept away by Shirky’s arguments! You have highlighted some of the most interesting points. Would you agree that not only is there no shelf, but there is no shelf life either? For example, Wikipedia articles are never finished and can never “go bad,” so to speak. Perhaps this is another advantage to open source and open access?

  2. Clay Shirky is awesome!

    Thanks for your comment. That’s a neat way of thinking about the web. It does have a sense of permanence (unless, of course, the particular technology or software becomes obsolete), but it’s not necessarily a static state. As you say, web content can be ongoing, which lends itself nicely to our field, which will always be changing and evolving.

  3. I really like “The internet lowers the cost of failing.” I thought that was very well explained in Shirky’s book. I think that has a lot of really great implications for people in the History field.
    I applaud you on your restraint in regards to Wikipedia. I would suggest possibly bringing the issue up in the discussion page? Maybe you could ask why it was deleted, and who judges what is “unneeded.” You could also express your feelings as to why you think it should be included.


  4. I’m also wondering why your sentence for the Famous Five Monument was considered “unneeded”. In fact, I’m really surprised that there isn’t a whole page designated to the actual monument. Ie. who is the sculpture, what interest groups initiated the creation of the sculpture etc. Why have wikipedia contributors ignored these Famous Five Women? The one page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Famous_Five_%28Canada%29, needs so much more information.

  5. Pingback: Housekeeping Items: Qiqqa and Wikipedia « Virtual Voice

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