Why social media, after contributing to the decline of Wikipedia, could need new forms of Wikis
By Pierre-Alain (Perig) Gouanvic
A little commented upon, but very significant, milestone was passed somewhere in the middle of the noughties (2000-2009), when the number of new accounts being born at Wikipedia became inferior to the number of ones marked as "deceased" — that is, accounts of Wikipedians who had grown angered, bored, or otherwise uninterested by the project. This invisible trend coincides with the rise of social networks and blogs. All other attempts to recreate online collaborative encyclopedias failed. Citizendium is a legendary failure to be remembered in the textbooks.
Blogs, as well as, later and to a greater extent, social networks, made possible the encounter of more-or-less like-minded people, from low-life bullies to high ranking academics (both qualifications not being mutually exclusive). What happens on a social network, and increasingly in all digital versions of newspapers and many websites, is that commenting and arguing have found a new home, after it has become obvious that the number one search engine result for most things, Wikipedia, has become policed and sterilized by rules and oligarchies. Most websites have their comments sections, often in communication with one of the two major social networks.
In the process, the Web has matured into its predicted second phase, Web 2.0, wherein spectators have become actors.
Not to say that they are autonomous, free, and emancipated. Rather, readers are used to create content that they will consume and comment on: everybody is naturally (and without pay) contributing, through web visits metrics, content sharing, "citizen journalism" (proletarian journalism in fact). The most popular of public intellectuals are constantly fed with news and insights by their readers, so that they are better able to feel what will most please their audience.
Now on to Web 3.0. Or, in other words, what's next, to avoid pretentious terminology. The next stage is perhaps closer than we think. Perhaps it's already there and, far from being this "semantic web" so many technicians dream about, perhaps it is, after the transformation of people by the web and the transformation of the Web by people, the webbing of people. Of people who have been exposed to the Web and have lived the pain of becoming a drop in the furious ocean of information. What Theodore Sturgeon called "bleshing".
Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned the Encyclopedists of the precise problems that later rampaged freely through Wikipedia (and Citizendium, and other knowledge oligarchies): specialization and a thrist for power, in a place like an Encyclopedia, will make "Men" even more evil than if they were ignorant. Diderot's answer back then was that what would prevent his Encyclopedia from such catastrophe would be friendship.
(Of course, he was not speaking of the alienated, private and exclusive version of friendship that has become the norm nowadays. Perhaps "solidarity" is a closer modern equivalent. But this word is mainly used to describe friendships or alliances in the context of repression or other hardships. It is a close parent of (another buzzword) "resistance".)
Diderot's view of friendship was dignified: exalting knowledge and passion, art and ethics, universality and practicality. One can witness instances of this friendship in social networks, where there is no requirement to create a well-regulated and policed collaborative encyclopedic page.
But what is lost, in those spontaneous spaces of shared understanding (of each other and of some stuff) and shared ignorance, is permanence. Wikis offer permanence and, at same time, the type of flexibility that is required for a number of different persons to coexist and blesh.
However, such powerful structures have one inconvenience that stems precisely from their strength : these micro-Webs evolve in relative autonomy from the larger Web, and especially from the more labile social networks.
Perhaps collaborative spaces with an ethos like Diderot's are needed by "socially networked" people for them to really achieve what seems to be a constantly disappointed hope. Perhaps PI is one of them.