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    Wikis in Composition and Communication Classrooms

    Page  108Page  109

    Disrupting Intellectual Property: Collaboration and Resistance in Wikis

    Mikhail Bakhtin and Michel Foucault have both explored the ways in which discursive practices are heteroglossic, simultaneously containing multiple voices and perspectives, and later work in rhetoric and composition has also continued to build on this notion of multivocality. For example, building on Foucault’s “What Is an Author?” Kenneth Bruffee’s landmark article “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’” calls into question the concept of individual textual authorship by establishing that the ability to write is learned only in a social context.[1] Kathryn T. Flannery draws on Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia in her review “Composing and the Question of Agency,” noting that “students are always caught ‘intertextually’—they are never inventing a new language out of nothing, but patch together fragments of the multiple texts, the multiple voices … that are already available to them.”[2] Finally, Rebecca Moore Howard argues that students often rely on “patchwriting,” a practice that involves individuals’ stringing together multiple authorial voices and sources and then adding their own voices to that conversation.[3] The scholarship of Bruffee, Flannery, and Howard all showcase our focus in rhetoric and composition on multivocal texts. Indeed, we advocate research and teaching practices that highlight multivocality such as citing sources, building upon prior knowledge in the field, and echoing the familiar terms of a discourse community.

    But although the field of rhetoric and composition relies on these shared scholarly practices, true collaborative writing remains rare; our published scholarship commonly follows the model of the individually authored text. Recent work in computers and composition has nevertheless made a concerted effort to use computerized technologies to open up opportunities andPage  110 possibilities for textual collaboration. For example, early work in computers and composition envisioned hypertext as a technology that might offer increased opportunities for collaborative writing. Since hypertexts are made up of many discrete subpages with multiple links among and between pages, their ability to enable multiple authorial voices to flourish seemed particularly promising. In theorizing his work with Storyspace, a hypertext writing environment designed to help writers map out large, complex projects, Johndan Johnson-Eilola notes that any social writing space must follow two main guidelines.

    First, it must allow writers and readers to work within the space of the texts (rather than downloading them, preserving the purity of the master text). Second, it must encourage more than one person to write within that space (in order to avoid pitting the weight of a published author against a single reader).[4]

    In this way, hypertext environments can be seen to encourage, and possibly even demand, collaborative modes of authorship that challenge traditional notions of intellectual property in fundamental ways. Wikis build upon the earlier design of hypertext environments like Storyspace, but they attempt to address some of the obstacles to collaborative writing that have tended to limit the latter as well. Wikis, designed with multiple authors in mind, are generally stored on a server and can be accessed like any other online site.[5] In their most common configuration today, wikis are well suited to creating multivocal texts; the sheer simplicity of composing, editing, and publishing multiply-authored texts makes wikis appealing resources for fostering collaboration.

    By challenging the authority of the single authorial voice, wikis also call into question traditional notions of intellectual property as a market commodity. These notions propagate the argument that ideas are a unique product of individual labor and can thus “belong” to a single person. It may be precisely because wikis challenge these established notions that some student users resist their use in the classroom. In keeping with this general theme, the questions that guide our research are as follows: What is the currency of intellectual property in the university setting? Do wikis, in fact, disrupt established, dominant notions of intellectual property? Can wikis bePage  111 used as pedagogical tools that challenge capitalist power structures while still providing students the necessary skills to succeed in diverse writing environments?

    In exploring these questions, we discuss the ways in which traditional authorship is upset by wikis. We situate wikis within the larger historical context of intellectual property. Having established a theoretical foundation, we then turn our attention to the practical application of wikis in the composition classroom. Our goal here is to explore how wikis can be used to foster and/or challenge collaboration. As well, we outline how wikis can be used in the classroom to promote critical discussions about authorship and intellectual property. Although we do not want to claim that wikis are an unproblematic means of fostering collaboration, we do explore the ways in which wikis can encourage students to move beyond traditional notions of ownership and academic writing and into more collaborative, public discursive practices.

    Historicizing Intellectual Property

    The foundation of intellectual property—the ability to create and own an idea—and even the very term intellectual property have been vigorously challenged in recent years. In particular, technology has made great strides in disrupting our traditional understanding of copyright law. For example, the ability of an individual to manipulate digital music files through ripping, copying, downloading, and remixing has set the stage for such highly publicized trials as MGM v. Grokster and A & M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc. Legal controversies like these continue to shape our collective views of how art and artists should be protected and how monetary gains should be assigned. These controversies are, as James P. Cadello asserts, driven by fear: Modern conceptions and practices of human freedom, self-possession and self-control, social organization, and moral assessment have enabled and influenced technological evolution in profound ways.[6] This fear partly explains resistance to new technologies. It also suggests that this resistance could produce further tensions in the future, if society becomes polarized between those who embrace the influence of computerized technologies and those who view these changes with anxiety and fear. However, the fearful attempts toPage  112 sustain these modern conceptions are inherently conservative insofar as they seek to stifle the technological developments that spring from them.

    Intellectual property has always been intimately connected with technological developments that assist in producing and disseminating material goods. For instance, Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press brought about changes in the way we consider the nature of writing as well as authorship, laying the ground for many of our current beliefs about plagiarism and copyright. The printing press made the creation and dissemination of printed material simpler and more streamlined; ideas and therefore authors could be more easily commodified and marketed. Prior to the printing press, the idea of intellectual property was not as intimately tied to economic gain as it is today; the concept of mass production of texts on today’s scale was impossible. Though texts were copied, this was a labor-intensive endeavor that required scribes to sit for hours and reproduce texts by hand. The many hours of skilled labor that went into the manual reproduction of books made them both rare and valuable; the printing press diminished the rarity of books, resulting in the loss of their economic value as art.

    In Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators, Rebecca Moore Howard notes five factors that worked in concert to support the emergence of the modern author: the printing press, the shift to viewing text as property that could be owned, the importance placed on the creativity and genius of the author, an expanded readership, and the ideology of individualism.[7] To this, we would add the emerging ideologies of capitalism, which focused on expansionism, knowledge as commodity, and consumption of books or ideas. The technological, economic, and ideological shifts afforded by the printing press resulted in an increased number of readers and a greater focus on the business of writing. These factors all helped modern copyright law take form.

    Françoise Meltzer traces the emergence of the concept of individual ownership of texts back to a single moment in European history: “John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1690) are the paradigm of the European notion that an individual’s work and the fruits of his labor are his own property.”[8] An author could thus assert that he had spent time cultivating his work in the same way that one could own and cultivate land; indeed, the word author is derived from the Latin augere, a word tied closely to agricultural terms likePage  113 grow, increase, and augment. The author has the first rights to the harvests born from his land.[9] But, historically, agrarian societies have shifted from the model of an individual or small group of individuals who toil together on their land for sustenance toward a commercialized, technologically driven business model. Today’s crops have been planted, tended, harvested, and shipped thanks to the combined assistance of hundreds, even thousands, of workers. Similarly, today’s texts are the collective efforts of many individuals working in concert. Though ownership rights of texts are afforded to the primary author, these rights often do not take into account the various individuals who assisted in the communal creation and dissemination of the text.

    In many respects, we believe that wikis embody some of the best features of this new communal production model: they are community built, edited, and sustained. Wikis reflect both the values and the needs of specific communities or users. For example, most wikis have some form of code of conduct as well as rules and regulations that help shape the work contained within. Wikis are not, as commonly believed, uncontrolled and unfettered, with no sense of authorial or editorial control. On the contrary, most wikis have distinct hierarchies of users; each individual has a part to play. Though the memberships of these roles are not static, many of the positions themselves remain constant and often overlap: owner, editor, reviewer, proofreader, moderator, problem solver. Even defining and deciding what content stays and what goes is a communal decision, one that can be hotly debated. Like other collective systems, wikis depend on the shared responsibilities of the users who make up the community. Therefore, though different models exist for the creation and editing of wikis, they all rely in large part upon individuals working in harmony to create the best content they feel they can offer.

    Wikis in the Classroom: Collaboration and the Creation of Knowledge

    If wikis are so well suited to collaborative writing, it remains to be seen why more instructors aren’t using them. If wikis are simple to set up and use, what holds people back? The perceived lack of control coupled with the potentialPage  114 for student disinterest and resistance are some reasons, we argue, that wikis are not commonly used in the writing classroom. Student authors must support and encourage trust in each other in order to offer constructive criticism and collaboration during the writing process. They must also accept that the wiki document or entry does not belong to them individually, which in many ways goes against how students are trained via tests, grades, and papers to view their work. Despite the fact that wikis do offer levels of control and despite the fact that classroom-based wikis would function under many of the same rules as traditional collaborative classroom writing, instructors often have a misguided sense, a fear, of the potential negative implications of wikis.

    Instructors may fear that giving so much influence to the outside audience of the wiki may destabilize their classroom—that the traditional authority structure will be disrupted. But rather than feel stifled by the potential for such decentralization, we should instead embrace the possibilities that come with technological change. As Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe aptly state:

    As teachers, we are authority figures. Our culture has imbued us with considerable power within the confines of the classroom: we are the architects of the spaces in which our students learn. Although the use of computer technology may give us greater freedom to construct more effective learning environments, it may also lead us unknowingly to assume positions of power that contradict our notions of good teaching.[10]

    They remind us to resist falling into the conventional role of teacher-as-authority. And here is where wikis can step in: because wikis are built with notions of social constructivism in mind, they help us resist authoritarianism. They fight against “the banking concept of education” outlined by Paulo Freire. By resisting banking concepts of education, we can also resist systems of intellectual property that are both defined and controlled by the cultural elite and used to oppress.[11] But wikis are not a panacea. The challenge, of course, is how to critically employ wikis while consciously recognizing that they are not neutral tools. We examine two methods: using an in-class wiki created by the teacher for a specific classroom use and using a previously established wiki that enjoys popular use outside of the academy.

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    Method 1. Creating Classroom Wikis: Fostering Collaborative Learning and Writing

    When deciding which wiki to use in a class, a key concern of instructors is the ease of setting up and maintaining a particular wiki.[12] This question can only be answered effectively when it is considered in relation to the instructor’s particular pedagogical goals. As Andrew Feenberg reminds us, computerized technologies are never neutral; technology is “not a destiny but a scene of struggle. It is a social battlefield, or perhaps a better metaphor would be a parliament of things on which civilizational alternatives are debated and decided.”[13] Wikis too are far from neutral; they are a battlefield upon which concepts of intellectual property are challenged and sometimes attacked.

    One of the best reasons to use a class-specific wiki is that instructors can adapt and create the wiki environment that best suits their pedagogical needs. Wikis can of course be used by solitary writers to compose individual works, but that is not the type of use we advocate. We see wikis as providing sites where communities of writers can collaboratively create a single written text. Instructors can work together with students in a wiki to create and revise syllabi, assignments, grading rubrics, or other negotiable classroom-related work that directly affects students. This approach helps decentralize power in the classroom; students have a greater voice in thinking through and defining a course’s goals and objectives. Students can change, add, delete, and reject parts of (or entire) classroom documents. They are made responsible for accepting or revising those materials that directly affect their learning and their grade. While this concept is not new, wikis help enable the student-centered classroom by recording the messiness of negotiation within an electronic document that can be accessed in its newest form at all times.[14] The changes to the wiki are saved, and individuals’ names are attributed to their changes, though the instructor or site manager has the final say. Here, it is important to remember Donald Murray’s claim that “student-centered does not mean permissive. It does mean stripping away every impediment to learning, no matter how reassuring these impediments are to the teacher.”[15] Wikis arguably help to strip away impediments to decentralized classrooms—the rigid, instructor-centric syllabi, rubrics, and other institutional documents. They assist in moving away from the banking model of authoritativePage  116 power invested in the teacher and the institution, helping empower students in their own learning processes.

    Not only can a classroom-based wiki challenge the idea of the classroom itself as an instructor’s property by allowing students to easily negotiate classroom documents, but a wiki can also challenge students to work together in order to collaboratively write single documents for a group grade. Often, instructors ask students to work together in small groups on a single project, outlining methods to negotiate the shared responsibilities of a group or helping students to divvy up the work by assigning specific roles (such as researcher, writer, editor, and presenter). Wikis invite us to think of new ways to ask students to collaborate. With a wiki, groups of students have access to the most current draft of a project at any given time. They can easily revise, edit, and add to or delete sections of the wiki; they can revert to an earlier version if they choose. For those instructors who are concerned about the division of labor, wikis record their changes in an easily accessible history, which enables the instructor to see who is working on the project and what changes are being made by whom. Wikis, then, have embedded design features that allow instructors to manage project outcomes and record how individual students are performing relative to those outcomes. Further, wikis allow for the messiness of the drafting process as a recursive act instead of breaking the writing process into a series of discrete and disconnected units. Whereas in traditional collaborative writing, students often write separately and individually and then come together during class time to negotiate their work as a group, wikis encourage a more constant stream of writing, rewriting, and editing that does not rely on physical space or place for assistance. It is important to also note the ability of a wiki to extend the classroom beyond its physical space, allowing students to collaborate outside of their normal meeting times.

    Though attempts have been made to use past computerized technologies (such as electronic mailing lists, threaded discussion boards, MOOs and MUDs, Microsoft Word reviewing features, etc.) to resist the limitations of the physical classroom, these software packages were not designed with collaborative, multivocal writing in mind. Therefore, the type of collaborative writing and revision that we see in wikis was not easily possible in prior incarnations. Furthermore, because wikis are often created with constructivist views of classroom practices in mind, they more easily lend themselves to thePage  117 type of collaborative writing that allows us to upset traditional modes of intellectual property. Students are able to see how collaboration works to change and refine their ideas; at the same time, working together teaches them necessary negotiation skills. Finally, wikis bolster the view that no individual can “own” ideas—there is no solitary author. By adopting a collaborative pedagogy within wikis, we disrupt intellectual property.

    Method 2. Using Established Wikis: Extended Audiences and Regulated Discourses

    Whereas the previous section outlines some of the advantages of setting up an entirely new wiki for classroom use, this section describes some advantages of working within an already established public wiki such as Wikipedia. There has long been a disconnect between the goals of most writing courses—that is, to help students improve their writing by asking them to produce satisfactory work prepared for a particular, real audience and situation—and the actual setting or potential of the course as it is structured. That is, students are given assignments and readings chosen and developed by their instructor and are regularly asked to write in various genres in response to particular assignments; however, these students fail to find a particular, real audience and situation to write to aside from their instructor. Susan Miller describes this phenomenon in “The Student’s Reader Is Always Fiction,” in which she argues that students know that their ultimate audience is their instructor and that the instructor is always measuring students’ writing next to a platonic ideal of text in order to mete out grades.[16] Consequently, composition students leave their course understanding many of the common formats and genres of writing, but they have often not yet learned how to write for an audience familiar with the particular requirements and needs of their discipline or discourse situation. They therefore lack an important component of rhetorical awareness. By working within an already established wiki, however, students will achieve a greater understanding of how to write for their discipline or chosen discourse community.

    The benefits of having students write in an already established wiki, such as Wikipedia, Meta-Wiki, MeatballWiki, and so on, are threefold. First, presumably, there is already a healthy, thriving discourse community that guidesPage  118 and shapes the site. For example, as Robert E. Cummings notes in the introductory essay to this collection, Wikipedia is built upon a strong core of users who care about the project—enough that they put an immense amount of time and energy into maintaining the integrity and overall vision of the site. Thus, in a course that asked students to create or edit Wikipedia entries, students would be required to study previously posted entries to get a better sense of how the contributions operate: the language used, the background information assumed, and so on. Students would have to carefully analyze the writing within the wiki and ask such questions as “What are the criteria for a good wiki page in this community? and What criteria cause a page to be edited or deleted entirely?” Such a line of questioning allows for fruitful conversations about discourse, argument, and rhetorical awareness.

    Most important, perhaps, is that students would be writing within an established community of authors and editors. Other community members will step in and comment on, edit, or change the students’ work. Students receive feedback on their own writing without having to ask for it; as they analyze and respond to this feedback, they must negotiate their own sense of rhetorical awareness. In an active, already established wiki, it becomes clear to the students that they are writing for an audience beyond their classroom, peers, and instructor. Wikis assist in this goal naturally, whereas more conventional classroom settings often make it quite difficult for an instructor to reach an outside discourse community.[17]

    The documents that our students create for us within the scope of our classrooms often have no real life of their own. As artificial documents created for an artificial situation, they live, breathe, and die within the scope of a semester. In contrast, documents created and housed online live on and are capable of reaching a far greater audience; entries in large, established wikis have the potential to continue to be read and edited long after the semester is over. Because students will likely be required to negotiate the process of meaning with an audience outside the classroom, they will more likely take it seriously; they will realize that their document, rather than living an artificial life within the classroom setting, is actually working to build an ongoing conversation regarding the topic they have chosen to write on. Within the classroom, students often resist peers’ comments on their drafts or simply correct surface-level issues in their writing because they cannot conceive of any other way to edit their work. But in a wiki, students may find that theirPage  119 work is fundamentally changed and altered by other users and must then grapple with how to assess and respond to these changes. Wikis can therefore offer a much more powerful conceptualization of the ideal review process than our familiar pedagogies can provide.

    Second, working within an already established wiki can relieve instructors of the sometimes daunting task of setting up their own wiki, which can take time, money, and effort and put a strain on instructors. Bob Whipple, in his contribution to this volume, “An (Old) First-Timer’s Learning Curve: Curiosity, Trial, Resistance, and Accommodation,” describes some of the difficulties that instructors who describe themselves as “wiki novices” may encounter when trying to bring wikis into their pedagogy. Also, some institutions have draconian rules and regulations regarding the establishment or modification of school-supported or -sanctioned Web sites; thus, the process of receiving permission to set up a wiki may be too daunting and deter instructors from taking advantage of the technology. Rather than searching for a hosting site, finding campus technical support in case things go wrong, and having to maintain the site themselves, instructors who use already established wikis can focus on what is more important: laying the pedagogical groundwork that will enable students to enter, understand, and navigate the discourse community the wiki supports.

    Finally, working within an already established wiki can encourage students to work with concepts such as intellectual property and ownership from a critical perspective. To return to Rebecca Moore Howard’s notion of patchwriting, wikis can help students play with sources, citations, and already written material in a relatively safe zone. Rather than asking students to become “instant experts” on a subject (an obviously impossible task), instructors ask students to practice patchwriting by adding their own voice to an ongoing conversation, thereby engaging with a variety of expert texts. This idea of contributing to an ongoing intellectual dialogue online echoes Kenneth Burke’s metaphor of the “unending conversation.”

    Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. … You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers;Page  120 you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. … The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.[18]

    This metaphor almost perfectly mirrors many of the most heated debates in Wikipedia and similar large, community-based wikis. There is a commonly accepted language being used; there is often considerable negotiation about entries, ranging from small quibbles to major arguments in which an entry may be locked (preventing further editing) until the argument is settled; and, finally, the discussion often lingers after a particular individual departs.

    As in the Burkean parlor, where many ongoing conversations seem to have no clear beginning, wiki conversations branch, connect, and cannot be traced back to a single root source or origin. They can therefore be thought of as rhizomatic. The metaphor of the rhizome has gained popularity to describe pages on the World Wide Web because of their lack of a central author or source and the dispersal of information via hyperlinks. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Amy Kimme Hea, writing about hypertext, argue that rhizomes involve “a constant making and remaking” of knowledge, featuring “connections, heterogeneity, multiplicity, [and] asignifying rupture[s].”[19] The metaphor of the rhizome reminds us that, in wikis, control is dispersed, knowledge is constantly changing and being revised, and authorship is an issue in constant flux.

    Conclusion: Engaging Generation M

    As composition instructors, we have been searching for ways to engage the digital learners of Generation M, a term coined by the Kaiser Family Foundation in their 2004 study of the media consumption habits of these younger individuals.[20] “Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8–18 Year-Olds” describes an entire generation who has grown up immersed in media and technology, spending on average a quarter of every day interacting with new media; they have access to and are literate with computerized technologies. Their consumption of information is through smaller pieces and differentlyPage  121 mediated forms; they rely more often on the Internet than the library for information gathering. This is the generation that we need to engage as educators, and, in order to do so, we must provide a rich learning experience that is grounded in critical and collaborative pedagogies.

    Today’s students are technologically literate, but only to a certain extent. Those students who are comfortable with computerized technologies often see them as a way to get things done, to find information rapidly and move on to tackle their next hurdle. Students are often proficient at searching the Web and using e-mail, but many have never been asked to find an article in an academic journal online, evaluate a Web site for bias, or look beyond common sites like Yahoo! or Google when searching for resources online. Just as we would not assume students know everything about writing upon entering our classrooms, we should not assume students know everything when it comes to using the Web critically as a resource.

    Because wikis do force the issue of collaboration and confront stagnant and outdated notions of intellectual property, they are ideal for challenging instrumental views of technology. While wikis will not be able to topple a cultural history of intellectual capitalism, they can at least disrupt certain ideologies enough to make them visible and therefore discussable. And we must remember that certain disruptions are always messy—students and teachers simultaneously embrace and resist changes brought about by new technologies. These moments of “asignifying rupture” can provide rich moments for us to consider new ways of understanding the world and making meaning.[21] We find it important to always remember that technologies are ways of ordering the world and are not always compatible with culturally reified technologies. And this is “why wikis?” They ask us to rethink our relationships with collaboration, intellectual property, and the myth of the “author.”


    1. Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” Partisan Review 42 (1975): 603–14; Kenneth A. Bruffee, “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind,’” College English 46, no. 7 (November 1984): 635–52.return to text

    2. Kathryn T. Flannery, “Composing and the Question of Agency,” review of Writing as Social Action, by Marilyn Cooper and Michael Holzman; Reclaiming Pedagogy: The Rhetoric of the Classroom, by Patricia Donahue and Ellen Quandahl, eds.; Rescuing the Subject: A Critical Introduction to Rhetoric and the Writer, by Susan Miller; Expecting the Unexpected:Page  122 Teaching Myself—and Others—to Read and Write, by Donald M. Murray; and The Presence of Thought: Introspective Accounts of Reading and Writing, by Marilyn S. Sternglass, College English 53, no. 6 (October 1991): 701–13.return to text

    3. Rebecca Moore Howard, Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators (Stamford, CT: Ablex, 1999), 7.return to text

    4. Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1997), 213.return to text

    5. While most wikis are used collaboratively, some wikis are installed on solitary computers for individual use for activities like drafting, note taking, and so forth.return to text

    6. James P. Cadello, “Fears and Questions Concerning Technology,” in Technology, Morality, and Social Policy, ed. Eager Hudson (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1997), 1–14.return to text

    7. Howard, Standing in the Shadow of Giants, 71.return to text

    8. Françoise Meltzer, Hot Property: The Stakes and Claims of Literary Originality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 54.return to text

    9. Ibid.return to text

    10. Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe, “The Rhetoric of Technology and the Electronic Writing Class,” College Composition and Communication 42 (1991): 55–65.return to text

    11. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 1993).return to text

    12. For a more detailed discussion of the types of wikis available, see Mark Phillipson’s chapter in this volume, “Wikis in the Classroom: A Taxonomy.”return to text

    13. Andrew Feenberg, Critical Theory of Technology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 14.return to text

    14. See Peter Elbow, Writing without Teachers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973); Donald M. Murray, Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann/Boyton-Cook, 1982); David Nunan, Collaborative Language Learning and Teaching (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).return to text

    15. See Murray, Learning by Teaching, 133.return to text

    16. Susan Miller, “The Student’s Reader Is Always Fiction,” Journal of Advanced Composition 5 (1984): 15–29.return to text

    17. This audience connection is most commonly established through service-learning volunteer projects in the community, as advocated by Ellen Cushman, The Struggle and the Tools: Oral and Literate Strategies in an Inner City Community (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998); and Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu, Representing the “Other”: Basic Writers and the Teaching of Basic Writing (Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1999).return to text

    18. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3d ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 110–11.return to text

    19. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Amy Kimme Hea, “After Hypertext: Other Ideas,” Computers and Composition 20 (2003): 425.return to text

    20. Kaiser Family Foundation, “Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8–18 Year-Olds,” Kaiser Family Foundation, March 9, 2005, http://www.kff.org/entmedia/entmedia030905pkg.cfm (accessed May 2, 2006).return to text

    21. Johnson-Eilola and Kimme Hea, “After Hypertext: Other Ideas,” 425.return to text

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    Agency and Accountability: The Paradoxes of Wiki Discourse

    In keeping with what is threatening to become a perennial trope in professional scholarship, this essay begins in earnest with the confession of a teaching crisis. Not long ago I experimented by including Wikipedia in my introductory composition course; the initial idea was to enhance the symmetry between my teaching and my research. Quite predictably (in hindsight), the impact of the experiment on my students was difficult to diagnose. Whereas a few of the students approached the wiki as nothing more than a curious novelty, an overwhelming number, and most notably a female student named Emina, found the software engaging—even though their engagement was often expressed as trenchant critique. The disturbance was so pronounced that Emina e-mailed me near the end of the semester to blame my class for making “things even harder to understand … because [she] had doubts on everything that [she] used to know.”[1]

    In dire need of reassurance and revitalization, I turned to a series of ar-ticles that I rely on to shake me from my idleness and prepare me for the challenges of a fresh semester. It was while rereading my heavily annotated and coffee-stained copy of Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe’s “The Rhetoric of Technology and the Electronic Writing Class” that I discovered what I needed. In the closing line of the piece, Hawisher and Selfe caution readers that “Unless we remain aware of our electronic writing classes as sites of paradox and promise, transformed by a new writing technology, and unless we plan carefully for intended outcomes, we may unwittingly use computers to maintain rigid authority structures that contribute neither to good teaching nor to good learning.”[2] Because I had read it so many times before, the prescience of this statement struck me as a discomfiting—albeit fair—rebukePage  124 against the unintended outcomes of my first effort to incorporate a wiki into a university-level course.

    Although wikis have been in use since Ward Cunningham first developed the WikiWikiWeb for the Portland Pattern Repository in 1995, they have only recently caught the attention of social scientists and humanities scholars.[3] To many readers the peculiar discursive modes of wikis manifest an open-ended realm of liberation that surpasses other technosocial arrangements. To be sure, wikis pose challenges to conventional academic structures and thus require fortitude and flexibility on the part of both students and instructors. Perhaps the most salient feature of wikis is that they orchestrate authorial effacement, which is to say that wiki discourse can confer authority on a singular position that has nonetheless been authored by multiple unseen contributors. As such, a wiki is a supple text written by people with unidentifiable identities. In light of this phenomenon, a perturbing question occurred to me throughout the previously mentioned semester: what are the social and pedagogical implications of a writing space where the benefit of open access is offset by an anonymity that ineluctably impedes authorial accountability?

    At the heart of this question is a concern over power relations, a concern captured by Gunther Kress’s observation that “when everyone can have the status of author, authority wanes or disappears.”[4] And yet, wikis, unlike the more established forms of computer-mediated discourse that Kress considers, undermine the authority of authors while still maintaining the authority attributed to the seemingly solidified products of discourse. In other words, the dialogic and corporate mode of wiki discourse is translated into a monologic representation of knowledge. So, although wikis can be considered radically democratizing because they distribute the role of author, the same mechanism of authorial distribution makes it difficult to discern whose version of the truth is being represented. As such, the serious business of examining what James Berlin terms the “ideological predispositions” of composition as a signifying practice is potentially disrupted by wiki discourse.[5] For insofar as ideological analyses are often enough investigations of motives, the ability to assign and discern motivation becomes less tenable when authorial identity is concealed.

    These considerations are significant enough that they cannot be suppressed by merely reiterating the benefits of wiki discourse. It would, however,Page  125 be equally unreasonable to treat the challenges posed by wikis as irremediable failings. To be sure, wiki software is simple, but the discursive practices of wiki communities are highly complex, and they are doubly so when they intersect with the classroom. In an effort to help puzzle through these complexities, the remainder of this essay will focus on some of the more salient difficulties that Emina encountered while using Wikipedia.

    “Crazy People” Invading the Cult of Facts

    Since much of the ensuing argument deals with representations of knowledge and authorial identity, it is important to first have a sense of Emina’s standpoint and her position in my course. Early on she displayed an extroverted confidence about her claim to an education as well as candor regarding her self-perceived limitations as a writer. In reply to a stasis question about students’ expectations of the class that I posted to the course bulletin board, she wrote that “english was never [her] best subject, writing is hard; but it is necessary for the good jobs in America. … Everyone can dream big in America, but it takes education and writing good to get there.” While this response seems typical of the initial attitudes freshmen have toward higher education—whereby a calculus of entitlement translates a college degree into a lucrative career, which then in turn translates into fulfilled happiness—Emina’s further posts demonstrated progressively acute self-reflection. She offered an unsolicited explanation of her accent and her dress habits, which also provided readers with an understanding of her life both before and after America:

    So far I enjoy the university because people don’t judge you as in high school. My family comes from Bosnia and when I first went to high school in America so many students would make fun of the way I talk or tease me for my head scarf. Nobody ever asked what was it like in Bosnia, or why we came to America. People would laugh at my head scarf and ask was I a nun? After I corrected them and told them that I was Muslim things were even worse for me. … Here in college people are serious about their studies and don’t have the time to pick on people for being different from them. … I’m not a terrorist, I don’t hate America and if anyone has any questions I would love to chat about things!

    Page  126

    Clearly, Emina possessed a strong sense of who she was and a keen awareness of how her experiences added up to a coherent narrative that buttressed this sense of self. Far from adopting the role of an invisible victim, she was open about her life leading up to the fall of Titoist Yugoslavia. She candidly spoke to the class about growing up marginalized under a Communist regime, about how the carnage of war resulted in the death of uncles and brothers as well as the paralysis of her sister, and about her efforts to assimilate into a sometimes hostile American society.

    This sketch of Emina provides a necessary foundation for the subsequent claims that I will make about the paradoxical growth that she experienced while using Wikipedia during the course. For example, despite her general intellectual curiosity and healthy distrust of unquestioned truth claims, she was incensed by the discursive maneuvering that she found on many of Wikipedia’s discussion and article pages. The conversations that she read were difficult for her because they challenged the self-representation that she was committed to at the beginning of the course. The impetus for this hostility was an essay prompt that asked students to analyze the significance of keywords as they related to their sense of identity and to take into account the definition and usage of these terms by Wikipedia authors.

    Rough and final drafts of the essays themselves were posted to the course Web site, where other students could respond. For one of her keywords Emina chose “Bosnian Muslim,” which seemed to her at first to be an uncomplicated epithet describing both her country of origin and her religious allegiance. In her first rough draft she wrote that “it is not always so fashionable to call oneself Bosnian Muslim, but everybody knows what you mean whether you say Bosniak or Bosnian Muslim.” The concluding sentence of her draft corroborated this simplistic pluralism: “It is up to the individual person’s beliefs.” This nonchalance, however, dissipated once Emina began studying the discussions that were catalogued on Wikipedia’s entry for “Bosniak.”

    The first response that Emina posted to the course Web site after examining the content of Wikipedia’s information on Bosnia was unabashedly bellicose. To be fair, her reaction, which I would characterize as bewildered distrust, was characteristic of many of her fellow students, although it differed in degree. She vehemently announced her frustration with “all of these opinions”Page  127 that she saw expressed on Wikipedia. The information on Bosnia was anathema to her because she believed that “encyclopedias are supposed to be facts and this Wikipedia.com is not a fact! It’s just made-up opinions by crazy people that I don’t know!!” In an attempt to both mollify the class and seize what I took to be a teaching moment, I responded to her post by asking what exactly constituted a fact. A good deal of conversation was generated on this topic, but no student was able to offer a definitive answer that everyone was willing to endorse.

    In the end, most of the students, Emina included, seemed desperate for a sign of authority that could end the controversy caused by Wikipedia’s radical, anonymous discourse. In this way, they echoed Kress’s articulation of the perceived differences between print and digital information systems: Where before the author was a publicly legitimated and endorsed figure, now there is no such gatekeeping. In The Mode of Information, Mark Poster, like Kress, demonstrates that the technologies of discourse are intricately related to questions of authority and fabrications of identity.[6]

    But the problem that I saw occurring was not really a problem at all. Rather, Emina and her classmates were simply not familiar with actively producing knowledge and being counted on to referee truth claims for themselves. As the instructor, however, I was unprepared for this level of engagement and as a result failed to capitalize on the opportunity that their problems provided. Thus, though we were fluent in other computer-mediated modes of writing, our exposure to wiki discourse revealed that my students and I nonetheless viewed digital information technologies from a print-based schema. This print-based schema might be thought of in terms of Walter Ong’s pipeline model of information transfer, which he faults because it “distorts the act of communication beyond recognition.”[7]

    Wikipedia and the Exposure of Discursive Spider Holes

    Of course, these issues of textual authority and authorial legitimacy in Wikipedia are not only important to my students; they have also preoccupied a significant number of professional scholars. Both Besiki Stvilia et al. andPage  128 Andrew Lih have separately conducted recent studies of content production in Wikipedia and offered analyses of the relative quality of its articles. While Lih’s piece, “Wikipedia as Participatory Journalism,” pays particular attention to the ways in which Wikipedia was affected after specific articles had been cited in the mainstream press,[8] Stvilia et al. utilize methods consistent with library and information science. As such, Stvilia et al. include an impressive multidimensional framework with three distinct categories that are intended to gauge the merits of Wikipedia’s Information Quality (IQ).[9] Methodological intricacies aside, Lih and Stvilia et al. focus on how Wiki-pedia articles compare with and conform to the standards of print conventions. Quality, of course, is a problematic term that connotes various things, depending upon usage and context; these studies seem to use it as a measure of legitimacy based upon reliability and fidelity to yet another problematic term: truth.

    Thus the respective analyses of Wikipedia performed by Lih and Stvilia et al. are both limited by their inattention to the ways that wiki discourse disrupts standardized definitions of quality, truth, and knowledge. Rather than attempt to rehabilitate Wikipedia into the fold of received wisdom regulating textual legitimacy and the authenticity of truth claims, we should explicate the means by which Wikipedia problematizes the conventions of print culture. For example, as many of the other contributors to this collection address (cf. Barton, Lakeman, and Bossewitch et al.), the lack of traditional authority that distinguishes wiki authorship highlights the rhetorical aspects of discourse production by calling on both readers and writers to exercise responsibility for their acceptance of truth claims. While this rhetorical interplay is inherent in print, it is occluded by the artificial separation of textual production and consumption that occurs with print-based texts. In other words, print-based texts attain an illusory durability and authority because readers are unable to alter the text in any meaningful way, irrespective of how they rewrite the text through their own idiosyncratic interpretations.

    George P. Landow’s pioneering work on hypermedia’s effects on composition in Hypertext 2.0 addresses this issue.[10] Landow maintains that collaborations between writers/readers and textual producers/textual consumers exist in the medium of print but that ever since Gutenberg the technology of the book “systematically has hindered full recognition of collaborative authorship.”[11]Page  129 In contrast, Wikipedia, and wikis in general, are vital because they reveal formerly hidden aspects of textual production, including the erroneous supposition that legitimate writing is produced in vacuums by solitary experts. What enables wiki software to expose the fallacies of print culture is that each writing product that they represent is highly textured. In the case of Wikipedia there is a clear distinction between the official discourse represented in an “article page” and the unstable discourse that appears in a “talk page” corresponding to articles. In effect, this means that all users are both readers and writers with access to the nebulous process that underwrites finished writing products, a process that is existent but indiscernible in the material production of print texts.

    Despite Emina’s exasperation with Wikipedia, and my inability to mediate these unforeseen problems, her aptitude for textual scrutiny developed in exciting ways. Over the course of the semester she gained the skills and the language to more thoughtfully analyze the writing of others as well as her own writing. Likewise, her general critical thinking skills heightened in the face of the problems posed by Wikipedia. For example, as Emina worked her way through the drafting process and paid closer attention to the ways that Wikipedians treated the term Bosnian Muslim, she became more invested in her writing.

    During the archived discussion from December 2004, there was a lengthy exchange between a few Wikipedians who were debating the appropriate nomenclature for post-Dayton occupants of the former Yugoslavia.[12] Emina expressed annoyance over those who were arguing for the exclusive use of Bosniak because she felt that it was derogatory. Emina’s entry indicates her view that this assessment had to do with her own experiences as a Muslim living in Bosnia and her fear that Bosniak, with its blank inclusivity, did not allow any room for recognition of the already oppressed Muslim population:

    Bosniak is fine if you don’t care about religion or differences in Bosnian history. It is not that I don’t want to be known as Bosniak because I think that Muslim’s are better than the Orthodox or Roman Catholics. But, being Muslim is important to me. Some people think that it is nicer to say Bosniak like you wouldn’t any more call African-Americans “Negroes”, because nowadays times have changed. But, I don’t want the world to pretend that our genocide never happened by calling everyone Bosniak.

    Page  130

    This level of introspection and argumentation is markedly different from the laissez-faire attitude of Emina’s first rough draft. After contending with the attempts of various unknown Wikipedians to define her ethnic and religious identity, she abandoned the anemic claim from her first rough draft that “everybody knows what you mean whether you say Bosniak or Bosnian Muslim.” Ultimately, while her dealings with Wikipedia were uncomfortable, and although it was difficult for me to guide her through the process, Emina became more invested in the negotiation of knowledge by seeing the consequences of discourse.

    Nearly an entire page of Emina’s second rough draft was devoted to critiquing the claims put forward by the Wikipedian Vedran. During the aforementioned edit war of December 2004, Vedran emerged as the most outspoken advocate for the official change from Bosnian Muslim to Bosniak. It bothered Emina that she did not know who Vedran was or what motivated Vedran’s strong argument for the substitution of Bosniak for Bosnian Muslim. Accordingly, she concluded in her paper:

    Why Vedran believes what she does about the name Bosniak is not clear. She gives list of reasons, but how do you know that she isn’t supporter of Milosevic or if not, then at least anti-Muslim? She writes how Bosnian Muslims are “free to call themselves what they like. However, other people, such as me, who desire to be called Bosniaks—should be called Bosniaks.” However, this is not clear because this Vedran might not be Bosnian, at all. Nobody even knows if she is real.[13]

    This proved to be one of the most rhetorically potent sections of Emina’s second draft. Not only does she argumentatively contest another writer’s claims, but her refutation of Vedran’s claim is highly significant because the claim paralleled one of Emina’s own assertions from her first rough draft. Her growing dissatisfaction with the empty pluralism expressed in her previous assertion that “whether you say Bosniak or Bosnian Muslim … It is up to the individual person’s beliefs” indicates her realization of the dire importance of epistemological turbulence. Vedran, Emina discovered, was basing a call for the universal usage of Bosniak by appealing to an uncritical personal belief, but the result of this personal belief was such that Emina would have her own conception of her identity infringed upon.

    Page  131

    Perpetual Negotiation Machine

    Emina’s analysis was further complicated by one of Vedran’s major justifications for initiating the change to Bosniak: namely, that “Wikipedia is about facts, it should aim to provide solid facts and not opinions. The Bosniak name is a fact today, accepted by everyone except a few persons.”[14] Vedran’s statement, coupled with Wikipedia’s neutral point of view (NPOV) policy requiring contributors to post “fairly and without bias,”[15] served to erode Emina’s credulous acceptance of truth. In effect, she had to submit to an intellectual struggle between her rejection of the Bosniak label and her commitment to preordained, objective facts. Ultimately, she found herself aligned with Nikola and Igor, two Wikipedians who rejected the Bosniak label and supported the reinstating of Bosnian Muslim.

    Both Nikola and Igor shared Emina’s opposition to Vedran’s efforts to redefine Wikipedia’s official representation of Muslims originating from the formerly united Yugoslavia. In response to Vedran’s comment that the term Bosnian Muslim was separatist in nature and therefore problematic, Nikola, whose user profile revealed that he holds interests in “Serbia, Serbian culture and history,”[16] replied that “in this case Bosniak is ambigious, incorrect and derisive.”[17] Igor, who like Nikola was listed in Wikipedia’s directory of Serbian users, concurred that “the Bosniak name causes ambiguities and confusion.”[18] But, while Emina appreciated Igor’s and Nikola’s positions on Bosnian Muslims, she was challenged by their understanding of discourse production and negotiations of knowledge.

    Rather than resort to an uncontested, transcendent definition of factual truth, Igor and Nikola jointly proclaimed that “Wikipedia is about discussion and everything is open for debate.”[19] Early on in the semester Emina had led her classmates in mutinous critiques of Wikipedia and what they perceived to be its faulty posturing as a source of knowledge. However, now that she was heavily invested in the discursive mode of Wikipedia, she began to experience slippage in her previous intellectual convictions. Determining whether Wikipedian authors held any legitimacy or whether their claims could be measured against a predetermined metric of authenticity had become difficult indeed.

    Page  132

    Whereas Emina’s initial dismissal of Wikipedia was based upon a relatively uncomplicated evaluation, her later analyses focused more on the interrelation of claims and the supple logic guiding collaborative writing. As such, her conceptions of truth became more sophisticated, and she began to regard knowledge as a composite of different claims and ideas. I interpreted this as evidence of her loss of faith in objective knowledge and textual permanence. While this was somewhat frustrating for her, it also galvanized her interest in constructing, acquiring, and negotiating knowledge. This shift away from a focus on discursive completeness and totality is reminiscent of Clifford Lynch’s caution to avoid “checking the authenticity of an object as if it were a simple true-or-false test—a computation that produces a one or a zero” because it might be more “constructive to think about checking authenticity as a process of examining and assigning confidence to a collection of claims.”[20] Lynch’s conception of factual authenticity as an ongoing hermeneutic process is consistent with Emina’s efforts to contend with the interrelated arguments that Vedran, Nikola, and Igor were making about definitions of truth and how it is represented. Thus, Emina was forced to confront both the ontological questions that she faced as a Bosnian Muslim as well as the epistemological considerations of how any of this knowledge was to be constructed and communicated.

    In What’s the Matter with the Internet?—a recent and important book dealing with the postmodern dimensions of cyberspace—Mark Poster devotes an entire chapter to what he terms virtual ethnicity. The problems that Poster describes in relation to virtual enactments of ethnicity closely correspond to Emina’s experiences during the semester. According to Poster, “the fixity of ethnicity as an attribute of the self would appear to be the opposite of the identities constructed in … virtual spaces.”[21] For Emina, the experience of not having any sort of physical referent, no matter how problematic physical referents may be, made it difficult for her to gauge the legitimacy of the claims made by Wikipedians about Bosnian Muslims. This significant ob-stacle, however, did not preclude her from evaluating the credibility or accountability of Wikipedia articles or contributors. Rather, she was forced to discover alternative means for discerning reliability, and, owing partly to her instructor’s lack of experience in this novel writing environment, she had to design new strategies for grasping textual authority on her own.

    Arguably the most important and certainly the most frustrating strategyPage  133 that Emina developed was that of perpetual negotiation. Whereas she longed for a stable sense of identity predicated on apparently durable truths, the only way that she could understand Wikipedia was to stay open and mobile. In his study of what he describes as “cyber-Jews,” Poster arrives at a similar conclusion: “the individual in a virtual object [is in] an unfinished, contingent state where identity is temporary … [and occupying a] subject position that is ‘never before’ rather than ‘always already.’”[22] Because of this dynamic, Emina’s essay assignment compelled her to probe her self-understanding more deeply than she had ever done before. I would hazard that this exhaustive analysis was somewhat disquieting for her, but it nonetheless produced startling results that neither she nor I had foreseen.

    To be certain, some thoughtful readers might be tempted to dismiss the friction between Emina and Wikipedia as a case of semantics resembling a tempest in a teakettle, as did indeed a few of her classmates. However, I submit that Emina’s analysis of wiki discourse in the context of her ethnic and religious identities helped to make her understand the material consequences of language use in a much deeper way. The project of naming—who is named, who gets to name, where the name comes from, what alternative names are elided—is central to understanding domination and possibilities for agency. This issue, of course, extends well beyond the case of Muslims in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, as Emina herself pointed out when she alluded to the succession of labels that have been imposed on or created by black Americans. In post-Dayton Bosnia, where census statistics are being gathered to calculate the sickening impact of the genocidal ethnic cleansing that occurred during the 1990s, the effects of discourse and naming are very real. In response to a comment that her final draft received from a classmate about “taking Wikipedia and the essay assignment just a little too seriously,” Emina reminded her classmates that the basis for much of the organized slaughter throughout the twentieth century began with sinister discursive regimes.

    Artificial Denouement

    Ultimately, then, what rescues Wikipedia from being a heavily flawed novelty is its capacity for infinite discussion. Students like Emina, who first found itsPage  134 lack of certainty and stability bewildering both with respect to authorship and credibility, eventually came to see it as a viable mode of discourse precisely because it was never complete. Such incompleteness put more at stake for the students, because the onus of accepting and creating knowledge rested on them; they could not simply defer to experts. Behind the relative stability of the articles themselves, which often enough were barely stable, lay the discussion pages where meaning was constantly in flux. Moreover, the lack of definition was counterintuitively the very mechanism that promoted most of my students from skepticism by allowing them to recognize integrity in the system. To put a finer point on things, collaboration, as it functions in Wikipedia, is liberating because it delays the suppression inherent in textual completion.

    Unlike print texts, Wikipedia allows users to write back and to discern how the facts being represented have been negotiated by contributors. As a result, Emina and her classmates came to appreciate that wiki collaboration did not require complete agreement by all contributors. Rather, they understood that its collaborative efficacy results from distorted consensus, which I contend is consonant with John Trimbur’s notion of “dissensus.”[23] At the risk of being reductive, Trimbur’s understanding of dissensus can be described as consensus that “depends paradoxically on its deferral, not its realization.” Indeed, when he writes that he is “less interested in students achieving consensus … as in their using consensus as a critical instrument to open gaps in the conversation through which differences may emerge,” he describes a tangled form of communication similar to that which occurs in wikis.[24]

    Since so much of this piece is indebted to Emina’s perseverance in the face of her instructor’s incapacity to adequately prepare her for the challenges of Wiki discourse, it seems only fitting that she have the last words. At the beginning of the next semester Emina sent me an e-mail that clarified what she had gained from interacting with Wikipedia in my class:

    I still don’t know about that Wikipedia.com. … But maybe that’s good because it made me keep thinking about things that I had made up my mind about. I used to knew what being Bosnian Muslim meant and what war means, but really I think I stopped thinking about war and life and I just had answers that I told to people and myself. Probably I will neverPage  135 know the truth about any of it. … But I want to keep discussing and “not get complacent” like you always warned us. Who knows, maybe I will get my friends together to tell that Vedran person what we know.


    1. As a gesture toward Emina’s authorial integrity, I have reprinted her words exactly as she wrote them. Given the nature of the ensuing discussion I feel that it is important to protect the idiosyncracies of her spelling, syntax, and grammar.return to text

    2. Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe, “The Rhetoric of Technology and the Electronic Writing Class,” College Composition and Communication 42 (1991): 55–65. Reprinted in The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook, 4th ed., ed. Edward P. J. Corbett, Nancy Myers, and Gary Tate (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 138.return to text

    3. See Bo Leuf and Ward Cunningham’s Wiki Way (http://www.wiki.org), a wiki that details the origins of Cunningham’s original WikiWikiWeb.return to text

    4. Gunther Kress, Literacy in the New Media Age (London: Routledge, 2003), 172.return to text

    5. James Berlin, Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies (West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2003), 83.return to text

    6. Mark Poster, The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).return to text

    7. Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen, 1982), 176.return to text

    8. Andrew Lih, “Wikipedia as Participatory Journalism: Reliable Sources? Metrics for Evaluating Collaborative Media as a News Source,” Proceedings of the Fifth International Symposium on Online Journalism, Austin, Texas, 2004.return to text

    9. Besiki Stvilia, Michael B. Twindale, Les Gasser, and Linda C. Smith, “Information Quality Discussions in Wikipedia,” Technical Report, ISRN University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Information Sciences—2005/2+CSCW, 2005, http://mailer.fsu.edu/~bstvilia/papers/qualWiki.pdf.return to text

    10. George P. Landow, Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).return to text

    11. Ibid., 106.return to text

    12. Wikipedia Contributors, “Talk:Bosniaks,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Bosniaks.return to text

    13. Here Emina is quoting from Vedran’s post on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Bosniaks.return to text

    14. Ibid.return to text

    15. Wikipedia Contributors, “Neutral Point of View,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_view.return to text

    16. Wikpedia Contributors, “User: Nikola Smolenski,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Nikola_Smolenski.return to text

    17. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Bosniaks.return to text

    18. Ibid.return to text

    19. Ibid.return to text

    20. Clifford Lynch, “Authenticity and Integrity in the Digital Environment: An ExploratoryPage  136 Analysis of the Central Role of Trust,” in Authenticity in a Digital Environment (Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2000), 40.return to text

    21. Mark Poster, What’s the Matter with the Internet? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 166.return to text

    22. Ibid., 169–70.return to text

    23. John Trimbur, “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning,” College English 51, no. 6 (1989).return to text

    24. Ibid., 614.return to text

    Page  137

    One Wiki, Two Classrooms

    Faced with a daunting reading list and encouraged to work together, first-year graduate students at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Department of Communication created a wiki-based Web site in the fall of 2004. Since then, graduate students and faculty have employed it to varying degrees. Some have made extensive use of the technology, while others have used it peripherally, if at all. Two introductory courses provide an interesting glimpse into these variations.

    Comm 500 and Comm 502 are graduate courses designed to introduce students to the field of communication and its key texts. Accomplishing this in a single semester requires significant reading and discussion. During the fall 2004 semester, both courses were attended by many of the same students. But while Comm 502 generated more than seven hundred individual edits and nearly one hundred pages of text, Comm 500 received far less attention over the same time period. The same students were using the wiki in one case but found it lacking in another.

    Why did the same group of UIC students choose to use a wiki in one class only to disregard it in another? What factors contribute to the successful incorporation of a wiki into the graduate classroom? This essay explores these questions through a series of interviews with the students and instructors at UIC.

    The Wiki

    The initial courses taken by graduate students are designed to be overwhelming. This is to say that their intention, in part, is to steep new studentsPage  138 in the basics of their chosen field and to establish a foundation of working knowledge. They also serve as a test of seriousness and rigor. If medical students are squeamish when it comes to dissecting a cadaver, they had best consider a change of career. If students of the social sciences blanch at a heavy reading load, they might wish to rethink their plan to pursue an advanced degree.

    During the fall 2004 semester, in the Department of Communication at UIC, the test for incoming graduate students took the form of two classes, each consisting largely of the same group of students: Introduction to Communication Research (500) and Seminar in Media Studies (502). We knew we had a lot of work to do as we began our studies, but the true volume of our task became apparent when a second-year student shared a portion of the Comm 502 readings. With a smile, she handed over two phonebook-sized tomes, the sort of thing barbers might keep on hand to boost the seats of small children. Dozens of articles and chapters were spread across reams of paper, each page covered with tiny, photocopied text. Our professors, long used to seeing a mixture of panic and awe in the eyes of students, suggested we work together and help one another through the material.

    After our first week of class, we met to discuss how to go about sharing the burden. It was suggested that each of us might focus more carefully on certain readings and then e-mail our notes to the group. This, however, seemed less than optimal. As our classmate Susan recalled:

    I knew that doing it through e-mail was not going to work. It’d mean that everybody would be sending documents that you’d have to download, and there’s always a problem with the file. It wasn’t what I think we wanted to do. Ultimately, it would be just every one of us looking at very specific texts, that’s it.

    We needed a way to work together, a way to write up notes and share comments collaboratively. None of the technologies familiar to us—discussion boards, e-mail, blogs—allowed for this.

    At the time, only a few students (among them, us) had any notion of what a wiki was. Still, when the concept of collaborative authoring via wikis was brought up, it seemed like it might provide an ideal solution. After trying a free but extremely limited online service, we installed an open source wikiPage  139 platform on a student-maintained server. There were some initial technical hurdles as newcomers to the technology wrestled with markup conventions and the unusual feeling that comes with editing and appending to the work of others, but it was nevertheless an almost immediate success. Students developed techniques for self-identification through color-coded comments and created a weekly schedule for publishing materials on the site.

    The wiki worked. Not only did students use the wiki to share their thoughts and interpretations of the readings, but many relied on it to bolster their understanding. A mass of material that a single reader would have had great difficulty assimilating became clear when approached collaboratively. As the semester drew to a close and students began working on their first graduate-level papers, the wiki contained over one hundred pages of text that had been edited by students more than seven hundred times. We had, in effect, written our own textbook. Our Comm 502 professor, when looking over the material, was impressed. He remarked:

    There’s a picture, it’s an extension of the individualist picture of things, that each incoming class should suffer through the same exercises. As if they couldn’t stand on the shoulders of students who went before them. And instead of that, what the wiki produces is a student written textbook. Textbooks aren’t cheatsheets, they aren’t answers to quizzes, they aren’t papers to be turned in, they’re a resource for you to go to. The students still have responsibilities to know and understand the material, but this way, they have a tool for learning it that is not a textbook that you just read, it’s not an inert piece of paper, it’s something that you go in and say “no that’s not right” or “I don’t believe that” or “Boy, I need to read more about this” so you’re interacting with the text and with this resource that is much more valuable, and encourages more involvement, than any textbook.

    But this use was lopsided. The vast majority of the content on the wiki focused on Comm 502. Comm 500 received far less attention over the same time period. The same group of students were using the wiki in one class and ignoring it in another. This disparity can be better apprehended by tracking the number of edits made to the wiki pages for each class over time. Figure 1 reveals that, throughout the semester, Comm 502 received significantly more attention than Comm 500. The peaks in the figure correspond with thePage  140 weekly schedule (initial notes were posted each Tuesday) developed by students.

    Fig. 1. Communication wiki edits, 500 versus 502

    Fig. 1. Communication wiki edits, 500 versus 502

    Why did the same group of UIC students choose to use a wiki in one class only to disregard it in another? What factors contribute to the successful incorporation of a wiki in the graduate classroom? The answers lie not in the wiki itself but in the offline, social environments of each class.

    The Classroom

    Though the classes were attended by the same cohort of students, they were taught by very different professors and presented students with distinct challenges. While Comm 500 consisted of more traditional lectures and classroom activities, Comm 502 was designed to promote student collaboration. Its professor described it as follows:

    Basically, the course is about collaboration when dealing with the crush of literature—which is what all scholars must do. My approach forces collaboration, and students have always found ways to help each other out. In the past, they used photocopies and printouts. They would writePage  141 up summaries of readings, distribute them, and meet to discuss them. When universal access to reliable e-mail and the capacity to send attachments became available, students began using that medium instead. So what you have is an overload of work, and a clear indication that the students are in charge of how to deal with it.

    It was clear to all that the Comm 502 workload was, in fact, too much for an individual student, while the Comm 500 course work proved more manageable. One student said, “I think it was the class structure itself. The fact that we were so overwhelmed with 12 or 13 articles every week and in Gary’s class [Comm 500] it just didn’t feel that way.”

    Being able to competently discuss those twelve or thirteen articles each week was of critical importance. In Comm 502, 35 percent of the final grade was determined by class participation and discussion. In Comm 500, the final grade hinged on a formal research paper and two exams—participation accounted for 10 percent of that grade. The varying importance of in-class discussion made for radically different classroom environments. Kristy, a student in both classes, compared the two as follows:

    Christopher [Comm 502] might guide the discussion, but we had to build it, we had to develop it. And we all knew that we were being graded on our participation, so we really had to read everything. … Gary [Comm 500] would talk a lot more. He would say, “this is what it’s about” and maybe ask a few questions, but the discussion was not … we didn’t guide it.

    In essence, Comm 500 made plain what students were expected to learn from each of the assigned readings. In Comm 502, students had to determine the meaning and import of assignments on their own. Faced with an overwhelming task and explicit direction to collaborate, the Comm 502 class developed a certain cohesiveness not present in Comm 500. Susan felt that the wiki allowed for something beyond individual effort.

    We wanted to be a good class. I think we thought of it as a challenge, not just that we wanted to be good students, but also that we wanted to be a good class. I don’t know if it was collective, but for me, the wiki was not just about me getting the article, but just getting ready to have a good discussion.

    Page  142

    We weren’t simply a class; we were a team that hoped to excel in the eyes of a demanding instructor. While the relationship wasn’t adversarial, Kristy felt a sense of ongoing evaluation.

    I definitely always felt a little bit more nervous about Christopher’s class [Comm 502] and I always felt like he wanted us to get to a certain place but he would never tell us how to get there. He’d make us go through this journey that was supposed to be wonderful, but it was just a lot of hard work.

    The environment of Comm 502, then, was one in which the class felt it necessary to prove something to their professor, to figure out the meaning of articles and their place within the overall literature on their own. The environment in Comm 500 was markedly different.

    Students described the atmosphere in Comm 500, with its more straightforward lecture style, as a more congenial one. The reading load was lighter, and the class discussion, rather than relying solely on the students, was directly led by the professor. Susan described it in the following manner:

    Gary [Comm 500] is less stressful. It’s more pleasant. Christopher [Comm 502] is more stressful. It’s high stress. You still have to do a good job for both of them, but it’s the environment they create.

    The fact that Comm 500 was experienced as more congenial did not mean that it was an easier class. The readings, though fewer in quantity, were nonetheless challenging. Also, the formal paper required of students made for a much more intense writing project than did the short exercises required of students in Comm 502. Where Comm 502 forced students to collaborate, Comm 500 encouraged students to research topics that were of interest to them as individual scholars. Where Comm 502 fostered teamwork, Comm 500 allowed for individual exploration.


    The case of Comm 502 was a very special circumstance in which students with adequate knowledge about wiki technologies were faced with an appropriatePage  143 task in a supportive social environment. A student-driven wiki project needs to have all of the right pieces in place—and this may only happen rarely. In contrasting the wiki participation of Comm 500 and Comm 502, it became clear that, although the wiki was not used actively in Comm 500, it was a mismatch of the technology and the circumstances rather than a failure of the technology or the people involved. It was the teaching styles of the professors and the nature of the assignments that shaped the wiki. While it is useful to talk about general circumstances where wikis can work or not, these cases are rich sites for exploration that moves beyond generality. Cases like Comm 502, which come about organically and are not directly incentivized by the instructor, have generated excitement about wiki technology. These situations are exceedingly difficult to replicate.

    The bottom-up implementation of the wiki and its success in Comm 502 generated optimism about wikis and their role in the classroom. But the lack of participation by the same students using the same platform in Comm 500 is significant. We feel that it is important to recognize that minor differences in the nature of the classroom and the relationship between students may result in radically different usage.

    The lack of wiki use for Comm 500 does not represent a failure of the technology, the students, or the instructor. The course simply didn’t present a task requiring wiki collaboration. In this instance, a wiki was not a relevant tool.

    We believe that attempts to replicate the Comm 502 environment would be challenging, if not fruitless. The success of the wiki in that situation was contingent on a number of intangible, social factors that cannot be readily duplicated. A better approach lies in simply making collaborative tools like the wiki available for student use. Vibrant collaboration via wiki can emerge, given the right circumstances, but this collaboration can’t be forced. For all of the wiki-generated content produced, Comm 502 was not a more successful course than Comm 500. Both courses met their educational goals, but where Comm 502 was well suited for a wiki-based collaborative approach, Comm 500 was not.

    Page  144

    Content and Commentary: Parallel Structures of Organization and Interaction on Wikis

    It is my intention to suggest a number of ways in which the content and operation of wikis might constitute an unusually rich field of investigation for students of hypertext. Perhaps most significantly, I will suggest that particular qualities inherent to the operation of wikis often lead to the same questions that preoccupy the academic researcher being actively discussed by the writers of hypertext, the research subjects themselves. To simplify, we might say not only that many of the interests of academic researchers are understood and employed by wiki users but also that similar processes of critical inquiry constitute everyday experience on many levels of wiki writing. These user-led processes of discussion, comment, and ongoing critical evaluation are not only highly visible but also notable precisely because they employ the self-reflexive potential of hypertext authorship to ensure that the multitudinous networks of critical content generated by wiki writing are recorded as material in their own right.

    It has been suggested by literary theorists and technologists alike[1] that one of the most significant aspects of hypertext as a form of communication lies in its potential to reconfigure the activities of its writers, substituting the isolated production of closed documents with dynamic webs of intertextuality that challenge the traditional relationship between readers and authors in fundamental and productive ways. This convergence is made possible by the capacity of hypertext systems to host a reading public that influences information networks as it traverses them, perhaps through forms of annotation and marginalia resembling the scholarship of the age of print[2] or, more radically, through a process of remediation that repositions texts, and the activitiesPage  145 of reading and writing, within the fluctuating content of data networks that are both decentered and antihierarchical.

    In light of this, it might be useful to analyze wikis in terms of their potential to host a diverse community of writers by functioning not only as a unique mode for the presentation and organization of material but also as devices for the practical organization of their individual contributors.

    The Cumulative Processes of Creating Communal Hypertexts

    The terms of inquiry just suggested are of particular relevance to wikis, which can be analyzed as social formations organizing communities of writers and also according to a technological analysis that addresses them as specific implementations of hypertext theory, understood in this context as a model for the cooperative organization and transmission of information. These analyses converge through an exploration of the remarkable flexibility that enables wiki content to be shaped by the activities of its users, a noisy and sometimes anarchic process that nevertheless manages to sustain the production and organization of an enormous variety of written material.

    I would like to argue that this flexibility is embodied in the specific ways in which the creators of wikis have chosen to implement hypertext authorship as a communal activity, utilizing techniques that render wikis relatively unique as a popular model of electronic writing, despite the fact that these same techniques are clearly inherited from the work of the earliest hypertext theorists. Most notably, wikis make good on the promises of hypertext evangelists such as Theodor Nelson and George Landow, who predicted that electronic texts would be fundamentally adaptive to the activities of their users and thus would encourage a participatory model of hypertext in which audiences can read, write, and manipulate any given item within a shifting network of interrelated pages. Wikis also situate these revisions of individual items within an organizational structure that is similarly distinguished by its plasticity and that allows material to be continuously edited, divided, and repositioned in ever-changing configurations. These perpetual revisions and shifting indices bypass traditional hierarchies of organization and are themselvesPage  146 documented as important webs of data, preserved through devices that chart the amorphous growth of content, comparing multiple versions of texts and recording each instance of editing and rearrangement.

    The cumulative effect of countless, separate manipulations of text allows a loosely organized user base to maintain databases of remarkable complexity, and it is through participation in these collective efforts that the activity of authorship, insofar as the traditional implications of the term can be adequately transposed to wikis, fulfills its true potential. While newcomers to wikis are soon familiar with the way material advances through numerous revisions, a broader understanding of their operation hinges on the awareness that the historic development of a given text seldom occurs outside complex processes of rewriting and reorganization carried out by a community of wiki users. Once acquired, this perspective becomes an invaluable conceptual tool for understanding the functioning of wikis, not least to the degree that it reveals instructive parallels between the social composition of a wiki’s user base and its organizational and technical peculiarities.

    Critical analysts of hypertext participation such as Stuart Moulthrop have asserted that “the structure and specifications of the hypertext environment are themselves parts of the docuverse, arguably the most important parts,”[3] and I would suggest that the value of wikis as writing projects lies in the extent to which the user’s awareness of these structures and specifications, a kind of “wiki literacy,” is developed and indeed encouraged by the organizational idiosyncrasies of the wiki system. This can be best understood by observing the ways in which wiki users discuss these critical issues and the ways in which these discussions are then incorporated into wikis in the form of distinct levels of textual content. The recorded progression of a wiki page through multiple versions, paralleled by the visible interaction between multiple authors, produces a text that is richly annotated with the record of its own development, a body of supplementary material that provides social, historic, and even theoretical context for the growth of wikis, including the conditions for individual participation.

    Interactive Commentaries and Visible Discussion

    For many newcomers to the wiki system, the first wiki is Wikipedia. They become familiar with the significance of user interaction through the “discussion”Page  147 pages that Wikipedia automatically attaches to each article, spaces in which the project’s avowed implementation of encyclopedic “neutrality” is persistently renegotiated according to the exchanges between its individual contributors. These spaces, hosting preemptive dialogue for the development of both encyclopedic articles and the administrative aspects of the wiki itself, represent the public face of the process by which Wikipedia generates content, notable both for the frequency of bipartisan collaboration and for their periodic descent into a miasma of subjectivity, relativism, and factionalist rancor. Despite the precarious operation and occasional meltdown of this system, it is possible that the visibility of this quasi-democratic discussion process performs a crucial legitimizing function for Wikipedia’s drive toward political neutrality. A counterbalance to the objective anonymity of Wikipedia articles might be perceived in the visibility of individuals in these marginal spaces, presenting their subjective viewpoints, and the terms under which they might collaborate, to produce a highly populated talking shop that complements the studied impartiality of the main encyclopedic text.

    Conversely, many wikis strive to minimize the kind of conflicts that animate the discussion spaces of Wikipedia, not least by ensuring that dialogue takes place within the pages themselves, eschewing a segregated discussion space in favor of a process that continually refactors pages to ensure concision, while retaining a sense of plural, dialogic interaction within the text. Whatever the specific strategy adopted, wikis are notable for the degree to which users’ understanding of a particular area of their content, including public administrative discussions among their organizers, may be enhanced by the study of an ongoing commentary threaded among multiple pages, previous revisions, and the activities of individual users. Any given interaction between users can be easily placed in context through a network of hyperlinks that signpost previous discussions on related subjects as well as a diverse network of information relating to writing precedent, arbitration, and dispute resolution. As a wiki writer, I often found that the tangential paths left by other users would place collaboration, and indeed disagreement, within a context that enabled me to refer to numerous similar situations and, as a researcher, to better understand the cumulative impact of countless loosely related interactions between a multitude of wiki writers.

    The manifestations of this material might be as diverse as the content of the wikis themselves, indexical networks that connect a vast array of subjects,Page  148 resembling argument, analysis, or simply conversation. Furthermore, as the locus of the interaction between their users, the talking spaces of wikis can be understood to host the virtual society of their writers, meaning that their content makes it possible to chart the ways in which the shifting conventions for the production and organization of material are influenced by social factors. The importance of this process for both wiki users and hypertext theorists alike proceeds from the way it presents the wiki as a truly open form of hypertext, which visibly expands the privileges of authorship to include the textual levels and locations that determine structural organization, social convention, and even technical administration. Understood as hypertext, a form that is inherently “antihierarchical and democratic,”[4] we might observe how wikis substitute the traditional roles of “reader” and “author” with the universal identity of “editor” or, in the terms set out by the introduction to Ward Cunningham’s first wiki site, how they define themselves as “a moderated list where anyone can be moderator.”[5]

    According to Mark Poster, electronic writing under these conditions has the potential to undermine the formation of canons and authorities; it transforms texts into “hypertexts,” which are reconstructed in the act of reading and which disrupt the status of experts or authorities by positioning the reader as author.[6] The reconstructive activities of wiki “editors” might coalesce into formal discourse, where projects such as Wikipedia incorporate sizeable resources detailing an enormous variety of administrative and organizational activities, or they might be manifested through the scattered conversational exchanges that can cause wiki pages to resemble the chaotic minutes of some arcane political society. At a local level, discussion drives a focused maintenance of specific pages in which users reconstruct texts by requesting more detail, collaborate to copyedit and peer-review material, and utilize a space that allows dissenting voices to articulate their concerns. In practice, this means that a text authored on a wiki is true hypertext, easily situated within a complex network of information sources, comprising references and influences[7] as well as arguments and challenges to its assertions.[8]

    While particular software models, and indeed the reading habits of Internet users, might potentially marginalize these streams of commentary, the interactions that animate them must be understood as the catalyst for the constant evolution of wiki content. Almost any user is welcome to participate in these threads of dialogue, encouraged and even empowered by a visiblePage  149 process through which content is tangibly shaped by user input. The strategies with which wikis absorb the generative processes of this material, often influenced as much by traditional methods of knowledge transmission as by hypertext theory, should be understood as the basis of their potential to support innovative models of authorship and to widen participation. Their accessibility, visible as both discursive forum and reference tool, serves as both an introduction to wiki culture and a space within which wiki writers may continually renegotiate the terms under which they write.

    Context and Annotation in Hypertext Theory

    Hypertext theory can itself be defined by its attempt to reorganize the cultural processes that determine the creation, organization, and transmission of information. Accordingly, wikis might be situated within a historical lineage that sees Vannevar Bush’s proposal to index encyclopedic materials according to a user-generated “mesh of associative trails” evolve into Theodor Nelson’s vision of an online body of human thought, alive with the additions, revisions, and commentaries supplied by a global community of users.[9] In these terms, hypertext theory intersects with strains of postmodern literary studies at the point where writing, and indeed knowledge itself, is understood to function through an implicit network of links, references, and allusions embodied in the cultural cycles of the authorial process.[10]

    Nelson’s work in particular suggests that electronic writing must allow these connections to become more explicit, arguing that the dominance of paper-based sequences of argument, stored on separate physical documents, profoundly restricts the protean ingenuity of human thought.[11] For knowledge to evolve unfettered, Nelson proposes a shift from the fixed sequence of paper texts to the manifold associations made possible by computerized databases, which allow for the constant revision of materials and which situate these materials within a user-generated web of explanatory references and annotations. According to Nelson’s proposals, every word within a nonsequential database of text could be accessed to branch into further documents or into definitions, lists of related concepts, or even literary allusions,[12] all facilitated by software that would automatically generate summaries and indices as the reader navigated through the information.[13]

    Page  150

    Even a superficial investigation of wiki culture will reveal a variety of attempts to apply elements of these theories, most appropriately, to the ongoing discussion of the work of the hypertext pioneers themselves. The ability to examine a separate discussion page, and the pattern of revision for both that page and its host article, might hypothetically allow an interested reader to discover that the Wikipedia article on Theodor Nelson had expanded to incorporate material situating hypertext theory within a wider history of public knowledge, to link to a tangential discussion theorizing the hypertextual character of the Jewish Talmud, or to parallel a detailed analysis of the differing taxonomies employed by the French Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The ability to edit these connections at any stage encourages the reader “to treat the text as a field or network of signs in which to create his or her own linkages,” additions that “other readers may follow or change at their will.”[14] The wiki user might provide new context by inserting a reference to an academic study of wikis as hypertext or, conversely, by requesting that the authors of these pages consider the benefit of a beginner’s guide to the more abstruse concepts of theoretical hypertext. An article on the work of Theodor Nelson might branch outward from historical material to encompass administrative and even philosophical discussions concerning the operation of his own hypertext models, an appropriate convergence in which a theoretical resource hosts the discussion forum for its actual implementation.

    This self-reflexive tendency, which may encompass an enormous variety of philosophical and technical disciplines, becomes more apparent as the user becomes more familiar with the parallel development of interrelated discussions across many pages. In this sense, the networks of concepts and allusions perceived by hypertext theorists achieve a new significance when understood as evolving indices for the organization of content that replace the inflexible hierarchical organization that characterizes paper texts. Even within the field of hypertext, we might contrast this system with the organization of early models, particularly the expansions or conversions of paper-based texts, which can be perceived as “axial” structures with a system of hypertext “branches” that spread out from a central, linear text.[15] In contrast, true hypertexts are “network structured” and “borderless,”[16] possessing numerous pathways to wider webs of material and allowing production to occur simultaneously at multiple points.

    Page  151

    The organization of wikis, in which every individual page is arranged side by side within a flat namespace, eschews linear or axial hierarchies in favor of the organic growth of linking structures, where the overall significance of an individual item proceeds not from its position in a preconceived index but from a shifting pattern of relevance determined by the accumulation of incoming links and the multiple associations inscribed by its users. The utility of a self-reflexive, “network structured” model for the transmission of knowledge proceeds from the potential advantages, both conceptual and social, that accrue from situating authorship within a malleable, nonhierarchical structure.

    In abandoning a central index, wikis are free to adopt innumerable indices according to unlimited criteria, as idiosyncratic as the interests and abilities of their users. Unlike many other devices for the organization of knowledge, the flexibility of these nonlinear associations establishes the indexing and organizational systems of a wiki as an inseparable part of their content; where devices such as the content pages of a paper encyclopedia are transformed into active projects such as the “navigation links” area of Wikipedia, a catalog of catalogs devoted to a metadiscussion of the ever-evolving schema by which users organize its content.

    Furthermore, these multiple indices, and their generation through user dialogue, are sufficiently diverse to invite and absorb the input of any interested user, at almost any level of expertise. The ability of wikis to host multiple, adaptable structures of organization can produce unusual and even abstract connections between different subjects, a tendency that reflects both Bush’s and Nelson’s insistence that human knowledge would thrive through new modes of association between creative individuals. The potential to discuss a subject at levels ranging from novice to expert, within a developing body of material providing context and explanation, allows textual material to remain responsive to the diverse concerns of a growing audience.

    Wikis Communities and the Need for “Virtual Ethnographies”

    Under these conditions, wikis might have the potential to radically influence communication, not least insofar as the global availability of open, publicPage  152 hypertexts might diversify access to resources for the recording and transmission of human knowledge.[17] However, recognition of any democratizing potential must avoid the precarious assumption that the expansion of the material conditions that support hypertext readers, themselves made possible by a complex interaction of social and commercial factors, will automatically produce an active public of hypertext authors.[18] While there is no indication that the egalitarian potential of the wiki model of authorship will automatically generate a varied community of participant writers, it is necessary to acknowledge that the complex networks of association and multiple textual levels that comprise a wiki are themselves determined by, and are equally dependent on, the relative diversity of their contributors.

    Consequently, a critical analysis must incorporate numerous measures of accessibility, addressing technical considerations alongside the social and cultural factors that enable individual users to participate in wikis. The demographic of their users could reasonably be expected, like that of Internet users as a whole, to be heavily skewed toward the inhabitants of the affluent West,[19] with the attendant risk that the same “democratic” qualities that allow highly populated networks of communal textual production to function might obscure the voices of minorities, translating their inherent underrepresentation into invisibility. Although the organizational structures of wikis are undeniably accommodating, their potential to expand their base of active users depends on their ability to manage the contradictory interests of many different individuals and to render this successful management visible in a manner that encourages the participation of newcomers.

    However, to assert that wikis are communally authored does not indicate that their contributors are rendered invisible or marginalized, as some critics of hypertext have feared. On the contrary, the intricate webs of user-generated material that constitute wiki writing reveal the presence of a multitude of individual authors, working according to patterns of collaboration that highlight the explicit parallels between the development of content and community. The talking spaces of wikis are often distinctly conversational, animated by personal, subjective dialogue that is archived to form rich bodies of ethnographic data. The same networks of commentary that provide the context for ideas also describe their authors, recording their knowledge and interests and, crucially, allowing them to articulate their own concerns regarding bias, accessibility, and marginalization.

    Page  153

    The ability of wikis to provide spaces in which these issues are explicitly discussed, and to incorporate them as one of the many contexts that describe the production of material, offers a potential solution to a problem commonly encountered in the ethnographic studies of what Howard Rheingold termed “virtual communities,” namely, that discussions concerning identity, extended to include conditions of participation, are restricted by the impossibility of achieving holistic descriptions of any informant, location, or culture.[20]

    A study of the social makeup of wikis might then be conducted according to Christine Hine’s principles of “virtual ethnography,” which embrace these restrictions to suggest that “ethnographers of the Internet can use their own data collection practices as data in their own right,”[21] a self-reflexive process in which conclusions are shaped by the researcher’s own “intensive engagement with mediated interaction.”[22] The advantage of employing a self-reflexive ethnographic technique lies in the degree to which the activities of the researcher must inevitably reflect the same process by which wiki users come to understand themselves as writers and to conceive of themselves as participants, readers, or even researchers within a community of individuals. Therefore, the process of research is conducted under the same conditions that inform the knowledge possessed by its subjects, producing data that is shaped by, even as it describes, the mediating effects of the wiki software. This process of mediation, which provides the structure for individual interactions and renders visible the user-created networks of content and commentary, represents both the context in which wiki writers become visible as individuals and the cumulative process by which they may come to conceive of themselves as writing communities.

    While the data provided by these methods is necessarily partial, it offers the advantage of providing a picture of the community aspects of wikis in terms similar to those that are employed by their users. Although the activity of wiki writing might be interpreted as a “live” interaction among users, the ongoing processes of archiving and redaction are sufficiently visible that wiki communities can be said to develop self-knowledge by accumulating social interactions into the rich sedimentary layers that constitute bodies of content. Appropriately, many wikis allow their users to conduct ethnographies of their own, exploring the possibilities of community through a detailed reading of the accumulated products of specific conflicts and collaborations.

    Page  154

    The ongoing commentary on a particular subject might direct the reader to a series of previous debates, thus allowing them to perceive the substantial influence of several competing groups of individual writers. Wiki writers might be grouped together through participation in loose networks of casual dialogue, in which users converse about their identities and interests and work under informal, ad hoc collaborations. Conversely, it might be possible for these users to organize into associations that are rooted in dedicated discussion spaces, where users congregate to develop writing strategies or form factions that are themselves determined by an enormous variety of political, linguistic, and philosophical affiliations.

    These networks might be manifested in a great variety of forms. But their visibility achieves a singular importance when they are analyzed in terms of their ability to integrate patterns of social interaction with the broader tendencies that determine both the development of content and administrative activities. These administrative activities concern the organization and management of wikis on various levels, which ultimately determine systemwide policies. Most obviously, these levels might include the technical management of the wiki software and Web space, but large wikis such as Wikipedia also generate considerable bodies of content that determine language policy, uniform linking strategies, and the complex standards that govern acceptable user interaction. Assuming that these networks are sufficiently visible and intelligible, even novice users are thus equipped with the necessary tools to investigate the conventions by which particular wikis operate, the historical interactions between their established users, and the social histories of collaboration. This process of investigation might itself be applied to gauge the success of wikis in attracting and facilitating the participation of minority or marginalized groups, an activity of particular relevance if wikis are understood to thrive through the democratization of the processes of authorship and knowledge transmission.

    I would like to suggest that the visibility of the diverse interactions between many kinds of wiki users is the single most important factor in determining which issues are discussed, described, and organized within wiki pages. The accessibility of these systems and the transparency of their operation determine the ease with which inexperienced users are able to understand the terms under which they might contribute as wiki writers. The importance ofPage  155 social interaction to this process means that the full privileges of wiki authorship, encompassing the organization and editing of material as well as the creation of new items, might be more readily extended to those users who quickly acquire a fluency in the conventions of social interaction.

    This systemwide transparency could be seen as less important when the scope of the information discussed on wikis is restricted to a relatively narrow group of specialists, such as Ward Cunningham’s original wiki focus on constructing an “Informal history of programming ideas,” but becomes more relevant when considering Wikipedia’s ambition to create “the largest encyclopedia in history, in both breadth and depth,” written entirely by volunteers and distributed to “every single person on the planet in their own language.”[23] The success of models of communal authorship, attracting a diversity of input and facilitating the participation of new users, attains a new importance when applied to projects that attempt to make recorded knowledge popularly accessible and at the same time extend the conditions under which knowledge is debated and reconstructed. Accordingly, the transparent processes of administration of a well-designed wiki make a case for the form as a unique development in a history of information technology, begun with writing that reveals “an increasing democratization or dissemination of power,” accomplished through “exteriorizing memory [that] converts knowledge from the possession of one to the possession of more than one.”[24] The terms knowledge and memory, in the sense in which they are best applied to wiki communities, come to include the types of social activities that have produced and organized content. This knowledge may, according to the interests of its users, be expressed in the language of ethnography and sociology; debates of authorship and authority; advanced and esoteric hypertext theory; or, ultimately, in the form of a metatext that integrates many competing methods of analyzing and organizing the same information.

    It is this expansion of wikis as metatext, epistemological forums that discuss and record the development of both the user base and the content produced, that equips their users with the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in the perpetual growth and management of content. My own experience of editing Wikipedia quickly drew me toward an aphorism often cited by users drawn into unwanted debates about writing policy. This phrase simply states, “We’re writing an encyclopedia, not talking about how to write an encyclopedia.” However, I would suggest that the interplay between thePage  156 branches of self-reflexive commentary and the ostensible purpose of the sites themselves in fact renders these activities inseparable, producing a distinct form of hypertext that embodies the conditions and conventions of its own growth.

    Understood as both textual bodies and writing communities, the protean growth of wiki content might be seen to thrive through a profoundly nonlinear and interactive mode of textual production that allows the continual reconstruction of the text, “not as a fixed series of symbols, but as a variable-access database in which any discursive unit may possess multiple vectors of association.”[25] The visible structure of these associations, which connect intricate patterns of social interaction, informational significance, and multiple authorial processes, is the context in which both wiki authorship and electronic literacy are made possible.

    A wiki is therefore “both culture and cultural artifact,”[26] inscribed in which are networks of discourse that habitually resemble and even incorporate the concerns of academic research. The degree to which this tendency manifests itself on Wikipedia has prompted its description as a “self-documenting research population,” one that hosts an active community of academic researchers at a meeting place called Project Wikidemia. Likewise, some of the most productive research for my own writing was carried out not at a physical library but in the archives of MeatballWiki, a network of wiki organizers and researchers that describes itself as “a community of active practitioners striving to teach each other how to organize people using online tools.” The ease with which the researcher is able to delve into the histories of various wikis, following the rhizomatic connections between wiki discussions and the ongoing activities of their writers, leads me to believe that the accessibility of the discourse concerning the utility, communities, and evolution of wikis represents the most significant entry point into their culture and perhaps hypertext authorship itself.

    Conclusion: Indices, Dialogue, and the Importance of Hypertext Literacy

    Hypertext, in the sense in which it is embodied by wikis, is not just a new way of presenting material but a radical reconfiguration of the relationship betweenPage  157 the recording and transmission of knowledge. The ability to freely annotate, link, and adjust texts, combined with the visibility and discussion of these processes, might hold the potential to popularize new methods of collaborative writing on a scale substantially different to anything that has preceded the personal computer, although it is equally true that it raises new questions about the physical and operational accessibility of technology. The significance of the visible commentaries that shape wiki content proceeds from the demands of transparency and accessibility, which mandate that an understanding of the individual items in a hypertext database is inseparable from the ability to comprehend the nature and operation of its overall structure. Stuart Moulthrop has articulated this concern in terms of a concept of literacy that can be easily applied to wikis and that extends beyond content in the traditional sense to include the reader’s ability to perceive the operation of the associative structures and display strategies of texts. This literacy requires that its users “understand print not only as the medium of traditional literary discourse, but also as a meta-tool, the key to power at the level of the system itself.”[27]

    In order to express the cultural implications of electronic literacy, Moulthrop adapts Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan’s argument that the language use of television and radio produces a secondary orality to construct a concept of “secondary literacy,” in which an approach to reading and writing includes “a self-consciousness about the technological mediation of those acts, a sensitivity to the way texts-below-the-text constitute another order behind the visible. This secondary literacy involves both rhetoric and technics: to read at the hypotextual level is to confront (paragnostically) the design of the system; to write at this level is to reprogram, revising the work of the first maker.”[28]

    I would like to suggest that the visible process of commentary that foregrounds the social, organizational, and technical aspects of wikis holds the potential for their users to develop a sophisticated electronic literacy of the kind imagined by many critical theorists of hypertext. In theory, the growth of this “electronic literacy” should help to democratize the processes that govern the social and technical operation of wikis, although it remains to be seen whether the growth of wikis will be paralleled by a similar expansion in the numbers of users interested in managing the complex processes so appealing to academic researchers. Nevertheless, the accessibility of this typePage  158 of information, and the unique degree to which it forms new connections between more commonly accessed layers of information, raises the possibility of new interactions between the individuals involved in the authorship, organization, and research of hypertext systems.


    1. See George P. Landow, ed., Hyper/Text/Theory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994); George P. Landow, Hypertext 2.0 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Theodor H. Nelson, Literary Machines: The Report on, and of, Project Xanadu Concerning Word Processing, Electronic Publishing, Hypertext, Thinkertoys, Tomorrow’s Intellectual Revolution, and Certain Other Topics Including Knowledge, Education, and Freedom (Sausalito, CA: Mindful Press, 1990); Mark Poster, The Mode of Information: Poststructuralisms and Contexts (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995); Mark Poster, The Second Media Age (Cambridge: Polity, 1995); Mark Poster, “Cyberdemocracy: The Internet and the Public Sphere,” in Virtual Politics: Identity and Community in Cyberspace, ed. David Holmes (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997), 212–28.return to text

    2. See Landow, Hyper/Text/Theory, 90–91; Nelson, Literary Machines.return to text

    3. Stuart Moulthrop, “You Say You Want a Revolution? Hypertext and the Laws of Media,” Postmodern Culture 1, no. 3 (1991), http://www.uv.es/~fores/programa/moulthrop_yousay.html.return to text

    4. Landow, Hypertext 2.0, 281.return to text

    5. Ward Cunningham, e-mail to the PatternsList, May 1, 1995, http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?InvitationToThePatternsList.return to text

    6. Poster, “Cyberdemocracy,” 225.return to text

    7. Landow, Hyper/Text/Theory, 18–22.return to text

    8. See Charles Ess, ed., Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996).return to text

    9. See Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” Atlantic Monthly, July 1945, 101–8; Nelson, Literary Machines.return to text

    10. See Jean-François, Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); Moulthrop, “Revolution”; Poster, Mode of Information.return to text

    11. Nelson, Literary Machines, 2, 8–12.return to text

    12. Ibid., 47.return to text

    13. Ibid., 127–28.return to text

    14. Poster, Mode of Information, 70.return to text

    15. Landow, Hyper/Text/Theory, 90–94.return to text

    16. Landow, Hypertext 2.0, 79.return to text

    17. See Ess, Philosophical Perspectives; Poster, Mode of Information, 222.return to text

    18. See Ess, Philosophical Perspectives.return to text

    19. Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Vol. 1 of The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), 375–77.return to text

    20. Christine Hine, Virtual Ethnography (London: Sage Publications, 2000), 65.return to text

    21. Ibid., 54.return to text

    Page  159

    22. Ibid., 65.return to text

    23. Ward Cunningham, “Informal History of Programming Ideas,” Cunningham and Cunningham, Inc., http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?InformalHistoryofProgrammingIdeas.return to text

    24. Landow, Hypertext 2.0, 277.return to text

    25. Moulthrop, “Revolution,” 5.return to text

    26. Hine, Virtual Ethnography, 64.return to text

    27. Moulthrop, “Revolution,” 22–23.return to text

    28. Ibid., 24.return to text

    Page  160

    Above and Below the Double Line: Refactoring and That Old-Time Revision

    Here is a mantra for wiki authors:

    Writing on a wiki proceeds from ThreadMode to DocumentMode by way of Refactoring.

    And here is how I explain it to students familiar with composing but new to wikis:

    Writing on a wiki—because it’s collaborative—changes not just what we write but how we write, and so we change the way we talk about the process. ThreadMode is a discussion. It’s a little like prewriting to generate topics and positions and arguments. DocumentMode is an exposition, and it’s a little like drafting an essay by drawing together the threads in ThreadMode. And Refactoring is something like revising, and something like reorganizing, and something like clearing away the tea table for another course. The word comes from computer programming.

    When I introduce the process, with its odd terms, I feel like Humpty Dumpty explaining Jabberwocky to Alice.

    “But why do you smash some words together?” Alice asks.

    “Those are WikiWords. They are a little like portmanteau words. On a wiki, WikiWords signal links to new topics that are open for elaboration. You follow the link.”

    Page  161

    Writing on a wiki means returning to a topic periodically to see what is developing. It means authors enter a page to work with the emerging text in a variety of ways. An author may refactor one section of a page and then go to another page and add to an emerging thread. She may add a WikiWord to still another page, point out a link from one topic to another, and then go have a cup of coffee to return to the wiki later to see what happened. A reader senses a difference, something left out, or an alternative way of thinking. She becomes an author and declares a new topic by creating a WikiWord on a page, going to the new page, and setting out some ideas, a summary, a direction for that page. The WikiWord is now a topic: a potential to be filled. She announces the existence of the topic. Or not. The topic appears in “Recent Changes” and “Index.”

    Others visit the topic, read, and leave. Or they begin to develop it in ThreadMode (signed) or DocumentMode (unsigned, above the DoubleLines). Others return frequently to see how things are going. More topics are generated for the developing topic as authors turn words into WikiWords to create new topics. Preexisting topics are linked into the developing topic as authors use WikiWords.

    The parent of the page joins them. Or not.

    The process continues as ThreadMode material bubbles up and is refactored into DocumentMode and as DocumentMode material spurs more ThreadMode exchange.[1]

    That’s the general idea, but, like all models, this one requires some backing up to cover details.


    ThreadMode is a dialogue, a discussion, a dialectic. It is open, collective, dynamic, and informal. It can develop as a page or develop on a page, but it develops organically, without predictive structure. Writing in thread mode is spontaneous, improvisational, but not sermonic, not preachy: those rhetorical postures close down rather than open up threads. Thread mode is public thinking: designed, considered, polite. Thread mode presents a position, a way of understanding, clearly and persuasively, but is not a soapbox so much as a sandbox.

    Page  162

    This is to say that thread mode is tentative rather than absolute; opinionated but not seeking closure; exploratory and as such creating an understanding for readers rather than seeking to win ground from opponents. Thread mode writing is grounded in specifics to make sense of abstractions. Its end is to allow others to understand and create, not to win. It is an attitude.[2]

    On one course wiki I manage, the BlogsAndWikis wiki, thread mode contributions are phrased in first person and are signed.[3] To this extent, authors initially see thread mode writing as similar to Web discussion board or e-mail exchanges. But threads are different than discussion board or e-mail exchanges. They are incorporated in the evolving shared document and eventually become the document; they cannot be separated from it.

    Nor do threads necessarily follow a chronology of posting. Authors place their contributions near the materials they address rather than at the end of the exchange. Because they can be placed next to the passage they respond to, thread mode additions tend to be concise, pointed. Thread mode can start as a reply to a document mode beginning. After starting a page in document mode, others may choose to reply to the document rather than revise it or edit it. Those additions start threads of discussion that continue until someone is able or willing to refactor the page, deleting the original comments. Once the page is refactored into document mode, the process begins again.


    DocumentMode is expository, discursive, more monologic—but no less open—than thread mode. Document mode is written in third person, active voice, as a synthesis of the collective thinking on the wiki. Document mode pages and sections of pages become the collective understanding of the wiki. Generally, they are unsigned, but some authors add their names to the section as contributors. Others let the “Recent Changes” take care of crediting. While wiki pages are collective—or because they are collective—they are still active and continue to evolve. Authors return to revise, update, add to, or edit a document mode page.

    In document mode, the ideas, not the authors, are the focus and the center. Document pages on wikis still have a point of view, a perspective, even aPage  163 voice. But they don’t call attention to themselves as pages, as writing. They are written in what Richard Lanham, in Analyzing Prose, would call a transparent style: a style that doesn’t call attention to itself as writing.[4] Refactoring enters here: to guide authors in making compositional and rhetorical moves from thread to document.

    By Way of Refactoring

    In thread mode, wiki pages develop opportunistically as contributors return to them, read them, edit them, add to them, and reorganize them. Refactoring, however, is less opportunistic. It is a conscientious technique for developing a page, for moving it toward document mode.

    Over time, as writers add comments to threads, a wiki page comes to look like a mess of posted bills and graffiti.[5] The initial point or purpose of the page can be lost in the shambles, the individual threads obscured in the tangle. The page becomes difficult to read, requiring mental energy to connect ideas scattered across screens. Authors don’t read the entire page but skim and start adding comments willy-nilly, creating redundancies. Ideas that may help the page coalesce are lost in the tangle. Noise threatens signal. WardsWiki—at c2.com, also known as the Portland Pattern Repository—calls it Thread Mess: the page is developing by a drama of discussion rather than as exploration.[6]

    Sooner or later, threads need to be synthesized into document mode, or refactored.

    Refactoring is a kind of revision, but where composition and rhetoric types tend to see revision changing and developing meaning, refactoring attempts to preserve meaning. Refactoring is a matter of finding and making explicit an organizational pattern in the ideas of the ThreadMode exchange. It has the main purpose of making latent, implicit, possible meanings explicit and present enough to become a whole—a whole that can in turn be responded to, developed further, on another page, from another perspective. Refactoring is synthesis.

    The term is borrowed from programming, where it refers to reworking program code for processing elegance, without changing the function of the code. An involved procedure might be refactored into one or two lines ofPage  164 code by using a less-known directive or procedure. Or variables might be given meaningful names.[7] We refactor in everyday life by devising mnemonics, by reorganizing a grocery list (on paper or in our heads) to map it onto the physical store.

    Wikipedia notes that refactoring software systems serves further development and revision:

    Refactoring does not fix bugs or add new functionality. Rather it is designed to improve the understandability of the code or change its structure and design … to make it easier for human maintenance in the future. In particular, adding new behavior to a program might be difficult with the program’s given structure, so a developer might refactor it first to make it easy, and then add the new behavior.[8]

    Bo Leuf and Ward Cunningham seem to have been the first to apply the term to writing on a wiki. They mention refactoring in The Wiki Way (2001) as “an attempt to distill valuable information from earlier, less focused discussions.”[9] They list four moves:

    • add a comment
    • edit older comments
    • split conversations to new pages
    • capture converging comments in a single paragraph.

    On c2.com, refactoring is described this way:

    Replace a thread mode conversation with a monolog that says the same thing and preserving as much of the original text as possible. Change the 1st person singular to 1st or 3rd person plural. Remove the inline attributions and put them at the end under “Contributors.” It is understood that individual authors may not have chosen the exact words used; that we have a consensus and hence probably compromises.[10]

    Refactoring is an attempt to find or create a structure for the threads of discussion that allows them to be synthesized into a document. Of course, changing structure changes meaning, and “saying the same thing” is problematic. We know this, but in refactoring we bracket our concern. As aPage  165 rhetorical act, refactoring is a declaration that the refactored document encompasses what the threads it replaces has argued. The refactored document makes explicit what was implicit in the thread, articulates what the threads dramatized. It might be considered an act of conversion or repurposing or of trying out alternatives. It might be considered something like reworking a drama into an exposition or an essay into a poem or remediating a print text into a hypertext.

    But refactoring aims at stabilizing meaning—just for the moment—so writers can build on it further. Threads are refactored as summaries of positions and arguments. Writers create new WikiWords, invitations, and openings into other areas and alternatives to development. Entire threads are reorganized, questions and answers condensed into statements. In refactoring, discussion becomes collective knowledge, premises move toward locally accepted proofs.

    The motives and purposes behind refactoring are local and rhetorical. A thread has gone on long enough; a page has become a tangle of threads. It is time to see what someone can make of the thread so all of us on the wiki can go further. Here’s how we talk about the refactoring process in the StyleGuide on BlogsAndWikis:

    Re-working a passage to make it easier to understand (change the signal to noise, bring out structures in ideas, make it mean more than it meant before) means changing its meaning. We know that. And we know that refactoring favors some stylistic moves over others. We know that RefactoringIsProblematic. But we refactor anyway. Because we need to move on.[11]

    Staying Close to the Ideas in Refactoring

    In refactoring, authors are advised to not be cavalier but to keep close to the ideas in the thread as they synthesize the thread mode discussion into a document. Writers on c2.com comment on the difficulty, which is partly rhetorical and partly a matter of motivation. Refactoring threads seems like recovering old ground. The thread is there for everyone to work through; and in reorganizing and summarizing the arguments, we might lose a subtlety, might distort a point, so why bother? Refactoring is important to move the wiki along,

    Page  166

    but it is hard to do correctly. You need to synthesize the discussion in a way that is acceptable to most of the participants. Sometimes a discussion comes to an end, at which time it is easier to summarize it, but there is less motivation to do so. Discussions most need to be summarized when they get long, which usually means there are a lot of different opinions, making them hard to summarize.[12]

    The concern is getting the synthesis wrong, especially thinking that you understand a point when you don’t. However, the wiki is self-correcting: “Suppose I refactor a conversation and I (unknowingly, of course) get it wrong. The topic itself will show up in ChangeSummary and RecentChanges. There are good odds that one of the experts on the subject will read it and correct it.”[13]

    Techniques for Refactoring

    Refactoring accurately is important. One slip and the wrong sense of things might be reified; and while the wiki will eventually self-correct, the shift in direction is frustrating. Refactoring is also difficult. Writers don’t always read a page through before adding to the thread, so comments are scattered and often redundant. Refactoring can take time and repeated sessions, and writers might continue to add threads to the page even as others are refactoring.[14] The concern with staying close to ideas in refactoring is addressed by developing strategies and techniques for refactoring—strategies and techniques that the rest of this chapter will touch on. That is, to “be not cavalier” entails drawing on explicit, self-conscious, shared techniques for refactoring. So, to guide refactoring, rhetoric offers techniques. Here are two:

    • use double lines
    • use page patterns

    The DoubleLines are an ad hoc technique borrowed from c2.com and MeatballWiki for distinguishing document from thread. As c2.com offers, “SomePage  167 pages use DoubleLines to separate a DocumentMode OpeningStatement, thesis, or pattern at the top of a page and (usually ThreadMode) discussion below. The top part is generally the page’s payload—a short article on the page’s title subject along with bibliographic information; while the bottom is meta-data about the page—discussion, suggested changes, categorization, stories, indirectly related links etc.”[15] And here is how the double line appears in our StyleGuide on BlogsAndWikis:

    Pages on this wiki tend to have the DocumentMode section at the top of the page, followed by ThreadMode contributions. Use DoubleLines (two lines of four dashes) to separate DocumentMode from ThreadMode on the same page. This convention is not absolute, however, and we find that writers add comments and questions to DocumentMode sections. This is a Good Thing, and writers can refactor the page to address the embedded comment. But as a thread gets long, move it below the DoubleLines.[16]

    Other wikis might place the threads on another pane or tabbed page (as on the MediaWiki engine). How the emerging document and the extending threads are distinguished may not seem important, but for the purposes I have in developing wikis, I would argue for the double lines. When the discussion is embedded in the evolving document, readers and authors have more context to draw on in developing meaning—and that context is significant for refactoring. There is a compositional and rhetorical virtue in keeping things together, in the same space.

    Using double lines rather than separate pages is in keeping with Cunningham’s original conception of wikis as quick and simple, as “the simplest online database that could possibly work.”[17] Rather than creating yet another page or view, place the thread and the document in the same page, distinguished by the simplest of indicators: four dashes.

    The double lines help coauthors and contributors determine the state of knowledge on the page—and so can be used as a powerful heuristic, similar to Ann Berthoff’s technique of drawing a line down the middle of a sheet of paper to create a dialogic notebook.[18] The double lines can keep the state of knowledge on the wiki open and developing, keep the dialectic going, and remind authors that it is a dialectic.[19] I wouldn’t suggest the split is simplyPage  168 one of “completed above/still at work below.” The double lines can distinguish a range of functional and rhetorical oppositions that are useful to coauthors reading or refactoring: “payload” from “meta-data,” or refactored material from content for further development and refactoring, or

    • successfully refactored material/loose ends, discussion, suggested changes
    • stable/volatile content
    • opening statement/discussion
    • generalization/specifics
    • principle/examples
    • thesis/support
    • argument or structural pattern/discussion on pattern.

    Authors can also use the double lines to suggest a rhetorical placement that invites and guides writers, suggesting where they might add to the text and what they might do next.


    In refactoring, pages born of discussion are given explicit structure. Like the use of double lines, the seed for using page patterns to refactor comes from practice on c2.com. The idea is that, as threads of discussion develop, the direction, the arguments, and the evidence suggest a possible pattern for organizing the page. The pattern, once made explicit, becomes a heuristic. C2.com lists a few (in keeping with c2.com’s purpose as a pattern repository):

    • ThereforeBut
    • ThesisAntithesisSynthesis
    • TentativeSummary.[20]

    The logical terms are used as headings to indicate the structure of the page. In ThereforeBut, for instance, c2.com instructs users to “state the context and forces in a paragraph or several, then put a bold ‘Therefore,’ on a linePage  169 by itself, and then state a tried and true solution in a paragraph or several.”>[21] Then (to continue where c2.com leaves off) use a bold “But” on a line by itself and state the qualifications. Material that doesn't yet fit the structure can be placed below DoubleLines. Once the page is refactored, another authore may see another pattern or an extension to the pattern that draws in the as-yet-unrefactored material.

    In refactoring, the headings are not static but inviting, generative. The headings not only indicate the refactored structure of the page; they act as heuristics for further development. They signal where and what new material might be added. The headings are not typically WikiWords, of course. I write them as such to suggest that they carry the inventional potency of WikiWords. ThereforeBut—like a good WikiWord—invites StillOnTheOtherHand; and StillOnTheOtherHand invites YesButIfYouConsider. … Potent page patterns guide structuring while also clearing space for more invention. For instance,

    • ThereforeBut StillOnTheOtherHand
    • ThereforeBut SeeAlso
    • GivenThis … ThenThat … ButIfYouConsider …

    Again I’ll draw on Ann Berthoff, who anticipates refactoring in her dialectical model of composing that informs Forming/Thinking/Writing. She presents “workhorse” sentence patterns as “ways out of chaos”: ways of moving from a collection of observations toward making statements, toward predicating. Here are two examples:

    A structure for breaking an explanation down into several parts

    To ____________, he/she ____________, which ____________, ____________, ____________ .

    A structure for organized opposing, followed by a gloss

    Rather than ____________, ____________, ____________, a ____________ should ____________, ____________, ____________ : ____________.[22]

    Page patterns work in a similar fashion, guiding the refactoring of statements, arguments, and observations from the thread. Some prototypical page patterns might look like these:

    Page  170
    • A pattern for listing alternatives
      • HowDoWeDoX
      • ByThisMeans
      • OrByThisMeans
      • OrByThisMeans
      •  . . . 
    • A pattern for stating and considering dependencies
      • ItDependsOnThis
      • AndOnThis
      • AndOnThis
      • WhichDependsOn
      •  . . . 
    • A pattern for stating if-then, with an option
      • IfThenOtherwise or IfThenElse
    • A pattern for breaking an explanation into several parts, with qualifications
      • IfThisAndThisAndThis … ThenThis
      • ButIfYouConsiderThis … ThenThis
    • A pattern for articulating parallel points or reasons in a series
      • ThisAndThisAndThis … LeadToThis
    • A pattern for organized composing with a gloss
      • OnOneHandThese … ButOnTheOtherHandThese … AndSoThis

    Page patterns are rhetorically potent because the evolving thread drives the structural divisions. The weight for discovering the page pattern is on the authors who refactor, which comes of understanding the thread even as it develops.

    And So

    Since I began looking at refactoring as a technique for writing on wikis in winter 2002, many popular wikis have added notes and advice on refactoring, often in the style guide as on WikiFish[23] or as its own topic as on Wikipedia.[24] And as of spring 2006, the Wikipedia entry for refactoring now includes the use of the term refactoring for writing on wikis.[25] Refactoring is becoming mainstream, and we can expect to see the practice develop further and soon.

    Page  171

    Refactoring, more than that old-time revision, is overtly social. And so customs of refactoring develop locally in the community of the particular wiki. For instance, on BlogsAndWikis, it has become the custom to list the contributors to the thread when a page is refactored.[26] BlogsAndWikis authors do not tend to use explicit page patterns, but they have developed a local way of thinking about writing on a wiki that incorporates refactoring. They see the wiki as a large, shared writing space that allows for different kinds of movement: Get in close to write, stand back to understand, scribble notes to start, and refactor to continue. Here is TheCollective’s latest refactoring of their custom:

    Online Chalkboard

    When we write threads we scribble ideas as if we were writing with chalk.

    They need no order

    If the chalk keeps moving the brain keeps working

    Chalk comes in many colors

    You can make pictures with chalk

    A chalkboard can be taped over and posted to

    It’s easier to read a chalkboard from a distance

    Eventually, a chalkboard will be filled and it is at this point that we can look at what we wrote. TheEditor in us all can erase what isn’t important, as well as summarize and refactor the information. With the extra space freed up we can then go back to scribbling notes.[27]


    1. For more on how wiki composition facilitates the processes of constructing knowledge, see John W. Maxwell and Michael Felczak, “Success through Simplicity,” this volume.return to text

    Page  172

    2. ThreadMode is rhetorically governed by the social-epistemic rhetoric detailed by Thomas J. Nelson, “Writing in the Wikishop,” this volume.return to text

    3. M. C. Morgan, “BlogsAndWikis: HomePage,” Bemidji State University, http://ferret.bemidjistate.edu/~morgan/WeblogsAndWikis (accessed April 5, 2007).return to text

    4. Richard A. Lanham, Analyzing Prose, 2d ed. (New York: Continuum, 2003).return to text

    5. This is also noticed by Cathlena Martin and Lisa Dusenberry, “Wiki Lore and Politics in the Classroom,” and Matt Barton, “Is There a Wiki in This Class?” this volume. Bob Whipple discusses the generative value of thread mode messiness in “An (Old) First-Timer’s Learning Curve,” this volume.return to text

    6. c2.com, “ThreadMess,” Cunningham and Cunningham, Inc., http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?ThreadMess (accessed March 31, 2006).return to text

    7. Wikipedia Contributors, “Refactoring,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refactoring (accessed May 31, 2006).return to text

    8. Ibid.return to text

    9. Bo Leuf and Ward Cunningham, The Wiki Way (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2001), 333.return to text

    10. c2.com, “ConvertThreadModeToDocumentMode,” Cunningham and Cunningham, Inc., http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?ConvertThreadModeToDocumentMode (accessed March 31, 2006). Another early contributor to the practice of refactoring on wikis is MeatballWiki, “a community of active practitioners striving to teach each other how to organize people using online tools,” http://www.usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl. I was aware of exchanges concerning refactoring in spring 2003, but much of the exchange of that time has moved on. The current discussion of refactoring is dispersed over 272 pages (as of May 2006), but refactoring on MeatballWiki tends to be seen as a means of building consensus. Refactoring is a way of inciting and reinciting exchange.return to text

    11. M. C. Morgan and Blogs and Wikis Contributors, “BlogsAndWikis: Style- Guide,” Bemidji State University, http://ferret.bemidjistate.edu/~morgan/WeblogsAndWikis/wikka.php?wakka=StyleGuide (accessed April 5, 2007).return to text

    12. c2.com, “ConvertThreadModeToDocumentMode,” Cunningham and Cunningham, Inc., http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?ConvertThreadModeToDocumentMode (accessed March 31, 2006).return to text

    13. Ibid.return to text

    14. c2.com, “RefactorTowardsTheCenterOfThePage,” Cunningham and Cunningham, Inc., http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?RefactorTowardsTheCenterOfThePage (accessed March 31, 2006).return to text

    15. c2.com, “DoubleLines,” Cunningham and Cunningham, Inc., http://www.c2.com/cgi/wiki?DoubleLines (accessed March 31, 2006).return to text

    16. Morgan and Blogs and Wikis Contributors, “BlogsAndWikis: StyleGuide.”return to text

    17. Leuf and Cunningham, The Wiki Way, 15.return to text

    18. Ann E. Berthoff, “A Curious Triangle and the Double-Entry Notebook,” in The Making of Meaning: Metaphors, Models, and Maxims for Writing Teachers (Montclair, NJ: Boynton Cook, 1981), 41–47.return to text

    19. Maxwell and Felczak also discuss the generative value of keeping the coauthoring visible in “Success through Simplicity,” this volume.return to text

    20. c2.com, “Refactoring Wiki Pages,” Cunningham and Cunningham, Inc., http://www.c2.com/cgi/wiki?RefactoringWikiPages (accessed March 31, 2006).return to text

    21. c2.com, “ThereforBut,” Cunningham and Cunningham, Inc., http://www.c2.com/cgi/wiki?ThereforeBut (accessed May 31, 2006).return to text

    22. Ann E. Berthoff, with James Stephens, Forming, Thinking, Writing, 2d ed. (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton Cook, 1988), 94–95. Originally published in 1978, twenty years before wikis were invented, Berthoff’s dialogical text has a lot to tell us about writing on wikis and refactoring.return to text

    23. WikiFish Contributors, “Wiki Good Style,” WikiFish, http://www.seedwiki.com/wiki/wikifish/wiki_good_style?wpid=77845 (accessed May 1, 2006).return to text

    Page  173

    24. Wikipedia Contributors, “Refactoring Talk Pages,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Refactoring_talk_pages (accessed May 1, 2006).return to text

    25. Wikipedia Contributors, “Refactoring.”return to text

    26. Blogs and Wikis Contributors, “BlogsAndWikis: OffTheCuffBlogging,” Bemidji State University, http://ferret.bemidjistate.edu/~morgan/WeblogsAndWikis/wikka.php?wakka=OffTheCuffBlogging (accessed April 5, 2007).return to text

    27. Blogs and Wikis Contributors, “BlogsAndWikis: TheCollectiveNotebook,” Bemidji State University, http://ferret.bemidjistate.edu/~morgan/WeblogsAndWikis/wikka.php?wakka=TheCollectiveNotebook (accessed April 5, 2007).return to text