Last5 week, Edge.org published Jaron Lanier’s Digital Maoism piece, warning of the dangers of new collectivism, and singling out Wikipedia for criticism. Today, Edge has several reactions to Lanier’s warnings, from people who think about social software from a variety of perspectives, including Douglas Rushkoff, Quentin Hardy, Yochai Benkler, me (and I re-print my piece here), Cory Doctorow, Kevin Kelly, Esther Dyson, Larry Sanger, Fernanda Viegas & Martin Wattenberg, Jimmy Wales, and George Dyson.
I include my reaction here as well, as Edge doesn’t have comments.
Jaron Lanier is certainly right to look at the downsides of collective action. It’s not a revolution if nobody loses, and in this case, expertise and iconoclasm are both relegated by some forms of group activity. However, “Digital Maoism” mischaracterizes the present situation in two ways. The first is that the target of the piece, the hive mind, is just a catchphrase, used by people who don’t understand how things like Wikipedia really work. As a result, criticism of the hive mind becomes similarly vague. Second, the initial premise of the piece — there are downsides to collective production of intellectual work — gets spread it so widely that it comes to cover RSS aggregators, American Idol, and the editorial judgment of the NY Times. These are errors of overgeneralization; it would be good to have a conversation about Wikipedia’s methods and governance, say, but that conversation can’t happen without talking about its actual workings, nor can it happen if it is casually lumped together with other, dissimilar kinds of group action.
The bigger of those two mistakes appears early:
“The problem I am concerned with here is not the Wikipedia in itself. It’s been criticized quite a lot, especially in the last year, but the Wikipedia is just one experiment that still has room to change and grow. […] No, the problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it’s been elevated to such importance so quickly.”
Curiously, the ability of the real Wikipedia to adapt to new challenges is taken at face value. The criticism is then directed instead at people proclaiming Wikipedia as an avatar of a golden era of collective consciousness. Let us stipulate that people who use terms like hive mind to discuss Wikipedia and other social software are credulous at best, and that their pronouncements tend towards caricature. What “Digital Maoism” misses is that Wikipedia doesn’t work the way those people say it does.
Neither proponents nor detractors of hive mind rhetoric have much interesting to say about Wikipedia itself, because both groups ignore the details. As Fernanda Viegas’s work shows, Wikipedia isn’t an experiment in anonymous collectivist creation; it is a specific form of production, with its own bureaucratic logic and processes for maintaining editorial control. Indeed, though the public discussions of Wikipedia often focus on the ‘everyone can edit’ notion, the truth of the matter is that a small group of participants design and enforce editorial policy through mechanisms like the Talk pages, lock protection, article inclusion voting, mailing lists, and so on. Furthermore, proposed edits are highly dependant on individual reputation — anonymous additions or alterations are subjected to a higher degree of both scrutiny and control, while the reputation of known contributors is publicly discussed on the Talk pages.
Wikipedia is best viewed as an engaged community that uses a large and growing number of regulatory mechanisms to manage a huge set of proposed edits. “Digital Maoism” specifically rejects that point of view, setting up a false contrast with open source projects like Linux, when in fact the motivations of contributors are much the same. With both systems, there are a huge number of casual contributors and a small number of dedicated maintainers, and in both systems part of the motivation comes from appreciation of knowledgeable peers rather than the general public. Contra Lanier, individual motivations in Wikipedia are not only alive and well, it would collapse without them.
“The Digital Maoism” argument is further muddied by the other systems dragged in for collectivist criticism. There’s the inclusion of American Idol, in which a popularity contest is faulted for privileging popularity. Well, yes, it would, wouldn’t it, but the negative effects here don’t come from some new form of collectivity, they come from voting, a tool of fairly ancient provenance. Decrying Idol’s centrality is similarly misdirected. This season’s final episode was viewed by roughly a fifth of the country. By way of contrast, the final episode of M*A*S*H was watched by three fifths of the country. The centrality of TV, and indeed of any particular medium, has been in decline for three decades. If the pernicious new collectivism is relying on growing media concentration, we’re safe.
Popurls.com is similarly and oddly added to the argument, but there is in fact no meta-collectivity algorithm at work here — Popurls just an aggregation of RSS feeds. You might as well go after my.yahoo if that’s the kind of thing that winds you up. And the ranking systems that are aggregated all display different content, suggesting real subtleties in the interplay of algorithm and audience, rather than a homogenizing hive mind at work. You wouldn’t know it, though, to read the broad-brush criticism of Popurls here. And that is the missed opportunity of “The Digital Maoism”: there are things wrong with RSS aggregators, ranking algorithms, group editing tools, and voting, things we should identify and try to fix. But the things wrong with voting aren’t wrong with editing tools, and the things wrong with ranking algorithms aren’t wrong with aggregators. To take the specific case of Wikipedia, the Seigenthaler/Kennedy debacle catalyzed both soul-searching and new controls to address the problems exposed, and the controls included, inter alia, a greater focus on individual responsibility, the very factor “Digital Maoism” denies is at work.
The changes we are discussing here are fundamental. The personal computer produced an incredible increase in the creative autonomy of the individual. The internet has made group forming ridiculously easy. Since social life involves a tension between individual freedom and group participation, the changes wrought by computers and networks are therefore in tension. To have a discussion about the plusses and minuses of various forms of group action, though, is going to require discussing the current tools and services as they exist, rather than discussing their caricatures or simply wishing that they would disappear.