Wikipedia and the Disappearing "Author"

By Miller, Nora | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Wikipedia and the Disappearing "Author"


Miller, Nora, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


WHAT DOES it mean to author a piece of writing? For many generations, humans inscribed clay tablets and recorded information on papyrus but only rarely included their own names in the documents they produced. Many of the most famous works of antiquity come to us as accounts of words spoken by someone else.

Only after the development of movable type and modern publishing methods did authorship acquire a legal and universal meaning. Copyright laws established the right of the person who penned a work to profit from it and control its publication. By the 20th century, the idea that authors "own" their work dwelled so deep in our cultures that even unpublished authors, even grade-school children recognize and accept the notion without question.

Then came the Internet. Initially designed to connect researchers at various campuses and military installations around the country, it rapidly evolved into the now-famous World Wide Web. The technology underlying the web provides some previously unimaginable tools for authoring and disseminating information. Even with movable type, many documents only existed in small quantities. If your local library didn't have a copy and you couldn't afford to buy one, you simply didn't read it. On the web, a single copy of a document becomes available to any person able to connect to the Internet--still not universal access, of course, but the ratio of books to readers has changed by several orders of magnitude.

Beyond increasing availability however, the technology of the Internet has begun to challenge the very concept of authorship and readership, in ways that seems particularly of interest to the general semantics community. One web page on the subject of writing put it this way:

   ... in cyberspace, reader/responder and author/writer often merge,
   voices collapse and multiply, often belonging to no single source--
   or even to a person, and familiar notions of textuality and
   especially of where meaning resides are all called into question.
   --What Matters Who Writes?, What Matters Who Responds?
   Issues of Ownership in the Writing Classroom, Andrea Lunsford,
   Rebecca Rickly, Michael Salvo, and Susan West.
   http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/1.1/features/lunsford/title.html

This merging of roles came about initially because of the ease with which an Internet-aware author can send text to others and because of tools that allow the reader of that text to edit and augment the text before passing it on to the next "reader." This process began with electronic mail. I send an e-mail to my colleague with a few paragraphs regarding a subject of mutual interest. The colleague can easily excerpt my text and add comments or even make changes to my original. The result may come back to me or may go out to a broader audience. Perhaps writers, nearly all of which grew up in an educational system that emphasized "doing your own work," found this process acceptable largely because of the transient and even ephemeral quality of e-mail. (Although, of course, we now know that e-mail is anything but ephemeral. Lawyers routinely dredge up electronic evidence of collusion, contumely, and malfeasance by combing through backup tapes of "ephemeral" e-mail. In my days as information systems manager, I had to remind my users repeatedly that they could never predict who might ultimately see their e-mails, and thus to write accordingly.)

As the membership of Internet users widened, people looked for ways to expand and enhance this facility for sharing the production of a piece of writing. From these efforts has emerged the wiki, a new form of website specifically designed to enable information sharing and collaborative writing. The most ambitious of these sites, Wikipedia, has embarked on the development of an online encyclopedia, "designed to be read and edited by anyone."

   "The terms collaborative writing and peer collaboration refer to
   projects where written works are created by many people together
   (collaboratively) rather than individually. … 

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