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Wikipedia and the disappearing "author".

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 By the 20th century, the idea that authors "own" their work dwelled so deep in our cultures that even unpublished authors, even grade-school children recognize and accept the notion without question.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.

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."
 --From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

The idea of collaborative writing didn't start with the Internet, of course, but this new form differs from typical collaborations of the last century. In the few hundred years that we have had laws that codified the rights of authors, western culture has generally required that written works carry specific information about who wrote them.

The idea that any reader can also add, change or even delete another writer's document makes some writers uncomfortable. The educational system of the 20th century produced several generations of authors with a strong belief in the "self-evident" right of authors to own and control their works. Even when a work involved the efforts of several authors, the strictures of copyright prevailed. Every author's name appears on the work, or the primary author includes an elaborate acknowledgement of the efforts of the others. So deep do these beliefs run that we have explicit and regularly enforced laws protecting the author from plagiarism, the unacknowledged presentation of another person's writing as one's own.

Wikipedia has no such concerns. Just as Newton acknowledged that he stood on the shoulders of giants, so wiki authors understand that the recording of information by any one of us really only builds on the efforts of all the other thinkers, readers, and writers who have gone before. It embraces the process nature of reading and writing, preferring the constantly-evolving-but-never-finishing to the static and rapidly obsolescing "product."

On a wiki site, anyone who reads a page can also edit it, borrow from it or even remove it. In fact, the wiki culture invites, almost compels readers to edit. A page on some particular topic might contain words highlighted with a special color indicating a related topic in need of an author. A writer has highlighted the word because it might add valuable perspective to the current topic, but either hasn't had time or doesn't have the interest or ability to provide the related explanation or background. A reader who views the page and feels able to contribute something can click on the highlighted word and provide information or a link to other related pages.

The process does not take place completely anonymously. Every page has a history of changes, and every person who makes edits can enter a note explaining the reason for changes made. However, the wiki doesn't record this information to assert authorship per se. Rather, other readers use it to determine whether a page has changed since they last viewed it, or to discover the identity of a writer who perhaps introduced an error or a spurious comment. Just because anyone can make changes doesn't free a writer from responsibility for what they write.

For example, when I read the introductory Wikipedia page on general semantics, I noticed a reference to the name of Bob Pula. When I clicked on it, the wiki displayed an empty page with a set of editing tools and the suggestion that I could write something about Bob. So I did. When I saved the short biography I contributed, the wiki asked me to describe the reason for my entry. If the next reader of this page decides that I have entered invalid or incomplete information, they might add to, change or even delete my entry. When they make a change, they too enter the reason for the change. If I object, I can reassert my entry, or perhaps even negotiate with the other editor to determine the problem between our two views. In the eminently democratic world in which Wikipedia exists, another author/reader will volunteer to monitor sections of the site and arbitrate in such situations.

Those of us interested general semantics will interpret in our own way the transition from the view of writing as a product to the understanding of writing and reading as moments in a process of communication. In our terms, we no longer say we "are" authors. Instead we periodically author, read, and share information.


* Nora Miller lives near Portland, Oregon, where she has undertaken to discover what joy may come from the form of living called "early retirement." This currently involves contract work as technical support for a small government website, freelance editing, writing and photography, taking care of an also-retired significant other, and looking for sun wherever she can find it. She assists with copy-editing for ETC and occasionally contributes articles and columns.
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Title Annotation:piece of writing
Author:Miller, Nora
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Previous Article:Quotes.
Next Article:Time-binding in the Information Age.

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