Thursday, February 7, 2008

Wikipedia and the Writerly Text

In response to the earlier post about Wikipedia, I would like to suggest that the collective authorship and lack of personal ownership of articles seem to connect at least partially with Barthes’s idea of the writerly text. While many Wikipedia articles are non-narrative and do not easily allow for some of Barthes’s analysis, they do away with the “the pitiless divorce…between the producer of the text and its user” that he complains of and the idleness that the reader “is thereby plunged into.” The hypertext links of its articles also allow the user to jump from subject to subject, and around the internet, nearly as easily as his or her train of thought would. Wikipedia therefore seems to combine positive elements of both the writerly text along with research and memory machines like Bush’s Memex and Nelson’s Xanadu.
There are obvious drawbacks however, to this type of system. Because anyone can write an article on Wikipedia, there is a certain degree of unreliability that the reader must take into account. The previous post on the topic suggests that this condition of the site renders it a “cesspool of information and misiniformation,” and that perhaps we are “tainting” the body of knowledge proposed by Bush. It seems to me however, that if the reader accepts the unreliability of Wikipedia, and this is the necessary condition, then his or her experience of the text will be more active and engaged than it would if he or she were reading, for instance, a hard copy book edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Rather than a tainting of the body of knowledge, I think the character of Wikipedia enriches its content and helps us as readers to be more discerning and more critical in our reading. There is also a danger here however, that because the information is not always accurate, those who take its authority and factuality for granted will be more easily misinformed. The greater body of knowledge that Wikipedia allows though, seems to me a fair exchange for some slight unreliability. For those looking for a research aid in line with the Memex or Xanadu, Wikipedia is a least a start, a place where one can begin the train of thought and extending it by way of hypertext links to other sources of information both on the internet as various forms in the physical world.

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