Wikipedia: A Marxist perspective

Most people by now know that Wikipedia is the world's largest encyclopaedia. For those who don't, it's a free digital knowledge repository that holds over 30 million articles in more than 280 languages. With over 500 million unique views each month, it continues to grow. This is largely because literally anyone can freely create pages and edit its content, and the architecture of Wikipedia is such that no content can ever be truly lost, because the previous version of any page can be rolled back if required. It is the go to site for many students now, and regardless of the negative views of some academics and teachers, it is an undeniable phenomenon. Much of the activity on Wikipedia can be explained from a Marxist perspective. To understand this we first need to know how Karl Marx was influenced in his thinking.

Arguably one of the biggest influences in the development of Marx's theory was the German realist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

The Hegelian dialectic (formulated from earlier work by Immanuel Kant) was the basis for Marx's theory of class struggle. Hegel based his theory of the dialectical process (sometimes referred to as 'triadic' learning in an educational context) on a progression of four key principles. The first, is that everything is finite and transient, and therefore negotiable; the second is that everything has opposing perspectives and can be contradicted; the third is that eventually one perspective (or argument) will overwhelm the opposing perspective leading to a crisis (thesis versus antithesis), and finally, the fourth is that resolution (of a kind) emerges - not necessarily through consensus - and that the resultant change does not occur in cycles, but as an ever-rising spiral, so that progress can be made (synthesis).

Wikipedia is premised on user generated content, a chaotic and unpredictable collaborative phenomenon that has many risks and challenges, but the ultimate goal is the democratisation of knowledge. What is seen on Wikipedia is not so much a class struggle to gain control over the means of production, but more a struggle between editors and contributors (knowledge owners) to produce a synthesis of content from disparate and possibly conflicting sources. This in turn forms a new knowledge product through shared and occasionally conflicting negotiation of meaning. A number of factors have to be considered, including accuracy and relevance, as well as provenance and acknowledgements of sources, before Wikipedia content finds stability. The dialectical process holds that we learn through argument, and this is evidenced on Wikipedia through discursive social processes that include editing and reiteration, inclusionism and deletionism. Content is usually accepted by consensus, sometimes after a period of editorial storming. Ultimately, the wisdom of crowds described by James Surowiecki (and based on the seminal work of Francis Galton) is seen as the social process that drives this kind of generation, negotiation and dissemination of knowledge in the digital age.

As with all social and collaborative enterprises division of labour is clearly evident in Wikipedia pages. Marx was aware of the problems of divisions of labour and argued that many were indicative of social control over the masses. There are originators of concepts, developers, those who specialise in creating and appropriating images and other media (see the Wikimedia Commons database that sits behind many Wikipedia pages), and then there are those who design templates, or those who patrol sites, checking for accuracy and provenance, and those who police the legal and procedural aspects of the site. This kind of division of labour may not appear to indicate a social stratification of the Wikipedian community. Look closer however, and a power differential is revealed. Those who appoint themselves as editors of the wiki pages and check content, ultimately have power over that content, and thus over the generators of that content.

Ultimately, Wikipedia exemplifies the movement away from those who own the means of production of knowledge - toward a community based on cooperative ownership of the means of production. It is clear that the publishers of other encyclopaedias and large knowledge repositories have been served notice. They no longer hold a monopoly on the means of production, but are being forced to cede more and more control to the people. Similarly to the gradual erosion of the power of the music and film industries, emerging democratic web movements are loosening the stranglehold of the publishing cultural hegemony while strengthening and extending democratic, free and open online resources, so that anyone can now learn just about anything, at their own pace, and in their own space and time.

Photo by Twose

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Wikipedia: A Marxist perspective by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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