Saturday, March 31, 2007

How we are mis-approaching "Wiki Politics"

I know mis-approaching is not a word. This is the postmodern era, so deal with it.
"Wiki Politics" is a really exciting sounding idea. The journal Re-Public will soon be releasing a special issue dedicated to the idea of "Wiki Politics". When we talk about WP, we are referring to the famous Wikipedia , the marvel of collaboration and collective intelligence we all love so dearly. The principles of Wikipedia are marvelously democratic on one level. By which I mean: Anyone can participate, and anyone can access all the information. On another level its missing some pretty crucial features - Wikipedia is not about teaching or nurturing. If you have something to contribute, good on ya, but if you've got nothing to say, or even if what you say is not appreciated by the community, your voice will never get heard. Your contributions, if you make any, will be erased and fade into obscurity. The Framers of the Constitution feared the tyranny of the masses, and there are few explicit protections against it WikiPedia land. This is true for the internet too. Anyone can participate in any way they like, linking their sites to whatever sites they choose. And from this very egalitarian beginning arises a very un-egalitarian result. The popularity of websites follows a Power Law . A tiny number of sites have almost ALL the connections, and almost all the sites have only 1 or 0 connections. City populations and wealth also follow power laws. Scholars have referred to it as the "rich get richer" principle. And where the rich get richer, they also become more influential, and this erodes the egalitarian basis of the society.

So "Wiki Politics" as we understand it from WikiPedia is lacking in this way. It doesn't actively seek to recover its under-performers from the dustbin of history. But there is another problem with our talk about "Wiki Politics": implementation. The principles of Wiki Politics are great (with reservations), but often our idea of implementing Wiki Politics is to create a Politics Wiki . This sounds logical enough. But Wiki Politics is a translation into internet-speak of an old idea: "Participatory Politics". "Wiki" is a misleading term because it implies that this political social transformation should be founded on a particular software application.

A Wiki is really good at sharing information people already know. Its also good for helping people come up with norms to regulate how some disputes are resolved. Since Wiki's are so flexible, its easy to imagine how they could have all kinds of uses: notices of direct action events, debates about policy and theory, and much more. But participatory politics will need a lot more than just Wikis. It needs blogs to support more deliberative conversations. It needs youtube to support visual interaction among people far distant. It needs schools - really good ones that are publicly available - to make sure everyone has the tools and understanding to participate in the body politic. Participatory politics needs citizens to have health care and welfare. How will you help govern if you are too sick to leave your house or if you have to work 14 hours a day at menial jobs? Wiki Politics fosters trust, encourages negotiation, cooperation, and participation. We need to support the values of egalitarianism everywhere in society, not just on a software platform, for Wiki Politics to be possible.

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