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Social Constructivism in the Age of Wikipedia
I have a hard time talking about things in the abstract. If I don’t have something tangible to illustrate a concept for me, I feel completely lost and have a hard time transforming those abstract thoughts into something other than a pile of words floating around in my brain. For this reason, I connected most with the concept of social constructivism—also, because the Wikipedia page for this topic was super-accessible and easy to understand. “But Tony,” you’re likely thinking (and if not, we’ll just pretend that you are) “Wikipedia is hardly the best place for serious thought. There’s no accountability there! Anyone can edit it and any time! It’s a place of human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together...mass hysteria!” To which I say, “Well, yeah. That’s what makes it rad. It’s totally, like, postmodern.”
Maybe today the concept of an open-source compendium of knowledge is old-hat. After all, Wikipedia has been around for fifteen years now and in that time, it has become an integral part of our digital landscape. Google now integrates Wikipedia excerpts into its web searches (go ahead. Open up a new tab and search something like “shark” or “potato salad.” Check out the right-hand side of the window for a summary of content pulled straight from Wikipedia). What’s remarkable about Wikipedia is how quickly and thoroughly it has displaced encyclopedias. Think about the last time you read something in an encyclopedia—even a digital one. Yeah, I can’t remember either.
Wikipedia: Visible Social Construction
Okay, okay. You’re maybe wondering what any of this has to do with social constructivism. (Or maybe not. Y’all are savvy folks and likely know where I’m going with this.) The rise of Wikipedia is the rise of a medium of publication that more transparently models the process of knowledge making. Encyclopedias are part of a top-down process of publishing and knowledge making where a writer surveys the writing in a particular field, condenses and connects that writing into a single written text, and passes it to editors who verify his/her work before compiling the text for publishing. Knowledge in this system goes through a series of gatekeepers before being sent out for public consumption. We access an encyclopedia with the assumption that all knowledge contained therein is truth, because the institution’s reputation is based on only printing truth. This does two things: (1) it makes for passive readers, who assume it is someone else’s job to assess truth claims and (2) it separates readers from the community of knowledge creators, with the assumption that they do not possess the authority to create knowledge themselves. Wikipedia turns this model on its head by asking users to engage with making knowledge as readily as they acquire it.
To edit on Wikipedia, one must be versed in what Richard Rorty calls the “normal discourse” of a “community of knowledgeable peers”. To successfully edit, one must not only be knowledgeable about the material about which one is writing but, perhaps more importantly, one must understand and adapt to Wikipedia’s conventions of neutral tone, frequent use of authoritative outside sources, and make use of the odd HTML-esque syntax it uses to format text. Kenneth Bruffee suggests that “Mastery of a knowledge community’s normal discourse is the basic qualification for acceptance into that community,” and this is abundantly clear on Wikipedia where regular contributing members of the editing community will straight up remove new content if it does not strictly conform to their standards.
If I want an edit to stick, I need to frame it in a way that is acceptable to the community of users [WHO are we?] that engage with that particular page, and perhaps even defend my edits in the Talk page—the place behind-the-scenes of each page, where users discuss the merits of certain edits or point out areas that need significant revision. The Talk page is where the community discusses truth claims—where the community agrees upon which claims are substantial enough to be presented on the page. This is where users make the claim that their “description has certain advantages over [other users’]”. The state of these pages are always already in a state of flux, with content changing depending on whoever can make the strongest claim. Even if a user is convinced that his/her version of events is closer to “reality,” that belief cannot be sustained without buy in and cooperation from the rest of the community.
In the Classroom
Kenneth Bruffee suggests placing students in groups as a way of modeling the social construction of knowledge. I approach things slightly differently by having students engage with the online community of Wikipedia editors to demonstrate that same concept. Instead of discussing in groups, they are tasked with researching a particular Wikipedia page and making edits to it based on the standards and suggestions laid out by the community of editors. It is helpful, I think, to ask students to enter into a discourse community that has fairly strict rules of discourse that are clearly laid out. It is my hope that asking students to engage with this community “promotes a sort of reacculturation” that forces them to rethink the way they think about engaging with texts—so that they feel they have the authority to not just be end-users but to contribute to communal knowledge-building.
How good was that stew !?! so good.
- Bruffee, Kenneth. "Collaborative Learning and the 'Conversation of Mankind.'" College English 46.7 (1984): 635-52. Web.
- Rorty, Richard. Rev. of True to Life: Why Truth Matters, by Michael P. Lynch. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71.1 (2005): 231-239. Web.