Explanation in Process

The daily traffic on Wikipedia, the easy editing process, and the commitment of administrators, volunteers, and readers to accuracy and to citation create the context for quick revision of inappropriate edits. My experience is not unusual: within an hour and eight minutes other readers edit other entries; administrators and volunteers ferret out other vandals in the same time frame. Although some editors might continuously attempt to shape the perspective of particular entries to suit corporate, institutional, or personal needs, the conservative nature of the Wikipedia project works against such partisanship.

Any collaborative writing endeavor promises a representative articulation, a compromise of voices and points of view: eventually. Wikipedia entries are no exception; at their best, older entries are unoriginal and non-controversial, even if the early stages of the writing process show evidence of conflict, bias, power-plays, inaccuracy, unnecessary rhetorical flourish – and obscenity. My experience marks only a brief period in the process by which Wikipedia facilitates correction, resolves differences, and produces better writing: according to the Wikipedia entry describing this process, better writing emerges gradually as individual entries take on “a neutral point of view” reached through consensus (Wikipedia: About”). Writing process theory proposes that any text, whether individually or collectively authored, demonstrates comparable improvement over time.
Collaboratively written pieces such as Wikipedia entries, though, which have numerous authors, who are frequently unknown, changeable, unpredictably committed to the writing project, and from extremely diverse cultural and educational backgrounds, can appear to languish in the midst of the writing process. This phenomenon, while in the nature of reading and writing Wikipedia entries, has produced criticism that entries are unreliable, incomplete, and contestable during the process.

Because they are publicly accessible, Wikipedia entries require reading that takes the process, their means of production, into consideration. Reading that does not misreads a finished version for a text still in progress. A finished version of a Wikipedia entry exists only in theory, however; since entries are rarely locked or tagged “read only,” a reader can take on the role of an editor at any time, thereby updating, fussing with, or otherwise adulterating an entry that has remained stable for a while. Because it is visible, public, and ongoing, Wikipedia demystifies writing process, bringing it out of writers’ private spaces, but at the same time, renders the final product obsolete and irrelevant, a trace of previous generations’ cycles of production and exchange.

This inversion of writing objectives – texts forever in process instead of in progress toward a final, complete version – relocation of the space in which process occurs – public instead of private space – and deflation of the cultural value assigned to the final product, informs text construction not only in Wikipedia entries but also in other digital writing environments. However, writing instruction in school, particularly in first year college composition courses, preserves pedagogy largely inherited from the pre-electronic writing 1970s. Writing process, still the most common approach to college writing instruction, encourages students to view writing as a recursive habit, their texts as revisable drafts. In this pedagogy, the final product continues to retain value, however; it represents the end of process and of teachable writing skills, the gradable distillation of previous versions of a student’s work. Although students might meet in computer classrooms or in online environments in 2008, perform research on the Internet or search electronic databases, maintain course blogs, and even produce electronic portfolios at the end of a term, writing instruction has not yet let go of the notion that the writing process leads to a finished product.

© Carra Leah Hood