Presider: William Yagatich

Along with the Cyborgology editors and few other colleagues, we are throwing a conference on April 9th called Theorizing the Web. Leading up to the event, we will occasionally highlight some of the events taking place. I will be presiding over a paper session titled “Wiki-Knowledge—Populist Epistemologies from the Web” and present the four abstracts below. The aim of this paper session is to explore emergent communities of knowledges, their epistemologies, and the impact of the knowledge economy that is being created and has been created on the Web and social media. Each of these papers address different knowledges and epistemologies, ranging from the perceptions of the Internet and it uses to the meaning of post-expertise in the era of Web 2.0.

First, Katy Pearce will present a paper on Armenian conceptualizations of the Internet and the Web. What will be emphasized her is the meaning of the Internet and the Web is based not on just individual preference but is both culturally and device-bound. Next, Avelet Oz explores the contradictory tendencies of Wikipedia’s legal consciousness and its ideological practices: Wikipedia’s attempt to set a cultural schema and organization of objectivity while keeping the system open to the lay public to encourage participation. Third, Kyle Reinson presents the intriguing case of post-expertise in the era of Web 2.0, which describes the potential shift of power relations that may result from the challenge of emergent businesses and social media organizations. In effect, the rise of said businesses and social media organizations offer individuals access to information and services at little or no cost that was previously held and distributed by experts in a particular knowledge community. Last, Sally A. Applin will present a paper written with Michael D. Fischer that specifically focuses on the dynamics of knowledge creation on Web 2.0 and how this new practice of knowledge formation challenges authority of experts by rendering such information available to the mass public.

Find the four abstracts below. Together, they will make for an interesting and informative panel for anyone interested in knowledge production and epistemologies. We invite everyone to join us at the conference in College Park, MD (just outside of Washington, D.C.) on April 9th. And let’s start the discussion before the conference in the comments section below. Thanks!


Katy Pearce, “I don’t use the Internet. I just use social networking sites and download content onto my phone.” Defining the Internet: Perspectives from mobile-only Internet users in Armenia”

Conceptualization of what “the Internet” or “the Web” is to an individual is both culturally- and device-bound. In the Republic of Armenia, where home PC adoption has reached 10-15% of the population and only about 7% of those homes have an Internet connection, but mobile phones have reached 80-90% and mobile-based Internet, as of late 2010, is used by 21% of the population. Thus, there is a great deal of Armenians for whom the mobile phone is their exclusive Internet providing device.

As Potosky (2007) states, there is little research on how one’s conceptualization of the Internet affects access and use. However, certainly, perception of what the Internet is shapes attitudes and behaviors (Peng, Tsai & Wu, 2006; Tsai, 2006).  And there is a great deal of evidence that individuals from different cultures have different perceptions and uses of the Internet (Allwood & Wang, 1990; Brosnan & Lee, 1998; Makrakis, 1992; Martin, Heller, & Mahmoud, 1992; Omar, 1992).

Based on ethnographic observation and qualitative open ended survey questions answered by Armenian Internet users conducted in early 2011, this study finds that conceptualizations of “the Internet” or “the Web” do not include using applications on a smartphone, accessing popular social networking sites or downloading media files.  Additionally, social activities rather than information seeking or browsing are the most common uses of Internet on mobile devices.

Ayelet Oz (@ayeletoz), “The Legal Consciousness of Wikipedia”

Over the last several decades, the Internet has opened new possibilities for social organization. A corpus of scholarly and popular writing describes the emergence of online collaboration as presenting a radical alternative to contemporary social institutions such as the market and the state. A similar challenge is presented to our familiar understandings of the cultural meaning of law.
My paper zooms in on the legal aspects of online organization. Through a bottom-up exploration of discussions, dispute resolution decisions, elections and other arenas of legal activity on Wikipedia, I aim to weave together a coherent understanding of the “legal consciousness” of Wikipedia – the set of fundamental ideas and conceptual categories that help construct, compose and interpret its social relations.
My goal it to capture the ways in which law, as a social construct, holds the potential to limit innovative governance, due to its persistence as a familiar cultural schema, already embedded with existing notions of hierarchy. The combination of the radical project of online communities with their use of formal legal structures illuminates this tension and opens a possibility for a better understanding of the mechanisms by which legal concepts and structures affect our world outside the formal legal system.

Utilizing ethnographic methods with methods for qualitative analysis of texts, I shed light on the internal legal activity in Wikipedia: norm-creation, dispute resolution, and the creation of a professional legal class.Preliminary findings show that the legal consciousness of Wikipedia revolves around an unsolved paradox between two contrasting ideologies: the hope for a “perfect machine” that does not rely on human preference at all, and an ideology of openness and hands-on participation.

On the one hand, we see a constant attempt to build a perfectly objective system that is not vulnerable to individual preferences: the governing norms focus on setting rules for discussion, and not on promoting any specific values (the important policies are “neutrality” and “no conflict of interest”); the decisions of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee are structured as a list of undisputable preliminary principles; and the discourse revolves objective elements such as evidence and conduct, and does not discuss values and content disputes.
On the other hand, we see a constant attempt to undermine the transcendence of the system by creating new arenas for lay participation, as well as conducting the full proceedings publicly. The process in the Arbitration Committee is radically open, inviting all of the users to take part in it; we can spot spheres of rich discussion in informal mentoring; new meanings for conduct rules are created; and user-centered practices of decentralized and participatory gathering of evidence emerge.

Trying to mitigate the conflict between these two ideologies, I use critical legal theory to construct a unified theory that will be able to explain these contradictions, and show how the internal paradox shapes the social organization on Wikipedia.

Kyle Reinson (@reinsoncreative), “Buying the experts when the expertise is free: Contemporary (mass) media consciousness and the knowledge economy in the Web era of post-expertise”

Theoretical perspectives pertaining to the Web can be an attractive subject due to the uncertainty of a still amorphous and expanding cyberspace infrastructure. In a variety of efforts by companies to gain competitive commercial advantage within more traditional service-based professions there has been a steady increase in the availability of free or low-cost alternatives to services traditionally based on vast expertise. For decades the hegemonic control of scarcity in information exchange has been held over from the pre-Web economy. This seemingly hidden economic bubble of expertise is just waiting to burst.

Examples of this increasing trend include, where average consumers can pay a fraction of typical legal fees for personal and business services as well as help with their trademark, patent and copyright issues. Another is Intuit’s, where a variety of premium services that certified public accountants (CPAs) have traditionally offered now afford American Web consumers single-use software that guides them “like a GPS to help…find every tax deduction (they) deserve.” It was only a matter of time for technology to begin eroding the value of a knowledge-based economy.
As an economic system, market capitalism depends on a certain level of scarcity for products and services that is difficult to sustain when faced with the abundance of information and automated expertise available on the Web to increasingly tech-savvy consumers. The combination of searchable information and expanding access affords human users short-hand answers to questions they may have traditionally made appointments to hear the answers to – or paid sometimes exorbitant fees to obtain counsel.

To complicate this crisis of expertise, millions of people (through Facebook and social networks) now turn to a backchannel of friends to suggest which products to buy or even to find the best college or university programs in which to enroll. In a very real sense, consumers are faced with the question of why they would buy the cow when its milk is available free (or at least a lower cost). As users increase their search competencies and their motivations (or economic conditions) no longer favor paying for expensive professional services the result will be the continuation of a sea change in the Internet, the delivery of expertise and the changing nature of capitalism.

Andre Lemos differentiates between the mass media function, namely the “centralized flow of information with an editorial control by big companies in the process of competition funded by advertising,” and post-mass media functions that “operate from technologies and networks where anyone can produce information, ‘releasing’ the editorial center.” (Lemos, 2010) This paper extends his thinking toward the connection between expertise and post-media functions to suggest we have begun to encounter an era of post-expertise where professions will be rapidly reshaped for adaptation to the Web and where world economies will continue to struggle in creating well-paying jobs in areas traditionally seen as staples for feeding middle-class growth.

First, this paper theorizes that the continuing existence and use of the Web has created a favorable climate for the condition of post-expertise. In the same sense that human beings encounter the post-modern, they are all-at-once aware of the shift and unwilling to escape the legacy of the previous era. This does not signal an end to expertise but instead a new way to understand what cannot be sufficiently labeled as expertise.

Second, this paper theorizes a period of mass denial on the part of legacy media to recognize that post-expertise has had swift and decisively negative impacts on its own hegemonic agenda-setting power. This paper suggest that focusing on routine reporting of the symptomatic news of Wall Street, foreclosures and joblessness does not begin to direct resources and attention toward the problem of free and discounted information in thwarting economic recovery and perhaps preventing U.S. economic recovery altogether.

Third, as knowledge production and “news” becomes increasingly an ahistorical exercise with the Web’s ability to shape popular reality through search and selective news feeds – the social implications of knowledge production and scarcity remain unanswered in terms of the perceived value of everything from higher education to other forms of expertise in their post-expertise form. To paraphrase Orwell’s 1984, the past is written by those who control the present – and the virtual realities created by the Web are defining new contexts as they trace the communication of the future. Expertise is an inevitable casualty of the new contexts.

Sally A. Applin (@anthropunk), “Humans and Knowledge: Making it in the Web 2.0 World”

(with Michael D. Fischer)

This paper examines the sources of knowledge and the transference of knowledge between and to people in the Web 2.0 world. The advent of Web 2.0 marks a significant change to roles in knowledge and to the corresponding shifting role that authority takes in adapting to the rapid creation and transference of knowledge. We explore what it means to people to now have continual global access to a rapidly shifting, transient knowledge source, which they both experience and create.

The presence of Web 2.0 has rapidly shifted the relations between people and knowledge. If Web 1.0 stimulated dramatic changes in how knowledge was disseminated, Web 2.0 stimulates changes in the transformation of specialist into mundane knowledge, available to anyone who wants or may need it. In this paper, we review examples of this phenomena (via Quora, Twitter, Yelp, etc..) and examine the changes between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 with regards to how knowledge is valuated, created, deployed, edited, augmented, and destroyed. We discuss this with reference to Marc Augé’s (1995) notion of supermodernity. In particular, we explore the transitory nature of the relationship between expert and mundane knowledge as enacted in a Web 2.0 world, where ‘expertise’ emerges for a temporary period of time as knowledge that is applied in a non-attached, transitory way to whatever the use-case is at the time. When the use-case is complete, so is the need for the solution’s reliance on ‘expertise.’

For the most part, Web 1.0 was largely contributed to by an elite group that focused on the accumulation of knowledge, distributed via the dissemination model of publishing. With Web 2.0, there are a few differences, the most marked being that various people contribute to the aggregate of knowledge. People are using accumulated knowledge, interactive aggregated knowledge (such as web forums), and sensor created physical knowledge (mobile phone tracking records and contextual locative information) to create new knowledge. Thus, knowledge has become the result of people generating and applying prior knowledge, which then becomes knowledge, which is then fed back into the knowledge source, which is then valuated, etc…This aggregation plays an important role as the results of the synthesis become a part of the shared pool of knowledge. This ‘Supermodern Knowledge Transference,’ (SKT) dilutes the value of authority (e.g. “expertise) in the Web 2.0 world.  With this model, authority is temporarily assigned, depending upon the context of particular queries at any given point in time and can rapidly shift as feedback and further knowledge is quickly funneled back into the knowledge source. As anthropologists, we are both concerned and fascinated by this model. Is knowledge and expertise evolving or is it becoming a ‘just-in-time’ transitory model? Does knowledge condense, or is it fragmenting and expanding with simultaneous, asynchronous points of view and contribution to the knowledge source?  Is the ‘knowledge source’ a ‘thing’ or is it a fragmented transient idea? We intend to discuss these and other questions around the ‘knowledge’ of Web 2.0 and how it is created.