Before the internet was the highly sophisticated, well-structured web of everything that we know it as today, the top ten search results for “Adolf Hitler” returned everything from Hitler’s biography to kitlers, kittens that look like Hitler. No joke.
As the internet developed, the web—and all the information it contained—was structured. As the web grew, it became an increasingly attractive resource for people, so they began using the internet. And then more and more followed suit. And finally, even those people who used to hate on the internet joined the internet bandwagon. This phenomenon is described by Metcalf’s Law, named after a brainy hotshot who co-invented the Ethernet (but who also got his PhD at Cambridge Community College). The idea behind the law is simple. It basically states that the value of a network increases (really quickly) as the number of users in the network increases. We can all relate to this trend. After my friend Florian had to go back to Germany after studying abroad at my high school, he told me to get Skype. And then my friend George told me that he had Skype, as did my other friend Danielle. Downloading Skype allowed not only me to contact Florian, but also Florian to contact George and Danielle, and George to contact Florian and me, and Danielle to contact Florian, George, and me, etc. You get the idea. The value of the network grows—order n log n or n2—as the number of users does.
Before you dismiss this as some esoteric mathematical phenomenon, it might help to remember that this idea is related to a mind-blowing experiment conducted in the Netherlands. The city of Drachten, with a population of 45,000 people, is verkeersbordvrij—free of all traffic signs.
If you’ve ever been to India and witnessed first-hand the anxiety that drivers there are subjected to in spite of all the road traffic signs, you may wonder what could have possessed anyone to propose something so radical.
But after two years of observing the unusual policy, the city witnessed a considerable decrease in accidents, and other cities in Europe began adopting similar policies. Perhaps surprisingly, the lack of strict, formal laws didn’t result in complete anarchy or dystopia. The take-home lesson from Dracthen is that sometimes, even in unexpected contexts, standards are more effective than rules; given how networks—whether road maps or social networks—grow so quickly in value, this observation is particularly salient when constructing the frameworks upon which we build networks like the internet. Instead of feeling burdened with tons of laws to abide by, people can respect each other’s welfare more effectively if they are liberated from them. If people feel like they are part of a social group—they’ve got your back, you’ve got their back—the Internet Gods do their magic, and things just click.
These occurrences are particularly pronounced in peer production (think free software), which consists of three basic steps: producing, accrediting, and distributing content. NASA Clickworkers, a project that basically distributed and crowd-sourced scientific tasks, demonstrated that the web maintains an altruistic, consensus-esque culture. So many people were willing to devote their time and energy to things that didn’t directly benefit them (or at least, not monetarily) that together, their combined computing power surpassed that of the world’s fastest supercomputer. Dang. (Sidenote: Check out more distributed computing projects here. Some of them, like RPI’s project to construct a 3-D image of the Milky Way galaxy, are really cool.)
Next, our peers have also seamlessly integrated the process of establishing relevance and accreditation into our virtual worlds. I have yet to purchase an item from Amazon without having access to plenty of customer reviews (of both the product and the shipper if I’m buying a used book). Amazon also includes that handy “customers who bought items you recently viewed also bought these items” bit that always tempts me into buying more stuff. All of these services are ways of establishing relevance and accreditation. The “related items” pitch by Amazon teases you with stuff that is almost always relevant or related to the thing you’re searching for or interested in, and all the customer reviews help establish the legitimacy of the product you’re thinking about purchasing. These services have been integrated into the internet in more subtle ways, too. Google’s PageRank algorithm (named after Larry Page, FYI) does this. Pages that are linked to more frequently among more popular sites are prioritized in Google searches. Thus, these links embedded within sites are a form of establishing relevance and accreditation. Good websites will be linked to by other good websites more often, thus constructing a kind of peer-to-peer relationship among the sites we find on Google.
The final step of peer production is distribution, which speaks for itself, though it is worth noting that distribution is cheap online. Together, they all form a powerful combination. Slashdot, Reddit, and Yelp all do these things in one form or another. And so does Wikipedia, the king of online peer production.
Needless to say, Wikipedia is pretty darn awesome. It’s grounded in a spirit of reporting in a neutral point of view, not conducting original research, using verifiable sources, and assuming good faith. You don’t need me to praise Wikipedia for you to appreciate it. We’ve all used it, and we will most likely continue to do so.
As a loyal consumer of Wikipedia, I will defend it to great lengths. I also religiously consult Yelp every time I eat out. However, I do think there are some drawbacks to commons peer production—or rather, to its potential consequences. True, even though peer produced projects like Wikipedia have been found to about as inaccurate as Encyclopedia Britannica, it could still be quite a bit more accurate, and the Seigenthaler incident is a reminder of this fact. And true, the Essjay Controversy is proof that such endeavors are not perfect. Those are not my objections.
Peer production begs the question of peer consumption. Is it not unreasonable to venture that peers—even if loosely defined—are consuming those things that their peers produced? Perhaps this is a bit of a stretch. Our peer networks do serve great functions, but relinquishing the asymmetrical allocation of power that characterized the institutional foundation of property also has consequences. That power, traditionally reserved for the owner, itself performed a valuable service in the same way that information (Yelp, what place has good food? Is the service good?) embedded within networks and their collaborative webs do. The absence of those distributed webs allowed those wielding ownership (power) a sense of authority, validity, and legitimacy. The centrality of the information economy served a purpose in the same way the decentralized economy does, but they have different consequences, which are already materializing and are most sinister when we think about our source of information.
Not to get too meta (as this can apply to Facebook itself, not just to the use of Facebook), but don’t tell me you haven’t ever logged onto Facebook at the end of a long day, only to realize two hours later that you hadn’t read the news that morning and just spent a ton of time (during which you meant to do homework) reading a random assortment of articles that your Facebook friends happened to upload. A lot of people joke about getting their news from Facebook, and in many ways, that appears undesirable.
“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” -Mark Zuckerberg
Conservapedia, a conservative spin-off of Wikipedia, was founded in 2006 in response to Wikipedia’s alleged “liberal bias.” The main page links to other pages including Why does science work at all?, Is science a game?, and The rules of the game. The website claims that global warming is a liberal hoax and that homosexuality is caused, among other things, by liberal ideology creeping into education and by “psychological tactics used by homosexual activists.” In all seriousness, propoganda has always existed, and it will always exist. I just fear that, although peer production confers benefits that enhance all of our lives, peer production may also facilitate the degradation of a robust and transparent information economy, especially as we consume the products of peer production in an increasingly personalized internet age. I’d guess that the primary consumers of Conservapedia are “peers” of its producers. No one else would consult it seriously. Peer production may beget peer consumption, and to the extent that we allow it to supplant our high quality sources of information, they are potentially damaging.
“It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not been tailored to them.” -Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google
(Warning: gratuitous Wikipedia links continue below)
Many of us depend on Wikipedia for all aspects of work and play but, admittedly, it has its flaws. Still, Wikipedia manages to be one of the most visited sites year after year. What keeps us coming back? Is it an addiction to an ever-growing content base and cordial user community? Perhaps a primal urge to voraciously consume and produce knowledge?
Are the problems of Wikipedia solvable? Many have been greatly mitigated but have yet to dissapear. As you continue your Wikipedia editing/using career, here are some issues to consider as the network grows.
10. Abuse and Vandalism in Articles
This slots in at 10 as the community controls and norms in place continue to make this less of an issue. Still, if Stephen Colbert believes in change on Wikipedia, it might just happen. Edit wars are still fairly common and can get nasty. While most of the time, users do seem to be acting in good faith, it isn’t always the case.
As the user base continues to increase and people and machines get better at monitoring and fixing abuse, the prospects continue to brighten!
Just because content isn’t centrally created and distributed, doesn’t mean it can’t be blocked or censored. And if anyone can edit Wikipedia, the government and private enterprise can edit Wikipedia. While censorship across different types of content and distribution methods is certainly a concern, the right to access factual information is becoming a more pervasive human right. Because of the nature of Wikipedia’s content, any obscenity or other censorship argument is weakened. Expect Wikipedia to remain at the frontier of free information.
I know. I know. It’s better this way – presenting facts and the facts of others’ viewpoints but I wish just once we could shake things up and have an article that reads like the YDN editorial page. You can be sure that Paul D. Keane. M. Div ’80. M.A., M.Ed. PS would be very vocal on the discussion page and trolls would abound.
The Neutrality standard, like Abuse and Vandalism above, has continued to be upheld more effectively through norms, moderators, and technological infrastructure. This is no easy task, especially in the case of articles involving current events or controversial issues or both. Like Abuse, this issue is unlikely to be wiped out completely, but its adverse effects are generally felt minimally by Wikipedia users.
7. Time Waster
Ok, maybe it isn’t as bad as StumbleUpon or Google Reader, but Wikipedia can really eat up time. This is true for both editing and reading; all those in-text links are just so appealing. On the bright side, you can’t help but feel like you’re learning something. It just isn’t always clear exactly what you’re learning.
6. Not In Paperback
Call me old fashioned, but nothing gets me up in the morning like the smell of leather bound books and rich mahogany. In spite of the efforts of a brave few, it seems unlikely that Wikipedia will be in paperback any time soon. Aside from the obvious factor of not looking like a stud/studette when you pull the Aa-Ac book of encyclopedia brittanica of your knapsack, with Wikipedia you can’t easily see what comes alphabetically before Aardvark! Fortunately, there’s still the “open the book to a random page and read game” for the 21st century. The benefits of having everything dynamic and on the interwebs is that it can better keep up with our rapidly developing knowledge base. Also, it’s free and available to way more people. Plus it’s packed with way more information (from way more sources). Oh my! I’ll take that tradeoff any day.
Have you ever been devastated to discover a mere stub article on Wikipedia when beginning to write a paper? Or worse, “The Page Does Not Exist” Search Result of Doom. In spite of the concerted efforts of many, the impressive information trove of Wikipedia remains incomplete. As our information gathering continue to outpace our information synthesis, this issue is unlikely to end in the near future. However, that makes the fight even more worthwhile. Similarly, arcane topics in Wikipedia can often be overlooked due to lack of interest or lack of people knowledgeable on the subject. This can create articles strongly influenced (and biased) by certain groups or no article at all. I mean, who uses 29Si NMR these days anyways?
4. Innacurate and Untrustworthy
I had to include this as these charges are often levelled at Wikipedia. Fortunately, there is much evidence to suggest high accuracy (roughly comparable to the oft-praised encyclopedia brittanica in science matters). Of course, certain newer articles or articles with less well-known topics will be of lower quality but they likely aren’t even included in encyclopedia brittanica. Should you need more convincing, I recommend the people of yahoo answers.
Have you ever heard the expression “you get what you pay for”? Wikipedia is free so might it not be very good? There’s no advertising and no fee-per-use/subscription fee (Spotify?). Too good to be true? There must be a catch you say? I got it! They want you to contribute money and/or time (voluntarily). That doesn’t sound too bad actually (at least to me). Well done, Jimmy, Well done. But still, be a conscientious consumer of the information you get on Wikipedia. Not everything on the internet is true.
There’s definitely something reassuring about the same format, color scheme, and everything on Wikipedia, but sometimes you just want something new and eyecatching. Sure, there are skins and other websites you could be browsing, but why not be exciting like facebook and change your features and layout every two days? It seems to be working for them. I guess for now we’ll have to live with the search box on wikipedia boringly and predictably sitting in the upper right hand corner of the screen and take the changes we can get.
1. Research Papers
What’s the first step of starting an essay? If you answered D) search the topic on Wikipedia, you fall into an ever-growing category of people/college students. Somehow, it still isn’t okay to cite Wikipedia. I guess we should go and check the information in the original source, but then does that count as original research? Moral, legal and ethical dilemmas are everywhere! Not to mention, why should I write a brand-new reasearch essay on Abraham Lincoln when there’s already a good one here? Wouldn’t it be better if I improved that one or used that as a starting point?
We’re unlikely to see citing Wikipedia as your main source of information become academically acceptable any time soon. That doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful – it sets up an outline for you to better understand the topic. In conclusion,it looks like EasyBib will be around for at least a few more years and college students everywhere will be forced to research beyond Wikipedia.
Wikipedia and You
In spite of all these grievances, don’t forget one thing! Wikipedia is, in fact, the best thing ever. It makes lives better, easier, and more interesting and demonstrates the immense power of a norm enforced collaborative network of people with common values. So go have fun and make the world a better place!
Say you did a Wikipedia search for the history of electropop dance music, out of curiosity for its origins and sudden rise to prominence in the early late 2000s, and, finding no intuitive visual timeline describing key events, you decide to make your own. When you’ve finished, you find it so useful that you think it belongs on that Wikipedia page – maybe this way, some unknown day in the not too far off future, when somebody similarly curious happens upon the history of electropop, they find your awesome timeline and are better off for it. Your contribution has added some amount of knowledge to the human digital commons, or something like that. So, you, our intrepid Wikipedia contributor, prepare to upload your work. Upon doing so, however, you’re confronted with a choice, and not a trivial one – a choice upon which the entire utility and visibility of your timeline hinges. You must select a license.
In 2009, Wikipedia chose to move to the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) license as the default license for all user uploaded media on Wikipedia and other Wikimedia-operated websites. You can check the permissions & license of any media file uploaded to Wikipedia. As more and more of traditional media made the move from analog to digital, it became clear that there were no sufficient licenses to protect legitimate sharing and, so to speak, “standing on the shoulders of giants,” perhaps the linchpin of human knowledge and progress and liberty and all that good stuff. The GPL and BSD licenses were all well and good for software, but computers were not just for programs, programmers, and users anymore. Creative works expanded to include media, articles, documents – you name it. There needed to be a non-software creative works equivalent of software licenses like the GNU General Public License (GPL), and various schemes stepped up to the plate, including the GNU Free Document License (GFDL) and the Creative Commons license suite.
Creative Commons shares a methodology with other free software and document licenses – namely, fitting a system for protecting certain uses of a [mostly] copyrighted work within the existing digital copyright framework. No licensing system, or rather, no successful licensing system, purports to replace or circumvent existing copyright law (as far as I know). This seems to beg a question, however – what makes a licensing system successful? We could look at this in several ways. A license could be legally successful, in that it has been upheld in a court of law; and/or a license could be socially successful, in that it has been adopted by and is supported by content creators; and/or a license could be ideologically successful, in that it tends to augment and bolster arguments in favor of some ideology, in this case, free media & documents.
The CC License Spectrum
But then that raises another issue – is Creative Commons a license? In short, no. Creative Commons is an organization, and a family of 6 related, but distinct, licenses. When evaluating a Creative Commons license, for legal, social, and ideological success, we must do so for each license, since each has its own strengths and weaknesses, supports and critiques. I won’t get too into each license, since Creative Commons itself actually puts a lot of work into translating its licenses from legalese to normal English.
What I really want to measure here is the relative success of each license, insofar as there’s some evidence available. With that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of each Creative Commons license:
1. Attribution – CC BY
What does it do?: “This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.”
Legally successful?: Not in the US. Someone did sue over improper use of a photo under CC BY, but the case was thrown out for lack of jurisdiction, so it hardly counts as a test of the license itself.
Socially successful?: If nothing else, it does help promote what we might call a “citation culture” outside of academia. In other words, it encourages people to give credit to others where it’s due, no matter how many wild arbitrary changes they make to the original work. (Granted, the authors might not even want to be associated with the derivations…)
Ideologically successful?: Sort of. One test we can apply here is the “What would Richard Stallman say?” test (this test will use his testimonial from the given link to evaluate the ideological success of a license). In this case, he would probably say that the fact that it doesn’t require derivative works to use the same license makes it essentially worthless for the cause of free media. But hey, you get your name on stuff!
2. Attribution-ShareAlike – CC BY-SA
What does it do?: “This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.”
Legally successful?: Not in the US. Wikipedia has been sued for other reasons, but their use of CC BY-SA was never challenged.
Socially successful?: Well, it is the license used by Wikipedia, and closely reflects free software licenses. Additionally, any work that makes use of Wikpedia articles must use the CC BY-SA license, which is pretty key.
3. Attribution NoDerivs – CC BY-ND
What does it do?: “This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.”
Legally successful?: Not in the US.
Socially successful?: With the ease of manipulation of digital works, it is unlikely that this is actually adhered to at all.
Ideologically successful?: Richard Stallman would probably say: No, because it doesn’t allow any changes to the original work, stifling free creativity. True that.
4. Attribution-NonCommercial – CC BY-NC
What does it do?: “This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.”
Legally successful?: Not in the US.
Socially successful?: For example, this is a very common license for works released by academic institutions that want to freely share knowledge without others profiting from it, so yes.
Ideologically successful?: Richard Stallman would probably say: Somewhat, but it doesn’t allow anyone to profit from the distribution of derivative works (which makes it more restrictive than the GPL), and it also doesn’t guarantee that derivative works will be similarly free.
5. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike – CC-BY-NC-SA
What does it do?: “This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.”
Legally successful?: Not in the US.
Socially successful?: Unclear if it’s as socially successful as #4, since ShareAlike adds an extra burden on the author of the derivative work.
Ideologically successful?: Richard Stallman would probably say: Somewhat, but it doesn’t allow anyone to profit from the distribution of derivative works (which makes it more restrictive than the GPL), but at least it requires that derivative works use the same license, which makes it a bit more ideologically successful than #4.
6. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs – CC-BY-NC-ND
What does it do?: “This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.”
Legally successful?: Not in the US.
Socially successful?: This license is often used and abused by companies looking to prevent commercial derivatives of commercial works. So, in that sense, yes.
Ideologically successful?: Freedom to distribute, but no freedom to make changes or improvements, not even for personal use. Imagine buying a book and not being able to write notes in it – this is quite restrictive. In this sense, it defeats the purpose of free media.
Ultimately, it’s hard to judge Creative Commons’ legal success in the US, because it just hasn’t been tested enough in US courts, if at all. Notice too that, at their root, all of the licenses share a bare minimum of Attribution in common. So, it could be said that the licenses form a sort of spectrum from not terribly restrictive to very restrictive, or, from Attribution to “Credited Verbatim Distribution” (that is, sharing is cool as long as the author is credited and no changes are made and the work is never used for commercial purposes). If any broad critique of Creative Commons were to be made, it would necessarily have to find conflict with Attribution. And actually, Attribution does pose several challenges: 1) How do you prove authorship of a work? 2) Once proving authorship, how significant must a change be for it to count as derivative? 3) How are authors to be credited in derivative works? Especially for question 3, take this for example: someone remixes a book, keeping the title and general themes, but changing the entire plot so that the ending is completely different from the original. Should the original author be credited by saying “Inspired by so and so,” or would that imply some sort of approval on the part of the author?
What about the lolcats?
You know, speaking of Lolcats, where might they fall on the Creative Commons license spectrum? Lolcats are perhaps most obviously a great example of fair use, but I wonder where they might fit into a supplemental license scheme, just, perhaps, for the lols, so let’s take a look. Icanhazcheezburger’s legal policies only specify that users can’t upload others’ copyrighted work (except for where it counts as fair use), but that’s all it says really. So we have some room here to speculate about current lolcat use and, based on that, what feasible licensing options Icanhazcheeseburger would have with Creative Commons.
Lolcats can’t possibly fall into any of the licenses requiring No Derivatives or No Commercial Use, since building new lolcat captions off of others’ lolcats is a feature built-into the site, and since commercial derivative works are readily available for purchase on Amazon. So that knocks 3-6 off the list, leaving CC BY and CC BY-SA. I think, quite clearly, lolcats would necessarily fall into CC BY-SA – creators of lolcats, upon submission, must consent to the eternal remixing of their work, since it is a feature of the Icanhazcheezburger community, and derivations cannot be made without crediting the original author. That said, Icanhazcheezburger does allow uploads derived from “unknown” sources – something that users could potentially exploit (ie. knowingly making derivatives of works under a license preventing derivatives by not crediting the original). This is all, of course, within the Icanhazcheezburger network, but I’m just speculating based off usage and norms in the lolcat community, not necessarily how they’re used on the internet outside of that.
Creative Commons – A Success Story?
Is Creative Commons successful? Well, you decide; but, I think clearly the answer is both yes and no – successful socially, debatably successful ideologically, and as of yet untreated legally. But really, if not a licensing system like Creative Commons, what else? Sometimes the most powerful legal tool is the convenient one that is seen to have some social weight. And really, it’s better to have a license than no license if you value your workmanship even a little, since the absence of copyright is public domain cut and dry, and anyone can do anything with whatever you make as they please. Creative Commons seems to underline an important tendency we have as humans – we like getting credit for things. And, getting credit for things encourages us to be creative, especially if we know that we’ll get credited for our creativity. Maybe a vicious cycle, maybe a bit self-centered, but would art exist without it? What about science? A slippery slope indeed. That said, licenses like this establish Attribution over property – meaning that getting credit for something takes precedence over owning that something. That could set a very interesting philosophical precedence for future content creators – under licenses like these, you would know that you are giving up your digital “property rights” for attribution rights, for the sake of the common good of collaboration. Not a bad common good, I think.
P.S. If this kind of thing interests you, there are two excellent posts on this blog, one exploring a Wikipedia without borders, and the other treating different notions of copyright in a “free world”. This is all, of course, only a starting point.
P.P.S. Not coincidentally, all the images used in this post are protected under either fair use or a Creative Commons license. So is this blog post.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.