Jason Calacanis offers a provocative challenge – is Wikipedia characterised by (or staying alive due to) technological obscurity? He argues that in particular, the use of Wikipedia-specific code rather than a simple WYSIWIG (what you see is what you get) system means that the ‘average’ user is dissuaded from participating in the ‘everyone can edit’ system. It is related to the old media/free speech issue as summarised by AJ Liebling: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Calacanis (podcaster and ultimate manager of various high-profile blogs) is essentially arguing that “Freedom of the Wikiworld is guaranteed only to those who understand the system”. While this is far from a novel argument in the context of Internet use more generally, it is interesting and timely given the increasing popularity of wiki-based systems (in activism and education as well as the building of reference tools). In particular, the contrast with blogging (where each year brings more ‘user-friendly’ tools, it seems) is apparent. Some of the responses to Calacanis’ article are interesting, such as:

For example, would the value of lowering the technology barriers be a net positive? Yes more people could contribute, but would this be outweighed by spam/disinformation issues?

I would suggest that the high barrier to entry is a good thing; while it is not necessarily true that having the knowledge to edit an entry means the knowledge you are adding is correct, it does at least mean that you’ve taken the time to learn how to use the system

While I can appreciate the reasoning of the commenters, I’m troubled by the reasoning. The theology that Wikipedians seem to come out with is all about empowered users and so on; it rings a little hollow if tech barriers are simply replacing Britannica editors (who at least have qualifications in skills relevant to encyclopedia production, rather than an unnerving ability to understand an interlocking series of square brackets). Hmm. No easy answer here.

Maybe some of these issues will come up at the International Symposium on Wikis, sponsored by the ACM and taking place in Montréal this October. Proposals due by May, in most cases.