Wikipedia, Twitter, Twournal, and the Western Canon

Posted: April 19, 2011 in Academics, Books, Media, Search, Social Media, Technology, Tolls/Gadgets
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

September 22, 2010-

Hegel famously proclaimed that “history is a dialectic,” that is, a dialogue between people who may hold differing views, but who seek to accomplish a basis of truth by debating together. In other words, history has no discernible truth, but more closely attains the overall goal of “truth” through discussion from all of the voices of history and their personal accounts of what happened.

This quotation of Hegel’s is often cited in the context of discussions about the literary canon, or the “western canon,” as some refer to it. The term “Western canon” is used to denote the selection of books, music, art and general cultural that have most influenced the shape ofWestern civilization and culture over time.

As demonstrated, a simple search on Wikipedia for either of these terms will tell you much about what they are. However, Wikipedia doesn’t explicitly tell us is that it is also holding the record of how the modern canon is determined, and how the truth of history is being determined by the myriad of voices which contribute to it everyday.

A recent Bits blog from the New York Times mentioned the trail of edits that the Internet provides to anyone who is looking for it. James Bridle, founder of BookTwo is particularly interested in what the future of literature holds, but also how that discussion is playing out and how we can track where the discussion has been. In one of his recent entries Bridle points out that although an article on Wikipedia may tell a specific story, the edits show a process of opinion, correction, and the potential biases of each writer. In this respect Wikipedia, and every constantly updated website represents an archive of evolving information over time. What interests Bridle is the offer of two distinct stories: one that is front-facing to the reader and one that reveals the behind-the-scenes editing, writing and creative process.

To illustrate the point, Bridle selected the topic of the Iraq war as an entry in the Wikipedia canon and had all of the history of the entries surrounding the Iraq War published into physical volumes. In his entry, Bridle writes, “This particular book — or rather, set of books — is every edit made to a single Wikipedia article, The Iraq War, during the five years between the article’s inception in December 2004 and November 2009, a total of 12,000 changes and almost 7,000 pages.” Bridle notes that the entire set comes to twelve volumes, which nearly approximates the size of a traditional encyclopedia.

Which brings us to the favorite comparison of Wikipedia and your parents’ Encyclopedia. Is one or the other more reliable? Who gets to decide what is a part of the overall Western canon? Shouldn’t we all be alarmed by a process in which a child may be permitted to contribute to an online encyclopedia which many now claim is an expert source?

In fact, Bridle’s point reminds us of a standard strategy employed to defend the credibility of Wikipedia and its process against its would-be detractors. The strategy is to cite a story central to the process under which the Oxford English Dictionary was compiled in the 19th century. Simon Winchester’s book, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary details a Jekyll and Hyde story of the brilliant but clinically insane Dr. W.C. Minor who provided thousands of entries to the editors of the OED while he was committed at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. In other words, if a mad man may contribute significantly to a tome of the English language which is still very much the authoritative text today, why can a perfectly sane pre-teen not contribute to the modern canon of information about frogs, Major League Baseball, or global warming?Should we be preventing anyone from contributing to the ever-evolving conversation about what is truth and what is history?

As sites such as Twournal –which offers the Narcissistic boon of publishing your very own Tweets through time in print form– begin to proliferate, each of us can possess our very own piece of the modern web canon, whether in print or online. As Twournal describes itself, “Over time tweets can tell a story or remind us of moments. In 20 years we don’t know whether twitter will be around but your Twournal will be. Who knows maybe your great grandkids will dig it up in the attic in the next century.”

That means that each of us now has access to print a credible-looking book of our own (often misspelled) musings and meanderings as representative of history, according to us. Yet in the absence of a forum in which people can engage with our Tweeted observations, there’s no real dialectic. It therefore seems safe to conclude that Hegel would have preferred Wikipedia to Twitter, or to your Twournal.


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