The Wealth of Networks

Henry over at Crooked Timber posted over the weekend about Yochai Benkler’s new book, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, which has just been released by Yale University Press. Benkler has also made the book available in PDF format, and has created a wiki for the text, allowing for a different kind of interaction between readers and this text:

The basic idea is to make this Wiki a place where people who read the book can do at least four things. First, collaborate on writing a summary of the ideas and claims of the book, as an initial point of entry. Second, provide an easy platform through which to access underlying research materials: both those used in the book’s notes, and more importantly, resources that are useful for further research, refinement, and updating. Third, the Wiki should be a place where participants can describe, link to, and analyze examples of the phenomena the book describes. The purpose is not to “make the case” for the book or find “gotcha” counter examples. What we are trying to do is provide a real research tool, annotated bibliography, and platform for collaborative learning. Examples and counter-examples should be selected and described with that purpose in mind. Fourth, the Wiki is itself a learning platform about what is valuable in a learning platform. Through separate pages devoted to ideas and experiments of what can be done with an online book to make it a learning platform, we hope to expand the range of uses to which this Wiki can be available.

In certain ways, a wiki is of course the ideal format for such a project, allowing as it does for multiple, collaborative authorship and a relatively boundless expansion. But the wiki seems also to maintain a separation between the primary text and its related paratexts — here are the static PDFs from which the author speaks, and here are the malleable wiki pages on which readers chime in. One of the questions I’m pondering as we move forward with the ElectraPress project is how we might imagine bringing those voices into closer conversation.

3 thoughts on “The Wealth of Networks

  1. I can imagine two different versions of a book (yours, mine, his) — the static, single-authored version and the wikified, hypertext version, in which the text is broken up into wiki entries, with linkage galore.

    Then what began as a monograph would gradually turn into a multigraph as people added to each wiki entry. They would quickly become two different books, not simply by virtue of the “additions” of the other authors but also — and more fundamentally — by virtue of the lack of linearity. And that could have a positive effect on the delicate sensibilities of publishers etc etc.

    Of course, that may not be the direction in which you were thinking. But when I think about my own book (and the various directions it heads in simultaneously), wikifying it like that sounds like a win.

  2. This is exactly the kind of thing I’m thinking of — I’d like very much to find a way to have simultaneously a relatively stable core text and a dynamic text that exists in fluid relationship to its readers. Of the currently existing technologies that I’m familiar with, the versioning allowed by wikis seems closest — one is at least able to preserve the history of that text as it develops. But I could imagine, for instance, the single-author text that somehow shows, via highlights or rollovers or whathaveyou, the places where other authors have revised, deleted, added, etc. Something much more palimpsest-like.

    Or, if we want to defend the monograph rather than sliding quite so far into the multigraph, I could imagine the same text revealing the markup (via comments or discussion, perhaps of the sort in the Benkler wiki) of readers, and versioning allowing the author to review, revise, reconceive, based on such discussions.

    Some of these problems are technical, of course, but some of them are just a matter of dreaming big enough, of thinking outside the print box and imagining something different…

  3. If you have time, it might be worth looking at the “TiddlyWiki” phenomenon, starting with the original version at http://www.tiddlywiki.com. TiddlyWiki hasn’t caught on the same way that MediaWiki (the technology behind Wikipedia) has, but I believe it demonstrates some serious potential. It’s still very young, and I expect to see more from it in the future.

    The TiddlyWiki concept revolves around “MicroContent” in the same way that traditional wikis revolve around pages. The difference is that a TiddlyWiki page is extremely malleable, and can be made up of any combination of MicroContent blocks. This means that a user navigating the wiki has much more control over how they view the available information, opening and closing MicroContent blocks at will, sequentially or inline.

    I’m imagining a website that presents the authoritative text as some manner of static document, but filled with MicroContent, which is editable by the community. A casual viewer navigates by reading the text as it was originally written, and opening microcontent along the way to get additional viewpoints, updated information, and relevent links or references. Community members can add MicroContent to the original document, or edit MicroContent that has already been created.

    An engine that allows for this sort of navigation doesn’t exist at the moment. But it’s essentially a TiddlyWiki page (or collection thereof) with specialized control over how content can be edited. TiddlyWiki is an open-source technology, so I imagine it could be customized in this way.

    Just a thought.

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