The avatar versus the journalist: Making meaning, finding truth

The Avatar

Imagine Wikipedia as if it were Bombay city — a sprawling metropolis under construction by purpose-driven swarms and hoardes of people with an Internet connection. A city constantly threatened by impending monsoons, visited by floods of spam, terrorised by vandals, punctuated by unclaimed land-like stubs, a vast and virtual terra nova that refuses to stop growing.

The creators of this city lurk in the ‘talk’ and ‘discuss’ pages of Wikipedia, leaving their footprints at every alteration. The articles themselves are not unlike pheromones that attract stray ants and formulate the process by which stigmergic growth takes place in the colony. They also have their queens and drones, even labor unions that have emerged from a pseudo-democratic process.

The General Secretary of the Association of Deletionists is a user named Ambi, who goes by the description “Hunter of all things self-promotory.” He won the seat as the result of an election, reaping seven out of eight votes. The Secretary can resign or be removed from office by a 60 percent majority among the Association’s members. Inclusionists, Anarchists and Mergists have also emerged as pseudo-democratic associations. You may also come across the Cleaning Department, the Association of Apathetic Wikipedians, and the rather descriptive Association of Wikipedians Who Dislike Making Broad Judgements About the Worthiness of a General Category of Article, and Who Are In Favor of the Deletion of Some Particularly Bad Articles, but That Doesn’t Mean They are Deletionist.

In the non-hierarchical but highly active Cleaning Department of Wikipedia, user Eloquence comes around with his broom every 15th of the month, Cimon Avaro on the 31st, Delirium checks daily those articles whose 7-day wait has expired, and Cyan fills in for Delirium in his absence. Most users like Rossami, however, come when time permits. Cimon Avaro is the avatar of a Finnish contributor called Jussi-Ville Heiskanen, now one of the candidates for the 2005 Elections of the Board Of Trustees.

As the avatars started working on Wikipedia, they developed neologisms and notions of acceptable etiquette, and myths surrounding a secret Cabal that “is ultimately responsible for the development of Wikipedia. Supposedly, the Cabal acts to stifle dissent and impose their private points of view while hypocritically extolling NPOV (Neutral Point Of View). Admins who take action against users for seemingly illogical or immature reasons are often claimed to be acting on behalf of the Cabal.”

The policies and technical matters of the world’s fastest growing encyclopedia are resolved at the Village Pump, where you will find Colonel Gazpacho, self-proclaimed leader of Inclusionists, hollering his manifesto: “The situation has grown more dire since the last time I addressed you. The encroaching hordes of Deletionists at Votes for Deletion (VFD) are growing more, not less, rabid by the day and the time has come to put a stop to it. We must do battle on this territory which heretofore has been assumed to be irrevocably held in the clutches of the enemy.” It is conceivable that Colonel Gazpacho could be a 16-year old girl hobbyist in analog computers, or a 70-year old professor in the computer science department at the Indian Institute Of Technology, Bombay.

Each person can be many avatars, depending on the diversity of his or her skill set, and can contribute a drop every now and then in the vast ocean that is human knowledge. When needed, another avatar of the same Wikipedian, or even a stray visitor, can ‘clean up’ some polluted part of the living document with a bit of editing. Therefore, people do not populate Wikipedia community as they do Bombay or Mexico – an online community consists of ‘versions’ of people, their fragmented avatars. It’s more like an ant colony without ants.

“Joining Wikipedia, I thought I will write articles in mathematics, computer science, and dancing. It soon mysteriously turned out that my interests in real life took but a tiny fraction of my editorial work,” said a user called Mikkalai.

The idea of avatars is very old, in fact, it is the central idea of creation in Hindu mythology, and much older than the idea of authorless, collaborative texts. The creators of ancient Hindu treatises called the Upanishads and the Vedas share a lot of philosophy in common with Wikipedia. Collectively, they are known as Shruti scriptures, or “what is heard.” The central essence of authorless texts is discussed at length in Robert T. Oliver’s book Communication and Culture In Ancient India & China:

“Neither is it accidental that the Upanishads contain no internal evidence as to when, where or by whom they were composed. Their very thesis is that we dwell in the midst of a timeless eternity. With everything so indissolubly united that particular areas or places are of no concern. Who might be the author of an idea or a way of communicating it must be of no importance whatsoever, since truth is truth.”

One popular aspect of Hindu tradition is the mythology of Lord Krishna that has mutated and transformed him into a supernatural entity. Although we can’t be sure, he may have been an ancient day David, a common shepherd who became a hero to his people. Whatever the origin may be, the legends surrounding him grew over 5,000 years to convert him into a God worshipped by millions. The creation of popular mythology surrounding Krishna is similar to the process of constructing Wikipedia, since Hinduism is a religion based on collective myth-manufacturing. Krishna’s primary teachings are recorded in the Bhagwad Gita, which contains an important commentary on journalism, discussed later in this article.

The number of Hindu Gods and their avatars at one time was more than the number of Hindus, at a staggering 330 million deities. This aspect is also central to Wikipedia, in that the number of pages or stories (“myths” to a skeptic) far exceeds the number of the community. Joseph Campbell explained this symbiotic relationship: “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”

The evolution of the Internet as collective, public dream via electronic interfaces, and the evolution of human beings into civilizations, has many striking parallels. The earliest networks were often protected by their owners, and communities were relatively secretive or “cave-dwelling.” The wiki, on the other hand, is out in the open field, where its vulnerability is on display and under attack. The process of its growth resembles agriculture and farming more than anything else.

In a certain sense then, the hyperlink is an extension of the wheel, allowing the traveler to go from one location to another, while the search engine is an explorer ship with its set of built-in navigational instruments. One could say that the word-of-mouth phenomenon is recreated by blogs, and farming on virtual terrain is akin to wikis — or fertile land.

Internet MeatSpace Notes/Analogy
Private Net Caves Hunter-gatherers, hackers
Online communities Cave Networks Tribes, Clans
Search engine Ship Coming out of the cave
Blogs Word of Mouth Language, Culture
Wikis Agriculture Settling Down
Flame Wars Forest Fires City riots
Singularity Neolithic Revolution Complete tranformation

The Journalist

“Just as people at the end of the Middle Ages rediscovered the wisdom of the Classic world, so we are re-discovering the experience of tribal life. I don’t mean by this that we will have to take up hunting and live in caves. For we have made a Great Return before and we know how it will play out. Renaissance men did not put on togas. What they did was to remember the wisdom of the classic world that had been forgotten in a millennium dark age and applied this wisdom to the world of their time.” – Robert Paterson, in Going Home: Our Reformation

In the same way that the Neolithic Revolution transformed human society totally, cultural aspects of wiki communities are a rich artifact, an unavoidable lesson for newspapers. The avatar and the journalist have some things in common, for instance, the quest for objectivity.

NPOV or “the agreement to report subjective opinions objectively”, is held sacred by Wikipedians, that is, it is Wikipedian “religion”.

When decorum fails, one is likely to see “forest fires” and “edit wars” in Wikipedia, akin to riots in a city. On a peaceful day, though, one might wonder how neutrality is made manifest in Wikipedia. In fact, is it even possible to have an article that is completely unbiased, whether in Wikipedia or in a newspaper? An explanation for this is the concept of “systemic bias” or the sum of prejudices inherently present and active in the human group we are dealing with. As the community grows and awareness about the bias spreads, it is hoped that the articles, by assimilating as many point of views as possible, will become increasingly objective.

This idea is dangerous, in that it undermines the work of an excellent, dedicated journalist coming up with a very objective report. It is dangerous to assume that the language of crowds can be so easily deciphered, or that location/access is the only important criterion for credibility. Wikipedia is a populist history of the world, a myth, a history in consensus. However, the fact that it can be changed makes it more reliable than Encarta or Brittannica.

It appears that the newspaper is making its second mistake after going capitalist – going populist. The shift of certain traditional mass media towards participatory journalism is not guided by altruist ideas, or survival, but by the opportunity of cutting costs involved in traditional journalism. It is motivated by the possibility that the traditional reporter can be replaced by a zero-cost mob reporting several points of view, even eyewitness reports. This removes the need to hire a dedicated journalist, the seeker of truth, and replaces him (or her) with a murmur of crowds.

In the Bhagwad Gita, the role of an ideal journalist is played by Sanjay, the charioteer of a blind king, who describes the Kurukshetra war as it happens. Sanjay has been given a divine ability to see things happening at a distance, without interfering with them – much like television, cellphones or the even more startling images from Google Earth. Sanjaya describes the discourse between Krishna and Arjun to his master Dhritrashtra, who represents the blindness of minds.

Sanjay is the chosen war-correspondent in this way, and his qualification for divine insight comes directly from his name, which means completely victorious, or “one who has conquered himself.” Sri Sri Paramhansa Yogananda describes this in detail in his interpretation of the Bhagwad Gita, subtitled The Royal Science of God-realisation (Chapter 1, Verse 1):

Sanjaya represents the power of impartial intuitive self-analysis, discerning introspection. It is the ability to stand aside, observe oneself without any prejudice, and judge accurately. Thoughts may be present without one’s conscious awareness. Introspection is the power of intuition by which the consciousness can watch its thoughts. It does not reason, it feels – not with biased emotion, but with clear, calm intuition.

Lord Krishna is considered the eighth avatar of Vishnu, and the thing with avatars is – they appear only when they’re needed, and then they go away.

In the meantime, as Wikipedia becomes more and more like a newspaper everyday, should not the newspapers try and become more like the journalist?

And why not a wiki?: Blogosphere lights up over 'wikitorials'

[Let’s get to the disclaimers right away, rather than burying them at the end, after you’ve read the piece: OJR Editor Robert Niles is a former member of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and newspaper editorial writer. He also has worked as a Senior Producer at and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.]

Let’s back off Michael Kinsley, okay?

The L.A. Times Opinion Editor and his staff have been catching heck from some writers after Editorial Page Editor Andrés Martinez announced last week that The Times would introduce “‘wikitorials’ — an online feature that will empower you to rewrite Los Angeles Times editorials.”

“This week The Los Angeles Times announced its intention to exile the square and stodgy voice of authority farther yet,” The New York Times’ Stacy Schiff declared. “Let’s hope the interactive editorial will lead directly to the interactive tax return. On the other hand, I hope we might stop short before we get to structural engineering and brain surgery. Some of us like our truth the way we like our martinis: dry and straight up.”

Cute, but Schiff’s dig assumes the pros always get it right. Let’s just say that if structural engineers showed the same skepticism toward their work as many professional editorial writers showed toward the U.S. administration’s claims about Iraq, I’d be choosing the ferry instead of the bridge whenever I needed to cross a river.

Talk of wikis inevitably elicit rants about Wikipedia, the free-for-all dictionary where users can create and revise entries, even to the point of rewriting history. Neither Martinez nor Kinsley have publicly revealed details of how their “wikitorials” will work. But the Wikipedia model need not be the only one to guide wiki publishers.

  • At OJR, we restrict editing access on our wikis to our registered users, who must provide a working e-mail address to register.
  • A news publisher could limit write access on the wiki to an invited group of readers with first-hand experience on a topic.
  • Or, a publisher could adopt an “open source journalism” model, opening a wiki to revision for a limited time, with an editor stitching together the best evidence and arguments from its versions for later print publication.

    “We are no longer couch potatoes absorbing whatever mass media many funnel our way,” OJR Senior Editor J.D. Lasica writes in his new book, “Darknet: Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation.” “We make our own media. In many ways, we are our own media.”

    So why not try something different to engage the digital generation?

    Despite the protests, what The Times has proposed is not all that radical a change. On a limited scale, newspaper editorial writing shares much in common with wikis. Both are collective efforts, reflecting the view of a group of writers, rather than that of an individual. And both strive to report an enduring truth that rises encompasses more than just a single point of view.

    While Schiff lambasted reader participation in the editorial process, Timothy Noah at Kinsley’s old site, Slate, suggested that Kinsley abolish editorials at The Times altogether, arguing that papers ought to expand op-ed columns into the editorial page space.

    “The genre has certain built-in defects,” Noah wrote. “One is that editorials typically lack sufficient length to marshal evidence and lay out a satisfactory argument. Instead, they tend toward either timidity, at one extreme, or posturing, at the other. Almost every editorial I’ve ever read in my life has fallen into one of two categories: boring or irresponsible.”

    Having spent a few years’ of my life on an editorial page staff, I will not dispute Noah’s pessimistic view of the craft. Too many editorials stink. But a great many columns and traditional news stories die on the page, too.

    Too much traditional journalism amounts to little more than stenography. If a source fails to provide an appropriate conclusion, the reporter will not draw it – even if all necessary supporting evidence is there.

    Editorial writing not only allows conclusions, it demands them. Great editorial writers work like appellate court judges, weighing available evidence in the context of past decisions. Yet they must write for more than attorneys and scholars. Their words must engage and inspire an entire community to appropriate action.

    Yes, most editorial writers fail by those standards. That’s because too many publishers treat the editorial page as a dumping ground for aging reporters, or, worse, a private forum to do favors for or settle scores with the paper’s sources. Either way, readers don’t matter.

    Trashing the editorial page to give newshole to columnists won’t change that attitude. Nor will it give journalists, including opinion writers, additional resources to do more reporting.

    News publishers would do better to refresh their editorial pages with innovations that draw more readers into the process of crafting this institutional voice. Why rely on the limited knowledge and reporting resources of a handful of editorial writers when you could ask your entire community to gather and examine evidence?

    Sure, some papers ask established community leaders to sit in on an editorial board meeting now and then. Yawn. Declining readership and diminished influence demand a more aggressive response.

    What news publishers need is a tool that will allow any interested readers a seat at the table, with the ability to help direct what ought to be their community’s most powerful voice.

    Something like, oh, say, a wiki.