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Classmates, Family, Friends, Followers, Allies, Opponents, Enemies, Bosses, Trolls, Haters, Users, and Google: Understanding Digital Audiences On YouTube

Abstract

For well over a decade now, college writing teachers have recognized a “digital imperative” to empower and guide students to compose and publish digital work. The choice to publish to the complex audiences of the internet offers remarkable opportunities, raises critical issues, and involves some real risks. Since 2013, students in Sean Molloy’s college writing classes have posted their “3-minute movie” video essays to YouTube and thought about the kinds of audiences they might reach there. (Carissa Kelly posted her video in 2016.) Some of these video essays have now reached growing audiences for eight years. By sharing these publicly posted movies with new writing classes, we have built an academic conversation about intended and unintended YouTube audiences which has extended across classrooms, semesters, and two colleges. Gradually, we have developed a YouTube audience model that we share and discuss here, including some new insights based on Carissa’s case-study analysis of YouTube’s creator studio data for her video. We offer this report of our eight-year conversation about reaching YouTube audiences as one way to transcend the constraints of the writing classroom and semester—while also critically examining Google/YouTube’s power to mediate access to these audiences.

With two billion current users, the potential YouTube audience is huge and complex. In 2010, anthropologist Michael Wesch argued YouTube videos could reach millions of viewers, build participatory networks, enact change, and empower every voice. Now a few videos even reach billions of views. But while YouTube has embraced a social media culture that values “community, openness and authenticity,” this same “participatory culture is also YouTube’s core business” (Burgess and Green 2018, vii). View counts track both rhetorical and financial success in this massive digital marketplace, as engineers quit NASA for careers creating squirrel obstacle course videos. The competition for eyes is fierce: five hundred hours of video are uploaded every minute. And viewers are often fickle; twenty percent may leave if they are not hooked in the first ten seconds. Unintended audiences are complex too. Videos can anger or alienate family, friends, followers, colleagues, and employers. Copyright claimants can intervene to edit, monetize, or delete videos. Trolls lurk everywhere. And behind the scenes, YouTube/Google manipulates everything to maximize its profit and its power.

YouTube as a Site For Studying Digital Persuasion and Audiences

About sixteen years ago, new Web 2.0 platforms began to encourage mass audiences to join in new participatory and collaborative digital dialogues. In 2004, NCTE guidelines urged writing teachers to “accommodate the explosion in technology from the world around us” (7). A growing sense of urgency developed about the growing gap between school writing and students’ lives as digital composers and publishers (Richardson 2009, 5). Kathleen Yancey issued a “call for action” to writing teachers to “join the future” (2009, 1). Liz Clark argued that writing teachers faced a “digital imperative” (2010, 27). By 2014, Kristine Blair observed a “tectonic shift from alphabetic to multimodal composing at all levels of the writing curriculum.”

Some writing teachers began to focus on video and YouTube. By 2009, Brian Jackson and Jon Wallin saw the “informal, messy process” of “back-and-forthness” on YouTube as a model for teaching digital rhetoric (375). In 2010, Michelle Barbeau saw the powerful potential for YouTube as an object of study in college writing courses that could “appeal to digital natives, increase awareness of contemporary rhetorical communities, lessen the gap between teacher and student, and spark excitement in the classroom” (2). By 2013, Sarah Arroyo recognized that online video was “becoming the prototypical experience” of the internet, cultivating a culture that was “already permeating the institutions of our daily lives,” especially on YouTube; she called for a “participatory composition” pedagogy to interrogate that culture (2). In 2018, Christina Colvin found that assigning collaborative video essays offered her students broad opportunities to study process, mediation, and argument.

Since 2013, students in Sean Molloy’s college writing classes have been posting their “3-minute movie” video essays to YouTube and thinking about the kinds of audiences they might reach there. (Carissa Kelly posted her video in 2016.) In an informal longitudinal study, Sean has tracked the monthly view counts for all those students who chose to make their videos “Public.” He also shared the publicly posted videos with new writing classes, building an extended academic conversation about YouTube audiences. Gradually, our classes developed the YouTube audience model that we share here, together with some new insights based on Carissa’s case study of her video’s audiences using her data from YouTube’s creator studio. We offer this report of our eight-year conversation about reaching YouTube audiences as one way to transcend the constraints of the writing classroom and semester—while also critically examining Google/YouTube’s power to mediate access to these audiences.

Studying YouTube Audiences at Hunter and WPU 2013–2020

Sean began to ask first-year writing students to “reimagine” a text essay as a “3-minute-movie” in 2009. Most students submitted those movies on DVDs and the assignment focused largely on multimodal composing processes. In the Spring of 2013, Sean revived the movie assignment at Hunter College. In this “writing about writing” course model with an inquiry focus, students developed their own individual writing projects and research studies. They addressed the same thesis question for both a text-based and a video essay. Students posted all drafts to their own YouTube accounts. First and second drafts were all “Unlisted” to allow for teacher comments, peer review, and revision. Each student then chose whether to go “Public,” as well as how long to stay public after the semester. In Fall 2016, Sean brought the same writing course model and three-minute-movie assignment to William Paterson University.

Although they worked on other essays, many students at both colleges chose to reimagine their research studies as videos. We soon saw that many videos tended to move from inquiry toward direct arguments and/or public advocacy. Isabella (2014) challenged gender stereotyping in commercials. Hannah (2019) demonstrated the harmful effects of Cosmopolitan ads on young women. Rehma (2014) mocked stereotypical portrayals of Muslim families. Tanya (2014) concluded that Sean’s writing class did not meet all of Friere’s requirements for praxis. Ashley (2017) conducted a self-study to prove veganism can be affordable. Gregory (2013) argued against gender barriers in nursing. Meredith (2019) offered college students tips for professional success.

An array of screenshots from YouTube videos of movie essays. One shows women sitting at a table with a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine, the next a picture of a male nurse in front of the statistic: 'Men in nursing, 9.6%, 333,000,' the next a black and white image of a man sitting on a couch reading a newspaper while a woman in a skirt picks up his coat; the bottom row features a mock portrayal of a student's mother wearing a niqab while washing dishes in the kitchen,  a chart labeled 'Experience' with four labeled dots underneath pointing to each other, labeled 'practice,' 'learning,' 'experience,' and 'success,' a shopping cart with produce and groceries inside, and an image of Sean standing near a seated student and they are both looking at a laptop.
Figure 1. Screenshots from student movie essays. Top row, left to right: Hannah, Gregory, and Isabella. Bottom row, left to right: Rehma, Meredith, Ashley, and Tanya.

Composing, publishing and studying video essays changed how students saw themselves, their teacher, and their work. Sean offered extra credit to students who chose to go public and also to promote their movies to substantial audiences. Publishing videos for audiences beyond our classroom raised new questions. (Do I want my brother to see this movie about our dad? Will I lose followers? What will my boss think?) The video medium and the “movie” genre often allowed, suggested, or even required students to shift away from some constraints of academic/school writing. (Can I be funny? How do I add a creative commons or public domain soundtrack? How about animation? How many words can I put on text slides if viewers watch on phones? Can I create a mock movie trailer? Should I narrate face to camera? Should I add other faces or voices? How do I get informed permission? Should I use my real name?) Peer review exercises soon demonstrated that classmates were sophisticated consumers and creators of social media and video arguments with sharp instincts for adding power.

In 2013–14, many Hunter students chose not to go public. Over the years since, others deleted their movies, or relisted them as private/unpublished. But in March of 2021, eleven were still up and public; most were still adding new viewers.[1] For example, Nicole (2014) used her rhetorical analysis of dorm room decorations to explain Kenneth Burke’s ideas about arguments of identification.

This line graph shows Nicole's movie essay views started at 0 in January 2015 and have steadily climbed to 3,500 views in July 2020.
Figure 2. Nicole’s Burke Essay’s YouTube Views chart from January 2015 to March 2021.

Her audience has consistently grown since 2014. And a clear pattern has emerged: this serious academic subject draws more new viewers during the fall and spring academic semesters and fewer during summer and winter breaks (Figure 2).

Gradually, Sean began to see how the videos shattered the constraints of both the classroom and the semester. First, they reached growing audiences around the world for months or years. Second, the lessons learned from videos carried over to later semesters as new classes reanalyzed their situations and audiences. Third, we began to spread the conversation to other teachers and students. Between 2014 and 2021, six Hunter and WPU students have presented insights about their videos to groups of students and teachers. Sean also posted his related assignment on avoiding intellectual property and copyright problems to a CUNY graduate student website in 2014. He co-published a gallery of public student movies with introductions by the student composers in 2015. He published an online package of teaching materials for his “3-Minute Movie” assignment in 2016.

Our Fall 2016 Writing Class

Carissa took Sean’s first year writing course in Fall 2016. She was a new paraprofessional at a school for children and young adults with autism and she wanted to pursue teaching. While she enjoyed her job, Carissa saw students being treated in ways that didn’t make sense. A nonspeaking student was told to stop singing in class. A boy rocking in his chair was told to have a “quiet body.” A girl scripting to soothe herself was told to have a “quiet mouth.” Why suppress these students’ natural ways of communicating or interacting with the world? The answer was the Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy model used by the school. After doing some research on the topic and looking for the opinions of those in the Autistic community, Carissa learned that ABA was rooted in ableism, or “the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior” (Olson 2019). ABA therapy was developed from the 1960s through the 1980s by behavioral psychologist Ivar Lovaas who believed that “you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense—they have hair, a nose and a mouth—but they are not people in the psychological sense… You have the raw materials, but you have to build the person” (Kronstein 2018).

Carissa thought Sean’s independent research project would be a good way to learn more about ABA. With her school’s permission, she conducted a rhetorical analysis of their in-house ABA procedures manual. She wrote a formal academic report, concluding that the ABA manual contributed to ableism in her school and published it to the website she created for Sean’s writing course, which she chose to make “Public.”[2]

With her classmates, Carissa watched some of the Hunter student movies and discussed the situations those students had faced. She chose to reimagine her ABA manual analysis as an advocacy piece, hoping to alert educators and parents about the potential harm from ABA therapy. Although she was passionate about the idea, she was still new to the topic and wary of sharing her criticism about such a widely accepted therapy, especially since her own workplace used it. Suddenly, the idea of “audience” was much more authentic: she risked losing her job if her bosses watched her video.

Carissa composed her video in four drafts. In the first draft, she talked through a plan on camera. In the second draft, she added a scripted narration, citing research and using technical jargon. Unable to include children due to ethical concerns, Carissa used her cats to model the therapy. In draft three, she used the cats more and moved them up to the first twenty seconds to hook viewers and lighten the overall tone. In this draft Carissa also cut the jargon way down, added citations to research studies to build credibility, and edited the running time down to 3:02. Small edits in the fourth (and final) version cut the video down to 2:43. After weighing the pros and cons, Carissa decided to go “Public,” expecting she would reach only a few dozen viewers.

Our YouTube Audience Model

As we learned more about YouTube audiences for our movies, Sean’s classes began to develop an audience chart model and revise it across semesters.[3] As the assignment developed over time, students read Laura Bolin Carroll’s (2010) “Backpacks and Briefcases,” together with the developing chart and a selection of student movies. (In the last year, Sean has assigned drafts of this article.) We quickly realized that these audiences were not separate tiers but one ecosystem—all interacting in different ways in each situation as soon as we click “Public.”

Audience Types Potential Size Examples Time Arc
Classroom 1–20 Teacher, Class Days or weeks.

[Views end with semester.]

Promoted 1 to 4000+ Family, Friends,

Social Media

Days.

[Views spike and then flatten.]

Sponsored

(Academic)

30 to 300+ Other Writing Classes

Teachers/Educators

Other college students

From time to time.

In person screenings

[Views make small jumps.]

Intended/Ideal/

Target/Organic

1 to 7000+ Effective Agents (Bitzer)

Partners/Collaborators

Affected Communities

Academic Communities

Months or Years.

[Views grow steadily.]

Suggested by Google/YouTube 1 to 6000+ Also Organic—but views are initiated by YouTube Years

[Views grow in spurts.]

By Device 1 to 7000+ Mobile, Desktop, Tablet, TV, Game Console Years.
Online Hostile 1 to 200+ Hostile Views,

Trolls and Haters

Until you delete or go “Private”

But videos can be copied.

Real Life Hostile/Unintended Not many but possible big impacts Copyright Claimants, Employers, Family, Friends,

future life partners, etc.

Until you delete or go “Private”

But videos can be copied.

Corporate One YouTube/Google Google has it forever.
Table 1. Types of YouTube audiences.

Classroom Audiences

Most college writing assignments have an audience of one teacher and maybe one or two peer-reviewer classmates. Each student video starts with that audience too, first with teacher and peer reviews of drafts, and then in a “movie night” where creators introduce and screen their final movies to the whole class.

Promoted Audiences

If students go Public, they can also choose to promote their movie and build a quick base of viewers by the semester-end, perhaps also becoming more visible to search engines. A three-minute movie is often a lot easier and more comfortable to share on Facebook or Instagram than a ten-page study or essay, even one posted to a blog or website. But self-promotion to friends, family, followers, and work colleagues can feel trickier than sharing work with two billion strangers just by marking a video “Public.”

Direct promotion can also reach members of your intended audience. Abdus (2017) designed and ran a study that administered a “push” survey to warn fifty customers in his donut shop about the harmful effects of sugary sodas and sweetened coffees. His survey was effective: forty of fifty subjects (80 percent) chose a healthier drink.

This line graph shows Abdus's movie essay views started at 0 in January 2018 and made a sharp increase to approximately 3,500 within a month. After that initial jump, the line flattens out and stays around 4,000 views up until July 2020.
Figure 3. Abdus’s Sugary Drinks Essay’s YouTube Views chart from December 2017 to March 2021.

But YouTube offered Abdus a chance to warn many more people. In a single week, Abdus used social media (with a big assist from his brother) to promote his video version of his study to over one thousand viewers. When Sean created a small winter-break promotion contest, Abdus added over 2,500 additional views. Even with 3,500 total views in its first month, this movie did not get much help from YouTube’s search and suggestion systems, and new views soon flattened out. In October 2019, another one of Sean’s writing classes decided to promote Abdus’s movie again as a team project; their promotion added another 270 views. In all, the three promotion efforts enabled Abdus to warn almost 4,000 people about harmful sugary drinks—all with almost no help from YouTube.

On the other hand, promotion may also push a movie toward unintended and/or hostile audiences. Carissa wanted to get her message out but she decided to not promote her video on social media where her coworkers might see it. It felt important to consider not just whether they saw it—but also how they found it. She did not want to appear to be pushing her criticism of a therapy they used in their faces. However, she saw less risk if they happened to come across it on their own.

Maybe Google/YouTube won’t suggest a movie with one hundred views to larger audiences. But some of our videos with a couple of hundred views have gone on to find new eyes month after month. At the same time, videos with only a handful of initial views (even excellent ones) often draw no new eyes over time. And even if a video’s audiences flatten out after a short promotional spike, reaching any real-world audience beyond the classroom is still a powerful choice that breaks free from the normal constraints of classroom writing.

Sponsored (Academic) Audiences

Every semester Sean shares old videos with new classes. This sponsorship creates a type of academic audience somewhere between promoted and organic. These students are not choosing to watch due to their needs and interests, except as a model for their own videos, a way to study audiences, and/or to get course credit. But they can be organic in some ways too. Carly’s (2016) study traced how her NJ high school failed to prepare students for writing expectations at a number of colleges. Many of Carly’s four-hundred–plus viewers have been Sean’s writing students. This past summer, Carly’s movie (with her consent) was added to WPU’s writing teacher resource website. This is, in one sense, another form of sponsorship by WPU writing teachers. But the line between sponsored and organic growth gets pretty blurry.

“Organic” Intended Audiences

When ancient Greek rhetors studied persuasion 2,400 years ago, their audiences and situations were small and simple. A persuader spoke to a single, visible “Public” or audience at one time and in one place. They could see each other and interact; they often knew each other; they had similar privileges, beliefs, and values. But as Phillip Gallagher (2019) notes, today’s digital audiences are far more complicated, “redefined by attributes of digital spaces and online communications.” Gallagher observes that as digital platforms “blur the boundaries between private and public domains,” they also splinter any single Public/audience into many different “knowledge cultures” each of which is an “organic assemblage of individuals into a group around a particular topic of interest.” Melanie Gagich (2018) also focuses on finding the ideal organic audience for any particular argument. She replaced an “imagined audience” assignment with digital composing and publication, which urged students “to address a ‘real’ community that they know from experience.”

Defining organic YouTube audiences early on (Who is this for? What work will it do?) has led students to often find multiple organic audiences. Like Gallagher’s knowledge communities, some of these audiences share a “topic of interest.” But others feel more like Gagich’s description of real communities that they know. For example, the intended audience for Sil’s (2018) anti-gang movie was complicated.

This line graph shows Silvester's movie essay views which begin at 0 in April 2018 and reach approximately 1,600 by July 2020.
Figure 4. Silvester’s Movie Essay’s YouTube Views chart from April 2018 to March 2021.

He wanted to warn young people and parents in his home town of Atlantic City, as well as families in similar communities. But he was also speaking to people who did not understand the struggles of families in towns like Atlantic City. A steady audience found Sil’s video every month for over two years. But in June 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the nation and focused increased attention on the devastating effects of structural racism, Sil’s new views spiked up. He has again seen sharper growth in early 2021 (Figure 4).

Deanna’s (2019) conversation with her mom about converting to Judaism had, in one sense, a large potential organic audience of people considering conversion. But Deanna’s main purpose soon became to create an oral history for her own family. Nakia’s (2019) interviews about the “talks” black parents give their children to try to keep them safe also began with her family as her organic audience. But Nakia also promoted her movie to almost two hundred viewers at the end of our Fall 2019 class and its organic audience has grown slowly since, including a noticeable jump in the month after George Floyd’s murder.

The movie assignment can also draw audiences in “writing about literature” courses, at least in Sean’s horror-themed sections. But the organic audiences feel much closer to the “knowledge cultures” focused “topics of interest” proposed by Gallagher. These essays can discuss less serious issues of broad interest to large organic audiences of pop culture fans. Matt (2019) analyzes the monster in Bird Box (2019), arguing that it is H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. He did not promote his movie and its audience grew slowly for two months. But starting in September, an audience began to find it and his monthly views increased for seven months before slowly declining in early 2021— possibly as interest in the Birdbox movie waned (Figure 5).

Matt's YouTube views chart shows his views starting at 0 in May 2019 and having a slow increase up until September 2019 where it reaches about 100 views. After September they increase to about 90 views a month reaching 1,000 views by March 2020.
Figure 5. Matt’s Birdbox Essay’s YouTube Views chart from May 2019 to March 2021.

We have been surprised by how much of the organic audience growth for different movies is close to linear over months or even years. Sometimes organic audiences curve up for a few months or slowly level out. But we are also increasingly aware that explanations about audience growth based on real world factors must be understood as refracted and distorted through the sheer power that is exerted by Google itself. A closer look at Carissa’s audience growth since 2016 demonstrates this power.

Two Views of Carissa’s Organic Audience

In 2017, Sean could see Carissa find a growing organic audience. From March to September 2017, her growth rate was viral, climbing to over five hundred views a month. Then her rate of new viewers gradually declined, with a small surge in early 2021 (Figure 6). Sean could only guess as to why Carissa’s audience grew so quickly during 2017 and then slowed.

Carissa's movie views chart starts at 0 views in December 2016 and begins to make viral growth from March to September 2017. After September her views continue to grow but at a much lower rate. As of June 2020, the chart shows her video has surpassed 7,000 views.
Figure 6. Carissa’s ABA Essay’s YouTube Views chart from December 2019 to March 2021.

When Carissa studied the data available to her in YouTube’s creator studio through mid-2020, she was able to learn a lot more about how her organic audience found her video. YouTube breaks viewer sources into five key categories: YouTube searches, YouTube suggestions, external sources (like websites or Facebook), other YouTube features, and browse features (these last two are also suggestions and features inside YouTube.) The largest source of what YouTube calls “traffic” (3,765 of total 7,355 views) came directly from YouTube searches, most often “aba therapy.” YouTube’s suggestions to viewers of other videos generated 1,577 more views. (We discuss Suggested Audience below.) Carissa had hoped that audiences would find her video through searches. But she didn’t anticipate how much the internal YouTube searches and suggestions—as opposed to general Google searches or human referrals—would dominate audiences’ access to her movie. And it turned out that the YouTube search algorithm treated her video very differently over time.

External recommendations sometimes appeared to influence YouTube search results and suggestions. In January 2017, a Facebook advocacy group dedicated to “better ways than ABA” found and recommended her video which generated three small 2017 viewership bumps: about twenty in January, fifteen in May, and about sixty-five in August and September. (See the blue dotted line in Figure 7.)

This chart breaks down the places where the external views on Carissa's video came from: 1. Google/Google Search, 2. Facebook, and 3. Rutgers. The Facebook line has three small 2017 viewership bumps: about 20 in January, 15 in May, and about 65 in August and September. Rutgers has a bump of about 15 in June 2017. And Google/Google Searches has a peak of ten alongside Rutgers in June 2017 and another bump of about 18 views in November 2017.
Figure 7. External Traffic Sources chart for Carissa’s movie essay from December 2016 to December 2017.

Before the first bump, YouTube’s search, suggestions, and other features did not seem to offer or suggest Carissa’s movie to viewers. But right after the Facebook group voiced their support, new views from YouTube searches, YouTube suggested videos, and other YouTube features all spiked up (Figure 8).

The data in this “traffic sources” chart is taken directly from YouTube’s creator studio and breaks down the sources of where the views come from: 1. YouTube searches, 2. Suggested Videos, 3. External Sources and Direct and Unknown sources, 4. Other YouTube features, 5. Browse features, Channel pages, Playlists, Notifications, playlist pages, and the End Screen. YouTube Searches and Suggested Videos peaks to about 250 and 180 views respectively in September 2017. The chart shows the first bump in views came from YouTube Searches and External sources in January 2017.
Figure 8. Traffic Sources chart for Carissa’s movie essay from December 2016 to June 2020.

YouTube’s support added significant new viewers, peaking in September 2017. Viewers from YouTube suggestions and other features dropped off after only a few months. But new viewers from YouTube searches decreased more gradually over three years as YouTube stopped including it in search results.

Later referrals from credible human sources did not revive the algorithm’s support. A George Mason University recommendation has added about thirty views every September, January, and May, coinciding with Fall, Spring, and Summer semesters beginning in 2018. Rutgers University and Seneca College also sent viewers to Carissa’s movie. Another external recommendation came from a Slovakian forum for expectant mothers which generated thirty-four views in May of 2019. In the end, this more detailed analysis reaffirms the power of YouTube as a bridge or a gatekeeper to Carissa’s organic audience.

Audiences By Device

Although this does not measure a kind of audience community, we were surprised when Carissa studied her own YouTube data that over half of her total views over four years were on mobile devices. Computer views were only 39 percent, with 8 percent on tablets and smaller slices on TVs and game consoles (Figure 9). We’ve added this category to the audience chart to inform future composing choices.

This pie chart breaks down what device the total 7,345 viewers were using. 3720 were from mobile devices, 2862 were from desktops, 588 were from tablets, 122 were from TVs and 53 were from game consoles.
Figure 9. Carissa’s Movie Views by Device pie chart from June 2020.

Unintended/Hostile Audiences

As creators and advocates, we often focus on organic audiences—the eyes we want to reach, the minds we can persuade to act, the people who can identify with our interests and struggles. But we have learned that thinking about unintended audiences can be just as important. Every creator who borrows content must consider possible copyright claims. Students who could not resist a Lady Gaga soundtrack or Disney video clip risked having ads inserted in their videos or having the videos muted or deleted. So, we review creative commons content, public domain rules, and murky “fair use” considerations. Both going “Public” and choosing to promote videos presses many students to think carefully about how people in both their real lives and in their online lives will react.

Trolls and haters have been an unavoidable part of YouTube’s ecosystem from its birth. Some harsh and even antagonistic comments can be forms of sincere engagement. But Burgess and Green observe that it has become evident in recent years that some trolls mount coordinated campaigns of disinformation or harassment, even “weaponizing” comments to silence diverse and progressive voices (2018, 120). They argue that learning to manage trolls, “both practically and emotionally, is one of the core competencies required” for successful YouTubers (2018, 119).

This is a screenshot taken from the comment section of Carissa’s video. The first commenter, user Iassus prophetam, says: This was a very cute way to show people in a non offensive way some very offensive things they’re done by the APA. User Laura Markland replies, y’all are so ignorant and quotes Iassus’s misspelling: “Thinks that are done by the APA.” Then she says, “You guys have no idea what ABA practitioners are taught to do as I am about to complete my degree and take the board exam to be licensed. It is a scientifically proven method. User Barfo281 replies to Laura, It’s not scientifically proven, you liar. User Homo Sapiens Logicus replies, “Scientifically ‘proven’ method” … I.E. Scientists, that is social scientists, used captive institutionalized children, 60–70 years ago, to prove that with enough torture you can get some of those children to obey commands some of the time. We had to tone it down a bit, after there were no more institutions to hide what we were doing, but the technique has never really been refined and we never follow up on the ‘patients’ to find out.
Figure 10. A view of the comment section on Carissa’s ABA YouTube movie.

In theory, robust, heated, and even hostile comments may change how we think about the original videos as finite and fixed arguments by a single creator. But in practice, student creators/advocates may face abuse and trauma. The comments on Carissa’s movie started coming in early 2017. She expected opposition; in a way it marked her success. For a while, she tried to peacefully engage with skeptical and even hostile viewers, choosing to become a public advocate in a new way. But she soon became overwhelmed and took a step back. Returning months later, Carissa noticed that the comment section had taken on a life of its own as her viewers began to debate each other. To this day, the comments grow with new debates, even though Carissa has not rejoined them.

Suggestions and Our Corporate Audience: YouTube/Google

Purchased by Google in 2006, YouTube is an arm of one the world’s largest four corporations, with Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. Together These “big four” dominate internet commerce and our digital lives. In 2017, John Herrman criticized the ways in which these “all-encompassing internet platforms” assume innocent “costumes of liberal democracies,” while they are in fact “always a commercial simulation,” inducing us all to entrust increasing portions of our “private and public” lives to “advertising and data mining” firms. In this complex new reality, we two billion users are also two billion products. YouTube/Google mines our data to sell targeted ads and instant purchase buttons—earning $15 billion in 2019 (Duffy 2020).

YouTube always fills your screen with suggested videos to lure you to stay on the platform as long as possible. As Carissa’s video began to find its organic audience, YouTube began to suggest it to viewers of similar videos. Over time, what YouTube describes as “views from suggestions appearing alongside or after other videos” added 1,577 viewers, her second largest audience. We realized we had not considered this side to YouTube’s “participatory culture.” Classroom views are mostly initiated by the teacher. Promoted views are initiated by the creators, their families, friends, and followers. External recommendations come from interested communities. Google and YouTube searches are initiated by organic audiences—even if Google controls the actual search results.

But video suggestions are initiated directly by Google. Like any other form of promotion, that is partly a good thing for creators who can reach more eyes. Carissa’s video appeared alongside suggested videos that were also questioning the use of ABA, most notably the video, “Is ABA Therapy Child Abuse?” But the degree of control that YouTube exercises over its suggestions is a troubling reminder that the most important, powerful audience on YouTube is often YouTube itself.

Conclusion

Over eight years now, we have learned a few things about YouTube audiences and how we can think about them in useful ways. We are happy to share that here, maybe as a starting point for further discussion, or for similar conversations about digital audiences. We continue to learn every semester and we welcome creators in other classrooms to join us in thinking about these and similar questions. How do we balance public digital advocacy and protection from abuse? How do we assert our fair use rights in systems that give so much power to copyright claimants? How do we resist and oppose the power of Google to limit our audiences, even as we use its platform and tools? How can we build similar classroom conversations on other platforms that reach thousands of eyes?

We have not unlocked Google’s search algorithms to figure out how to turn serious college video essays into viral sensations. Google/YouTube suggests that the success of our videos is in our hands, based essentially on the quality and rhetorical sophistication of our work—even as it only vaguely describes its “search and recommendation systems [as using] hundreds of signals to determine how to rank videos.” Of course, quality and persuasive power do matter. And adding enticing titles, interesting thumbnail images, compelling video descriptions, thorough lists of tags, and other searchable metadata—all that may help too. Promotion to build an early audience has often seemed to matter for us, although a few videos (like Carissa’s) still find growing audiences with very little creator promotion.

But Carissa’s case study of her video also demonstrates that Google/YouTube’s algorithm computers are faithless friends. YouTube did not promote her video. Then it did. Then it didn’t. And those mercurial decisions held great power: at least 83 percent of her total audience through March 2021 has been due to Google/YouTube referral sources. YouTube is a rigged game, and it is the only game in town. As critical thinkers and creators, we keep that reality in mind as we call it out and resist it.

Yet, we also remain excited and hopeful. This flawed corporate platform still gives all of us a chance to reimagine the work we do in writing courses and why we do it. We can practice and study how to compete to reach audiences far beyond one teacher, one classroom, one semester, and one college. We can all publish work that may find a growing audience around the world for years to come.

Notes

[1] The WPU IRB confirmed on August 26, 2020 that this research and article did not require formal IRB review. We cite only public videos whose creators have reviewed a draft of this article and agreed in writing to be included.

[2] Carissa’s website has lived beyond the classroom and semester as well. She has reedited and updated it with new information gathered over the years.

[3] The “suggested” and “device” categories are new here, added based on Carissa’s case study. The “audience size” column uses Carissa’s and Abdus’s audiences for these estimates.

Bibliography

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Acknowledgments

We thank Alexis Bennett and Hyacinth Rios, who assisted us as sensitivity readers for this article, as well as the student video creators who allowed us to share their work and their stories. This research was supported (in part) by a Summer Stipend from the Research Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences at William Paterson University.

About the Authors

A college writing teacher since 2003, Sean Molloy is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at William Paterson University. His work has been published by the Journal of Basic Writing, College English, the CUNY Digital History Archive, on YouTube, and recently in two edited collections: Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and the Advancement of Opportunity (2018) and Talking Back: Senior Scholars and Their Colleagues Deliberate the Future of Writing Studies (2020).

Carissa Kelly will graduate from William Paterson University in May of 2021, majoring in Art and Secondary Education and minoring in Teaching Students with Disabilities. After college, she hopes to continue working with neurodiverse students. In her free time she enjoys making stained glass and spending time with her cat, Chippy.


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Using Wikipedia in the Composition Classroom and Beyond: Encyclopedic “Neutrality,” Social Inequality, and Failure as Subversion

Abstract

Instructors who use Wikipedia in the classroom typically focus on teaching students how to adopt the encyclopedia’s content practices so that they can improve their writing style and research skills, and conclude with an Edit-a-Thon that invites them to address Wikipedia’s social inequalities by writing entries about minority groups. Yet these approaches do not sufficiently highlight how Wikipedia’s social inequalities function at the level of language itself. In this article, I outline a pedagogical approach that invites students to examine the ways that language and politics shape, and are shaped by, each other on Wikipedia. In the case of my Spring 2020 class, my approach encouraged students to examine the relationship between Wikipedia’s content policies and white supremacy, and Wikipedia’s claims to neutrality. I also draw on the Edit-A-Thon that I organized at the end of the unit to show how instructors can extend a critical engagement with Wikipedia by building in moments of failure, in addition to success. In the process, my pedagogical approach reminds instructors—especially in composition and writing studies—to recognize that it is impossible to teach writing decoupled from the politics of language.

Wikipedia has become a popular educational tool over the last two decades, especially in the fields of composition and writing studies. The online encyclopedia’s “anyone-can-edit” ethos emphasizes the collective production of informative writing for public audiences, and instructors have found that they can use it to teach students about writing processes such as citation, collaboration, drafting, editing, research, and revision, in addition to stressing topics such as audience, tone, and voice (Purdy 2009, 2010; Hood 2009; Vetter, McDowell, and Stewart 2019; Xing and Vetter 2020). Composition courses that use Wikipedia have thus begun to follow a similar pattern. Students examine Wikipedia’s history, examine the way its three content policies (Neutral point-of-view [NPOV], no original research, and verifiability) govern how entries are written and what research sources are cited, and discuss the advantages and limits of Wikipedia’s open and anonymous community of volunteer contributors. Then, as a final assignment, instructors often ask students to edit an existing Wikipedia entry or write their own. By contrast, instructors in fields like cultural studies, feminism, and postcolonialism foreground Wikipedia’s social inequalities by asking students to examine how its largely white and male volunteer editors have resulted in the regrettable lack of topics about women and people of color (Edwards 2015; Pratesi, Miller, and Sutton 2019; Rotramel, Parmer, and Oliveira 2019; Montez 2017; Koh and Risam n.d.). When they ask students to edit or write Wikipedia entries, these instructors also invite students to focus on minority groups or underrepresented topics, thus transforming the typical final assignment into one that mirrors the Edit-A-Thons hosted by activist groups like Art + Feminism.

The socially conscious concerns that instructors in cultural studies, feminism, and postcolonialism have raised are compelling because they foreground Wikipedia’s power dynamics. When constructing my own first-year undergraduate writing course at the University of Virginia, then, I sought to combine these concerns with the general approach instructors in composition and writing studies are using. In the Fall 2019 iteration of my course, my students learned about topics like collaborative writing and citation, in addition to examining academic and journalistic articles about the encyclopedia’s racial and gender inequalities. The unit concluded with a two-day Edit-A-Thon focused on African American culture and history. The results seemed fabulous: my brilliant students produced almost 20,000 words on Wikipedia, and created four new entries—one about Harlem’s Frederick Douglass Book Center and three about various anti-slavery periodicals.[1] In their reflection papers, many conveyed that Edit-A-Thons could help minority groups and topics acquire greater visibility, and argued that the encyclopedia’s online format accelerates and democratizes knowledge production.

Yet, as an instructor, I felt that I had failed to sufficiently emphasize how Wikipedia’s content policies also played a role in producing the encyclopedia’s social inequalities. Although I had devoted a few classes to those policies, the approaches I adapted for my unit from the composition and the cultural studies fields meant my students only learned how to adopt those policies—not how to critically interrogate them. The articles we read also obscured how these policies relate to the encyclopedia’s social inequalities because scholars and journalists often conceptualize such inequalities in terms of proportion, describing how there is more or less information about this particular race or that particular gender (Lapowsky 2015; Cassano 2015; Ford 2011; Graham 2011; John 2011). Naturally, then, that’s how our students learn to frame the issue, too—especially when the Edit-A-Thons we organize for them focus on adding (or subtracting) content, rather than investigating how Wikipedia’s inequalities also occur due to the way the encyclopedia governs language. Similar observations have been raised by feminist instructors like Leigh Gruwell, who has found that Wikipedia’s policies “exclude and silence feminist ways of knowing and writing” and argued that current pedagogical models have not yet found ways to invoke Wikipedia critically (Gruwell 2015).[2]

What, then, might a pedagogical model that does invoke Wikipedia critically look like? I sought to respond to this question by creating a new learning goal for the Wikipedia unit in the Spring 2020 iteration of my course. This time around, I would continue to encourage my students to use Wikipedia’s content policies to deepen their understanding of the typical topics in a composition course, but I would also invite them to examine how those policies create—and then conceal—inequalities that occur at the linguistic level. In this particular unit, we concentrated on how various writers had used Wikipedia’s content policies to reinscribe white supremacy in an entry about UVa’s history. The unit concluded with an Edit-A-Thon where students conducted research on historical materials from UVa’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library to produce a Wikipedia page about the history of student activism at UVa. This approach did not yield the flashy, tweet-worthy results I saw in the Fall. But it is—to my mind—much more important, not only because it is influenced by postcolonial theorists such as Gayatri Spivak, who has demonstrated that neutrality or “objectivity” is impossible to achieve in language, but also because it prompted my students to discuss how language and politics shape, and are shaped by, each other. In the process, this approach also reminds instructors—especially in composition and writing studies—to recognize that it is impossible to teach writing decoupled from the politics of language. Indeed, Jiawei Xing and Matthew A. Vetter’s recent survey of 113 instructors who use Wikipedia in their classrooms reveals that they did so to develop their students’ digital communication, research, critical thinking, and writing skills, but only 40% of those instructors prompted their students to engage with the encyclopedia’s social inequalities as well (Xing and Vetter 2020). While the study’s participant pool is small and not all the instructors in that pool teach composition and writing courses, the results remain valuable because they suggest that current pedagogical models generally do not ask students to examine the social inequalities that Wikipedia’s content policies produce. This article therefore outlines an approach that I used to invite my students to explore the relationship between language and social inequalities on Wikipedia, with the hope that other instructors may improve upon, and then interweave, this approach into existing Wikipedia-based courses today.

Given that this introduction (and the argument that follows) stress a set of understudied issues in Wikipedia, however, my overall insistence that we should continue using Wikipedia in our classrooms may admittedly seem odd. Wouldn’t it make more sense, some might ask, to support those who have argued that we should stop using Wikipedia altogether? Perhaps—but I would have to be a fool to encourage my students to disavow an enormously popular online platform that is amassing knowledge at a faster rate than any other encyclopedia in history, averages roughly twenty billion views a month, and shows no signs of slowing down (“Wikimedia Statistics – All Wikis” n.d.). Like all large-scale projects, the encyclopedia contains problems—but, as instructors, we would do better to equip our students with the skills to address such problems when they arise. The pedagogical approach that I describe in this paper empowers our students to identify some problems directly embedded in Wikipedia’s linguistic structures, rather than studying demographic data about the encyclopedia alone. Only when these internal dynamics are grasped can the next generation then begin to truly reinvent one of the world’s most important platforms in the ways that they desire.

1. Wikipedia’s Neutrality Problem

Wikipedia’s three interdependent content policies—no original research, verifiability, and neutral point of view—are a rich opportunity for students to critically engage with the encyclopedia. Neutral point of view is the most non-negotiable policy of the three, and the Wikipedia community defines it as follows:

Neutral point of view (NPOV) … means representing fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without editorial bias, all the significant views that have been published by reliable sources about the topic … [it means] carefully and critically analyzing a variety of reliable sources and then attempting to convey to the reader the information contained in them fairly, proportionally … including all verifiable points of view. (“Wikipedia: Neutral Point of View” 2020)

Brief guidelines like “avoid stating opinions as facts” and “prefer nonjudgmental language” (“Wikipedia: Neutral Point of View” 2020) follow this definition. My students in both semesters fixated on these points and the overall importance of eschewing “editorial bias” when engaging with NPOV for the first time—and for good reason. A writing style that seems to promise fact alone is particularly alluring to a generation who has grown up on fake news and photoshopped Instagram bodies. It is no surprise, then, that my students responded enthusiastically to the first writing exercise I assigned, which asks them to pick a quotidian object and describe it from what they understood to be a neutral point of view as defined by Wikipedia. The resulting pieces were well-written. When I ran my eyes over careful descriptions about lamps, pillows, and stuffed animals, I glimpsed what Purdy and the composition studies cadre have asserted: that writing for Wikipedia does, indeed, provoke students to write clearly and concisely, and pay closer attention to grammar and syntax.

Afterwards, however, I asked my students to consider the other part of NPOV’s definition: that the writer should proportionally articulate multiple perspectives about a topic (“Wikipedia: Neutral Point of View” 2020). A Wikipedia entry about our planet, for example, would include fringe theories claiming the Earth is flat—but a writer practicing NPOV would presumably ensure that these claims do not carry what Wikipedians describe as “undue weight” over the scientific sources which demonstrate that the Earth is round. Interestingly, the Wikipedia community’s weighing rhetoric associates the NPOV policy with the archetypal symbol of justice: the scales. Wikipedians do not merely summarize information. By adopting NPOV, they appear to summarize information in the fairest way. They weigh out different perspectives and, like Lady Justice, their insistence on avoiding editorial bias seems to ensure that they, too, are metaphorically “blindfolded” to maintain impartiality.

Yet, my students and I saw how NPOV’s “weighing” process, and Wikipedia’s broader claims to neutrality, quickly unraveled when we compared a Wikipedia entry to another scholarly text about the same subject. Comparing and contrasting texts is a standard pedagogical strategy, but the exercise—when raised in relation to Wikipedia—is often used to emphasize how encyclopedic language differs from fiction, news, or other writing genres, rather than provoking a critical engagement with Wikipedia’s content policies. In my Spring 2020 course, then, I shifted the purpose of this exercise. This time around, we compared and contrasted two documents—UVa’s Wikipedia page and Lisa Woolfork’s “‘This Class of Persons’: When UVa’s White Supremacist Past Meets Its Future”—to study the limits of Wikipedia’s NPOV policy.

Both documents construct two very different narratives to describe UVa’s history. My students and I discovered that their differences are most obvious when they discuss why Thomas Jefferson established UVa in Charlottesville, and the role that enslaved labor played in constructing the university:

Wikipedia Woolfork
In 1817, three Presidents (Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison) and Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court John Marshall joined 24 other dignitaries at a meeting held in the Mountain Top Tavern at Rockfish Gap. After some deliberation, they selected nearby Charlottesville as the site of the new University of Virginia. [24]. (“University of Virginia” 2020) On August 1, 1818, the commissioners for the University of Virginia met at a tavern in the Rockfish Gap on the Blue Ridge. The assembled men had been charged to write a proposal … also known as the Rockfish Gap Report. … The commissioners were also committed to finding the ideal geographical location for this undertaking [the university]. Three choices were identified as the most propitious venues: Lexington in Rockbridge County, Staunton in Augusta County, and Central College (Charlottesville) in Albemarle County. … The deciding factor that led the commissioners to choose Albemarle County as the site for the university was exclusively its proximity to white people. The commissioners observed, “It was the degree of the centrality to the white population of the state which alone then constituted the important point of comparison between these places: and the board … are of the opinion that the central point of the white population of the state is nearer to the central college….” (Woolfork 2018, 99–100)
Like many of its peers, the university owned slaves who helped build the campus. They also served students and professors. The university’s first classes met on March 7, 1825. (“University of Virginia” 2020) For the first fifty years of its existence, the university relied on enslaved labor in a variety of positions. In addition, enslaved workers were tasked to serve students personally. … Jefferson believed that allowing students to bring their personal slaves to college would be a corrosive influence. … [F]aculty members, however, and the university itself owned or leased enslaved people. (Woolfork 2018, 101)

Table 1. Comparison of Wikipedia and Woolfork on why Thomas Jefferson established UVa in Charlottesville, and the role that enslaved labor played in constructing the university

Although the two Wikipedia extracts “avoid stating opinions as facts,” they expose how NPOV’s requirement that a writer weigh out different perspectives to represent all views “fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible” is precisely where neutrality breaks down. In the first pair of extracts, the Wikipedia entry gives scant information about why Jefferson selected Charlottesville. Woolfork’s research, however, outlines that what contributors summarized as “some deliberation” was, in fact, a discussion about locating the university in a predominantly white area. The Wikipedia entry cites source number 24 to support the summary, but the link leads to a Shenandoah National Park guide that highlights Rockfish Gap’s location, instead of providing information about the meeting. Woolfork’s article, by contrast, carefully peruses the Rockfish Gap Report, which was produced in that meeting.

One could argue, as one of my students did, that perhaps Wikipedia’s contributors had not thought to investigate why Jefferson chose Charlottesville, and therefore did not know of the Rockfish Gap Report’s existence—and that is precisely the point. The Wikipedia entry’s inclusion of all three Presidents and the Chief Justice suggests that, when “weighing” different sources and pursuing a range of perspectives about the university’s history, previous contributors decided—whether knowingly or unconsciously—that describing who was at the meeting was a more important viewpoint. They fleshed out a particular strand of detail that would cement the university’s links to American nationalism, rather than inquire how and why Charlottesville was chosen. An entry that looks comprehensive, balanced, well-cited, and “neutral,” then, inevitably prioritizes certain types of information based on the information and the lines of inquiry its contributors choose to expand upon.

The second pair of extracts continue to reveal the fractures in the NPOV policy. Although Woolfork’s research reveals that the university used enslaved labor for the first 50 years, the only time the 10,000-word Wikipedia entry mentions slavery is buried within the three sentences I copied above, which undercuts NPOV’s claims to proportionality. Moreover, the first sentence carefully frames the university’s previous ownership of slaves as usual practice (“like many of its peers”). It is revealing that the sentence does not gaze, as it has done for the majority of the paragraph where this extract is located, on UVa alone—but expands outward to include all universities when conveying this specific fact about slavery. Interestingly, these facts about enslaved labor also come before the sentence about the university’s first day of classes. This means that the entry, which has so far proceeded in chronological fashion, suddenly experiences a temporal warp. It places the reader within the swing of the university’s academic life when it conveys that students and professors benefitted from enslaved labor, only to pull the reader backwards to the first day of classes in the next sentence, as though it were resetting the clock.

I want to stress that the purpose of this exercise was not to examine whether Woolfork’s article is “better” or “truer” than the Wikipedia entry, nor was it an opportunity to undercut the writers of either piece. Rather, the more complex concept my students grappled with was how the article and the entry demonstrate why the true/false—or neutral/biased—binaries that Wikipedia’s content policies rely on are themselves flawed. One could argue that both pieces about UVa are “true,” but the point is that they are slanted differently. The Wikipedia entry falls along an exclusively white axis, while Woolfork’s piece falls along multiple axes—Black and white—and demonstrates how both are actually intertwined due to the university’s reliance on enslaved labor. From a pedagogical standpoint, then, this exercise pushed my students in two areas often unexplored in Wikipedia assignments.

First, it demonstrated to my students that although phrases like “editorial bias” in Wikipedia’s NPOV guidelines presuppose an occasion where writing is impartial and unadulterated, such neutrality does not—and cannot—exist. Instructors in composition studies often ask students to practice NPOV writing for Wikipedia to improve their prose. This process, however, mistakenly conveys that neutrality is an adoptable position even though the comparative exercise I outlined above demonstrates neutrality’s impossibility.

Second, the comparative exercise also demonstrated to my students that Wikipedia’s inequalities occur at the linguistic level as much as the demographic level. Instructors in cultural studies frequently host Edit-A-Thons for their students to increase content about minority cultures and groups on Wikipedia, but this does not address the larger problem embedded in NPOV’s “weighing” of different perspectives. The guidelines state that Wikipedians must weigh perspectives proportionally—but determining what proportionality is to begin with is up to the contributors, as evinced by the two Wikipedia extracts I outlined. Every time a writer weighs different sources and perspectives to write an entry, what they are really doing is slanting their entry along certain axes of different angles, shapes, shades, and sizes. In the articles my students read, the most common axis Wikipedians use, whether knowingly or unconsciously, is one that centers white history, white involvement, and white readers. For example, as my students later discovered in Wikipedia’s “Talk” page for the entry about UVa, when two editors were discussing whether the university’s history of enslaved labor rather than its honor code should be mentioned in the entry’s lead, one editor claimed that the enslaved labor was not necessarily “the most critical information that readers need to know” (“University of Virginia” 2020).[3] Which readers? Who do Wikipedians have in mind when they use that phrase? In this instance, we see how “weighing” different perspectives not only leads one to elevate one piece of information over another, but also one type of reader over another.

As instructors, we need to raise these questions about audience, perspective, and voice in Wikipedia for our students. It is not so much that we have not covered these topics: we just haven’t sufficiently asked our students to engage with the social implications of these topics, like race (and, as Gruwell has said so cogently, gender). One way to begin doing so is by inflecting our pedagogical approaches with the discoveries in fields such as postcolonial studies and critical race studies. For example, my pedagogical emphasis on the impossibility of neutrality as I have outlined it above is partially indebted to critics like Gayatri Spivak. Her work has challenged the western critic’s tendency to appear as though they are speaking from a neutral and objective perspective, and demonstrated how these claims conceal the ways that such critics represent and re-present a subject in oppressive ways (Spivak 1995). Although her scholarship is rooted in deconstructionism and postcolonial theory, her concerns about objectivity’s relationship to white western oppression intersects with US-based critical race theory, where topics like objectivity are central. Indeed, as Michael Omi and Howard Winant have explained, racism in the United States proliferated when figures like Dr. Samuel Morton established so-called “objective” biological measures like cranial capacity to devalue the Black community while elevating the white one (Omi and Winant 1994).

I mention these critics not to argue that one must necessarily introduce a piece of advanced critical race theory or postcolonial theory to our students when using Wikipedia in the composition classroom (although this would of course be a welcome addition for whoever wishes to do so). After all, I never set Spivak’s “Can The Subaltern Speak?” as reading for my students. But what she revealed to me about the impossibility of neutrality in that famous paper prompted me to ask my students about Wikipedia’s NPOV policy in our class discussions and during our comparative exercise, rather than taking that policy for granted and inviting my students to adopt it. If instructors judiciously inflect their pedagogical practices with the viewpoints that critical race theory and postcolonial theory provide, then we can put ourselves and our students in a better position to see how digital writing on sites like Wikipedia are not exempt from the dynamics of power and oppression that exist offline. Other areas in critical race theory and postcolonial theory can also be brought to bear on Wikipedia, and I invite others to uncover those additional links. Disciplinary boundaries have inadvertently created the impression that discoveries in postcolonialism or critical race theory should concern only the scholars working within those fields, but the acute sensitivity towards power, marginalization, and oppression that these fields exhibit mean that the viewpoints their scholars develop are relevant to any instructor who desires to foster a more socially conscious classroom.

2. The Edit-a-Thon: Failure as Subversion

Composition classes that use Wikipedia usually conclude with an assignment where students are invited to write their own entry. For cultural studies courses in particular, students address the lack of content about minority cultures or groups by participating in a themed Edit-A-Thon organized by their instructor. These Edit-A-Thons mirror the Edit-A-Thons hosted by social justice organizations and activism groups outside of the university. These groups usually plan Edit-A-Thons in ways that guarantee maximum success for the participants because many are generously volunteering their time. Moreover, for many participants, these Edit-A-Thons are the first time where they will write for Wikipedia, and if the goal is to inspire them to continue writing after the event, then it is crucial that their initial encounter with this process is user-friendly, positive, and productive. This is why these events frequently offer detailed tutorials on adopting Wikipedia’s content policies, and provide pre-screened secondary source materials that adhere to Wikipedia’s guidelines about “no original research” (writing about topics for which no reliable, published sources exist) and “verifiability” (citing sources that are reliable). Indeed, these thoughtful components at the Art + Feminism Edit-A-Thon event I attended a few years ago at the Guggenheim Museum ensured that I had a smooth and intellectually stimulating experience when I approached Wikipedia as a volunteer writer for the first time. It was precisely because this early experience was so rewarding that Wikipedia leapt to the forefront of my mind when I became an instructor, and was searching for ways to expand student interest in writing.

It is because I am now approaching Wikipedia as an instructor rather than a first-time volunteer writer, however, that I believe we can amplify critical engagement with the encyclopedia if we set aside “success” as an end goal. Of course, there is no reason why one cannot have critical engagement and success as dual goals, but when I was organizing the Edit-a-Thon in my class, I noticed that building in small instances of “failure” enriched the encounters that my students had with Wikipedia’s content policies.

The encyclopedia stipulates that one should not write about organizations or institutions that they are enrolled in or employed by, so I could not invite my students to edit the entry about UVa’s history itself. Instead, I invited them to create a new entry about the history of student activism at UVa using materials at our library.[4] When I was compiling secondary sources for my students, however, I was more liberal with this list in the Spring than I was in the Fall. Wikipedians have long preferred secondary sources like articles in peer-reviewed journals, books published by university presses or other respected publishing houses, and mainstream newspapers (“Wikipedia: No Original Research” 2020) to ensure that writers typically center academic knowledge when building entries about their topic. Thus, like the many social justice and non-profit organizations who host Edit-A-Thons, for Fall 2019 I pre-screened and curated sources that adhered to Wikipedia’s policies so that my students could easily draw from them for the Edit-A-Thon.

In Spring 2020, however, I invited my students to work with a range of primary and secondary sources—meaning that some historical documents like posters, zines, and other paraphernalia, either required different reading methods than academically written secondary sources, or were impossible to cite because to write about them would constitute as “original research.” Experiencing the failure to assimilate other documents and forms of knowledge that are not articulated as published texts can help students interrogate Wikipedia’s lines of inclusion and exclusion, rather than simply taking them for granted. For example, during one particularly memorable conversation with a student who was studying hand-made posters belonging to student activist groups that protested during UVa’s May Days strikes in 1950, she said that she knew she couldn’t cite the posters or their contents, but asked: “Isn’t this history, too? Doesn’t this count?”

By the end of the Spring Edit-a-Thon, my students produced roughly the same amount of content as the Fall class, but their reflection papers suggested that they had engaged with Wikipedia from a more nuanced perspective. As one student explained, a Wikipedia entry may contain features that signal professional expertise, like clear and formal prose or a thick list of references drawn from books published by university presses and peer-reviewed journals, but still exclude or misconstrue a significant chunk of history without seeming to do so.

A small proportion of my students, however, could not entirely overcome one particular limitation. Some continued describing Wikipedia’s writing style as neutral even after asserting that neutrality in writing was impossible in previous pages of their essay. It is possible that this dissonance occurred accidentally, or because such students have not yet developed a vocabulary to describe what that style was even when they knew that it was not neutral. My sense, however, is that this dissonance may also reflect the broader (and, perhaps, predominantly white) desire for the fantasy of impartiality that Wikipedia’s policies promise. Even if it is more accurate to accept that neutrality does not exist on the encyclopedia, this knowledge may create discomfort because it highlights how one has always already taken up a position on a given topic even when one believes they have been writing “neutrally” about it, especially when that topic is related to race. Grasping this particular point is perhaps the largest challenge facing both the student—and the instructor—in the pedagogical approach I have outlined.

Notes

[1] The results for the Fall 2019 Edit-A-Thon are here. The results for the Spring 2020 Edit-A-Thon are here.

[2] Some of those in composition studies, like Paula Patch and Matthew A. Vetter, partially address Gruwell’s call. Patch, for example, has constructed a framework for critically evaluating Wikipedia that prompts students to focus on authorship credibility, reliability, interface design, and navigation (Patch 2010), often by comparing various Wikipedia entries to other scholarly texts online or in print. By contrast, Vetter’s unit on Appalachian topics on Wikipedia focused on the negative representations of the region within a larger course that sought to examine the way that Appalachia is continually marginalized in mainstream media culture (Vetter 2018).

[3] An extract from the Talk page conversation:

Natureium removed the mention of slavery from the lead as undue. I don’t see why that fact would be undue, but the dozens and dozens of other facts in the lead are not. I mean, the university is known for its student-run honor code? Seriously? (None of the sources in the section on that topic seem to prove that fact.) In addition, I see language in the lead such as “UVA’s academic strength is broad”—if there’s work to be done on the lead, it should not be in the removal of a foundation built with slave labor. If anything, it balances out what is otherwise little more than a jubilation of UvA that could have been written by the PR department. Drmies (talk) 17:40, 18 September 2018 (UTC)

I think this is an area where we run into a difficult problem that plagues projects like Wikipedia that strive to reflect and summarize extant sources without publishing original research. As a higher ed scholar I agree that an objective summary of this (and several other U.S.) university [sic] would prominently include this information. However, our core policies restrict us from inserting our own personal and professional judgments into articles when those judgments are not also matched by reliable sources. So we can’t do this until we have a significant number of other sources that also do this. (I previously worked at a research center that had a somewhat similar stance where the director explained this kind of work to some of us as “we follow the leading edge, we don’t make it.”) ElKevbo (talk) 19:36, 18 September 2018 (UTC)

But here, UvA has acknowledged it, no? Drmies (talk) 20:52, 18 September 2018 (UTC)

Yes and there are certainly enough reliable sources to include this information in the article. But to include the information in the lede is to assert that it’s the most critical information that readers need to know about this subject and that is a very high bar that a handful of self-published sources are highly unlikely to cross. Do scholars and other authors include “was built by slaves” when they first introduce this topic or summarize it? If not, we should not do so. ElKevbo (talk) 21:27, 18 September 2018 (UTC)

[4] The COVID-19 pandemic, which began toward the end of our Edit-A-Thon, meant that my students and I were unable to clean up the draft page and sufficiently converse with other editors who had raised various concerns about notability and conflict of interest, so it is not yet published on Wikipedia. We hope to complete this soon. In the meantime, I want to note that had the pandemic not occurred, I would have presented the concerns of these external editors to my students, and used their comments as another opportunity to learn more about the way that Wikipedia prioritizes certain types of knowledge. The first concern was the belief that the history of student activism at UVa was not a notable enough topic for Wikipedia because there was not enough general news coverage about it. Although another editor later refuted this claim, the impulse to rely on news coverage to determine whether a topic was notable enough is interesting within the context of student activism, and other social justice protests more broadly. Activist movements are galvanized by the very premise that a particular minority group or issue has not yet been taken seriously by those in power, or by the majority of a population. Some protests, like the Black Lives Matter movement and Hong Kong’s “Revolution of our Times,” have gained enough news coverage across the globe to count as notable topic. Does that mean, however, that protests on a smaller scale, and with less coverage, are somehow less important?

The second concern about conflict of interest also raises another question: Does the conflict of interest policy prevent us (and others) from fulfilling UVa’s institutional responsibility to personally confront our university’s close relationships to enslaved labor, white supremacy, and colonization, and foreground the activist groups and initiatives within UVa that have tried to dismantle these relationships? If so, will—or should—Wikipedia’s policy change to accommodate circumstances like this? These are questions that I wish I had the opportunity to pose to my students.

Bibliography

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Edwards, Jennifer C. 2015. “Wiki Women: Bringing Women Into Wikipedia through Activism and Pedagogy.” The History Teacher 48, no. 3: 409–36.

Ford, Heather. 2011. “The Missing Wikipedians.” In Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader, edited by Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz, 258–68. Amsterdam: Institute of Networked Cultures.

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Gruwell, Leigh. 2015. “Wikipedia’s Politics of Exclusion: Gender, Epistemology, and Feminist Rhetorical (In)Action.” Computers and Composition 37: 117–31.

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Koh, Adeline, and Roopika Risam. n.d. “The Rewriting Wikipedia Project.” Postcolonial Digital Humanities (blog). Accessed July 3, 2020. https://dhpoco.org/rewriting-wikipedia/.

Lapowsky, Issie. 2015. “Meet the Editors Fighting Racism and Sexism on Wikipedia.” Wired, March 5, 2015. https://www.wired.com/2015/03/wikipedia-sexism/.

Montez, Noe. 2017. “Decolonizing Wikipedia through Advocacy and Activism: The Latina/o Theatre Wikiturgy Project.” Theatre Topics 27, no. 1: 1–9.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Patch, Paula. 2010. “Meeting Student Writers Where They Are: Using Wikipedia to Teach Responsible Scholarship.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 37, no. 3: 278–85.

Pratesi, Angela, Wendy Miller, and Elizabeth Sutton. 2019. “Democratizing Knowledge: Using Wikipedia for Inclusive Teaching and Research in Four Undergraduate Classes.” Radical Teacher: A Socialist, Feminist, and Anti-Racist Journal on the Theory and Practice of Teaching 114: 22–34.

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———. 2010. “The Changing Space of Research: Web 2.0 and the Integration of Research and Writing Environments.” Computers and Composition 27: 48–58.

Rotramel, Ariella, Rebecca Parmer, and Rose Oliveira. 2019. “Engaging Women’s History through Collaborative Archival Wikipedia Projects.” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy 14 (January). https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/engaging-womens-history-through-collaborative-archival-wikipedia-projects/.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1995. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. 28–37. 2nd ed. Oxford: Routledge.

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Woolfork, Lisa. 2018. “‘This Class of Persons’: When UVA’s White Supremacist Past Meets Its Future.” In Charlottesville 2017: The Legacy of Race and Inequity, edited by Claudrena Harold and Louis Nelson. Charlottesville: UVA Press.

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Acknowledgments

My thanks must go first to John Modica, my wonderful friend and peer. I am so grateful for his insightful suggestions and constant support when I was planning this Wikipedia unit, for agreeing to pair up his students with mine for the ensuing Spring 2020 Edit-A-Thon and for one of our discussion sessions, and for introducing me to Lisa Woolfork’s excellent article when I was searching for a text for the compare and contrast exercise. I am also indebted to UVa’s Wikimedian-in-Residence, Lane Rasberry, and UVa Library’s librarians and staff—Krystal Appiah, Maggie Nunley, and Molly Schwartzburg—for their help when I hosted my Edit-A-Thons; Michael Mandiberg and Linda Marci for their detailed and rigorous readers’ comments; John Maynard for his smart feedback; Brandon Walsh for his encouragement from start to finish; Kelly Hammond, Elizabeth Alsop, and the editorial staff at JITP; UVa’s Writing and Rhetoric Program for their support; and all of my ENWR students in Fall 2019 and Spring 2020, and John Modica’s Spring 2020 ENWR students as well.

About the Author

Cherrie Kwok is a PhD Candidate and an Elizabeth Arendall Tilney and Schuyler Merritt Tilney Jefferson Fellow at the University of Virginia. She is also the Graduate English Students Association (GESA) representative to UVa’s Writing and Rhetoric Program for the 2020–21 academic year. Her interests include global Anglophone literatures (especially from the Victorian period onwards), digital humanities, poetry, and postcolonialism, and her dissertation examines the relationship between anti-imperialism and late-Victorian Decadence in the poetry and prose of a set of writers from Black America, the Caribbean, China, and India. Find out more about her here.

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