Wiki Wars: Conversation, Negotiation, and Collaboration in Online Spaces

Jennifer Marlow, The College of Saint Rose


This article is a teaching “failure narrative” that describes a first foray into wiki (mis)use in a topics-based writing class. This pedagogical story is informed by theories of collaborative writing developed within the field of composition paired with concepts of “collective intelligence” and “knowledge communities” used by new media scholars. Ultimately, the article questions the idea of consensus as a necessary ingredient in a successful writing collaboration, asserting instead that the struggles over composing within a wiki space are actually assets to the practices of teaching and writing and have the potential to inform our collective thinking about intellectual property.


“The Internet was built for love, not profit.”

— Douglas Rushkoff, “The People’s Net”


Collaborative pedagogies in the composition classroom are often influenced (whether consciously or not) by Kenneth Bruffee’s landmark article, “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind,’ ” in which he urges those of us who teach writing to “create and maintain a demanding academic environment that makes collaboration—social engagement in intellectual pursuits—a genuine part of students’ educational development” (Bruffee 1984, 652). Since then, many scholars in the field of composition have taken up Bruffee’s call for a socially engaged and collaborative classroom space. In a 1996 article, Susan West and Andrea Lunsford echo Bruffee’s call for collaboration in the writing classroom and describe the problem with most writing instruction as “perpetuating traditional concepts of authorship, authority, and ownership of intellectual property” (West and Lunsford 1996, 397).

The role of Web 2.0 in providing spaces for writing that break from these hallmarks of traditional writing instruction has been widely addressed and frequently (though not always) celebrated in composition scholarship and new media studies. Web 2.0 is described as the participatory web that we all read and to which we also write and contribute. Various portmanteaus have emerged to describe the “new” hybrid-users of the web: Don Tapscott’s (reintroduction of the) term “prosumer” and Axel Bruns’s concept of “produser” are two examples. In particular, the use of wikis, which were designed as web pages meant to combine the roles of reader, writer, and editor, can be described as emblematic of Web 2.0’s collaborative ethos. Wikis were originally designed for groups to easily share work and ideas, making them ideal for the collaborative learning and writing that frequently takes place in a writing classroom.

Despite the large amounts of time most of our students spend occupying networked spaces, they aren’t necessarily prepared for nor open to the kinds of participation, interactivity, collaboration, and negotiation that many scholars see as the great potential of Web 2.0. I make this claim based on my experiences watching students struggle with the act of collaborative writing within the digital space of a wiki. Experiencing this struggle—what I’ve come to call a kind of “wiki war”—initially made me feel as though I were falling short of achieving my goals for the use of the wiki within the course. However, this seeming “failure” taught me something about how my students view language, ideas, and text creation. The experience gave me insight into the kinds of values that have shaped my students, and it inspired ideas for future ways of framing wiki writing in the classroom.

Failure and The Hi-Tech Gift Economy

In a recent edition of College English, editor John Schilb describes the need for more pedagogical failure narratives: “[H]ardly ever can pedagogy be smoothly ritualistic; in any classroom, the unexpected can loom. Better to acknowledge that surprise events can alter the scheme for the day” (Schilb 2012, 515). And failure seems an appropriate place to start when talking about collaboration and technology. First of all, failure is inevitable when it comes to navigating new and emerging media. Henry Jenkins reminds us that “we are still learning what it is like to operate within a knowledge culture. We are still debating and resolving the core principles that will define our interactions with each other” (Jenkins 2006, 238). The interactivity and participation that comprise the essence of Web 2.0 require strong negotiating skills, and negotiation is not easy. Given this level of difficulty, the chances for “failure” are high. My students’ struggles over text production are certainly reflective of the kinds of difficult negotiations that other scholars have identified as part of the process of wiki writing. Finally, there is the tension that resides in the notion of consensus and collaboration. For Bruffee, the idea of consensus is crucial to his work on collaborative learning and the way(s) in which he defines knowledge. The need for consensus is also a commonly accepted trait of wikis: “Because wikis allow all readers to write . . . , but write the same document, they provide a unique Web space where differing opinions are expressed, explored, and yes, sometimes eviscerated, but gradually moved toward consensus” (Barton and Cummings 2011, vii). The emphasis on the importance of consensus as essential to collaboration can contribute to the perception that a lack of consensus is equivalent to failure.

In recent years much composition scholarship has sought to incorporate Bruffee’s work on collaboration by shifting the emphasis in the classroom from grades and a competitive desire for praise and recognition to “the pleasures of companionship, community, and mutual support” (Heller 2003, 308). These types of “pleasures” are central to new media theories developed by scholars such as Henry Jenkins, Howard Rheingold, Pierre Lévy, Clay Shirky, Axel Bruns, and Richard Barbrook. They see these contemporary online collaborations as a fundamental part of the “the hi-tech gift economy,” a term that Barbrook adapted from Lewis Hyde’s concept of “gift economy” to describe the anti-capitalist, anti-copyright aspects of Web 2.0. In this version of the Web, users “[u]nconcerned about copyright . . . give and receive information without thought of payment.”  Barbrook continues: “Within the hi-tech gift economy, people successfully work together through ‘ . . . an open social process involving evaluation, comparison and collaboration’” (Barbrook 1998). Similarly, Lévy describes what happens in this participatory version of cyberspace as “collective intelligence,” which “is a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills . . . . The basis and goal of collective intelligence is the mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatized communities” (Lévy 1997, 13).

The benefits of both contributing to and gaining from (these are both obligations cited by Hyde for participation in a gift economy) this “hi-tech gift economy” might seem apparent to many educators (as they did to me) who see the power and depth of collective knowledge formation. Our students, however, might not so easily subscribe to these modes of learning that are far afield from the meritocratic education system they are accustomed to. A question that remains to be answered is posed by Rafael Heller: “Are we really to believe that our students might so completely internalize a collaborative ideology, as if they could inhale a new set of motives and exhale the old?” (Heller 2003, 312). The follow-up questions to Heller’s seem to me to be: What are the “old motives” exactly?  How do they affect, and sometimes derail, our desire to create a more collaborative classroom space?  And more specifically related to the idea of wikis: How do “old motives” mesh with or compete against the increasingly collaborative ethos of networked digital writing spaces?

In the classroom narrative that follows, my students appear to be motivated by a sense of ownership over their words and ideas. They do not appear to be interested in moving away from the cognitive/Cartesian belief in the self as “the matrix of all thought” (Bruffee 1986, 777). These motives are dichotomous with the kinds of values that drive the “hi-tech gift economy.”  The “old motives” are attached to the idea of Author with a capital “A” and the perceived benefits that come from ownership over one’s labor (whether in the form of good grades or financial gain). The “hi-tech gift economy,” on the other hand, implies a more altruistic motivation: namely, the circulation of “gifts” (most often in the form of information/knowledge) in a social rather than an economic manner.

Negotiation and Dissensus

I have used wikis in my classes in various ways—always with the goal of supporting and improving student writing and often in ways that have traditionally been accomplished in the form of face-to-face group work. These include “workshopping” student writing, having students contribute to grading criteria and the development of rubrics, creating a space to conduct group work, and writing collaborative texts that become frameworks for concepts we’re working through in class. It was for this latter purpose that I initially implemented a class wiki in my topics-based writing course called “Writing about Society and Culture.”  The wiki served as a collaborative writing and thinking space throughout the semester and was eventually used for the joint writing of the students’ final projects. Our first foray into wiki-use (and potential misuse) involved collaboratively writing a definition for the term “culture” as used in the title of the course. My goal was to create a definition (knowledge) based on a community of peers contributing to and eventually (hopefully) reaching consensus, or, at the very least, agreeing upon a workable definition or framework. I began by posting a loose, one sentence introduction to the idea of culture as it pertained to the course:

Definitions of culture are constantly changing, but this class will be informed by the belief that culture is representative of the way(s) in which language, art, media, politics and lived experience are in constant flux and sometimes conflict as they shape our consciousness and daily lives.

The class then had the opportunity to add and make changes to my starter sentence.

I had a number of goals here: 1) simply to get them comfortable using the wiki—understanding how to edit, use the page history, etc.; 2) to come to a brief definition—a hearty paragraph about culture that we could refer to and through which we could begin framing our class discussions—a definition that we could all feel comfortable with, remember, and relate to; 3) to give them a chance to experience firsthand the temporal nature of writing, especially in digital form; and 4) to incorporate the long-line of scholarship since Bruffee that argues for the importance of collaborative learning and conversation in the writing classroom.

In “Social Construction, Language, and Knowledge” Bruffee references an article by Greg Myers that traces the publication of an article written by two biologists through its various rejections and ultimate approval. “Myers demonstrates the extent to which what these scientists actually knew gradually changed as the community of knowledgeable peers they belonged to demanded change in the language of the articles they were writing” (Bruffee 1986, 785). A similar observation can certainly be applied to the use of wikis in (or outside) of a writing classroom. The demand for changes in language can be a catalyst for learning, as the wiki’s contributors are made to think more deeply and carefully about what it is they want to say and how they want to say it in a venue shared by others. One could question whether my students constitute a group of “knowledgeable peers,” asking what it is that they know about defining culture. But, as I illustrate to these students on the first day of class, they know culture. I show them just how much they know implicitly, as I lead them through a kind of “pop culture” pop quiz. I ask them first to identify the colors used in Microsoft’s logo without looking at their computers or anything else in the room. The majority of them can name all four colors correctly. I hum the tune of Jeopardy and ask them to “name that tune”; all of them recognize it. I ask them if they know what a Swiffer is, and I describe a popular commercial to see if they know what it is used for. As these examples illustrate, these students have been defining culture long before they came to my class and, I’m hoping, continue to (re)define it during the course of the semester. This places importance on the wiki as a means of maintaining an immediate yet evolving reference to the central concept of the course.

“Intellectual negotiation,” argues Harvey S. Wiener, is what distinguishes group work that might only serve to “subdivide the traditional hierarchical classroom into several smaller versions of the same model” from true collaborative learning. In order “to assure that the teacher in a collaborative learning classroom is guiding students to collective judgments in groups,” Wiener suggests, “evaluators are right to insist that the task be written down. A written task provides the language that helps to shape students’ conversations” (Wiener 1986, 55). I agree with the necessity of writing when it comes to successful collaboration; however in the case of most face-to-face collaborative learning groups, frequently only one student is doing the actual writing. This distinction is important because, as Peter Hawkes reminds us in a response to Wiener, the differences between collaboration and group work “inhere in the nature of the task” (quoted in Wiener 1986, 56).

I am guessing that many of us have experienced or led the kind of hierarchical group work that Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford describe in Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing, where they identify two modes of collaboration. One they describe as hierarchical and admit that in their research it tends to be the most common means of collaboratively producing text. They write that the hierarchical mode of collaboration is “rigidly structured, driven by highly specified goals, and carried out by people playing clearly defined and delimited roles.” They describe the goals as “designated by someone outside of and hierarchically superior to the immediate group” (Ede and Lunsford 1990, 133). While Ede and Lunsford don’t directly name these “defined and delimited roles,” it calls to mind for me collaborative endeavors that involve a “scribe” or recorder who jots down notes from the group’s conversation. All too often this same recorder is the one assigned to read from those notes to the class during the subsequent discussion. Word choice, struggles with language, and figuring out the best means to express what it is the students want to say suddenly become secondary to merely getting the work done, as the group relies on “the scribe” to take care of all of that. Subsequently, the “Burkean parlor conversation” that may have taken place becomes lost in the speech act, most of which remains unrecorded. Wrestling with the text is not always an accessible activity to the group as a whole when it comes to this traditional form of collaborative writing; whereas, with collaborative wiki writing, all students can get their hands on the text, intervene, wrestle, and negotiate. This is important, because as John Trimbur stresses, when the “process of intellectual negotiation that underwrites consensus . . . works . . . the pressure leads students to take their ideas seriously, to fight for them, and to modify or revise them in light of others’ ideas. It can also cause students to agree to disagree.” (Trimbur 1989, 54).

My Writing about Society and Culture students were eventually forced to “agree to disagree,” but not all of them were happy about it. In fact, Trimbur’s word choice of students “fighting” for their ideas is illustrated in the outcome of our collaborative composing of the definition of “culture.”  The issues arose, in part, because we were learning to use the wiki during class time and therefore were all simultaneously logged on and making changes. A student’s text might only last a second or two before it was intervened upon and transformed by another student. While this logistical fact seemed to exacerbate tensions, it is still representative of what can happen when writers contribute to a large-scale wiki. Students struggled for control over the text, and some were fairly vocal about their annoyance when “their” text was changed. Students would repeatedly return to the text and attempt to revert back or override the changes that a peer had made in an attempt to “fight” for their writing. Some even made changes to the text in defense of a friend whose words had been altered by someone else in the class. There were many rumblings of complaint, even some under-the-breath name calling.

A student with the username “smallfrii” wanted to express the “learned” or “practiced” aspects of culture. Over a series of twelve edits, smallfrii contributed to the wiki five times, adding some version of this definition of culture: “Culture can be learned or practiced through habits. For example, something that has been done or said in your family, could be automatically transferred [sic] to you.”  Four of the twelve edits were by another student who deleted smallfrii’s references to culture as “learned” or “practiced.”  Another edit that was revised was the idea of culture as “inherited.”  At 8:11 on a Thursday morning, smallfrii added this description of culture: “Culture is a learned and inherited behavior and uniting force among specific people in a society.” This was deleted by murphyt088 at 8:12, added again by smallfrii at 8:13 and promptly removed by lynchm496 at 8:13. It was the specific term “inherited” that appeared to be the source of contention; however, despite the implied dispute, there was not enough time for the disagreement to actually play out. The students did not have time to think through the word choice, learning from and making changes based on the specific meaning of language. Instead, they were concerned with getting their own idea to stick as the “permanently” recorded definition of culture.

The rapid-fire changes continued, moving from struggles over word choice to a disagreement over more universal conceptions of what culture is (or isn’t). At 8:13, “lynchm496” added: “Culture is known throughout different societies as a way of life.”  Another student who had the opposite idea in mind supplanted this almost immediately: “The idea that culture can not impact people is also a possibility.” Lynchm496 reinserted her original sentence by 8:15. Meanwhile, Kellyb816 (who was friends with Lynchm496) came to Lynchm496’s defense by deleting the other student’s statement about the possibility of culture not impacting people. Additionally, in less than a minute the text, “No matter what background you come from you’re [sic] culture will always be changing and growing based upon society and the changing times,” was added, deleted by another student, and finally reinstated by the original writer. The speed with which these deletions and additions took place seems to illustrate the fact that the students were more interested in asserting and inserting their own words and ideas into the text than considering what they might learn from and add to the work of their peers.

One of the benefits of using wikis for group work is the record they keep of the collaborative writing process: “Wikis help enable the student-centered classroom by recording the messiness of negotiation within an electronic document that can be accessed in its newest form at all times” (Vie and DeWinter 2008, 115). This record of the “messiness of negotiation” comes in the form of a wiki’s “history.”  The fact that I could access this “history” of edits made by each individual writer was one that I reminded the students of on more than one occasion; however, it did little to alleviate their collective anxiety over ownership of “their” work and ideas.

Although I had led into the assignment by describing it as a collective definition, a collaboration for the good of the class as a whole, students were not yet comfortable with viewing this “new” (to them) writing space in a celebratory manner. While my early pedagogical goal might have been similar to Bruffee’s idea about collaborative learning that calls for “negotiat[ing] a common language in the classroom, to draw students into a wider consensus, and to initiate them into the conversation as it is currently organized in the academy” (Trimbur 1989, 612-13), I was basing this goal on the assumption that students would inevitably see and automatically be invested in the creation of a “commons” available for the collective good; however, their resulting resistance to this notion is not unusual.

Whenever we set group goals we run the risk of “ ‘Tragedy of the Commons,’ biologist Garrett Hardin’s phrase for situations wherein individuals have incentive to damage the collective good” (Shirky 2008, 51). Online defacement of wiki sites, including Wikipedia and the Los Angeles Times, has been widely publicized. It is important, I think, to note that my students didn’t wreak actual havoc upon the wiki itself. In fact, in some ways, the assertive stance that my students took in defense of their own material could be indicative of their commitment to the final product. Their intense involvement in its composition can be read as interest and investment in the outcome. Instead of actual defacement, they chose to express their dissatisfaction through speech acts outside of the wiki and pointed edits within it. It is, therefore, difficult to say whether my students actually had “incentive to damage the collective good.”  Perhaps they simply felt that if they didn’t assert their voices over the voices of other students, they would miss out on some valuable participation points. Or maybe they were simply culturally constructed, as Lynn Z. Bloom, Bruffee, and others have argued, in the mode of “self reliance.” While it is difficult to ascertain to what degree these students were invested in the collective good, it is still clear to me that they were focused more on the individual and less on the collective.

Most of these students have been educated in an environment where the authority of knowledge is given to the person who ostensibly generated that knowledge originally, and they have been (mis)led into believing that they themselves were the “original” generators of the knowledge and text that they posted to the wiki. And who can blame them?  They have been raised in a culture that has seen the shift from an economy reliant on material goods and services to one that values knowledge as a product. In the introduction to his remarks on “Public Policy for a Knowledge Economy” at the Department for Trade and Industry and Center for Economic Policy Research in 1999, Joseph Stiglitz of the World Bank describes the shift from industry to ideas: “Knowledge and information is [sic] being produced today like cars and steel were produced a hundred years ago. Those, like Bill Gates, who know how to produce knowledge and information better than others reap the rewards, just as those who knew how to produce cars and steel a hundred years ago became the magnates of that era” (quoted in Hall 2008, 4). So my students’ apparent attachment to Lockean notions of ownership and labor aren’t surprising, given the cultural importance placed on the economic value of ideas.

Rethinking and Reframing the Assignment

As educators, we have undoubtedly played a role in helping form these beliefs. Lynn Z. Bloom argues that “middle class composition teachers, ever Emersonian in spirit, stress the importance of self-reliance (‘Your work must be your own’), even in nominally collaborative classrooms” (Bloom 1996, 659). Likewise, as Bruffee puts it, speaking to those of us who teach in the humanities, “If we look at what we do instead of what we say, we discover that we think of knowledge as something we acquire and wield as individuals relative to each other, not something we generate and maintain in company with and in dependency upon each other” (Bruffee 1984, 645). The reactions of these students to the online and collaborative form of writing produced in the wiki are reflective of this humanities tradition that Bruffee describes. In class I saw them asserting their will to power over the text and over each other.

A 1999 collaboratively-written essay on “textuality, collaboration, and the new essay,” by Myka Vielstimmig (the combined “pen” name for Michael Spooner and Kathleen Blake Yancey) stresses that even those of us who frequently engage in collaborative work ourselves find it to be “like taking on a new identity; issues you hadn’t foreseen arise. It’s easier not to sail to the new land” (Vielstimmig 1999, 95). These scholars attribute these difficulties with collaboration to our cultural “reverence” for the individual, especially the work/labor of the individual. Reliance on each other is often conflated with reliance on the system, which is looked at with disdain.

But regardless of whether it’s “easier not to sail the new land,” it is nothing short of irresponsible not to do so. Lunsford and West write:

The ubiquitous media coverage of the complex issues swirling around the question of who owns language-for that is what this debate is finally about-demands a response from our profession, as those most concerned with shaping and perpetuating notions about what it means to read, write, and speak. In particular, compositionists have a compelling interest in how laws governing ownership of language should be adjusted (if at all) to accommodate both new technologies and postmodern challenges to established ideas about ‘authorship.’ (Lunsford and West 1996, 383)

Lunsford and West proceed to give an example of that “ubiquitous media coverage” in the form of a Cathy comic strip circa 1995: In it, a mother gives her child a homemade Halloween costume, labeled “hand-stitched by Mama.”  The child immediately looks for a Disney label and upon not seeing one utters, “’Copyright infringement! Trademark violation! Illegal facsimile!’”  (385). Lunsford and West argue that children of the 1990s (and the same might be said for the generations of the twenty-first century, if cultural change does not take place) “will increasingly be led to accept possessive ownership as normal” (386). Our responses to debates about intellectual property and ownership of  language need to account for students’ attitudes and beliefs that have been shaped by a copyright-happy culture.

Despite this “norm” of “possessive ownership,” there is much scholarship being done on a participatory and collaborative revolution that is taking place in online spaces and with the help of technological tools. Clay Shirky’s 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody describes this as the “power of organizing without organizations.”  Shirky describes the “old way” of working within organizations, companies, and institutions as being governed by “institutional costs” and “managerial organization.”  Employees agreed to be managed based on pay and were so managed “by making continued receipt of their pay contingent on their responsiveness to manager’s requests” (Shirky 2008, 43). Employees advanced in the company through their contributions and ability to climb the ladder of the imposed hierarchy. This generally resulted in higher pay, and so the incentive to exceed other employees is in place. Similarly we see this kind of “climbing” in the classroom scenarios described above where grades can (supposedly) be exchanged for a future, paying job. Students care about the perceived exchange value of grades, and they buy into the notion that the producers of knowledge will “reap the rewards.”  But in contrast to the individualized mode of work traditionally encouraged by writing instructors, as described by Bloom, Shirky asserts that “people have always desired to share, and the obstacles that prevented sharing on a global scale are now gone” because of social networking in the form of web tools such as Flickr, Wikipedia, Facebook, and (45). “Social tools provide . . . action by loosely structured groups, operating without managerial direction and outside the profit motive” (47). The types of personal motivation to do group work in a collaborative spirit, which Shirky has claimed are ever-present desires, were clearly not present for my students.

Despite Shirky’s claims about the strong interest in sharing that most people have, he is well aware of the challenges of negotiation. He describes the increasingly difficult levels of involvement a group must undertake in order to truly work collaboratively. In order of difficulty they are sharing, cooperation, and collective action. Cooperation requires a group identity, as well as “changing your behavior to synchronize with people who are changing their behavior to synchronize with you” (Shirky 2008, 50). My students, holding steadfastly to “old ways” of working, did not modify their behavior in any form of synchronization, thereby leaving us unable to move forward (at that time) to more complex forms of collaborative knowledge making. From cooperation, Shirky describes a more involved form of group activity, which he calls “collaborative production.”  “The litmus test for collaborative production is simple: no one person can take credit for what gets created, and the project could not come about without the participation of many” (50). This was my goal for using a wiki in Writing about Society and Culture—a class that I based on pedagogical theories that seek to decentralize authority and focus on collaborative writing and shared responsibility for knowledge making.

Shirky’s “litmus test” for collaborative production—that no one person can take credit for what has been created—takes Roland Barthes concept of the “death of the author” to an interesting digital realm. Rafael Heller points out that it is Michel Foucault’s 1979 “What is an Author?” that has influenced much of the work on collaborative writing done in composition. In “What is an Author?” Foucault draws on Barthes’ 1967 “Death of the Author” and borrows from Samuel Beckett in order to pose the question: “What does it matter who is speaking?”  Heller subsequently asks the question that seems necessary to the collaborative model of writing: “How do we speak together?” (Heller 2003, 309). While I consider the differences between these questions to be important, I find both of them applicable to the kind of writing that happens within a wiki where it truly doesn’t matter who is speaking. By creating a space where no one person owns the co-created text, wikis have provided a technology that determines “how” we speak in ways that can possibly transcend the modern author function as defined by the idea of the solitary writer and original genius.

In fact, a wiki actually seems constructed to work towards the kind of equality in dialogue that Habermas discusses. A wiki’s unique ability to track all voices gives it a power not often available to us in other forms of group work and collaborative writing. Habermas’s “ideal speech situation” is “a utopian discursive space that distributes symmetrically the opportunity to speak, to initiate discourse, to question, to give reasons, to do all those other things necessary to justify knowledge socially” (Trimbur 1989, 612). A wiki, unlike other online writing spaces, doesn’t create discussion threads (though it also has this capability), and it doesn’t privilege one writer as the creator of ideas and text. Instead, it “distributes symmetrically” the opportunity for students to compose a singular text, and, additionally, through the use of “discussion” tabs, it makes a separate space for questions, ideas, and comments to be raised about the text at hand. Therefore, a wiki has the potential to break from the hierarchical mode of collaboration described earlier by Ede and Lunsford.

However, the symmetrically created form of “collective intelligence,” particularly as it takes place through the act of writing, creates a complex authorial situation, because “it reflects the dynamic exchange between individual knowledge and shared knowledge” (Vielstimmig 1999, 99). In this way, attempting to assign a “creator” to particular passages, words, or ideas is always going to be arbitrary and not necessarily representative of the actual composing process. This fact sits uneasily with students educated to own ideas and products (and the product of their ideas) within an educational system imbued with capitalist values. I think that the conflicts these students had with collaborative writing and the process of collectively formulating knowledge were not only valuable struggles but also inevitable ones. Ede and Lunsford remind us of this: “Like gender roles, discourse situations are, Burke reminds us, inherently mixed and paradoxical . . . . Surely it seems reasonable to find inscribed in any piece of collaboration . . . the same kind of risks and tensions that are generally inscribed in our culture” (Ede and Lunsford 1990, 134). My students’ struggles over text production are certainly reflective of culturally inscribed tensions around ownership of intellectual property that play out frequently in our own debates about open source versus propriety software and open access versus proprietary journal publications.

I now see that it is my responsibility to bring these cultural tensions to the attention of my students. Certainly, it seems necessary to help students become knowledgeable about and invested in the idea of the “collective good” instead of assuming they have a “natural desire” to share and act collaboratively. In the future I could open this activity with a discussion around community, collective intelligence, and knowledge as collaborative artifact and socially justified belief. Maybe I should have explained that from Bruffee’s perspective, knowledge results from “intellectual negotiations” and depends on social relations, not on attempting to have the last word in print, untouchable and eternal. For future wiki implementation, I can explain to students that the goal is empowerment in the form of a “smart mob.”  I can inform them that according to Howard Rheingold, “Groups of people using these tools will gain new forms of social power” (Rheingold 2002, xii). Henry Jenkins also writes about “social power,” using the example of the citizens in Manila and Madrid and their ability to create “transformations of power” based on technology. While group solidarity may continue to be looked on with great skepticism in a society on the lookout for “freeloaders,” in a world of social networking and digital tools, the economic arrangement tends to be looked at differently—characterized by labels like a “digital economy,” Barbrook’s notion of a “gift economy,” and Maurizio Lazzarato’s description of “immaterial labor.”

For future versions of this wiki activity, I will certainly frame differently the collaborative work that I am assigning students; however, this first try was not a complete failure. For one thing, like Jenkins I am particularly interested in how groups react when a shift occurs in how they typically process and evaluate knowledge. By putting my students into a composing situation quite unfamiliar to them, they struggled to negotiate both on and off the screen how to manage their collective knowledge making. This created a level of discomfort and anxiety within the classroom community; however, as Jenkins asserts, “It is at moments of crisis, conflict, and controversy that communities are forced to articulate the principles that guide them” (Jenkins 2006, 26). This assertion harkens back to a central argument of Thomas Kuhn’s about the revolutionary nature of scientific knowledge: “In both political and scientific development the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is prerequisite to revolution” (Kuhn 1996, 92). This experience with wikis in my Writing about Society and Culture class can certainly be described as a “teachable moment” not in spite of but because of the apparent “malfunction.” This “crisis” was more precisely an act of negotiation that served to keep the students returning again and again to the act of writing and thinking about the key term they were asked to define. Rethinking and discussing the ideas of classroom and community would be the logical next step in our “wiki war crisis.”  As Andrew Feenberg argues, technology is “not a destiny but a scene of struggle. It is a social battlefield.” (Feenberg 1991, 14) Technology is not neutral and it should not be a seamless space in which group interactions take place with unprecedented ease. Instead, it is a place where “civilizational alternatives are debated and decided” (Feenberg 1991, 14).

I approached this assignment, as I think we often do in composition, grounding it in pedagogical theories that seem sound and beneficial to students. My particular area of research interest focuses on how longstanding pedagogical approaches can be integrated into but also looked at anew in digital writing spaces. However, whenever theory hits practice in the classroom, we end up needing to meet the students where they are. In this case, it turned out that my students did not share the same values regarding the open, collaborative ethos of the Web that I did/do. As Heller reminds us, I also can’t make my students “breathe in” a new set of motives and classroom practices. I can’t expect their investment in collective knowledge to be as natural as taking a breath. I can, however, introduce them to these alternative motivations and help tune them in to the ways in which the digital spaces that many of them inhabit on a daily basis are a valuable tool for a different kind of knowledge production that gets its value in the processes of negotiation and struggle over ideas and language. The temporary nature of the written word and the questionable status of the author are brought to the fore in digital writing spaces, and these aspects of digital composing can make our students nervous, uncomfortable, and quick to act and to assert control over the text at hand. Gregory Ulmer argues that our discipline has “a primary responsibility for inventing the practices of reasoning and communicating in ways native to new media” (Ulmer 2007, xi). These practices will need to attend to the fact students think differently than many of us about the “ownership” they believe they have over their ideas and over language—something that, as Bruffee has shown, has always been at the center of collaboration of any kind, even if he could not have envisioned the added challenges that these technological sites of struggle present.


Barbrook, Richard. 1998. “The Hi-Tech Gift Economy.” Subsol. Accessed March 24, 2011.

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About the Author

Jennifer Marlow is an assistant professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, where she teaches courses in composition and new media. Her work focuses on educational technology software and its uses and abuses in the writing classroom. When she is not busy experimenting with innovative digital technologies that bring learning “outside the box,” she and colleague, Megan Fulwiler, utilize documentary filmmaking to show how the labor conditions of higher education affect everything from academic freedom to student learning to how we implement and think about technology.

'Wiki Wars: Conversation, Negotiation, and Collaboration in Online Spaces' has 12 comments

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