Despite the party-pooperism of the Deletionists, the true glory of Wikipedia continues to lie in the obscure, the arcane, and the ephemeral. Nowhere else will you find such painstakingly detailed descriptions of TV shows, video games, cartoons, obsolete software languages, Canadian train stations, and the workings of machines that exist only in science fiction. When I recently felt an unexpected pang of nostalgia for the animated canine inventor Mr. Peabody and his Wayback machine, I knew exactly what to do: head to Wikipedia. Among the gems I unearthed: the Wayback machine was actually the WABAC machine (“a play on early computers such as UNIVAC and ENIAC”), Sherman was Mr. Peabody’s adopted son, Mr. Peabody was not only a genius but “arguably a polymath,” and Sherman’s “personality was that of a naive but fairly bright, energetic young boy.” Whatever else it may be, Wikipedia is a monument to the obsessive-compulsive fact-mongering of the adolescent male. (Never has sexual sublimation been quite so wordy.)
My favorite example is the Wik’s wonderfully panoramic coverage of the popular sixties sitcom Gilligan’s Island. Not only is there an entry for the show itself, but there are separate articles for each of the castaways – Gilligan, the Skipper, the Professor, Mary Ann, Ginger, Thurston Howell III, and Eunice “Lovey” Howell – as well as the actors that played the roles, the ill-fated SS Minnow, and even the subsequent TV movies that were based on the show, including the 1981 classic The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. Best of all is the annotated list of all 98 of the episodes in the series, which includes a color-coded guide to “visitors, animals, dreams, and bamboo inventions.” (I need to pause here to point out that some nebbish of a Deletionist – pardon the redundancy – has put at the top of the main entry for Gilligan’s Island a notice saying that “this article resembles a fan site” and calling on wikipedians to “please help improve this article by removing excessive trivia.” Fie on you, you wikifascist! Fie, I say!)
It goes deeper than Wikipedia, though. Gilligan’s Island has been a great motivator of user-generated content across the breadth of the web. Check out this YouTube take on the eternal question “Mary Ann or Ginger?”:
In fact, if I were called in to rename Web 2.0, I think I’d call it Gilligan’s Web, if only to underscore the symbiosis between the pop-culture artifacts of the mass media and so much of the user-generated content found online.
So imagine my bewilderment when, a few days ago, I read a transcript of a recent speech that the new-media scholar Clay Shirky gave to a big Web 2.0 confab in which he argued that Gilligan’s Island and Web 2.0 are actually opposing forces in the grand sweep of human history. Whoa, nelly. Is Professor Shirky surfing a different web than the rest of us?
To Shirky, the TV sitcom, as exemplified by Gilligan’s Island, was “the critical technology for the 20th century.” Why? Because it sucked up all the spare time that people suddenly had on their hands in the decades after the second world war. The sitcom “essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.” I’m not exactly sure what Shirky means when he speaks of society overheating, but, anyway, it wasn’t until the arrival of the World Wide Web and its “architecture of participation” that we suddenly gained the capacity to do something productive with our “cognitive surplus,” like edit Wikipedia articles or play the character of an elf in a World of Warcraft clan. Writes Shirky:
Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don’t? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn’t posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option. Now it’s not, and that’s the big surprise. However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.
Shirky’s calculus seems to go something like this:
Spending a lot of time watching Gilligan’s Island episodes: bad
Spending a lot of time watching Gilligan’s Island episodes and then spending a lot more time writing about the contents of those episodes on Wikipedia: good
But that’s not quite fair, because Shirky is making a larger argument about society and its development. He’s got bigger fish to fry than Gilligan and his quirky mates. Scott Rosenberg does a nice job of summing up Shirky’s argument:
In brief, he suggests that [during the early years of the Industrial Revolution] the English were so stunned and disoriented by the displacement of their lives from the country to the city that they anesthetized themselves with alcohol until enough time had passed for society to begin to figure out what to do with these new vast human agglomerations — how to organize cities and industrial life such that they were not only more tolerable but actually employed the surpluses they created in socially valuable ways.
This is almost certainly an oversimplification, but a provocative and fun one. It sets up a latter-day parallel in the postwar U.S., where a new level of affluence created a society in which people actually had free time. What could one possibly do with that? Enter television — the gin of the 20th century! We let it sop up all our free time for several decades until new opportunities arose to make better use of our spare brain-cycles — Shirky calls this “the cognitive surplus.” And what we’re finally doing with it, or at least a little bit of it, is making new stuff on the Web.
What Shirky is doing here, in essence, is repackaging the liberation mythology that has long characterized the more utopian writings about the Web. That mythology draws a sharp distinction between our lives before the coming of the Web (BW) and our lives after the Web’s blessed birth (AW). In the dark BW years, we were passive couch potatoes who were, in Shirky’s words, “forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option.” We were driftwood, going with whatever flow “the media” imposed on us. We were all trapped in Shirky’s musty cellar.
The Web, the myth continues, emancipated us. We no longer were forced into the channel of passive consumption. We could “participate.” We could “share.” We could “produce.” When we turned our necks from the TV screen to the computer screen, we were liberated:
Media in the 20th century was run as a single race – consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you’ll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it ‘s three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share. And what’s astonished people who were committed to the structure of the previous society, prior to trying to take this [cognitive] surplus and do something interesting, is that they’re discovering that when you offer people the opportunity to produce and to share, they’ll take you up on that offer.
I think we’d all agree that the Web is changing the structure of media, and that’s going to have many important ramifications. Some will be good, and some will be bad, and the way they will all shake out remains unknown. But what about Shirky’s idea that in the BW years we were unable to do anything “interesting” with our “cognitive surplus” – that the “only option” was watching TV? That, frankly, is bullshit. It may well be that Clay Shirky spent all his time pre-1990 watching sitcoms in his cellar (though I very much doubt it) but I was also alive in those benighted years, and I seem to remember a whole lot more going on.
Did my friends and I watch Gilligan’s Island? You bet your ass we did – and thoroughly enjoyed it (though with a bit more ironic distance than Shirky allows). Watching sitcoms and the other drek served up by the boob tube was certainly part of our lives. But it was not the center of our lives. Most of the people I knew were doing a whole lot of “participating,” “producing,” and “sharing,” and, to boot, they were doing it not only in the symbolic sphere of the media but in the actual physical world as well. They were making 8-millimeter films, playing drums and guitars and saxophones in bands, composing songs, writing poems and stories, painting pictures, making woodblock prints, taking and developing photographs, drawing comics, souping up cars, constructing elaborate model railroads, reading great books and watching great movies and discussing them passionately well into the night, volunteering in political campaigns, protesting for various causes, and on and on and on. I’m sorry, but nobody was stuck, like some pathetic shred of waterborne trash, in a single media-regulated channel.
Tom Slee, in a trenchant review of Shirky’s new book, Here Comes Everybody, strips some of the bright varnish from the Net’s liberation mythology. In the book, Shirky describes, with great intelligence and clarity, the social and economic dynamics of virtual communities. But he also, as Slee notes, indulges his enthusiasm for the Web in a way that draws, once again, an overly bright line between BW and AW:
Clay looks at the Internet and sees lots of groups forming (and things are easy to see on the Internet because even our most casual utterances get stored on someone’s servers for posterity to investigate) and he concludes that the world is alight with a new groupiness, the likes of which we have never seen … While Clay is telling us all about the use of digital technology to spark innovative forms of protest in Belarus, which is a fascinating story, we really need … to ask why, with all these group-forming tools at our disposal and despite the documented disillusionment with the war in Iraq, there is so little coherent protest happening compared to previous wars? Is it really the case that society now is becoming, thanks to the internet, more democratic, more collaborative, and more cooperative than before? I am not convinced.
As Slee suggests, the liberation mythology evaporates when you actually take a hard look at history. It’s worth remembering that Gilligan’s Island originally ran on television from late 1964 to late 1967, a period noteworthy not for its social passivity but for its social activism. These were years not only of great cultural and artistic exploration and inventiveness but also of widespread protest, when people organized into very large – and very real – groups within the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the feminist movement, the folk movement, the psychedelic movement, and all sorts of other movements. People weren’t in their basements; they were in the streets.
If everyone was so enervated by Gilligan’s Island, how exactly do you explain 1968? The answer is: you don’t, and you can’t.
Indeed, once you begin contrasting 1968 with 2008, you might even find yourself thinking that, on balance, the Web is not an engine for social activism but an engine for social passivity. You might even suggest that the Web funnels our urges for “participation” and “sharing” into politically and commercially acceptable channels – that it turns us into play-actors, make-believe elves in make-believe clans.
As for the bigger question: Mary Ann.