Network Authorship in the Age of Web 2.0

In the introduction to A New Literacies Sampler, Colin Lankshear & Michelle Knobel regard new literacies as practices that privilege “participation over publishing, distributed experience over centralized experience, sharing over ownership…” The ethos stuff of participating in New Literacies is not only defined by the ability to collaborate but by the Author’s perceiving him or herself as a collaborating (rather than sole) author in production. Extending Bakhtin’s idea of multivoicedness (see Wertsch) that many voices, authors, ideas, are writing through the author as s/he writes, the network approach to literacy demands that text production is necessarily composed of–not only a multivoiced Author, but–a collection of authors that make the text whole. Even solo texts crediting a single writer or reporter such as newspaper or magazine articles published on line are rarely complete texts in and of themselves, as they often carry a thread (or threads) of commentary from readers-users-writers.

The network approach to literacy potentially disrupts familiar (and even valuable) ways of constructing the author’s identity as it connects to the concept of voice. (As we’ll be discussing identity later in the semester, I’ll hold off on going off on identity at this time.) In her book, The Mythology of Voice, Darsie Bowden confronts–indeed assaults–the “richly provocative” yet impossible-to-define metonym of voice. Published over 10 years ago, Bowden is ahead of her time, foreseeing the connected nature (and privileging of connectedness) of Web 2.0 literacies as redefining–even replacing the all too vague and overused, under-explained voice metaphor. She argues that

“attempting to understand the world of texts in terms of networks rather than voices can provide insights into how we exist in the world: how our repsonses are networked to the utterances of others (a Bakhtinian concept); how we express, communicate, inform persuade, and exist in contexts that include color, shape, movement, texture–all of which are revealed by the senses; and finally, how the power of language goes significantly beyond what voice can convey.” (P. 136)

So, according to Bowden and much of the Web 2.0 discussion (think: The Machine is Us/sing Us) authorship is shared, collaborative–the network becoming an almost self-governing authority that moderates and mediates production of the authors.

A Gardening Metaphor:

The collaborative nature of text production is epitomized in Jessica Hammer‘s Chapter, Agency and Authority in Role-Playing “Texts” from NLS (Chapter 4). If ontology recapitulates philology, looking at the communities of practice among role-playing games, could provide a model for conceptualizing the cocreation of texts and distribution of authorship throughout the entire new (digital) literary market place–not only role-playing environments. Hammer describes three levels of authorship functioning in the creation of collaborative role-playing games (think World of Warcraft, Vampire: The Mascquerade, Everquest)–primary, secondary and tertiary. Instead of thinking as authorship in the network literacy of Web 2.0, perhaps it would be more helpful to think of authorship existing at a particular level. This thought occured to me as I was teaching a class today in Health Education on the social determinants of health (see Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making us Sick?). In this unit, I begin with the article, Levels of Racism: A theoretic framework and a gardener’s tale by Camara Phyllis Jones. Reflecting on Dr. Jones’ gardening metaphor, the Hammer chapter and the introduction, I’d like to offer a similar gardening metaphor to think of primary, secondary and tertiary authorship in Web 2.0 network-style writing.

Imagine authors as flowers or vegetables growing in a garden. They will compete with one another for sunlight, absorb moisture from one another, share available resources with one another (e.g., water, soil nutrients, etc.) go to seed, regenerate and produce more authorflowers. Some will grow strong and vibrant, others will only grow to a middling height, some might go to seed right away. In my mind, these are the secondary authors- the ones who are posting, moderating, doing the most visible production in web texts. Like the flowers, they are the most visible elements and the driving purpose behind growing the garden in the first place.

Now comes along a buzzing bee, or, say, a culture of earthworms. Though they move from garden to garden and don’t stay put, the bees are needed to cross pollinate the flowers creating species the flowers alone never could have managed. Though rarely visible, the earthworms’ presence is always felt as they keep the soil rich and nutritious for the flowers to grow in. Occasionally beetles or other invasive species will come around the garden, but the biodiversity (provided by the bees) and the soil integrity (thanks Earthworm!) will help the flowers sustain their growth even in the face of invaders. These are tertiary authors. Fleeting, peripheral, yet integral participants in Network authorship. They may not claim an affinity or participate in a core way, but their presence (whether they carry pollen or disease) is necessary to keep the garden evolving and thriving from season to season.

The primary author in this metaphor is the Gardener. All of these literacy environments are created and made possible by an ISP, telephone company, creator of the digital environment, advertisers that finance the site, even individual web designers or groups of designers who may not be tied to a corporation or enterprise. The influence of the Gardener is that s/he/it exerts ultimate control over the environment. He can fertilize the soil to grow only a certain variety of flower, he can water some flowers more than others, he can leave the garden alone and let it flourish or perish without his interference, should that invasive species from the tertiary level manifest, he can choose to salvage or dispose of the garden all together without asking the flowers or the earthworms or the bees what they think about that idea. If cornered, the gardener would admit to believing that he is the owner of all the intellectual property produced by the flowers, bees, earthworms, or whatever thing may show up in his garden.

In many ways, this unintentionally long (my apologies) posting, is really me trying to get clear (or perhaps, put my confusion on display) about what is going on in network production. While the New Literacies & Web 2.0 and this network approach to production totally, undeniably interrogate and threaten proprietary notions of authorial voice they introduce others. My purpose with this post is not to suggest that the New Literacies have not expanded and transformed (for the better, I think) our ideas of authorship, nor is it to suggest that we have been fooled into thinking that we are collaborators when we are really pawns in the Master’s Chess game (if this is the case, it is not exclusively in digital texts that we play this role). It is only to interrogate the sense of limitlessness and democratization of authorship/authority that is embodied in the New Literacies discussion. While we produce and share text in new ways, we are not always and only doing it as free agents. Just as our individual voices are heavily influenced by external sociocultural and historical factors, our collective authorship in the new literacies is also heavily mediated and determined by forces outside the “network” within which we compose.

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One comment on “Network Authorship in the Age of Web 2.0

  1. Your use of the garden metaphor is provocative. It’s courageous and ambitious to apply such a complex metaphor to an even more complex technological, social, entrepreneurial–and all the other -als–subject that new literacy encompasses. In fact, you’ve further piqued my interest in studying metaphor as a rhetorical subject in itself (I’m thinking of the work of George Lakoff and Zoltán Kövecses). It seems to me that the application of such a metaphor as you are doing here is somehow very appropriate for exploring something as complex and hard to define or contain as new literacy and the social, technology, and business models that underlie it.

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