Posted by: Steven Harris | March 22, 2008

collectivism AND individualism

About a year ago, I made a contribution to an article in “The Balance Point” column in Serials Review (“Collectivism vs. Individualism in a Wiki World: Librarians Respond to Jaron Lanier’s Essay ‘Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism’ ,” Serials Review Volume 33, Issue 1, March 2007, Pages 45-53). I actually came down pretty hard in favor of collectivism as a method of writing. I think it works well for certain kinds of publications. Many publications today have the illusion of individuality, but were actually composed with contributions from many authors.

The other day a student emailed me and asked if I could comment about how collective sites might be modified to not kill the voices of individual authors. This is what I wrote to her:

I’m not sure there is a good way of maintaining a collectively authored site and allowing every author’s voice to come through. I think that would be even more chaotic and editorially awkward than what Wikipedia currently is. There can be battles over the content of specific pages in Wikipedia, but I actually think many of the authors prefer to make anonymous contributions. Wikipedia actually works pretty well for that kind of publication.

I offer, however, three variations of what a collective might do to preserve the unique voices of individual authors. These may not actually work very well for a site with an encyclopedia style.

1. A collective site might operate much like scholarly journals currently do. Authors could submit articles and have them reviewed by a board or by the entire collective. Suggested revisions might be made. The author would choose whether to included the suggestions. The collective might even vote whether to accept the article. All the suggestions and revisions could be preserved and examined by users of the site.

2. An editor or author could be assigned a particular article. The collective might still make contributions and changes of a “group” article. The author or editor would then take that information and rework it into a unique article. So, the two would exist side by side: the group file and the author file. Users could view both.

3. The collective would continue to develop and edit all the articles, but authors could attach commentaries or variations. So, there would be the group file and then a bunch of attached articles by specific authors (kind of like comments to a blog post, although the comments could potentially be longer than the original article.)

I think in all these scenarios to allow the voices of individual authors, it would be important for people to use their actual names. Aliases would kind of defeat the purpose of letting them speak for themselves.

[Afterword: I think individualism and collectivism can function together in the publishing realm…in fact it’s happening all around us!]



  1. Steven, I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog quite a bit. I’m not really a collections person, but you usually have an interesting spin on things which keeps me engaged and educated in an area I’m not typically proactive.

    I have a quick comment about the way your posts are fed. You use the teaser method which shows just the first lines in a feed reader which then forces the reader to click through to read the whole thing. The whole point of using feeds/readers is to not go directly to every individual source you want to keep up with. I’m not sure how attached you are to this but…it would be nice to feed complete entries. πŸ™‚

  2. Michael,

    Good point. I have used the teaser for purely aesthetic reasons. Don’t like seeing those huge entries hogging all the screen space. Let’s more entries display (possibly) without scrolling. But perhaps that is not a valid expectation anyway. I feel just the way you do when I’m reading entries in my feed reader. So, perhaps I will put the teaser up on the shelf. Blogging…what a great way to gather user feedback! πŸ™‚

  3. I do agree with you on the point of aesthetics, it does make for some nice skimming. Do you know if your tag cloud gets much action? You *could* roll your post titles in that space instead, reverse chron.

  4. I like a title list, but the tag cloud appeals to me at the moment. Could do both, but it begins to get a little crowded over yonder. So many possibilities, so little real estate. πŸ™‚

  5. I know your post is about writing per se, but the impact on me is more on the conceptual level.

    I’ve recently entertained two views on Collectivism. The first is the criticism, the second is a reprise in light of China’s emergence. The two hardly satisfy any debates, but the important lesson for me is to be on guard against naively taking history as a final arbiter on anything, and to remain constantly vigilant and critical of ideas, no matter their merit.

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