Carnegie Mellon University

Collaborating in Public: How Openness Shapes Global Warming Articles in Wikipedia

Author: Ana Cooke
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2018

Prominent in its own right and also an exemplar of a growing trend of open collaborations, Wikipedia represents a shift in how the public seeks and participates in knowledge circulation around high-stakes issues. Wikipedians take up genres, they collaborate to represent “the facts” about public issues, and they do so in environments of ever-shifting texts and unstable rhetorical constraints. This dissertation takes a novel, diachronic approach to tracing these dynamics of textual uptake, genre enactment, collaboration, and instability. Specifically, I trace how the global warming-related articles in Wikipedia changed over time, particularly in the wake of the publication of the 2007 International Panel on Climate Change (IPCCC) Fourth Assessment Report. In doing so, I explore the epistemic and rhetorical implications of what happens when the public collaborates to construct “the truth” about high-stakes issues.

I trace how Wikipedians enact genre in an unstable environment by analyzing how arguments unfold in Wikipedia Talk Pages, how the article text and citations change, as well as the larger network of global warming-related articles. This analysis yields several significant findings. In Chapter 2, I find that Wikipedians’ arguments create boundaries around the discursive spheres that can be cited within different articles, which suggests the significance of arguments not only about the topic but about genre as a deliberative resource in networked discourse. In Chapter 3, I find that editors’ work in enacting genre results in facts becoming more “at issue,” or destabilized, within articles through the course of 2007. This analysis suggests that arguments about genre, and the easy availability of circulating texts online, may challenge consensus about controversial issues. In Chapter 4, I use argument and network analysis to trace both Article for Deletion discussions and also the larger ecosystem of articles about global warming.

This analysis shows how the Talk Page and article editing practices that I trace in earlier chapters become sedimented within the site’s information architecture, shaping what internet users may learn about the issue. In aggregate, this dissertation contributes to understanding not only how the openness that characterizes online collaborative environments shapes public discourse around controversy, but also the dynamics of public uptake and discussion of texts in the networked era.