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Learning Through Massively Co-Authored Biographies Making Sense of Steve Jobs on Wikipedia through Delegated Voice



This paper discusses opportunities for learning about biographies through Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia. We examine argumentation and interpretation practices in Steve Jobs's entry and its associated Talk pages, focusing on editors' debates on whether Jobs was an “inventor”. We highlight argumentation from delegated voice as a core element of Wikipedian knowledge building; contributors' variable skills in engaging this NPOV mandated requirement account for their success or failure in promoting changes in page content and structure. Editors' concerns about topic relevance and page structure are particularly vulnerable to counter-argumentation from delegated voice.
Learning Through Massively Co-Authored
Making Sense of Steve Jobs on Wikipedia through Delegated Voice
Cosima Rughinis, Stefania Matei
Faculty of Sociology and Social Work
University of Bucharest
Bucharest, Romania
{cosima.rughinis, stefania.matei}
Abstract—This paper discusses opportunities for learning
about biographies through Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia.
We examine argumentation and interpretation practices in Steve
Jobs’s entry and its associated Talk pages, focusing on editors’
debates on whether Jobs was an “inventor”. We highlight
argumentation from delegated voice as a core element of
Wikipedian knowledge building; contributors’ variable skills in
engaging this NPOV mandated requirement account for their
success or failure in promoting changes in page content and
structure. Editors’ concerns about topic relevance and page
structure are particularly vulnerable to counter-argumentation
from delegated voice.
Keywords—Biography, Wikipedia, collaborative work,
argumentation, delegated voice, dialogue
Many biographies, either short, such as obituaries, or long,
as in books, are authored by one or, at most, several people.
Co-authors of a biographical text usually write in close
collaboration, attending to the unity of style and interpretation
in the final work. As a rule, authors sign their published
biographies, and readers interpret them understanding that they
read authors’ perspectives on the subject person – a perspective
manifested through multilayered choices, such as the selection
of relevant elements, their contextualization, their ordering,
choice of words, explanations, analogies, comparisons,
counterfactual judgments, commentaries and evaluations, etc.
Wikipedia presents the public with an alternative form of
authorship. Wikipedia entries are continuously elaborated by
large and spontaneous collectives of anonymous contributors,
working together on entry files and in channels of online talk,
with reference to a set of procedures for writing and
collaboration that modulate [1], [2] the editing style.
Wikipedia’s role in public learning has been both praised
and decried, based on considerations of article coverage and
quality, public access, and editorial guidelines and practices
Evaluations of quality of Wikipedia articles point to high
variability. Quality depends on article popularity [10], on
chance factors related to the probability of any entry being
vandalized at a certain point in time, and, we may add, on the
ratio of “common-reasons facts” to “scientific theory” required
to make sense of the respective topic.
Wikipedia offers free access and, moreover, it is widely
accessed, because it has a high rank in Google search results
and because coverage is comprehensive. While this is good
news, it can also be read as a disadvantage, since any problem
in entry quality affects a large number of people; students’
massive use of Wikipedia for academic work is a frequent topic
of professors’ malaise.
Still, Wikipedia is not only a learning resource for its
readers (as well as users of derived services that mine its
information), but also a potential learning experience for its
writers. Rosenzweig praises it especially in this regard:
frequent contributors report considerable learning about
dialogue with a diverse public, benefits in structuring and
memorizing knowledge, and overall enjoyment in contributing
to a public stock of knowledge [3]. Time organization is also
important for learning [11]: Wikipedia invites contributors in a
continuous engagement through asynchronous, but timely
interventions. Contribution quality is encouraged through a
system of peer-awarded badges [12], [13], and through internal
peer review for ‘good articles’ and for ‘featured articles’.
In this article we explore a specific type of learning
afforded by Wikipedia, concerning biographical knowledge.
We examine the Free Encyclopaedia page of Steve Jobs, as of
06.02.2013 [14], and its Talk pages, in order to study how
editors make sense collectively of his contribution to the
history of technology: how is this contribution formulated, and
how is it changed, in successive moves? How is the massively
co-authored interpretation of Steve Jobs achieved?
We focus on a specific question that has been repeatedly
addressed by contributors: was Steve Jobs an “inventor”? This
argument involves debates on what it means to be an inventor,
adequate criteria for membership in this category for Wikipedia
purposes, whether Jobs fulfills such criteria, and what
formulation of Jobs’s article is best suited to capture the
answer. The debate also touches on Jobs’s role in Apple:
should Apple’s products be attributed to Jobs, or should they
feature only in Apple’s Wikipedia page? We examine the
arguments advanced in these discussions, the role of Wikipedia
procedures in editors’ arguments, and what type of learning is
afforded for readers, on the one hand, and for contributors, on
the other hand, concerning argumentation and the quality of
being an inventor.
Wikipedia texts are continuously updated by multiple
anonymous contributors, through additions, deletions and
changes in structure and formulation, and therefore no version
of an article is definitive; new editors have the power to undo
what previous editors have written (although this power is, in
some cases, limited, for fear of vandalism). While rapid update
brings a risk of errors or malicious changes, Wikipedia also
displays considerable self-healing properties, since many
articles are monitored by editors [3]. Nevertheless, this radical
flexibility of Wikipedia entries has led critiques to challenge its
status as a co-authored work, considering that it is rather a
“serially authored” text [9]. Authors’ anonymity and volatility
introduce a radically different relationship between texts and
readers, one in which it is not possible anymore to entertain
traditional concepts of author credibility based on expertise and
experience, and enforced by reputation considerations [6], [7].
The ambivalence of Wikipedia as a resource for readers can
also be formulated through the conceptual framework of the
theory of instrumental genesis [15–18]. Wikipedia is a novel
type of instrument, due to its massively multi-authored
instrumentalization. At the same time, readers’ instrumentation
schemes are shared with other encyclopedic instruments, which
have definite authorship, such as Encyclopædia Britannica
Online. This discrepancy between editors’ instrumentalization
work and readers’ instrumentation schemes is of concern for
many critiques. In essence, the problem is that many readers
use Wikipedia as if it were an individually-authored online
reference text, without adapting to its specific organization of
authorship through a different type of scrutiny, or by
examining available talk pages and archives.
The Free Encyclopedia has been praised for is wide
coverage, rapid update in case of presentations of current
events, and free access to texts – not only for human reading,
but also for data mining, making Wikipedia a valuable resource
for secondary services such as automated question and answer
platforms [3].
With coverage, accuracy and access as strong points, its
weak points derive also from its openness, specifically from its
indiference, if not outright hostility to academic expertise [19].
Consequently, in comparison with articles on similar topics
written by scientific professionals, Wikipedia articles often
display an amateurish structure of relevance, somehow similar
to collectors’ structures rather than to current scientific wisdom
[3], [5], [8]. For example, Abbott writes as regards the entry on
professions at that time: “In short, the Wikipedia article on
professions is about the quality of a good but not excellent
undergraduate paper” (p. 179), examining the end result as well
as the arguments underlying edits: “Overall, this conversation
resembles nothing so much as a dinner chat in a university
dining hall. It is a melange of mixed agendas, unstated moral
positions, sharp—even contemptuous—assertions of (usually
erroneous) authority, and vastly different levels of actual
knowledge, all sustained by a kind of youthful energy and a
noble but naive faith. Its participants are concerned and eager.
They know a lot of different things and are willing to prospect
for more to the best of their limited time and ability. They are
committed to a kind of collective enterprise of inquiry. That
said, both the article and this discussion are fundamentally
ignorant” [5] (p. 180). Luyt [20] also concludes that
Wikipedian expertise is based on the naïve belief in the
interchangeability of texts as bearers of “facts”, leading to a
rather haphazard selection of scientific references and
perspectives, and a domination of easy references, such as
online short articles, and institutionally-polished summaries
and overviews.
Related criticisms apply also to Wikipedia’s biographical
entries, as discussed especially by Rosenzweig [3] and Brague
[8]. There are significant omissions, especially as regards
intellectual contributions, such as in the case of philosophers;
there is a lack of contextualization for historical figures; all in
all, there is an overweight on exotic details, and a writing style
that often lacks coherence, due to assemblages of sentences
from different contributors. Rosenzweig also points to
Wikipedia’s lack of an overall interpretive stance – also
attributable to its massive authorship, but also to its policies,
especially the Neutral Point of View (NPOV)[21], Verifiability
[22] and No Original Research [23] policies. In brief,
“Wikipedia does not publish original research. Its content is
determined by previously published information rather than the
beliefs or experiences of its editors. Even if you're sure
something is true, it must be verifiable before you can add it.
When reliable sources disagree, present what the various
sources say, give each side its due weight, and maintain a
neutral point of view” [22]. Unlike authors of other
encyclopaedic articles, such as Encyclopædia Britannica,
Wikipedia contributors’ claim no voice of their own.
Wikipedia, more than the traditionally authored
encyclopaedias, claims to speak in a delegated voice: it reports
what “has been said” by reputable sources.
We start our inquiry by examining how interpretation of the
life and impact of a public person, specifically Steve Jobs, is
negotiated and formulated in his Wikipedia article and its
associated Talk pages. Unlike scientific constructs, in which
awareness of current scientific literature is critical for
understanding and meaningful writing, biographical entries do
not depend strictly on professional knowledge for either
readers or writers. While biographies benefit greatly from
historical expertise and also from intimate disciplinary
familiarity with the professional life of the subject, stories and
interpretations of renowned persons are publically discussed
and available to non-professional people, who can choose and
formulate a coherent perspective based on their common-sense
sociological knowledge and on others’ various accounts.
We focus on Wikipedia editors’ debate concerning whether
Jobs was an inventor, whether this alleged quality is significant
enough to warrant inclusion in various sections of his article,
and, if yes, how it should be formulated. We have chosen this
particular debate because it is prominent on the English-
language Talk page associated with Steve Jobs’ entry. A
second reason is that our assumption that a coherent and
detailed take on this issue does not require specialized
professional knowledge, but nonetheless it benefits from
careful consideration of alternative points of view as
formulated by different collaborators and commentators of
Jobs. To put it briefly, we take this topic to be amenable to
learning through dialogue. We investigate whether (and how)
this happens in Wikipedia. What sort of knowledge work does
this debate involve, and what sort of learning does it afford for
contributors, on the one hand, and readers, on the other?
A. The “Inventor” Debate: Challenging Adequacy and
Relevance through Article Content and Structure
As of 8 February 2013, the introductory description of
Steve Jobs on Wikipedia presented him as “an American
entrepreneur [7] and inventor [8], best known as co-founder,
chairman and CEO of Apple Inc. Through Apple, he was
widely recognized as a charismatic pioneer of the personal
computer revolution [9] [10] (…)” [14] (emphasis added). We
notice in this description the prominent position of “inventor”.
This is not a singular position, but also not a frequent one. For
example, the entry in Encyclopædia Britannica Online
[06.02.2103] starts by presenting Steve Jobs as “cofounder of
Apple Computer, Inc. (now Apple Inc.), and a charismatic
pioneer of the personal computer era” [24]. In the
Encyclopædia Britannica entry, Levy does not mention
“inventor” as a description of Jobs, but writes that he innovated
as regards products and “reinvented” corporate organization:
“Innovate he did. In 1998, Jobs introduced the iMac, an egg-
shaped, one-piece computer that offered high-speed processing
at a relatively modest price and initiated a trend of highfashion
computers.(…) Steve Jobs had saved his company, and in the
process reestablished himself as a master high-technology
marketer and visionary. (…) In 2001 Jobs started reinventing
Apple for the 21st century” (ibid.).
Whether or not “inventor” is a correct and relevant
description of Jobs has featured in 5 debates on the Wikipedia
Talk pages, as presented in Table 1. One debate concerned
article structure, contesting the inclusion of Apple products in
the “Inventions” section on Jobs’s page. Two debates
concerned the replacement of “inventor” with alternative
descriptions, respectively “technologist” and “visionary”. A
fourth discussion was stirred by an editor’s comments on a
comparison between Jobs and Edison (presented through
delegated voice, that is, through a citation). The fifth debate
requested that “designer” be reinstated as a second main
description of Jobs. As of 6 February 2013, the results of these
debates are as follows: although “designer” was reinstated, it
has mysteriously vanished again in between; the comparison
with Edison still stands; “inventor” is a main description of
Request [date] Posts [dates] Topic
07.01.13 07.01.13
Request for moving topics from “Inventions” section [Not done]
19.10.11 19.10.11
Request to replace “inventor” with “technologist” [Not done]
10.09.11 10.09.11
Challenges the following sentence: “After his resignation as Apple's CEO, Jobs was characterized as the Thomas Edison
and Henry Ford of his time.[273][274]” [Not done]
02.11.11 02.11.11
“Inventor” has been replaced with “visionary”, then restored
24.02.12 24.02.12
Request to “change "was an American businessman and inventor" to "was an American businessman, designer and
inventor".". Most of his patents were design patents, not utility patents. He only had about 40 utility patents and most of
his utility patents were software patents.” [Done]
An examination of arguments exchanged through Talk
pages indicates the prominence of the argument concerning
reliability of sources, that is, what we term the argument from
delegated voice. The policy of reflecting common wisdom
through the encyclopaedic voice is often translated as the
policy of replacing any editors’ judgments with what has been
said by numerous and / or reliable sources. This policy of
delegated voice is effectively put in place to silence counter-
arguments that do not employ the same argumentative device.
As we can see in the entry text, there are numerous footnotes to
indicate references. Not everything is referenced – but
everything is accountable to being referenced. In case a word is
challenged, whether or not that term derives from a reliable
external voice is often (but, we shall see, not always) the
decisive argument.
For example, in Figure 1, the request to replace “inventor”
with “technologist” is ultimately adjudicated through the
argument that “there isn’t any published material that refers to
him as such”. In this line of argumentation, editors’ “personal
opinions” are contrasted with “reliable sources”.
[1] Consider reversing 'inventor' in first sentence in favor of
'technologist', as the present term may not properly reflect Jobs' role
within Apple. (talk) 05:50, 19 October 2010 (UTC) (…)
[2] What you're expressing is personal opinion. Wikipedia can
only use whatever is from reliable sources: newspapers, magazines,
reputable websites, etc. There are numerous that refer to Jobs as an
inventor. 02:05, 10 February 2011 (UTC)
[3] All knowledge is "personal opinion". —Preceding unsigned
comment added by (talk) 11:56, 11 February 2011
[4] Perhaps, but this doesn't mean we can change Wikipedia
policy to adapt wording for one specific article. Regardless of what
information is, Wikipedia has a strict policy on biographies of living
persons that any statements that are likely to be controversial must be
backed up by reliable sources. Numerous sources state that he is an
inventor, and while I'd be inclined to agree with you on the use of the
word "technologist" instead, there isn't any published material that
refers to him as such. elektrikSHOOS 16:32, 11 February 2011 (UTC)
Figure 1. Excerpt from Talk pages, Oct. 2010 – Feb. 2011 (paragraph
nummerotation added)
The comment that “all knowledge is personal opinion”
(para.3) comes in direct conflict with Wikipedia’s
epistemological discourse, and thus it is bound to fail as an
argument in this setting, whatever its philosophical merits.
The argument from delegated voice is not only used to
argue for the use of one term over another, but also in debates
concerning relevance. For example, in Figure 2, the first editor
questions the relevance of including the reported comparison of
Jobs with Edison. Still, the initiator formulates this challenge as
his opinion concerning the comparison between the two, rather
than his evaluation on the relevance of including the reported
comparison (para.1: “I think not!”). This framing
unsurprisingly leads to argumentative failure, since editors
opinions on substantive topics concerning the article subject
are always superseded by voices of external (reliable) sources.
In this case, the sources are not introduced as numerous; still,
what “has been said” is reportable by default; editors cannot
contradict a reliable external voice, but just argue against its
relevance in the Wikipedia entry according to Wikipedia
criteria. The initiator does not do this. Through framing this
debate as a conflict of opinion, the initiator stands to lose. In
sequence, another contributor offers his opinion in an
interesting exchange that further marks the discussion as
interpersonal communication between contributors. Interesting
as it may be, the dialogue is marked as against rules by another
contributor (para.3), and the fourth editor concludes “The
article simply states what has been said of him” (para.4), thus
formulating the debate as one of source versus opinion (source
wins), instead as a discussion of relevance.
[1] The Henry Ford or Thomas Edison of his age? I think not!
He's a brilliant man and did a lot to advance the personal computer
industry, but he is not in the same league as these two people. He
inspired others to create, but he didn't invent a single thing. His
legacy is motivation, not creativity. (talk) —Preceding
undated comment added 04:59, 10 September 2011 (UTC).(…)
[2] Honestly, The Edison comparison is apt, though probably not
for the intended purpose. Edison was a brilliant marketer of,
essentially, other people's technology. He took existing ideas (stole
would not be too far off the mark in some cases) and brought them
into the public mindset. Jobs didn't invent tablet PCs, computers, mp3
players, etc...he took existing technologies, improved their design and
usability, and marketed them brilliantly. He was a product designer at
heart, not really an "inventor" in the traditional sense. He invested
user experiences, not the tech itself. For better or worse, that matches
Edison fairly well. (talk) 14:17, 6 October 2011 (UTC)
[3] This is not the place to share your reflections or original
research on Jobs' life or accomplishments, unless it's somehow
relevant to writing about them on Wikipedia. There are lots of other
places on the net to talk about this. --Saforrest (talk) 15:23, 6 October
2011 (UTC)
[4] It doesn't matter what you (or any other editor) thinks. The
article simply states what has been said of him, it (and WP) doesn't
make any judgments one way or the other. -- Jibal (talk) 03:57, 7
October 2011 (UTC) (Emphases added)
Figure 2. Excerpt from Talk pages, Sept. – Oct. 2011 (paragraph
nummerotation added)
Wikipedia contributors are not only debating the presence
and absence of descriptions and sentences, but also their
position in the article as signs of relevance. For example, in
Figure 3, the initiator questions the list of products under the
category “Inventions”, arguing that their attribution to Jobs as
an individual is unwarranted and that they should be presented
on the Apple page (para.1). Still, the second contributor reads
this request as being answered through a sentence that “plainly
states” Jobs’ role, and does not acknowledge the purported
conflict between what is “plainly stated” and the article
structure. Subsequently the debate turns to issues of how to
describe Jobs’s contribution, rather than article structure, due to
the intervention of subsequent editors. Since the contribution
has already been “plainly stated”, the initial argument is lost –
both as visibility and as regards it chances of success.
[1] I think listing those under "Inventions" is a bit misleading,
given the most involvement he's had with them was "the look and feel".
Those should go under Apple's article, as it was his engineers that
actually did the work. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk • contribs) 7 January 2013
[2] The article plainly states that Jobs "is listed as either primary
inventor or co-inventor in 342 United States patents or patent
applications...Jobs's contributions to most of his patents were to 'the
look and feel of the product'". I'm not sure what else you want here;
please be more specific. Thanks. —KuyaBriBriTalk 19:36, 7 January
2013 (UTC)
[3] Right people want to know if he actually EVER invented
anything himself or only put his name on stuff as you indicate and as
the current lede indicates (stating that Woz actually did all the work).
We know he's the champion of capitalists and people who think
themselves entitled to take credit and ownership of products produced
by the labor of others everywhere, the question is did he actually ever
really DO anything other than that, or was he just a hustler,
entrepreneur, whatever you want to call it (…) (talk)
22:57, 9 January 2013 (UTC) (…)
[4] Well it's clear there's a confusion on EXACTLY what he DID
DO in the production processes in question. Maybe that's a better
way to frame it but, yes that subsumes what you just asked. It need not
be a negative statement about a null set where Gates has the Basic
system, Ellison has his first RDBMS, etc., a positive statement of a
non-null set as the entirety of his participation in those processes will
work just as well, better perhaps. (talk) 22:00, 13
January 2013 (UTC) (Emphases added)
Figure 3. Excerpt from Talk pages, Jan. 2013 (paragraph nummerotation
A similar structure of argumentation can be seen in Figure
4. Following a previous contributor’s acknowledgement that
“But yeah, he did invent some things, just need to clarify it was
mostly design and simple things”, another editor challenges the
position of the word “inventor” in the article introduction. Still,
this challenge as regards article structure is lost in the general
argument concerning whether Jobs was or not an inventor. The
either/or framing dominates the discussion, making arguments
about relevance and its representation through structure less
visible and less likely to succeed.
We can therefore see that argumentation from delegated
voice makes it particularly difficult for contributors to advance
arguments about the relevance of a particular topic (countered
as ‘personal opinions’) and about the article structure
(attenuated by discussions of article content). Despite the
substantial discussions on the correctness and relevance of
Jobs’s description as an inventor on the Talk pages, it still
occupies a prominent place in the examined version of the
encyclopedic entry.
[1] Just because Jobs' name is on patents certified by the USPTO,
which therefore makes Jobs an "inventor", that doesn't mean that the
word "inventor" should necessarily be put in his introduction. Millions
of other people on Wikipedia have their names on patents, and don't
have the word "inventor" put in their introduction. One example is
Charlie Sheen. He invented a "Chapstick Dispensing Apparatus"
(acknowledged by USPTO), yet he doesn't have "inventor" in the
opening of his Wikipedia page. (Nbanato (talk) 08:20, 6 February
2013 (UTC))
[2] Do you see a difference in the relative success of their
inventions? --SubSeven (talk) 14:54, 6 February 2013 (UTC)
[3] That's not my point. The point is that the introduction of a
wikipedia page should say what the its subject was/is most known for.
Charlie Sheen was an actor first and foremost, and Steve Jobs was a
technology entrepreneur and visionary. A single Apple patent usually
includes the names of many, many others (for example, those who
were responsible for the engineering, the programming etc) in
addition to Jobs. If we are to include the word "inventor" in Jobs'
introduction, then, to be fair, we would have to give every single one
of those Apple employees included in the patents that Jobs is included
in the title of "inventor" (in their wikipedia opening) as well. The fact
that only Jobs has the Macintosh, ipod, iphone, imac etc listed on his
page as inventions of his is very misleading. It gives readers the
impression that they were created solely or primarily by him. Why
aren't these products listed as being the inventions of all those other
people whose names are included in Apple's patents on their wiki
pages? (Nbanato (talk) 17:43, 6 February 2013 (UTC))
Figure 4. Excerpt from Talk pages, Feb. 2013 (paragraph nummerotation
This prominence is manifested through article structure:
1) Jobs’s description as an “inventor” is included as a core
description, in the introduction;
2) There is a distinctive section on “Inventions and
designs” that lists Apple’s products as attributable to Jobs.
Still, the debate did not remain without results in the entry
text. We can observe, in the section of “Inventions and
designs”, three argumentative devices for dealing with the
1) Juxtaposition: voices against Jobs’s description as an
inventor are included and referenced, as dissenting views. In
the spirit of Wikipedia’s focus on delegated voice, a paragraph
has been included here to report dissenting views on Jobs’s
description as an inventor: “According to Apple cofounder,
Steve Wozniak, "Steve didn't ever code. He wasn't an engineer
and he didn't do any original design..."[130][131] Daniel
Kottke, one of Apple's earliest employees and a college friend
of Jobs', stated that "Between Woz and Jobs, Woz was the
innovator, the inventor. Steve Jobs was the marketing
person."[132]” [14]. It is still noteworthy that Jobs’ description
as an inventor is realized in the encyclopaedic voice, not as
external view. This asymmetry reflects a general Wikipedia
policy that “when presenting negative material, it is often best
to name the source of the criticism within the paragraph or
sentence, so that the criticism is not presented in the
encyclopedia's voice” [25]; this does not apply to descriptions
that are considered neutral, even if the concept indicates a
specific merit (as is the case with “inventor”);
2) Concluding descriptive sentences which encourage a
specific interpretation: the introductory part on “Inventions and
designs” ends with a description that presents Jobs’s
inventiveness under extreme situations, presenting him as
constantly oriented towards devising novel devices: “Even
while terminally ill in the hospital, Jobs sketched new devices
that would hold the iPad in a hospital bed.[137] He also
despised the oxygen monitor on his finger and suggested ways
to revise the design for simplicity.[138]” [14];
3) Concluding interpretive sentences: the paragraph
mentioning that “He is listed as either primary inventor or co-
inventor in 346 United States patents or patent applications”
ends with a conclusive sentence that acknowledges this debate
and solves it as a transformation in time: “Although Jobs had
little involvement in the engineering and technical side of the
original Apple computers,[131] Jobs later used his CEO
position to directly involve himself with product design.[136]”.
Although both halves of this phrase are attributed to sources,
following faithfully the policy of delegated voice, the editor/s
create, through their juxtaposition, the novel interpretation that
a transformation took place in Jobs’ style of involvement.
Therefore, the centrality of delegated voice and
contributors’ inability, at least in this case, to use this policy to
challenge the relevance of Jobs’s description as an “inventor”
as emphasized through page structure rather than page content,
have resulted in the high prominence of this description in the
current version of the Wikipedia entry on Steve Jobs. On the
reverse side, the same policy accounts for the representation of
the controversy in the page content, thus reflecting, to some
extent, the plurivocality concerning this topic.
B. Accounting for Jobs’s Succcess in Talk and Entry Pages
Readers of Talk pages, particularly if following the
“inventor” debate, encounter a nuanced portrait of Steve Jobs,
with multiple descriptions of his creativity. We can identify
two types of opponents to the “inventor” description:
1) The “mere marketing” evaluation, considering that
“inventor” refers to technical creativity that stands in
opposition to less valuable marketing, sales, and other business
capabilities; see, for example, the following appreciation in the
Talk archive: “Agreed, Jobs is NOT an inventor. He really
works with design teams and lays out "Requirements" which
the engineers than go figure out how to do. Stipulating
requirements is not strictly speaking "inventing". Invention has
more to do with the hard science behind something. Ex. Steve
likes his devices to not show screws. The engineers have to
figure out how to construct something that is held together
without any screws showing. Steve didn't invent anything, he
merely came out with some requirements. 19:15, 9 February
2011 (UTC) — Preceding unsigned comment added by
NathanielPoe”. (Emphasis added).
2) A discussion of different forms of creativity and
innovation, largely highlighting Jobs’ merits as a product
designer; the following comments on the Talk pages illustrate
this evaluation: “Dan Farber at CBS summarised Jobs this way:
“He was not an inventor in the classic sense, tinkering with
program code to create the Worldwide Web or tinfoil to
reproduce sounds on a phonograph. “Jobs was more of an
orchestral conductor, charismatic and dictatorial, assembling
the people and pieces of existing and emerging technology to
craft an object of desire that reflected his personal aesthetic and
vision for how people and machines should interact.”
inventor-not-the-next-steve-jobs-100958.html -Classicfilms
(talk) 05:06, 4 November 2011 (UTC)”; “There's a very good
argument made that he was a tweaker, not an inventor, in a
current The New Yorker article, The Tweaker: The real genius
of Steve Jobs by Malcolm Gladwell. --Tagishsimon (talk)
20:44, 9 November 2011 (UTC)”.
Some arguments from the discussion concerning the
particular abilities of Jobs did find their way in the main page;
we can find the following comment included in “Media
coverage”: “Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker asserted
that ‘Jobs’s sensibility was editorial, not inventive. His gift lay
in taking what was in front of him… and ruthlessly refining it’”
[14]. Still, in the overall, the entry does not provide a
discussion of what accounted for Jobs’s success – either as
personal abilities, or as distributed competences and even as
broader, favorable trends. An overall interpretive stance on
how to explain Jobs’ success, and what particular kinds of
creativity he had, is lacking.
Wikipedia’s promise of universal access to authorship (as
emphasized in its slogan: “the free encyclopedia that anyone
can edit”), and the massive mobilization of voluntary editors
raise the issue of what forms and roles dialogue has [26] in
shaping its entries. Yet a second issue, following Bakhtin’s
[27], [28] theoretical approach, concerns polyphony: can we
argue that Wikipedia is a polyphonic encyclopaedia, making
visible – if not audible – multiple voices in a self-orchestrated
event? As a tentative answer, based on our analysis of Steve
Jobs’s entry, we propose that, through reading a Wikipedia
article, we can overhear a lively discussion involving many
voices – although this polyphony becomes quite muffled by the
aggregated “encyclopaedic voice” that demotes diversity of
perspectives to the periphery of a “common knowledge
consensus”. Diverse voices are readable on the Talk pages –
but, again, the preference for argumentation from delegated
speech means that, in order to be powerful, an editor’s voice
must be dual: it should speak in sync with a “reliable source”.
Editors who succeed in coupling their voices with published
texts gain access to authorial dialogue; those who ignore or
resist the NPOV requirements are quickly dismissed.
Interestingly, bibliographic references do not function as
arguments in favor of one’s own point of view (as customary in
academic argumentation); instead, in Wikipedia sources
represent the main voices that are to be represented on the entry
page, while editors position themselves as ‘carrier waves’. If
(and only if) taken jointly with their associated Talk pages,
Wikipedia entries present the reader with a dynamic, rich,
dialogical argumentation – but there are also multiple instances
in which the NPOV principle is visibly used to silence
Our examination of the “inventor” debate concerning the
entry on Steve Jobs in Wikipedia points to several conclusions
concerning Wikipedia as a resource and opportunity for
As regards contributors’ skills, the Talk page offers space
and challenges for argumentation, and the inventor controversy
emerged more than once. Still, proponents of modifications in
the status quo seem to underestimate the significance of the
argument from delegated voice; at times they confront it
directly, or they ignore its mandate. To a large extent, the
failure of attempts to underplay Jobs’s description as
“inventor” derives from proponents’ casual style of
argumentation, avoiding or challenging a rigorous employment
of the policy of reference to sources and speaking through
others voices. A second explanation can be found in the
constant combination of arguments concerning adequacy of
description with arguments concerning relevance, to the result
that conclusions concerning adequacy (Jobs can be adequately
described as an inventor, according to Wikipedia criteria of
evaluation) overshadow discussions of relevance. Along the
same line, discussions of page content completely obscure
challenges concerning page structure.
As regards Steve Jobs’s entry as a resource for readers, we
find that, through structure more than content, the page
emphasizes Jobs as an inventor at the expense of other relevant
and available descriptions, especially downplaying the
“product designer” description. Dissenting voices are included
in text, following the NPOV policy. Still, there is no
problematization of what kind of special abilities account for
Jobs’s success, and how it can be understood in a wider social
and technological context. Contextualization and nuanced
accounts of personality and transformation throughout life
represent, indeed, weak points of Wikipedia authorship.
To conclude on a less critical tone, our analysis supports
the claim that Wikipedia articles do indeed illustrate a variety
of voices and points of view. Unlike the Encyclopædia
Britannica Online entry, which does not include any critical
comment on Jobs, the Wikipedia article includes several
discussions concerning, among other, his management style,
his lack of philanthropic engagement, and, as mentioned
already, challenges to his technical inventiveness. This means
that, if editors master Wikipedia argumentation style and rules
of relevance, they can incorporate alternative voices, although
arguments about their relative weight are particularly
challenging, in the NPOV framework. It remains to be further
studied what type of argumentative devices are most successful
in implementing judgments of relevance and the associated
changes in article structure.
This article has been supported by the research project
“Sociological imagination and disciplinary orientation in
applied social research”, with the financial support of ANCS /
UEFISCDI with grant no. PN-II-RU-TE-2011-3-0143,
contract 14/28.10.2011.
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