In Pertinent Discussions Toward Modeling the Social Edition: Annotated Bibliographies Ray Siemens says that “the next steps in the scholarly edition’s development in its incorporation of social media functionality reflect the importance of traditional humanistic activities and workflows, and include collaboration, incorporating contributions by its readers and re-visioning the role of the editor away from that of ultimate authority and more toward that of facilitator of reader involvement.” Siemens envisions the “social edition,” a work edited by a community of individuals who engage via the internet to create a “scholarly” edition. Wikisource, a branch of the all-knowing Wikipedia, offers social editions of out-of-copyright texts, annotated and proofread by users. The editions must be factual and objective in order to be accepted by the site.
I think that social editions offer an interesting approach to “scholarly” interpretation of literature. However, what happens when the individuals working on the texts are not scholars? I do not have a PhD, but I can still offer annotations for something like Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Night (assuming that these texts have yet to be uploaded onto Wikisource). I am definitively not an expert in old English or Medieval writing, but I can pretend that I am through the anonymity afforded me by the internet. Two people have to proofread my work before it is published, but what is a few commas if they don’t catch that I said that Beowulf is the man that inspired the figure Jean-Val-Jean in Les Miserables? As a user, I can also edit the works of other people, individuals who may have six degrees and perhaps spend their days reenacting the lifestyle of Medieval writers. Can I just login and sully their thoughtful, precise, prose? Someone may eventually catch my lack of expertise and flag my work, but how long will my annotations be online before that happens? Even if it is just for a moment, think of the mass of people who access Wikipedia at all different intervals of the day. How many hapless undergrads will stumble across my work and use it to formulate a bogus and unfounded thesis statement? I suppose that’s why professors insist that students do not use Wikipedia, but what is its purpose if it cannot be trusted?
As an English student, I consider Wikisource to be an excellent resource. This week, we were instructed to explore the social edition of The Devonshire Manuscript. The annotations discuss the role of the Boleyn family in relationship to the text, identifies the contributors, and explains in great detail the historical context that the manuscript was created in. While the facts are excellent, and provide a good jumping off point for actual scholarly investigation, there is one major element missing from the page: the text. Or, if it’s there, I cannot find it, which is distressing. Typically, when I read a Broadview edition of a novel or poetry cycle annotations appear at the bottom of the page and correspond with specific lines, words, and paragraphs, allowing me to read the primary source while simultaneously allowing me to understand more fully elements that require elucidation. The social edition of the Devonshire Manuscript does not make the content of the original text available; because the information provided is not integrated with the text, the immediacy of annotation is lost, suggesting that it is not an “edition” of the text at all, but more like a Sparknotes or Wikipedia page. I want to be able to read the Petrarchan sonnets of Sir Thomas Wyatt, and mid poem read about how one of the Boleyns is represented as a bird or dear or some other sixteenth century image for a beloved, make note of it, and continue reading. These mid-source annotations offer a more nuanced reading of the text, while you are reading it.
My major issue with the social edition is defining it as “scholarly”. Siemens seems to think that scholarly editions can be created through social media, and I disagree— at least, until parameters are set to ensure the academic merit of uploaded information. I still use Wikipedia, but I cannot cite it in papers, nor admit to Professors that it is the single greatest resource available to students, contextualizing novels and clarifying philosophical ideas so they can more fully understand the import of the information being relayed to them during class.
However, because of its inherent unreliability, Wikipedia and Wikisource should be viewed as a way to jumpstart more thorough academic pursuits, encouraging individuals to confirm facts with the work produced and reviewed by experts, underscoring a lack of academic credibility due to the obscure and ambiguous realm of the internet.
Ultimately, my question is can the social edition be scholarly, and if so, how do we ensure its academic authenticity?