Ferron and Massa – “Studying collective memories in Wikipedia” to Amanda Knox, Trayvon Martin, and Cultural Trauma

Ferron, Michela and Paolo Massa – “Studying collective memories in Wikipedia.”

They found that Wikipedia articles related to traumatic events (such as September 11th, Chernobyl, and the London Train Bombings) received more editing during anniversary periods than during the rest of the year.

Although I do find this interesting and perhaps useful, I feel as if there’s something missing in this article. The observation that Wikipedia pages are created within days or minutes of a traumatic event seems important, and they are right that this is a clear marker of collective or “global” memory…but something still seems to be missing. I think Douglas Preston’s Trial By Fury captured the nature of Wikipedia with a bit more insight, but it helps that he had an entire short book to discuss just a single trial (the Amanda Knox case).

I am interested, however, in a comparison of the editing of the Amanda Knox page versus the September 11th Attacks page. The vignette highlighted by Ferron and Massa about disagreements on the use of “official version” on the September 11th page (page #) shows the degree to which people can argue and debate when it comes to semantics, but the reason for such debate is that semantics carry ideological weight. To label a version “the official version” is to implicitly question the veracity of that list of events, as it appears some Wikipedia editors wanted to do (Ferron and Massa ____). Preston’s work shows that similar debates happened on the Amanda Knox page, but the results were far less civil – editors were barred, and the page became so biased against Amanda Knox that Jimmy Wales (the founder of Wikipedia) had to step in delete the page and (assign?) editors to start the page from scratch (Preston ___).

Preston attributes this phenomenon on the Amanda Knox page to a larger need to “punish” social transgressors – a need that was targeted at “Foxy Knoxy” over the perception that she had brutally murdered her roommate, despite the clear lack of evidence that she’d had any part in the crime. But something that bothers me with Preston’s approach is that the punishers in this case were (and likely still are) convinced that Amanda Knox had killed Meredith Kercher. This seems to go beyond a simple need to punish – this, to me, has epistemological overtones.

This, I think, is where Ferron and Massa’s study of collective memory on Wikipedia may be more helpful. Their opening pages describe how memory is a shifting phenomenon: “Contemporary perspectives of remembering understand memory as an active process, where what is remembered is actively built and reconstructed every time” (2). But more interesting to me here is the social component of memory:

Bartlett also argued that our memory is influenced by the presence of others and by our social organization. According to Halbwachs, individual memory and identity are always mediated by some collectivity. Hence, individual memory cannot be seen as detached from social factors, but every step of the memory process is influenced by the social resources provided by the environment.11,12,13 In this work, following Olick and Levy 14, we intend collective memory as the continuous active process of sense-making and negotiation between past and present. (3)

For me, this raises the question of whether or not the Amanda Knox trial (or other “personal” events that become publicly broadcast) can become (not create or represent, but actually be) instances of cultural trauma. For example, consider the Rodney King beatings, or the O.J. Simpson trial, or the acquittal of George Zimmerman of the murder of Trayvon Martin. These cases all revealed ways in which the judicial system functions (or fails to function), highlighting the differences in how individuals are treated based on race and economic status. The death of Trayvon Martin – coupled with the police department failing to investigate, let alone arrest or charge George Zimmerman with the crime of murder – struck a serious blow to race relations in the U.S. Or…it simply reinforced what most African Americans have known for a long time: there is no equality if equality is incomplete.

So my question: do these individual traumas become cultural traumas? If so, then does the regular media coverage of crimes (especially kidnapping) lead to an artificially heightened state of psychological vigilance? If so, then do we need to better address this cultural neurosis in the classroom?

Follow-up: am I now guilty of the baseless pathologizing of society?

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