Clay Shirky has just published some thoughts on Wikileaks. He makes some very good observations, not least the importance of ensuring that we use legitimate democratic means to work out how, as a society, we will deal with Wikileaks. But perhaps the article skirts around the difficult and necessary question of determining exactly what Wikileaks, and the forms of leaking wikis that may be to come, actually are. And this is an important question to resolve as part of working out what to do about it / them.
To date Wikileaks is being defined as an institution, like a traditional media outlet. This is something that Wikileaks itself and Julian Assange in particular seem to be encouraging. They may have their reasons for this, specific to its current legal situation and broader issues that relate to motivation. However, this institutional definition is singularly unhelpful in trying to work out the general case for how to deal with Wikileaks or leaking wikis. As I have said previously, social media doesn’t make sense when viewed from a traditional institutionalized perspective. Social media really only makes sense when it is understood as a process. To very roughly paraphrase a certain Iron Lady “there are no institutions in social media, only individuals and an infrastructure (for linking these individuals together )” .
As Shirky reminds us in his article, the current legal situation, which he deems himself satisfied with, states that leaking secrets is a criminal act, but publishing the leaks is not. However, for this to work it requires that there is a clear separation between the act of leaking and the act of publication. This works within the traditional media world, where publication is institutionalized and publishers are independent entities, clearly separate from individuals who might be the sources of information. In the world of social media, every individual is a publishing institution and the institutions, in-so-far as they exist, are there simply to provide the tools. These institutions can no more bear responsibility for what their tools are used to publish than the manufacturers of printing presses can be held accountable for the content of books.
Here is the dilemma. For Wikileaks to really work as a form of social printing press and create the necessary social permission to ‘publish’ what it publishes, it needs to stop being a publisher. But it needs to be a publisher to avail itself of the legal protection required to ‘publish’ leaked information.
It is only once we stop seeing leaking wikis as publishing institutions and see them instead as publishing infrastructures, that we can start to define a social context to control or legitimize what they do. This process will be greatly assisted if Wikileaks itself starts to define itself as such – something it is reluctant to do.