DAY 2: Bangalore – Session 6: Wikipedia and the Critique of Western Knowledge Production


Eric Zimmerman: Wikipedia and the Current Research Information System

Zimmerman spoke about trusting Wikipedia, asking if anonymity could ever lead to trust. He pointed out that there was a key difference between information and knowledge, and asked which one Wikipedia was facilitating. As an academic and a father, he claimed that he was deeply concerned that his students and children may be over-relying on Wikipedia, which may not provide a good learning environment.

In an age in which anyone can become an author, Zimmerman asked if we as a society are better off or ‘dummied down’ by the entire Web 2.0 movement. He argued that we may have lost our sense of personal identity in such environments. By making it ‘too fast and too easy’ to collaborate, Wikipedia was contributing to this phenomenon, which he felt was damaging to young people.

In order to solve this problem, Zimmerman proposed that Wikipedia should name its contributors. However, he went beyond efforts like Citizendium and suggested that Wikipedia use the existing Current Research Information Systems (CRIS) platform. CRIS is an identification system used by scientists in Europe which he called the ‘metadata of science.’ Each contributor to Wikipedia would have to obtain such credentials, and edits would be clearly marked with one’s personal identity.

Johanna Niesyto: Wikipedia as Translingual Space

Niesyto began by invoking the widespread visions of wiki-cosmopolitianism, showing how many members believe that Wikipedia is a global project and that the Wikimedia Foundation is a global community. However, she quickly critiqued this position by showing that this is a very Western idea and that many efforts at wiki-globalization carry with them Western biases. For example, the ‘List of articles every Wikipedia should have’ was notoriously skewed towards Anglophone topics.

However, Niesyto found that the issue was more complicated, as Wikipedians recognized this bias and tried to fix it. As one editor claimed, ‘we can edit each other’s biases out’ of the list, collectively coming to a global consensus on the issue. This view exists in other spaces, such as the Foundation’s strategic planning wiki where there is a proposal for a ‘unipedia’ that will universalize Wikipedia. Because of this, Niesyto argued that Wikipedia as a global project must be analyzed as a translingual space, focusing on the ways in which different languages and cultures negotiate common understandings.

In order to do this, she interviewed 16 users who contributed to the English, German, and French Wikipedias – and others, as most the interviewees were active on more than one language. These editors had many different roles, but they were mainly established, highly-active users. When Niesyto asked about collaboration between different language versions of Wikipedia, editors pointed to two main spaces: Wikimedia Commons, the shared media repository that all wiki projects use, and interwiki links. However, as interwiki links are predominantly created and maintained by bots, she claimed that this complicates the matter quite a bit.

Another core finding was the growing belief among editors that Wikipedia is becoming a battleground where the entire world is coming to fight. As Niesyto claimed, complicated issues of the global community versus cultural autonomy arise in such situations, and she analyzed this as a conflict between the scientific and the pluralistic point of view.

Stian Haklev: Equitable Governance in Multilingual Wikipedia.

Haklev began his presentation speaking rapidly in Chinese. To much applause, he said that this is how non-English speakers feel all the time. He framed this in terms of global, wiki-wide governance – decisions that affect all Wikipedias. Meta is intended to be the multilingual point of discussion for all languages, but Haklev quickly showed that this was a façade. Most pages just link to English articles, and to discuss anything – on Meta, on the Strategy wiki, or on Foundation-l – you need to know English.

However, Haklev asked a critical question: should Wikipedia and the Foundation aim to be truly multilingual? This is a pragmatic vs. idealist approach: in the ‘United Nations’ view, every language should get everything translated. However, he noted that we are UN, and we don’t have those resources. This is why there is no perfect solution – but he urged us to be creative.

With this in mind, he noted that there are two kinds of non-native English speakers: people who don’t speak the language at all, and those who speak some but need support. For those who need support, it would be helpful to have a visual map or diagram of governance processes in different wikis. There are a lot of automated and semi-automated tools that could also help with translation. However, he claimed that people drown in excess information, and skimming can be difficult. At conferences, Haklev suggested that live summaries (on Twitter or IRC) would help quite a bit.

For those who don’t speak English at all, he remarked that the traditional solution, translation, is very demanding. What about reducing the amount of text that needs to be translated, or even reducing the number of supported languages? Can everyone who speaks Swedish also speak Norwegian, for example, making translation to both these languages redundant?

Han Teng Liao: Map of Interlanguage Links

Liao presented on how keywords are governed. He claimed that Wikipedia is a special case because it dominates search results of corresponding keywords. This means that when one article on one language of Wikipedia rises in popularity, others rise as well. He contrasted this to the famous ‘Jew watch’ incident on Google, in which an anti-Semetic organization was able to get their website to the top of the results for the search “jew” – but only in the English-language version of Google.

He noted that search was a symbiotic phenomenon: search needs content, and content needs to be searched. This leads to what Liao termed a ‘keyword economy’, and in such an environment, both demand language capacity building from the other. As the ‘jew watch’ incident shows, he claimed that we think a lot about hyperlinks and backlins, but we don’t realize that language plays a huge role in ranking.

Search engines bring linguistic order to the web: as is necessary, certain content is pushed away from the user. He noted that it was more helpful to think about this in terms of reach instead of inclusion/exclusion. This is an efficient mediation that allows users to access a vast amount of web content. Liao then showed a striking example of two different Google Suggest queries, both for the term “communist party”, but one from simplified Chinese and the other from traditional. As the choice between simplified and traditional reflects a deep social and political divide, the results were quite different.