Wikipedia and the Politics of Open Knowledge

Research network, two conferences and reader

Organized by Centre for Internet & Society (Bangalore, India) and the Institute of Network Cultures (Amsterdam, Netherlands)

It would be no exaggeration to state that Wikipedia is at the brink of becoming the de facto global reference of dynamic knowledge. The highly visible clashes amongst opinion leaders, university professors, Web 2.0 ‘evangelists’ and publishers over accuracy, anonymity, trust, vandalism and expertise only seem to fuel further growth of Wikipedia and its user base. In this respect, what does it mean to now say that Wikipedia has become “mainstream”?

The accelerated growth and scope of Wikipedia as a knowledge reference of universal ambition is unheard of. The Google search engine gives preferential treatment to Wikipedia in an attempt to beat search engine optimizers and to provide a more fruitful experience to its users. Apart from leaving its modern counterparts Britannica and Encarta in the dust, such scale and breadth places Wikipedia on par with such historical milestones as Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, the Ming Dynasty’s Wen-hsien ta-ch’ eng, and the key work of French Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie.

The multilingual Wikipedia as digital collaborative and fluid knowledge production platform might be said the most visible and successful example of the migration of FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software) principles into mainstream culture. Those of us, who believe in pluralism and the possibility of another world, have a reason to celebrate and defend Wikipedia from intellectual-property-right-maximalists and promoters of proprietary models of knowledge production and dissemination. However, such celebration and defense should contain critical insights, informed by the changing realities of the Internet at large and the Wikipedia project in particular.

The Wikimedia Foundation has recently employed its first research analyst and provides spaces for “Wikipediology”, including projects such as the Wiki Project on vandalism studies. However, critical Wikipedia research should also be done outside the self-reflexivity of the Wikimedia Foundation and its community. There is an urgent need for quantitative and qualitative research from a humanities and arts perspective that could benefit both, the wider user base and the active Wikipedia community itself.

More than this though, as one of the largest, if not the largest self-contained general knowledge reference of our time, Wikipedia offers critical insights into the contemporary status of knowledge, its organizing principles, function, and impact; its production styles, mechanisms for conflict resolution and power (re-)constitution. New strategic and tactical operations of knowledge/power are clearly at work. The concept of the open remains ambiguous in this formation, serving as both a rallying concept and masking new agonistic encounters.

By permanently (re)formulating the open and inclusive, as the guiding Wikipedia principle being formulated by the community itself, one might also look at this norm as a narrative or even call it a founding myth. For example, the demographic profile of the Wikipedia editor as a white male geek with a limited monocultural worldview based on Western rationality remains a concern. However, the question of (non)diversity being formulated in Wikipedia discussions needs also to be posed beyond existing stereotypes and at the general level of discourse. The question of (post)identity and representation is not necessarily resolved via the discursive construction of ‘inclusion’, if such inclusion may require leaving competing knowledge histories and practices at the door and if it puts a culture of editing not next to a culture of listening/hearing.

In the most material and perceptional way, every new technology modifies the conditions of possibility for knowledge. The logic of technologies bleeds into the very structures and organizing principles of knowledge and today, both medium and message may reflect the ideas of the (organized) network, multitude or the Deleuzian machine. It is through a selected mix of technological and normative conditions – the distributed architecture of the net, the Wiki software platform, commons-based property licenses and the FLOSS zeitgeist – that Wikipedia as the encyclopedia of the information age emerges, both continuing and transforming the Enlightenment encyclopedic impulse or will to know.

The overarching research agenda is at once a philosophical, epistemological and theoretical investigation of knowledge artifacts, cultural production and social relations, and an empirical investigation of the specific phenomenon of the Wikipedia. This has been done on purpose so that the learnings from theoretical research activities can inform practice oriented research and vice-versa.

The two conferences, in Amsterdam and Bangalore (early 2010), were produced in parallel. The Bangalore event happened in January 2010, the Amsterdam event will happen in March. They focus(ed) on different aspects of the list below. With the exception of a hand full of people, the organizers estimate that the Amsterdam and Bangalore conferences will attract difference audiences. The reader (tentatively planned as number 6 in the Reader series published by the Institute of Network Cultures) will be produced in the period April-September 2010. At present, it is our intention to launch the reader at the Wikimania 2010 conference in Danzig, Poland (July 9-11).

Overall the conferences and reader (will) include the following areas of theoretical, empirical, practical and art-based contributions:

  1. WikiTheory
  2. Wikipedia and Critique of Western Knowledge Production
  3. Encyclopedia Histories
  4. Wiki Art
  5. Designing Debate
  6. Critique of Free and Open
  7. Global Politics of Exclusion/ Global issues and outlook
  8. Wikipedia and the Place of Resistance
  9. Wikipedia and Education
  10. Wikipedia Analytics

Descriptions of the Sessions/Fields of Interest

1. WikiTheory

Besides providing a general overview of the topics to come, and with an emphasis on diverse global approaches, the aim here is develop concepts that could be used in further research and that could fit into larger projects on Internet culture and the critique of the free and open. Is it possible to develop a counter-hegemony of critical practices that situates itself in the midst of technological cultures? What kind of critical lessons does Wikipedia provide in the face of overwhelming Web 2.0 hype and P2P utopianism? How can a radical Wikipedia critique be developed that does not present itself as the cynical ‘I told you so’ outsider or mimic the neo-conservatist position of Andrew Keen? What kind of insight can Wikipedia offer regarding the continuing tension between knowledge and information?


  Shunling Chen (TW/US)   Harvard Law School, USA   Wikipedia – A republic of Science Democratized?
 Stuart Geiger (US)  GeorgeTown University, USA  The Wisdom of Bots: A Critique of ‘Self-Organization’ in Wikipedia
 Beatriz Martins (BR)  Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brasil  Wikipedia: Authorship through web networks
 Dipti Kulkarni (IN)  Indian Institute of Technology, India  Wikipedia: A Social Semiotic Perspective
 Geert Lovink (NL)  Insitute of Network Cultures, Netherlands  Moderator


 Ramón Reichert (AT)  University of Vienna, Austria  Rethinking Wikipedia: power, knowledge and the technologies of the Self
 Jeanette Hofmann (DE)  London School of Economics, England and Social Science Research Centre Berlin, Germany  Wikipedia between emancipation and self-regulation
 Mathieu O’Neil (AU)  Université Paris Sorbonne, France  The critique of law in free online projects
 Gérard Wormser (FR)  Maison des sciences de l’homme Paris-Nord, France  The knowledge bar
 Geert Lovink (NL)  Institute of Network Cultures , Netherlands  Moderator

2. Wikipedia and Critique of Western Knowledge Production

The persistence of almost buried master-narratives: The Western tradition of Enlightenment tends to permeate both common and official understandings of knowledge on Wikipedia. Mirroring the Enlightenment itself, Wikipedia both offers a very particular type of knowledge and simultaneously makes claims upon the universal – e.g. in the formulation of visionary goals, structure of articles, author positions, writing style, categorization of entries, conflict resolution models and so on. The ways in which such ideals persist and continue to bear their mark on the present in often subtle ways requires further attention. Indeed, the ‘grand narratives’ of the Enlightenment that Jean-Francis Lyotard claimed had retreated with the emergence of ‘computerized societies’ continue to inform the popular imaginary in ways largely untouched by the deconstructive moment. Frederic Jameson once referred to this as the ‘persistence of buried master-narratives’, a ‘political unconscious’ that guides decisions irrespective of philosophical status. Likewise, this resonates with Foucault’s urge ‘to reveal a positive unconscious of knowledge’ as that which performs the task of subjugation but operates beyond contention. What matters here is not truth or belief, but operation.

The predominance of textual or even linguistic cultures: The current system of Wikipedia citation prejudices textual systems of knowledge over oral and visual systems of knowledge. This under-values the knowledge systems of cultural memory and related technique such as mnemo techniques or oral poetry on the one hand, and illiterate populations on the other hand.


 Johanna Niesyto (DE)  University of Siegen, Germany  Wikipedia as a Translingual Space
 Eric Zimmerman (IL)  IDC, Israel  Wikipedia and the Current Research Information System
 Stian Haklev (NO/CA)  University of Toronto, Canada  Equitable Governance in Multilingual Wikipedia
 HanTeng Liao (TW)  Oxford Internet Institute, England  User-generated Encyclopedia as Critical Case of Keyword Economy
 Zainab Bawa (IN)  Centre for Internet and Society, India  Moderator

3. Encyclopedia Histories

The word made durable: In this session we want to give an overview of various attempts to create a collection of global knowledge. In order to get a better understanding of the cultural specificity of the underlying code on which Wikipedia is built, this topic seeks to dig further into the histories of the encyclopedia. D’ Alembert’s Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedie is often described as the most succinct statement of European Enlightenment, and the Encyclopedie itself as the material project of Enlightenment. It is through the Encyclopedie that the Enlightenment becomes durable, tangible and disseminated. What can be learned by examining such historical precedents?

Encyclopedias have been said to be sources of national images and stereotypes of the self and the other within Europe. In Wikipedia image construction tends to be both disembogue and masked in favor of a cosmopolitan, global self-understanding. This session might interrogate to what extent knowledge production’s construction of national images is shifted from a discursive to an automatic georeferencing system of construction.

Beyond the index-card system: This session also looks to historical attempts to revolutionize knowledge through the creation of new technologies and to what extent these alternate histories resonate with Wikipedia specifically and the technologies of the Net as driven by knowledge imperatives more generally. Examples include the Mundaneum, the Memex, the Galactic Network and project Xanadu.


 Joseph Reagle (US)  New York University, USA  Wikipedia and encyclopedic anxiety
 Charles van den Heuvel (NL)  Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences  Authoritative annotations, Encyclopedia Universalis Mundaneum, Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
 Dan O’Sullivan (UK)  Freelance writer and historian  An encyclopedia for the times: thoughts on Wikipedia from a historical perspective
 Alan Shapiro (US/DE)  MIT and Cornell University, USA  Gustave Flaubert laughs at Wikipedia
 Nathaniel Tkacz (AU)  University of Melbourne, Australia  Moderator

4. Wiki Art

Art at the gates: Wikipedia Art is understood both as artwork and intervention. Taking place largely on Wikipedia itself, the project Wikipedia Art was considered controversial and was quickly removed (see recent debate on nettime-l). What does this project reveal about this type of knowledge production? What is the threshold of legitimacy for this type of knowledge and how are the boundaries policed? What is at stake in the rejection of art?


 Isaac Mao (CN)  Internet Activist and Curator, China  Curating the Wikipedia: What constitutes WikiArt
 Scott Kildall (US) e Nathaniel Stern (AU)  Wikipedia Art, EUA  Wikipedia Art: Citation as Performative Art
 Rut Jesus (PT/DK) e Anne Goldenberg (CA)  Artists from Canada and Denmark  Our Coll(nn)ective Mind: Critics and The WikiWay
 Namita Malhotra (IN)  Alternative Law Forum, India  Moderator


 Scott Kildall (US)  Cross-disciplinary artist  Wikipedia Art: Citation as performative act
 Patrick Lichty (US)  Digital intermedia designer, artist, writer, and independent curator  Social media, cultural scaffolds, and molecular hegemonies, musings on anarchic media, WIKIs, and deterritorialized art
 Hendrik-Jan Grievink (NL)  Designer, Editor  WikiLovesArt
 Rachel Somers Miles (CA)  INC  Moderator

5. Designing Debate

The paradox of neutrality: The Neutral Point of View policy of Wikipedia does not always accurately depict the state of debate on topics: The view held by a corporate lobby, using funded research, will find equal space as the opinions of thousands of disadvantaged persons who might be impacted by the actions of the corporate lobby. Would it make sense to replace the NPoV policy and think about Wikipedia as a space of open political agonality; as a battle for meaning underpinned by the desire for reason?

New crises of authenticity: As Wikipedia gains the status of default reference for other printed textual knowledge artifacts – there are emerging challenges of representation; longevity born digital references; digital manipulation of sources; and circular referencing. Shuddhabrata Sengupta of CSDS/Sarai says “Wikipedia encouraged in its community the active exercise of a critical and skeptical attitude towards any received form of knowledge”. In this context the evolving notions of authenticity has to be further interrogated given the rise of peer-produced knowledge and the diminishing cult of the expert.


 Andrew Famiglietti (UK)  Georgia Institute of Technology  Negotiating the Neutral Point of View: Politics and the moral economy of Wikipedia
 Teemu Mikkonen (FI)  University of Tampere  Kosovo War in Wikipedia: Tracing the conflict and consensus in the Wikipedia talk -pages
 Florian Cramer (DE/NL)  Rotterdam University  
 Sunil Abraham (IN)  Center for Internet and Society, India   Moderator

6. Critique of Free and Open

Vacuous collaboration: Master concepts like freedom and openness are at constant risk of remaining empty or constituting an ‘empty signifier’. The failure to fill such concepts has lead to many descriptions of Wikipedia as ‘collaborations’ or even ‘ad hoc meritocracies’ (Alex Bruns). Both these second-tier notions also tend to mask the reconfiguration of the political and new forms of closure.

Paid and voluntary community manipulation: Many Wikipedians hold strong opinions on range of sensitive areas including identity, religion, science, politics, culture, and use sophisticated techniques such as astro-turfing on Wikipedia. Additionally, some states, corporations and organized religious groups sometimes pay specialists to engage in astro-turfing in order to remove critical opinions and rewrite information from Wikipedia.


 Linda Gross (DE)  Universität Bielefeld, Germany  Wikipedia: Openness, Egalitarianism and the Emergence of Structures
 Heather Ford (ZA)  UC Berkeley, EUA  Wikipedia and the Digital Commons: An African perspective
 Elad Wieder (IL)  Creative Commons, Israel  Communities vs. Markets – The dissonance within growing open projects
 Nathaniel Tkacz (AU)  University of Melbourne, Australia  Force is Not Binary – The implications of Open Politics
 Sunil Abraham (IN)  Centre for Internet and Society, (IN)  Moderator

7. Global Politics of Exclusion/ Global issues and outlook

Tyranny of the connected: In societies which are compounded by digital and participation divides, the connected usually always win over those who don’t have access and time to spare.

Gendered Knowledge: While women are strongly represented among readers, globally, they are hardly represented among contributors. In offlist chats, women express that they do not feel comfortable when contributing to Wikipedia conversations. They even felt silenced by the perception of Wikipedia as a masculine tech culture. Some women have already created an alternative space of discussion at Does the separation of discussion spaces and the marginalization of domestic issues and social impacts on Wikipedia turn back time?

Morality laundering: Moral standards that exist in one country are being exported to other countries via Wikipedia. For example, photo-realistic images of human bodies on pages dealing with sexuality and anatomy are being replaced with drawings. Does this type of common denominator approach undermine the pluralism of global sexuality? The call and eventual refusal of image censorship for the entry on Mohammad represents a similar scenario.

Language diversity: Despite the self-imposed normative claim of language diversity and the self-description of Wikipedia as a truly multi-lingual project, English is the Lingua Franca in translingual meta projects and policy discussions. Also, on the level of content, is the English Wikipedia the ‘Leitmedium‘ in terms of (content) synchronization. In what other ways does the language divide operate on Wikipedia?

Global governance: Governance of Wikipedia has evolved and become increasingly sophisticated to match its phenomenal growth and the attention it has garnered. While these changes in governance have managed to sustain the growth of Wikipedia and prevent its credibility from being undermined, there is a need to understand the impact that various governance mechanisms have on the different incarnations of Wikipedia throughout the world. Such analysis should consider separately (and compare) different national chapters, plus extend beyond Wikipedia projects to the governance of the Wikimedia Foundation.


 Mark Graham  Trinity College Dublin, Ireland  WikiSpace – The Construction and Visibility of Hybrid Places
 Alok Nandi (CD/BE)  Architempo, Belgium  Constructing WikiHeroes – A case study of an Indian Auteur and his demise on the Wikipedia
 Dror Kamir (IL)  Wikipedian from Israel  My Side, your Side and Wikipedia -the tension between neutral information and narrative knowledge on Wikipedia demonstrated with articles about the Middle East conflict
 Asha Achuthan (IN)  Centre for Contemporary Studies, India  Moderator


 Mayo Fuster Morell (IT)  European University Institute  Wikimedia governance: The role of the Wikimedia Foundation and the form and geopolitics of its internationalization
 Amit Basole (IN)  University of Massachusetts  Knowledge Satyagraha: Towards a people’s knowledge movement
 Maja van der Velden (NL/NO)  University of Oslo  When knowledges meet: Database design and the performance of knowledge
 Athina Karatzogianni (UK)  University of Hull  Wikipedia’s impact on the global power-knowledge hierarchies
 Johanna Niesyto (DE)  University of Siegen  Moderator

8. Wikipedia and the Place of Resistance

Can Wikipedia said to be a social movement itself and/or how do social movement actors appropriate the Wikipedia to built alternatives? Why do people resign from Wikipedia? Are critical voices silenced by the majority of the mass? Does the exclusion of the Wikipedia Art project reveal that within Wikipedia is no place for contesting forms, repertoires, styles that go beyond linguistic approaches? Rituals and mechanisms of exclusion offer critical insights into the contemporary status of resistance formation in a paradigmatic age of diversity and inclusion. Going beyond and extending the thinking of social movement scholars such as Touraine or Melucci the study of Wikipedia might inform culture and identity approaches of social movement studies and vice versa.


 William Buetler (US)  Internet Analyst, USA  Wikipedia’s Open Door and Closing Window
 Eric Ilya Lee (TW)  Academia Sinica, Taiwan  Re-appropriating Wikipedia: Lazy People’s Archives
 Yi-Ping Tsou (TW)  National Central University, Taiwan  Resistance, Reluctance and Reticence: Why Taiwan does not like Wikipedia
 Amie Parry (TW)  National Central University, Taiwan  Moderator

9. Wikipedia and Education

Knowing about knowing: While technologies like newspapers, television, radio and cinema have given birth to educational institutions that engage in media studies, thereby providing tools for the discerning citizen-consumer and future professional, there is still much work required to develop similar critical models for emerging projects like Wikipedia. The common institutional (non)response to warn against the ‘dangers’ of Wikipedia-like projects and discourage or ban their use seems grossly inadequate. The rise of ‘prosumers’ suggests a need for new ‘production literacies’ in addition to the traditional ‘consumption literacy’. Furthermore, there is also a growing number of meta projects on Wikipedia that seek cooperation with schools and academia. But is the Wikimedia foundation and select national bodies the legitimate actors to teach media literacy or is this rather a public relations effort? What would Wikipedia literacy entail?


 Usha Raman (IN)  Teacher-Plus, India  Definitive references and disruptive locations? The wikipedia as a school teaching-learning resource
 Nupoor Rawal e Srikiet Tadepalli (IN)  Christ University, India  Problems of authenticity in experiential information on the English Wikipedia
 Nishant Shah (IN)  Centre for Internet and Society, India  Moderator

10. Wikipedia Analytics

Knowledge in the neighborhood of software: Can we start thinking of Wikipedia as an interplay of editors and technology, since software and notification systems are such an important part of the Wikipedia project? Indeed, whilst humans argue over knowledge statements, ‘bots’ do much of the dirty work and general knowledge housekeeping – a kind of (un)dead labour. The presumption here, of code as politics, is that the wiki principles themselves need to be debated from a perspective of software studies. To what extent has bot politics triumphed over vernacular expertise or lead to an empowerment of the e-tech geeks in knowledge projects? Related to this is the question of the cultural history of Wikipedia as a platform. What is the relation between policy formation and technical protocols? Is Wikipedia knowledge Cybernetic?

Wikipedia as a data set: Besides the automation participation in the form of the bot, Wikipedia is an information artifact through and through. What kind of data analysis techniques can contribute to a radical critique or illuminate network regularities beyond human interpretation? What additional anonymised data sets of edit and use history should be released by the Wikimedia Foundation to promote media literacy and education.


 Felipe Ortega (ES)  University Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid  New trends in the evolution of Wikipedia
 Stuart Geiger (US)  Georgetown University (Washington, D.C)  Bot politics: The domination, subversion, and negotiation of code in Wikipedia
 Esther Weltevrede and Erik Borra  Digital Methods Initiative  Controversy Analysis with Wikipedia
 Hans Varghese Mathews (IN)  Online Journal Phalanx  Clustering the contributors to a Wikipedia page
 Nishant Shah (IN)  Centre for Internet and Society, India  Moderator

Production Details

Research and editorial group: Geert Lovink and Sabine Niederer (Amsterdam), Nathaniel Tkacz (Melbourne), Sunil Abraham (Bangalore), Johanna Niesyto (Siegen).

Contact info:

Sunil Abraham: sunil[at]