DAY 2: Bangalore – Session 5: Wikipedia and the Place of Resistance


The panel ‘Wikipedia and the Place of Resistance’ introduced some fascinating arguments about why people either leave Wikipedia (a perspective from US Internet Analyst, William Buetler) or why they’re not interested in Wikipedia (Yi-Ping Tsou about why Taiwan does not like Wikipedia) – and some thoughts on the re-appropriation of Wikipedia from Eric Ilya Lee, also from Taiwan.

William Buetler

William Buetler began the session by talking about the recent WallStreet Journal article about how editors were leaving Wikipedia in droves. He said that the Wikimedia Foundation had countered that when one looks at people who have made more than one edit this was, in fact, only a small drop-off, but that it was important to look at who edits Wikipedia and why they join in order to start to understand why people leave the project.

Buetler outlined some reasons why people join Wikipedia. ‘Some like to cause mischief,’ he said. ‘Others join because they want to assert their authority, and still others because they want to assist in developing the sum of all human knowledge’. ‘Wikipedia is so widely used but so little understood,’ he said as he revisited statistics that suggest that 50% of all edits on Wikipedia are done by 0.7% of editors (524 people) while 73% of all edits performed by 2% of all editors (1,400 people).

‘Wikipedia is complicated,’ said Beutler. ‘There are approximately 50 policies, 150+ site guidelines, and more advisory essays that are often treated as enforceable.’ Buetler suggested that editing Wikipedia is stressful and that, although some have left a ‘retired’ (or even suicide) note on their user page, most people who leave Wikipedia do so without a trace and without saying why they leave.

Eric Ilya Lee

Eric Ilya Lee introduced the next topic with some insight into the ‘failures’ of Chinese Wikipedia. He said that Chinese Wikipedia has a high barrier to entry with a ‘lack of content, bureaucratic ignorance and user unfriendly administrators’.

He told the story of resistance by an early Taiwanese Wikipedian user who wanted to fork a version of Wikipedia but who encountered difficulties with characters since only ISO 639-1/2 was available for use on Mediawiki. ‘They bought,’ said Lee, ‘Installed Mediawiki, but then couldn’t update and couldn’t connect to other language version of Wikipedia.’ Eventually they decided to use Peh-oe-j.POJ. After applying for Wikipedia in 2004, they were accepted as a new language version but faced a battle on multiple fronts.

‘There are problems of digitizing before standardizing, and of using an independent language rather than Chinese,’ he said, ending on a positive

note:  ‘We used to think that the local language is a bad way to talk about scientific information but now we’re using it on Wikipedia.’

Zona Yi-Ping Tsou

Zona Yi-Ping Tsou’s analysis of ‘why Taiwan does not like Wikipedia’ outlined some reasons common to other countries (for example, the reluctance by academics to Wikipedia) but also introduced some fascinating glimpses into how Taiwanese is unique in its appropriation of Wikipedia.

‘There is a gap between the users and contributors. Wikipedia is the 21st most visited website in Taiwan – but there are not many edits.’ Tsou said that the new generation in Taiwan is disobedient, defiant, politically apathetic with a lack of national identity. She said, ‘When growing up, we were only taught mainland (Chinese) history and geography. We called ourselves “Chinese”. Now everything is different. Our national identity is contested.’

Tsou talked about a number of groups – including those who use a version of the swastika as their national identity – who are contesting Wikipedia. She noted that there is resistance on a number of fronts as Taiwanese struggle to make meaning within the Wikipedia community.

The panel was, all in all, a glimpse into the ways in which a society’s struggles are mirrored in fascinating ways on Wikipedia, how the global, the regional and the local collide in fascinating arrangements, and how little we know about why such projects succeed or fail in different parts of the world. I’m left with more questions than answers. And that, I guess, is the point.