Interview with Erinc Salor

Interview with Erinc Salor, 20.01.2010

By Juliana Brunello

Erinc Salor and Joseph Reagle have something in common: One is writing and the other has already written a PhD thesis using a historical perspective to explain Wikipedia. Their backgrounds are completely different though. Reagle has studied Computer Science, Technology and Policy. He also gathered much experience with the new media actively. He used this knowledge to write his PhD, which he concluded with a dissertation on the history and collaborative culture of Wikipedia. Salor, on the other hand, studied Economics, European Studies and Cultural Analysis.

I have met Erinc Salor at de Balie in Amsterdam for a coffee and to talk about his PhD project. I wanted to know more about it and ask him about Joseph Reagle’s dissertation. As he explained to me, I noticed that there is a change in focus, making both works different, though related in some points.

Erinc explained to me, that his work is about contextualizing Wikipedia in the encyclopedic heritage, what Reagle also does. He explains however, that while Reagle is more interested in how the community works, he is more interested in how it fits in the whole tradition. Reagle focuses more on how the encyclopedia is defined and re-defined, while he is more interested in where it is coming from “in a broader sense” from periods prior to the printing era to at present focusing on how knowledge was collected.

An important question to be answered is consequently how Wikipedia defines knowledge and authority, a point also discussed in Reagle’s dissertation. Salor indicates he will deal with both themes in a more profound way. He gave me a clue to what he means by that. According to him, after Wikipedia started, the understanding and concepts of knowledge and authority became quite different in comparison to the “old model”. There used to be just a set of books that set the standards for what is worth knowing in order to be “good educated”. Now, with the advancement of Wikipedia, some will position themselves saying it is not good, others will say one should use it, but be cautious and check the source of the information. He points out, additionally, that in Wikipedia something becomes true if it can be verified. In Britannica something becomes true, because Britannica “tells it is true”. His conclusion is that there is a shift in authority. This leads to further questioning: What does that imply, concerning society’s approach to encyclopedias? What should one expect from it? What does that imply to our approach to knowledge? What does that imply to our society? These are the central questions that Salor will approach in his PhD.

Salor also tells me that Reagle’s dissertation has helped him in many ways. He thinks that Reagle could have gone deeper with his insights though. What theses insights are, he did not tell me. It will be part of his work to continue and to deepen these “insights” in his research. Furthermore, we both agreed that it was very much informal for a PhD thesis. His structure and language are not a “scientific” one, but one similar to books. Reagle makes personal remarks on topics and uses the first person throughout his work. Salor emphasizes it is not a critic, but a remark, as he does not know the requirements and practices of Reagle’s University.

Salor’s PhD dissertation is foreseen to be available by the end of next year. For more information you can visit his website at UvA.