Manuel Schmalstieg and the Wiki-Sprint

by Juliana Brunello

Manuel Schmalstieg has recently directed an event called Wiki-Sprint. The sprint concept derived from the code-sprints of the FLOSS communities, in which a team of developers came together in order to engage in some serious code-writing. Only this time, there would be no code-writing, but article writing for Wikipedia.

For this, a team of contributors was gathered to take part in the event’s workshop, which consisted of rewriting and improving the Wikipedia article of VJing. I ask Schmalstieg about this experience:

Most Wikipedia articles are written in collaboration by people who have not met. Why did you choose to make it a face-to-face event? What are the benefits in writing an article this way?

I should make clear that my main target was actually not the improvement of this article… That was the alibi, but the actual objective was to explore the performative act of collective writing, in the tradition of Surrealism… and also informed by the “reading performances” of artists such as Arnold Dreyblatt or Rainer Ganahl, as well as the recent practice of collaborative technical “writing-sprints” that has emerged from the free software scene, exemplified by the Flossmanuals project.
The public reading of the article, and its inclusion in Wikipedia (as an audio article), was the crowning of this performative aspect.
To answer your question, the benefits of this method of writing are: a) a much faster writing process, b) strict time management, and c), the unique experience of human interaction that derives from such an intensive work situation.

Were the people involved in the sprint already involved with Wikipedia?

Most of them were not. When searching for volunteers for this project, I targetted different groups: specialists in the field (audiovisual performance and VJing), who had already written on that topic; heavy contributors of the existing Wikipedia articles (in English and French version). From the 11 people who participated, 3 had some previous editing experience on Wikipedia (one of them, Sleepytom, was a major contributor of the VJ article in 2006).

How was it to work with the previous editors of this Wikipedia article, who did not belong to the sprint-group?

As far as I am aware, the article has practically no regular editors. It is the result of initial work by a handful of wikipedians in 2006-2007, who aren’t active anymore. The rest is the result of “drive-by editing”. So we didn’t have any response from the original editors of the article (with the exception of Sleepytom).

One exception: during the writing-sprint, I had the chance to meet Anthere (Florence Devouard), who had contributed photos from Pixelache festival to the French version of the article. But she isn’t a specialist of visual art, so she didn’t contribute to the text of the article.

Have you been following the changes on the VJing article in Wikipedia? Were there any? How do you feel about them?

Yes, I have been watching the changes – a bit like a gardener who planted vegetable seeds, and observes the slow growing process. There were some small corrections, minor additions, a bit of cleaning up. I think it’s a good sign – it would prove that a “solid” article with consistent references can act as a barrier against spammy self-referential edits (which were very frequent on the previous version).

How difficult was it to organize such an event? Do you recommend it and could you give us any tips?

The project was organized in a very short timespan, which was a problem for getting any institutional funding partners (also the fact that it doesn’t fit into any category does not help). In the end, everything was done on a shoestring budget, all the logistics being handled by the Mapping Festival team who loved the project. On the other hand, it was great to see how easily people from the “general public” understood the idea and how positively they responded to it. We had a lot of enthousiastic feedback.

However, I wouldn’t repeat the project in this format, as it really was a context-specific experiment.

Anything else you would like to add? Comments, ideas, thoughts?

The most recent news: we are currently preparing a print publication of the article, with some statements and reflections from our participants. This very weird relationship between Wikipedia content and print distribution is something I’m looking forward to work on in the future (the next planned step is a printed edition of my favorite Wikipedia article: The KLF).

For more background information on the wiki-sprint, here is a FAQ page that I wrote during the preparation phase:

Finally, if after this interview you want to actively engage with Wikipedia, I suggest creating some of the missing articles on pioneering media artists, such as Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, for instance.