Wikipedia and the Politics of Open Knowledge
Proposal – from June 2009 – for a research network, two conferences and a 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 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 an 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.
A reader and two proposed conferences, in Amsterdam and Bangalore (early 2010), will be produced in parallel. Hence, the Amsterdam and Bangalore events will happen around the same period (early 2010) and may focus on different aspects of the above list. 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. The call for essays and articles will go out much earlier (June-July 2009), together with the call for participation for the two conferences. 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 may include the following areas inviting theoretical, empirical, practical and art-based contributions:
- WikiTheory (opening session)
- Wikipedia and Critique of Western Knowledge Production
- Encyclopedia Models– from 18th to 21th Century
- Wiki Art
- Designing Debate
- Critique of Free and Open
- Global Politics of Exclusion
- The Place of Resistance
- Wikipedia and Education
- Wiki-analytics, Wikipedia as Platform and Software Studies
1 WikiTheory – Mining for Concepts (opening session)
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?
2. Wikipedia and Critical Histories 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.
This session may include topics like: western vs. non/post-western knowledge production, textual vs. oral tradition, visual vs. textual knowledge, Wikipedia and language diversity, and indigenous knowledge.
3. Encyclopedia Models – from 18th to 21th Century
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 may also look 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.
4. Wikipedia 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?
5. Models of Disambiguation and 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.
May include topics like: Dissent made visible, After Talk / Alerts / Mailing Lists, the role of forum software, technical opportunities for discontent, barnstars/award culture.
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.
May include topics like: the parasite model of free culture (“You work for free, others will make the money from your free labour.”), governance, the role of developers, economy of Wikipedia, the beliefs of the founders as the political foundation of Wikipedia, critical interrogation of knowledge in relation to ‘the open’.
7. Global Politics of Exclusion
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 wikichix.org. 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.
May include topics like: non-western, language, connectedness, oral histories, women, non-geeks.
8. 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 an 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.
9. Media Literacy 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?
10. Wiki-analytics, Wikipedia as Platform and Software Studies
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.
Possible Topics: Protocological Knowledge, Knowledge vs. Information, Cultural Analytics, Cybernetics in the present, (Un)dead labour and the posthuman bot.
Besides setting up a network for critical Wikipedia research with its own mailing list and organizing two events early 2010 in Bangalore and Amsterdam (to start with), the aim is to gather materials for a Wikipedia Research Reader that will be published in the INC Reader series late 2010/early 2011.
Research and editorial group: Geert Lovink and Sabine Niederer (Amsterdam), Nathaniel Tkacz (Melbourne), Sunil Abraham (Bangalore), Johanna Niesyto (Siegen), Margreet Riphagen (Amsterdam), Juliana Brunello (Amsterdam), Serena Westra (Amsterdam)