Wikipedia Laundry List

On: September 21, 2009
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About Morgan Currie
I’m an American with eight years of experience in video production, but today I'm a student in Amsterdam, thinking a lot about mediums, the Media, technology, and humans & machines communicating in their specific, special ways. I'm finding methods to give these thoughts a space of their own.


It’s easy to love wikipedia. Especially once you’ve joined its fold, embraced the ethos, and gotten the satisfying pay off of adding a page to its massive index. Enthusiasm aside, here’s nine thoughts on research-rich areas for the future Wikipedia scholar/critic. Formatted as a list for the simple reason that there’s more ideas than depth to any single one.

Analog Wikipedias. Jonathan Zittrain evaluates the net’s original protocols of “Postel’s law” (“[be] conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others”), and he sees these principles as foundational to wikipedia’s successful generativity. So does wikipedia provide models for envisioning new ways to act out democracy offline?  How do we apply the generative lessons of wikipedia to other institutions – academia, libraries, research institutions, journalism? Can we have a wikipedia model of government? Conversely, are there any traps in believing that wikipedia serves as a blueprint for radical ways of thinking?

An example: the idea of Verkeersbordvrij – “shared space” – is the practice of doing away with a city’s road rules. It asserts there’s an inverse ration between rules and a personal sense of responsibility. When we do something out of a personal stake and belief, rather than fear of punishment, we’re more likely to put effort and enthusiasm into our behavior. Throw together a group of people operating off this principal, and you get good group behavior with minimal top-down effort policing them all.

The Dutch city of Datchen is actually trying out Verkeersbordvrij, with fantastic results – accidents have dropped. But Dachen is a town of 45,000 people. What happens when you try this experiment in a space with more social and economic diversity? What about megalopolises in India that have traffic rules that are totally ignored anyway, where accidents are every day occurrences?

Also, agitation beyond wikipedia. Wikipedia’s public ownership model emboldens people to protest and discuss minutia (is Olivia Newton John British or Australian, is Barry Manilow gay?) – so how can such dissent, dialogue, and passion migrate into other public arenas, into areas of local and national politics?  What other communal structures act out the liberal ethos of wikipedia?

–Similar to that, I’d like to see a rich field of wikipedia infographics. What interesting infographics can show how an article grows, becomes refined, tracks where the data comes from, how often something is added, how often modified, how often disputed, how often viewed, how often shut down? Or track the development of the entire site from a seed, into its current form. What real-time, constantly refreshing graphic tracking systems could map this?

Wikipedia for the ears and eyes. Answering the charge that Wikipedia privileges textual over aural and visual transmission of information, can we have a visual/aural equivalent of wikipedia? A wikipedia of visual and aural indexes that show/record/tape the collective memories of a community? What is youtube in relation to this? Or does the meeting of such traditional knowledges become something totally different right at the point of contact with technology? What other recording devices aside from text could be compiled in a wiki-like way?

Wikipedia and ‘x’. You fill in the blank with some other field. An example that naturally come to mind are pop culture, finding references to wikipedia on tv, in comedy, film.

Also the scientific community. Scientists are shown to value wikipedia because it can be more accurate than other reference books or articles by journalists who might favor an exciting narrative easily consumed by a general public, over a subject’s relevance to the scientific community in particular. Typically wikipedia articles are written by people with a niche understanding of the subject matter.

Finally, new media and the humanities in general. For so long scholars have been writing texts about texts. How does wikipedia fit into scholarly efforts that start writing about and using new media? How does it alter that practice itself?

Tracing noxious leaks. It’s a problem all over the web, but wikipedia is becoming enough of a behemoth that it has particular responsibility to get the facts straight. It would be interesting to investigate the rapid spread and traces of its mistruths, purposeful or not, on the internet and beyond. How does false information bleed into journalism? What does it show about journalism that this happens far too often already? (for example, a 22-year-old Irish student planting a false quotation attributed to the French composer Maurice Jarre shortly after Mr. Jarre’s death that wound up in obituaries about Mr. Jarre in The Guardian and The Independent.)

There could be a general study of purposeful vandalism on wikipedia and its consequences. Or a more nuanced look at subtler disagreements over accuracy and the politics that ultimately settle (or not) these disputes, and how this gets written into ‘official’ history.

Wikipedia archeology. Technology is changing the way we produce and store of knowledge, moving it from the page to databases. So can we start anticipating how wikipedia will be studied by future scholars?  How does wikipedia write history or become official text, as an often-shifting and digital repository of information? How will historians read our digital artifacts anyway? Will wikipedia ever have analogue forms at some point?

As a mutating organism, wikipedia contains a record its own growth history. This allows for a reading of how information is constructed, disputed, added to, and the ways the wikipedia community settles these disputes. When does an argument over content (such as the one raging about Obama’s healthcare and illegal immigrants) come down to a single authority? How can articles reveal cultural consensus and dissension? Can we do an archeology of wikipedia’s ongoing discussion of itself?

Cross-cultural analysis. As countries around the world contribute to wikipedia, there’s a rich potential for cross-cultural analysis between content, ideas on neutrality (is ‘neutrality’ interpreted differently in Kenya and Russia?), length and content of a particular entry, and other factors. Linguists could probably make some fascinating discoveries.

Conversely, how could wikipedia flatten cultural diversity with its neutral POV and other policies?

Wikipedia aesthetics. An aesthetic treatise on wikipedia’s layout (though its format is used by most wiki systems). Or more interesting, its potential as an artistic medium (CPOV mentions the quickly frozen Wikipedia Art project, for one).

Radical histories. This is already stated better than I could on the CPOV page, but I love the idea of a technological history of knowledge storage and transmission in context of wikipedia, looking at similarities (perhaps the continuing project of naming and describing every ‘thing’) and differences (the national narratives implicit in early encyclopedias vs wikipedia’s international participation). “The logic of technologies bleed into the very structures and organizing principles of knowledge today.” This would range from early encyclopedia projects up to wikipedia, and include utopian approaches that didn’t ever take off, like the amazing Mundaneum. What does historical comparison reveal to how we understand knowledge transmission and construction today, with wikipedia as our lodestar? A big project for sure.

On the flipside, I’d love to see examples of wiki-like behaviors of the past, if romantic post-historicizing is allowed. The best example of this I can think of is Charles Fourier‘s utopia, where he imagined every member of society contributing tasks best suited to his or her tastes, channeling natural impulses into productive behavior, making society itself a collective and creative project.

Here’s an interesting tidbit from Andrew Lih’s website, quoting Tom Corddry on the way encyclopedia’s were constrained by their form:

“Print encyclopedia editorial groups, even in their heyday, were actually quite small, and much of their work from year to year was devoted to removing content in order to make room for other content. The size of the multi-volume sets was fixed, so every word added had to be offset by a word subtracted. Since it was also expensive to touch more pages than necessary when making changes (a printing fact of life), the editors ingeniously found ways to remove content as close as possible to where they were adding content. Need a big new article on Bosnia? Better find stuff to cut from the articles about Bosporus or Boss Tweed. The senior editors at these publications estimated that at least half of the total editorial effort was devoted to this sort of non-value-adding work.”

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