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When Knowledge Isn’t Written, Does It Still Count?

by Prasad Krishna last modified Aug 09, 2011 08:53 AM
“MAKING fun of Wikipedia is so 2007,” a French journalist said recently to Sue Gardner, the executive director of the foundation that runs the Wikipedia project.

And so Ms. Gardner, in turn, told an auditorium full of Wikipedia contributors and supporters on Thursday in Haifa, Israel, the host city for the seventh annual Wikimania conference, where meetings and presentations focus on the world’s most used, and perhaps least understood, online reference work. 

Once routinely questioned about its reliability — what do you mean, anyone can edit it? — the site is now used every month by upwards of 400 million people worldwide. But with influence and respect come responsibility, and lately Wikipedia has been criticized from without and within for reflecting a Western, male-dominated mindset similar to the perspective behind the encyclopedias it has replaced. 

Seeing Wikipedia as The Man, in so many words, is so 2011. 

And that’s a problem for an encyclopedia that wants to grow. Some critics of Wikipedia believe that the whole Western tradition of footnotes and sourced articles needs to be rethought if Wikipedia is going to continue to gather converts beyond its current borders. And that, in turn, invites an entirely new debate about what constitutes knowledge in different parts of the world and how a Western institution like Wikipedia can capitalize on it. 

Achal Prabhala, an adviser to Ms. Gardner’s Wikimedia Foundation who lives and writes in Bangalore, India, has made perhaps the most trenchant criticism in a video project, “People are Knowledge,” that he presented in Haifa (along with its clunky subtitle, “Exploring alternative methods of citation for Wikipedia”). 

The film, which was made largely with a $20,000 grant from the Wikimedia Foundation, spends time showing what has been lost to Wikipedia because of stickling rules of citation and verification. If Wikipedia purports to collect the “sum of all human knowledge,” in the words of one of its founders, Jimmy Wales, that, by definition, means more than printed knowledge, Mr. Prabhala said. 

In the case of dabba kali, a children’s game played in the Kerala state of India, there was a Wikipedia article in the local language, Malayalam, that included photos, a drawing and a detailed description of the rules, but no sources to back up what was written. Other than, of course, the 40 million people who played it as children.

There is no doubt, he said, that the article would have been deleted from English Wikipedia if it didn’t have any sources to cite. Those are the rules of the game, and those are the rules he would like to change, or at least bend, or, if all else fails, work around.

“There is this desire to grow Wikipedia in parts of the world,” he said, adding that “if we don’t have a more generous and expansive citation policy, the current one will prove to be a massive roadblock that you literally can’t get past. There is a very finite amount of citable material, which means a very finite number of articles, and there will be no more.”

Mr. Prabhala, 38, who grew up in India and then attended American universities, has been an activist on issues of intellectual property, starting with the efforts in South Africa to free up drugs that treat H.I.V. In the film, he gives other examples of subjects — an alcohol produced in a village, Ga-Sabotlane, in Limpopo, South Africa, and a popular hopscotch-type children’s game, tshere-tshere — beyond print documentation and therefore beyond Wikipedia’s true-and-tried method.

There are whole cultures, he said, that have little to no printed material to cite as proof about the way life is lived. 

“Publishing is a system of power and I mean that in a completely pleasant, accepting sense,” he said mischievously. “But it leaves out people.” 

But Mr. Prabhala offers a solution: he and the video’s directors, Priya Sen and Zen Marie, spoke with people in African and Indian villages either in person or over the phone and had them describe basic activities. These recordings were then uploaded and linked to the article as sources, and suddenly an article that seems like it could be a personal riff looks a bit more academic. 

For example, in his interview with a South African villager who explained how to make the alcoholic drink, morula, she repeatedly says that it is best if she demonstrates the process. When the fruit is ready, said the villager, Philipine Moremi, according to the project’s transcript of her phone conversation, “we pry them open. We are going to show you how it is done. Once they are peeled, we seal them to ferment and then we drink.” The idea of treating personal testimony as a source for Wikipedia is still controversial, and reflects the concerns that dominated the encyclopedia project six years ago, when arguably its very existence was threatened. 

After a series of hoaxes, culminating in a Wikipedia article in 2005 that maligned the newspaper editor John Seigenthaler for no discernible reason other than because a Wikipedia contributor could, the site tried to ensure that every statement could be traced to a source. 

Then there is the rule “no original research,” which was meant to say that Wikipedia doesn’t care if you are writing about the subway station you visit every day, find someone who has written reliably on the color of the walls there.

"The natural thing is getting more and more accurate, locking down articles, raising the bar on sources," said Andrew Lih, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, who was an early contributor to Wikipedia and has written a history of its rise. “Isn’t it great we have so many texts online?"

But what works for the most developed societies, he said, won’t necessarily work for others. “Lots of knowledge is not Googleable,” he said, “and is not in a digital form.”

Mr. Lih said that he could see the Wikipedia project suddenly becoming energized by the process of documenting cultural practices around the world, or down the street.

Perhaps Mr. Prabhala’s most challenging argument is that by being text-focused, and being locked into the Encyclopedia Britannica model, Wikipedia risks being behind the times.

An 18-year-old is comfortable using “objects of trust that have been created on the Internet," he said, and "Wikipedia isn’t taking advantage of that." And, he added, "it is quite possible that for the 18-year-old of today that Wikipedia looks like his father’s project. Or the kind of thing his father might be interested in." 


A version of this article appeared in print on August 8, 2011, on page B4 of the New York edition with the headline: When Knowledge Isn’t Written, Does It Still Count?.

This article by Noam Cohen was published in the New York Times on August 7, 2011, the original can be read here
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