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The Digital Humanities Discourse: The Knowledge Question on the Wikipedia

Posted by Sneha PP at Mar 31, 2014 10:00 AM |
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The emergence of alternative modes and spaces of knowledge production has been a core concern of the Digital Humanities, particularly with respect to the collaborative or public archive. Wikipedia, as a collaborative knowledge repository indicates a shift in the ways of imagining knowledge as dynamic and ever-changing, thus bringing to the fore questions of authorship and authenticity, which are also questions for the Digital Humanities. In this guest blog post, Sohnee Harshey presents a reflection on her research study on the gender-gap on Wikipedia, and the politics of collaborative knowledge production.

The problems of Wikipedia are not entirely unknown. The Wikipedia Editors Survey Report, 2011 revealed that around 91% of the contributor base of Wikipedia is male and Wikipedia acknowledges the non-neutrality of its articles resulting from a ‘systemic bias’. Some would ask: what is the problem with negligible female participation on a volunteer-based online encyclopaedia?

The Wikipedia has come to be our point of reference for everyday queries. It has become a popular source even for those in the higher education system-for quick information and even as a starting point for academic writing. With the increased rate of distribution and access, it is necessary that the content on this platform must not get caught up in societal hierarchies and prejudices. Visibility on the Wikipedia inadvertently also confirms that a topic is something worth knowing. The converse is also true. The specific composition of the contributors is reflected in the topics on which more articles are written, often representing certain cultures and points of view more than others. The greater problem is ‘how’ certain topics are written about and the social prejudices that are ingrained therein.

Attempting to examine the resultant discourse of knowledge production, my plan was to look at content pertaining to women, in India, on the English Wikipedia. Alongside, I proposed to interview active Wikipedians to understand the process of deliberation while creating content and their opinion on the gender gap. For the content, I chose to pick three themes in which systemic sexism was likely to be most deep rooted- Violence against Women, Women and the Law and Women in the Public Sphere. I did so based on the following pointers:

a)     the commonplace understanding of and attitudes towards women and their roles,

b)    taking forward the discussion and debate around women’s rights especially with increased reporting of crimes against women in the national news, and

c)     the need to highlight contributions of women artists and performers, in the public sphere which has traditionally been a ‘male’ domain.

In the first theme, my intention was to get an idea of what issues are raised in the article, what is described and how and what is the intention of this description as obvious to the first time reader. In the second, I attempted to look at how the rights of women are communicated to a heterogeneous audience through entries on existing and/or prospective Acts and legislations. In the third, I selected entries on Indian female folk artists, female actors, classical dancers and television personalities to note the quality of articles, the presence or absence of information and perspectives on life stories. I also attempted to trace an editing history in some cases reflecting popular interest in these topics as well as drawing attention to the subtle creation of a discourse. In all of these, I also looked at the kind of references used to get an idea of the knowledge-network.

While it would be unfair to make generalizations about the Wikipedia based on this small sample, I find it pertinent to make certain observations. Firstly, as Wikipedia continues to grow as a source of knowledge, one must raise critical questions about what its source of information is. The question of the ‘knowledge loop’ becomes important here-what information is used to constitute a Wikipedia entry, what is the ‘truth claim’ of the sources (especially newspapers, in the case of celebrities) and how does the Wikipedia entry in turn also inform these sources or even a research paper like mine?

Wikipedia’s editing feature is one of its biggest strengths. Information is updated in real time, vandalism is contained and content is discussed at great lengths, if necessary (albeit after it has been put up). While the possibility of continuous editing may bring in various perspectives, the whole exercise remains one of attempting to get ‘closest to the truth’. Moreover, if a user accesses this online encyclopaedia at a certain point in its ongoing editing history and finds for example, that the introductory paragraph about a female artist has a statement on her failed marriage, does that not negatively inform that individual’s perspective on the artist and is that not a problem?

Though ostensibly Wikipedia Category Pages list topics in alphabetical order, eliminating any systemic hierarchies about which topics are more worth knowing, I see the links in the Wikipedia entries in the form of the ‘See Also’ headings as an example of the creation of a discourse. For example, what am I expected to want to read after reading an entry on a rape case? More rape cases, or legislations, or feminist theory? What an article links to therefore, is what is first-considered worthy enough to be known, second-remains in public memory and third-becomes the definition for knowledge on that subject.

Though the respondents in this study say that there is no covert alliance-building process while editing or creating entries, it seems obvious that the ‘consensus’ that they talk about becomes not so much a question of what is right and should be included as per a moral guideline, but more of how many editors’ support one gets on the viewpoint one is advocating for.

Keeping these issues in mind, it seems important to me to critically look at the educative function that Wikipedia has begun to play, especially in students’ lives. While the ‘information function’ is laudable, it must be remembered that the organization of content on Wikipedia, as it exists today needs reworking at multiple levels if one has to challenge hegemonic knowledge practices and bring in content sensitive to the needs of marginalised groups. The inclusion of more and more women editors on Wikipedia then is not THE solution, but a necessary starting point.

Sohnee Harshey is an M.Phil Scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. This research study was part of a series of projects commissioned by HEIRA-CSCS, Bangalore as part of a collaborative exercise on mapping the Digital Humanities in India. See here for more on this initiative.

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