WikiWars - A report

Posted by Nishant Shah at Feb 23, 2010 08:45 AM |
The Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore and the Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, hosted WikiWars – an international event that brought together scholars, researchers, academics, artists and practitioners from various disciplines, to discuss the emergence and growth of Wikipedia and what it means for the information societies we inhabit. With participants from 15 countries making presentations about Wikipedia and the knowledge ecology within which it exists, the event saw a vigorous set of debates and discussions as questions about education, pedagogy, language, access, geography, resistance, art and subversion were raised by the presenters. The 2 day event marked the beginning of the process that hopes to produce the first critical reader – Critical Point of View (CPOV) - that collects key resources for research and inquiry around Wikipedia.

The debates around Wikipedia, the de facto dynamic knowledge production system online, are very fairly divided into two competing camps. There is a group of people who swear by Wikipedia – celebrating its democratic processes of knowledge production, ease of access, and the de-canonisation of knowledge to produce the ‘WikiWay’; And then there is a group of people who swear at Wikipedia – raising concerns over authenticity, reliability, vulgarisation of knowledge and the de-hierarchisation of knowledge systems that Wikipedia seems to embody. The debates between the two groups are often passionate and situated in wildly speculative and often personal interests and investments in Wikipedia and the Web 2.0 Information Revolution that it seems to be a symptom of. The debates also play out in various international locations, most of them relying on personal anecdotes, experiences and half hearted data that does not stand the tests of rigour.

WikiWars, then, concentrated on things which are about Wikipedia but also not about Wikipedia. In many ways, as Geert Lovink, the Director of INC suggested, WikiWars was a recognition of the fact that Wikipedia has come of age and can now be systematically and philosophically examined as a work in progress that has long-term implications about our future. It was the ambition of the Editorial team (consisting of Geert Lovink, Sabine Nerdeer, Nathaniel Tkacz, Johanna Niyesito, Sunil Abraham and Nishant Shah) to veer away from the recognised battle-lines drawn in, around and about Wikipedia, and instead examine the fault-lines that run under many of our assumptions, prejudices and imaginations of Wikipedia. And Wikiwars, through careful screening and invested interests, became one of the first platforms in the world to initiate a critical discourse on Wikipedia, seeking to engage with its histories, it contemporary manifestations and practices, and the futures that it seeks to inhabit.

The different presentations brought in located debates, theoretical and philosophical concepts and personal experiences to build frameworks that explain and contextualise Wikipedia as one of the most contested spaces online. The eight panels across two days dealt with four major thematic areas which need to be summarised in brief:

1.      Education, Pedagogy and Knowledge: At the very basis of Wikipedia (and other structures like it) is the question of knowledge production, the possibility of using it as an educational tool and the potentials it has for introducing new pedagogies and learning practices in and outside of institutionalised education. Presenters from various disciplines engaged with these questions in interesting ways.

 

Usha Raman from Teacher Plus in Hyderabad, brought in the question of primary education, the need for teacher training programmes and the ways by which infrastructure development needs to be thought through when talking of Wikipedia and education in the Indian context. The necessity of locating Wikipedia in a much larger debates on learning were also echoed by Noopur Rawal and Srikeit Tadepalli, students from Christ University who brought their experience of Wikipedia and the expectations from classroom education and learning in their presentation. 

 

In the same field, but from a different approach, a panel  examined Wikipedia as a site to critique Western Knowledge production systems. Stian Haklev and Johanna Niyesito concentrated on the questions of language and knowledge production. Haklev made an impassioned argument deconstructing the utopian idea of Wikipedia’s multilingual dreams and instead made a call for recognising the black-holes when it comes to non-English production and consumption of knowledge on Wikipedia. He further explored the implications that linguistic imbalance has on the very governance structure of Wikipedia and its communities. Niyesito challenged the ‘global’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ image that Wikipedia has built for itself and posited the idea of Wikipedia as a translingual space where different languages and cultures negotiate common understandings and processes of producing knowledge. HanTeng Liao explored knowledge production through the market economy of key-words to see how the linguistic biases of search engines that harvest these keywords, determines the access and visibility of different Wikipedia pages.

Resistance, Diversity and Representation:  While these questions were present as undercurrents to most of the presentations at WikWars, they were perhaps most fiercely present in the debates that followed the presentations by Eric Ilya Lee (Academia Sinica, Taiwan), YiPing Tsou (National Central University, Taiwan), William Beutler and Eric Zimmerman (IDC, Israel).

 

For Lee and Tsou, the responses to the Chinese language Wikipedia from popular media and personal experiences, were demonstrative of the fact that the lack of diverse means of representation and participation lead to a strong resistance of Wikipedia in Taiwan. Beutler looked at the heavily contested editorial space and policies of Wikipedia to make a point about how lack of effective governance systems based on mutual  tolerance and diversity lead to stressful and often traumatic experiences for users who might not be represented through the mainstream ideas and  ideologies of an English speaking populace.

Zimmerman took a startling position, calling for a regime of attribution and dissolving the pseudonymous structures of knowledge production in Wikipedia in order to build designs of trust and verification into the system, thus leading to better and more credible research tools and representations.

The tone of debates was altered with presentations by Mark Graham (Oxford Research Institute) and the team of artists Nathaniel Stern and Scott Kildal, the team responsible for the Wikipedia Art Project. Graham showed the complexity of visualising space and how the production of space (or physical geography) on Wikipedia often reflects the virtual density of access and presence online. Showing a nuanced set of images that help mapping these new geographies for a richer diversity and representation, Graham showed how systems like Wikipedia ‘cannot know what they cannot know’ despite the reliance on the wisdom of crowds.

Stern and Kildall, in giving an account of their project which used Wikipedia’s policies to undermine and challenge it, show how the institutionalisation of a space and its ‘canonisation’ can quickly lead to a new set of problems where the space becomes the very thing it had set itself against.

 

3.      Politics of Free, Open and Exclusion: The rhetoric of free and open have been built into all popular discourses around Wikipedia. However, the presentations at WikiWars showed that these need to be taken with at least a pinch of salt and further examined for what they signify. Alok Nandi of Architempo made a dramatic and creative revisit of these guiding principles of Wikipedia. He showed how an inquiry into rituals of participation, distortion and access on Wikipedia can promote, not merely looking at the politics of exclusion but also at the politics of inclusion and the problems therein.

 

Dror Kamir’s evocative narrative of ‘Your side, my side and Wikipedia’ illustrated how the question of boundaries, of knowledges, of facts and truths get distorted as language, community, nationality, etc. come into play in recording and documenting knowledge on Wikipedia. Concentrating on conflict zones in the Middle East, he talked about the lack and perhaps the impossibility of producing neutrality the way in which Wikipedia demands of its users. These ideas resonated with the propositions that ShunLing Chen from Harvard had floated in the opening panel to explore the ‘boundary work’ of Wikipedia and how it defines and produces itself in relation to external forces and controversies. These discussions on the politics of presence, absence, inclusion and exclusion were further layered by presentations by Linda Gross, Elad Weider, Heather Ford and Nathaniel Tkacz who produced a critique of the Free and Open, taking a cautionary step away from accepting these as inherently good.

 

While Gross explored the structure of egalitarianism that Wikipedia builds for itself, Ford presented an analysis of the licensing regimes of the knowledge produced within Wikipedia and the problems they pose to traditional knowledges and non-mainstream information. Weider, trained as a lawyer, critiqued the neo-liberal discourse around Wikipedia and tried to correlate the communities with markets. Tkacz’s historical overview of Free and Open, resulted in a compelling inquiry into the very structures that inform the shape and functioning of objects like Wikipedia.

Twitter: #WikiWars http://twitter.com/wikiwars and www.twitter.com/jackerhack/wikiwars

Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/sets/72157623193288710/

CPOV blog : http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/cpov/

 

The videos fom the Wikiwars event are embedded below:

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Author

Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.