newsletter #3

On the 8th and 9th of June, we celebrated a major milestone in the wikihistories project: our first annual conference. Approximately 100 attendees joined the conference online over the two days, as we discussed themes of memory, history and forgetting in the world’s largest repository of historical knowledge.

The book of abstracts is available at our website, along with links to recordings of the papers where available. You can watch the entire conference at our YouTube channel.

Keep tuned for our next annual conference, which will hopefully include an in-person component.

Tamson’s reflections: visible technicians

In 1989 Steven Shapin, the historian and sociologist of knowledge, published an article in American Scientist called “The Invisible Technician” in which he pointed out the variety of individuals that labored to produce scientific knowledge in Robert Boyle’s seventeenth century workshop. Amanuenses, laborants, operators, artificers and servants all played different roles in making Boyle’s science, argues Shapin, and yet they were largely invisible: absent from Boyle’s published work, and absent from historical accounts of scientific invention. In the nearly 35 years since the publication of Shapin’s piece, much has been done to address the second of these conditions and the history and sociology of knowledge is now replete with studies of laboratory life, and much of that scholarship has, in turn, informed studies of Wikipedia.

Shapin’s piece came to mind when I was reflecting on the recent Wikihistories conference, and the the peopled nature of Wikipedia that the event emphasised. Although readers of Wikipedia may not often engage with them, the platform’s edit pages make the many hands that go into the production of any article very visible. It was the character of those editors, their particular and peculiar interests (what Michael, below, calls their diversity), their various technical abilities, and the role these played in shaping what we read, was a major theme of the discussion.

Indeed, several of the papers might even be considered to have echoed Shapin’s argument: it is when things go “wrong” in the laboratory that the participation of technicians is made visible; or perhaps equally, when the participation of technicians is made visible, that it is possible to discern the shape and character of things going “wrong”. In very different ways, from Shira Klein’s excavation of distortion, to Nathan ‘Mudyi’ Sentence and Kirsten Thorpe’s identification of the Indigenous forms of knowledge and engagement that the platform excludes, presentations pulled on the threads of knowledge production. In the same vein, Simon Sleight’s keynote on collective memory reminded us of the always contextual nature of claim-making. Collective memory, he underlined, is more about the needs of the present and its politics and actors, than it is about the past. It was not just the profile of editors (their gender, or language, or indeed sheer number) that came through as important in so many of the presentations, but also editors’ ability to utilise, exploit, and enforce Wikipedia’s systems of rules and procedures and guidelines.

Wikihistories2023 underlined that both examining the representation of history on the platform and thinking historically about Wikipedia itself embodying the internet’s encyclopaedia as it continues to develop and evolve.

Tamson Pietsch Avatar

Tamson Pietsch
wikihistories chief investigator

Michael’s reflections: Wikipedia Wikipedias

I am relatively new to Wikipedia Studies, and have spent the last six months roving around the vast landscape of Wikipedia and all its sister projects. Of all major platforms, MediaWiki is certainly the easiest to explore. It is a vast, open terrain, with gentle slopes, wide vistas, twisting paths, and innumerable tiny hollows packed with all sorts of interesting and exotic plants and animals.

As a longtime reader of Wikipedia, I was of course aware that there were many language editions, many different subject areas, and many different literary styles in this, the world’s largest literary work. But, it turns out, I really had no idea of Wikipedia’s immense plurality.

Plurality was, for me, the central theme of wikihistories 2023. Speakers introduced us to many different communities of Wikipedians. We met some malign groups, such as the anti-semitic editors surveyed by Shira Klein in her chilling keynote, or the pro-Marcos editors discussed by Karryl Sagun-Trajano, who have adapted Filipino Wikipedia to suit the new government. We also met admirable groups, such as the passionate wiki-historians interviewed by Petros Apostolopoulos, the relaxed and considered Italian editors introduced by Paola Cappelluti, the different communities of English- and Arabic-language Wikipedians introduced by Kaylea Champion and Laurie Jones, and the disability advocates who worked with Murray Philips on the Paralympic Stories project.

Plurality does not mean comprehensiveness. In their inspiring talk, Nathan ‘Mudyi’ Sentence and Kirsten Thorpe outlined how First Nations Australians struggle to interact with the encyclopaedia. Wikipedia is founded on traditional academic principles of public, disinterested inquiry. These principles do not always mesh well with Indigenous understandings of responsible, situated knowledge. Nathan and Kirsten’s report for the Wikimedia Foundation can be seen as a call to further pluralise the encyclopaedia, to admit new kinds of knowledge and governance that enable Wikipedia to encompass knowledge in a suppler and fairer way. Marlon Twyman addressed similar problems from another angle, when he considered how readers and editors bring different kinds of knowledge to Wikipedia.

Other speakers reflected on the technologies and structures that make this plurality possible. As Heather and Nate demonstrate in their books on the politics of Wikipedia, it is the very ‘openness’ of Wikipedia that makes it strong and vulnerable. Wikipedia’s openness has allowed it to crowdsource an enormous amount of high-quality content and share it with the world. But its openness also allows skilled and committed editors to penetrate the system and take control of sensitive parts of the encyclopaedia. These themes of governance and openness were central to the talks by Alfonso Hegde and Christian Pentzold. Wikipedia may be an open terrain, but it is not flat. It is a memory-machine with particular structures and ordinances.

How does Wikipedia’s plurality affect our understanding of the project as a device for collective remembering? Arguably, such plurality is not especially remarkable. As Simon Sleight discussed in his historical overview of collective memory, plurality has been a key theme for many memory theorists. There are arguably ‘as many different collective memories as groups within society’. Wikipedia may be no more plural than any other memory-device. It is as heterogenous and riven with contradiction as any diary, notebook, graveyard or public monument.

For my own part, I think the plurality of Wikipedia has two key corollaries.

In the first case, Wikipedia’s plurality is different because of its sheer size. There are many smaller memory-devices. Wikipedia can really only be compared to the world’s National Libraries or National Archives. If there is a chief archivist or librarian employed by the Wikimedia Foundation, they would face a truly enormous task. Instead of such a top-down structure, Wikipedia relies on its volunteer Wikipedians, who monitor the endless stream of edits. This creates a pervasive distinction between the local and the global in the encyclopaedia, as editors monitor local activities on particular articles while trying to maintain some global understanding of Wikipedia as a whole.

In the second case, Wikipedia’s plurality runs counter to the engineering mindset of some key contributors to the project. Two of the biggest ongoing news items in the Wikimedia world are Wikifunctions and Abstract Wikipedia. These two ambitious projects seek to centralise the world’s imperative and declarative knowledge. Wikifunctions will encode all the world’s algorithms (procedural knowledge) in a single abstract programming language. Abstract Wikipedia will encode all the world’s facts (declarative knowledge) in a single abstract expressive language. I find it hard to believe that either project will succeed, given the extreme heterogeneity of human knowledge as it currently appears in Wikipedia. Cyc has pursued the same goals for decades, and the horizon of success has only receded.

Of course, the proponents of Wikifunctions and Abstract Wikipedia are out to prove me wrong!

In conclusion, I will just mention the wonderful talks by Brian Keegan and Ziko van Dijck, which focussed on an aspect of Wikipedia I simply do not have time to address in this short reflection: the aspect of time. I would strongly commend their talks to you if digital temporality is an interest of yours.

Michael Falk Avatar

Michael Falk
wikihistories chief investigator

f you’d like to contribute to July’s book club by contributing 200-500 words on our chosen piece, send us an email! We’ll next be reading the classic “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” by the late Professor Roy Rosenzweig.