Interview with Johanna Niesyto and Nate Tkacz
Critical Point Of View: Wikipedia Research Initiative Conferences in Bangalore (12/13 January 2010) and Amsterdam (26/27 March 2010), Institute of Network Cultures and Centre for Internet & Society.
What were your goals in organising this conference?
CPoV (Critical Point of View) is a research initiative that focuses on Wikipedia. The initiative has several functions, of which the conferences are an important part. We are trying to aggregate, encourage and further develop critical perspectives on Wikipedia. We are also trying to position and reflect upon Wikipedia in relation to other phenomena (education, government, governance, knowledge, globalisation etc.), as well as approach Wikipedia as indicative of broader shifts in contemporary “information societies” (such as the shift to distributed organisational forms). Thus, we want to look closely at Wikipedia itself, more broadly at how Wikipedia connects with other things and social processes, and what Wikipedia as a non-proprietary space of knowledge production and dissemination might tell us about other socio-political phenomena. One of our organisers put it well when he said, these events “are about Wikipedia and they are not about Wikipedia”! Finally, we want to provide a sustained research space outside of the Wikimedia Foundation. This is not because we find what they are doing problematic or wrong, but because we think that Wikipedia is now too big and too general – in short, too mainstream – to be covered by one (internal) institutional perspective. We are simply a different research space, differentiated by our critical and theoretical inclinations and our wider lens. The specific goal for the two conferences was to develop new insights on a set of themes relating to Wikipedia that we felt needed more attention. More generally the conferences simply strived to bring together ideas, experiences, stories and scholarship about Wikipedia – to get a conversation started.
Do you think those goals were met?
Artists, academics, researchers, teachers and users have joined the discussion and started to form a knowledge network around the well-known online encyclopedia. On the one hand, historical perspectives have already done a great job pointing to dis/continuities with regard to Wikipedia as both encyclopaedia and medium, such as pointing to annotation practices in medieval book production (Lawrence Liang) or to ideas about visual (re)presentation of knowledge (Charles van den Heuvel). On the other hand, it is obvious that discussion is still lacking in many areas. For instance the educational issues have been hardly raised beyond the rather dreary question‚ “Is Wikipedia a reliable source?”.
Wikipedia research is still in its infancy, but we feel we are making progress. The events were well attended, our discussion list is active and from what we hear the online videos of our presenters have circulated widely. Currently we are working on a reader that aggregates the best material from the first two events. This will go some way in fulfilling our larger functions.
What did you learn in organisational terms?
CPoV doesn’t see itself as an organisation as much as a research initiative – perhaps a research affiliated network. We might even reject the idea of a research initiative while sticking to the notion of ‘initiating’. Of course, the initiative still requires organising, decision making, delegation of tasks and medium-term planning, but the question of organisation is secondary to the dynamic research agenda.
With the benefit of hindsight, what would you do differently?
There’s not much that we would change so far. It has become clear that several themes need more attention than were first given (such as Wikipedia and education mentioned above), and others have emerged that we didn’t initially see as overly significant. For example, it has become obvious that more discussion is needed on the question of interface design, on the porting/reformatting of Wikipedia onto mobile devices and on the relation between Wikipedia and library science. However, because we are a sustained research effort, we have the capacity to focus on issues as they emerge in ongoing discussion and plan events and interventions around them.
One thing we would like to see more of is critical discussion during the event that is genuinely agonistic. By this we mean critical debate where both parties fully recognise, understand and question each other’s position. One problem with bringing together diverse participants is it is often hard to find common ground, or even to recognise where the other person is coming from. We don’t think that there are any easy answers for this, but I think the organisers have a role to play here in mediating responses, structuring discussion etc.
Were there any particularly interesting / poetic / dramatic moments?
On of the few poetic moments at the Amsterdam event featured Eric Borra and Esther Weltevrede. Part of their presentation on visualizing controversies included reading out snippets of the climate change controversy in spring 2007 on Wikipedia. These performative snippets were later fully developed by Annemieke van der Hoek, who presented a web script that renders Wikipedia articles and their revision/editing history as an epic theatre script: http://www.epicpedia.org/
In Bangalore the “elephant metaphor” was present in the discussions as a reference to the story of the “Blind men and the elephant” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant) as well as to Stephen Colbert’s word “Wikiality” (http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/72347/july-31-2006/the-word—wikiality). The ‘elephant’ was also transferred to the low tech wiki the conference participants created in a cubic space; in her reflection of the offline wiki space Rut Jesus played with an imaginary elephant as her interlocutor, whilst in Amsterdam the twittering comments pointed to http://xkcd.com/214/… By the time WikiWars (Bangalore) was finished, the elephant metaphor had been put to work in many ways, and was well and truly exhausted!
What was your favorite presentation and why?
For us, some of the best presentations (in Amsterdam) were ones that demonstrated a detailed knowledge of the inner working of Wikipedia, whilst also providing enough distance to produce fresh concepts and intervene in broader debates. Joseph Reagle and Stuart Geiger were in this category. Jeanette Hoffmann was also a very good presenter, full of energy and thinking on her feet. Florian Cramer deserves credit for offering the most critical perspective on Wikipedia. He argued that the NPoV policy is modeled on Ayn Rand’s version of “Objectivism”.
We also thought the history session in general was very strong. They covered an impressive amount of ground, and did a good job placing Wikipedia in relation to other reference works and other visions of “universal knowledge”. In this session, Charles van den Heuvel managed to get hold of detailed pictures of the Mundanuem, which was quite amazing to see as it illustrated the path from Otlet’s notion of “Universal knowledge book” to Jimbo Wales’ “sum of human knowledge”.
Conference blog: http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/cpov/
Conference Reader: http://www.networkcultures.org/_uploads/%237reader_Wikipedia.pdf