Category Archives: truth

wikimania day 1: wrap up

wikimania logoThere was something of a valedictory feeling around Wikimania yesterday, springing perhaps from Jimmy Wales’s plenary talk: the feeling that a magnificent edifice had been constructed, and all that remained was to convince people to actually use it. If we build it, they will come & figure it out. Wales declared that it was time to stop focusing on quantity in Wikipedia and to start focusing on quality: Wikipedia has pages for just about everything that needs a page, although many of the pages aren’t very good. I won’t disagree with that, but there’s something else that needs to happen: the negotiation involved as their new technology increasingly hits the rest of the world.

This was the narrative arc traced by Larry Lessig in his plenary: speaking about how he got more and more enthusiastic about the potential of freely shared media before running into the brick wall of the Supreme Court. At that point, he realized, it was time to regroup and assess what would be politically & socially necessary to bring free media to the masses. There’s something similar going on in the wiki community as a whole. It’s a tremendously fertile time technologically, but there are increasingly social issues that scream for engagement.

One of the most interesting presentations that I saw yesterday afternoon was Daniel Caeton’s presentation on negotiating truth. Caeton’s talk was based on his upcoming book entitled The Wild, Wild Wiki: Unsettling the Frontiers of Cyperspace. Caeton teaches writing at California State University in Fresno; he experimented in having students explore & contribute to the WIkipedia. The issues that arose surprised him. His talk focused on the experiences of Emina, a Bosnian Muslim student: she looked at how Bosnian Muslims were treated in the Wikipedia and found immensely diverging opinions. She found herself in conversation with other contributors about the meaning of the word “Bosniak”. In doing so she found herself grappling with the core philosophy of Wikipedia: that truth is never objective, always in negotiation. Introducing this sort of thinking is something that needs to be taught just as much as Wiki markup syntax, though it hasn’t had nearly as much attention.

Today there’s a whole track on using Wikis in education: I’ll be following & reporting back from that.

the comissar vanishes

this photograph has been modified.
The Lowell Sun reports that staff members of Representative Marty Meehan (Democrat, Massachusetts) have been found editing the representatives Wikipedia entry. As has been noted in a number of places (see, for example, this Slashdot discussion), Meehan’s staff edited out references to his campaign promise to leave the House after eight years, among other things, and considerably brightened the picture of Meehan painted by his biography there.

Meehan’s staff editing the Wikipedia doesn’t appear to be illegal, as far as I can tell, even if they’re trying to distort his record. It does thrust some issues about how Wikipedia works into the spotlight – much as Beppe Grillo did in Italy last week. Sunlight disinfects; this has brought up the problem of political vandalism stemming from Washington, and Wikipedia has taken the step of banning the editing of Wikipedia by all IP address from Congress while they try to figure out what to do about it: see the discussion here.

This is the sort of problem that was bound to come up with Wikipedia: it will be interesting to see how they attempt to surmount it. In a broad sense, trying to forcibly stop political vandalism is as much of a political statement as anything anyone in the Capitol could write. Something in me recoils from the idea of the Wikipedia banning people from editing it, even if they are politicians. The most useful contribution of the Wikipedia isn’t their networked search for a neutral portrait of truth, for this will always be flawed; it’s the idea that the truth is inherently in flux. Just as we should approach the mass media with an incredulous eye, we should approach Wikipedia with an incredulous eye. With Wikipedia, however, we know that we need to – and this is an advance.