Category Archives: wikimania

the trouble with wikis in china

I’ve just been reading about this Chinese online encyclopedia, modeled after Wikipedia, called “e-Wiki,” which last month was taken offline by its owner under pressure from the PRC government. Reporters Without Borders and The Sydney Morning Herald report that it was articles on Taiwan and the Falun Gong (more specifically, an article on an activist named James Lung with some connection to FG) that flagged e-Wiki for the censors.

baidu logo.gif

Baidu: the heavy paw of the state.

Meanwhile, “Baidupedia,” the user-written encyclopedia run by leading Chinese search engine Baidu is thriving, with well over 300,000 articles created since its launch in April. Of course, “Baidu Baike,” as the site is properly called, is heavily censored, with all edits reviewed by invisible behind-the-scenes administrators before being published.
Wikipedia’s article on Baidu Baike points out the following: “Although the earlier test version was named ‘Baidu WIKI’, the current version and official media releases say the system is not a wiki system.” Which all makes sense: to an authoritarian, wikis, or anything that puts that much control over information in the hands of the masses, is anathema. Indeed, though I can’t read Chinese, looking through it, pages on Baidu Baike do not appear to have the customary “edit” links alongside sections of text. Rather, there’s a text entry field at the bottom of the page with what seems to be a submit button. There’s a big difference between a system in which edits are submitted for moderation and a totally open system where changes have to be managed, in the open, by the users themselves.
All of which underscores how astonishingly functional Wikipedia is despite its seeming vulnerability to chaotic forces. Wikipedia truly is a collectively owned space. Seeing how China is dealing with wikis, or at least, with their most visible cultural deployment, the collective building of so-called “reliable knowledge,” or encyclopedias, underscores the political implications of this oddly named class of web pages.
Dan, still reeling from three days of Wikimania, as well as other meetings concerning MIT’s One Laptop Per Child initiative, relayed the fact that the word processing software being bundled into the 100-dollar laptops will all be wiki-based, putting the focus on student collaboration over mesh networks. This may not sound like such a big deal, but just take a moment to ponder the implications of having all class writing assignments being carried out wikis. The different sorts of skills and attitudes that collaborating on everything might nurture. There a million things that could go wrong with the One Laptop Per Child project, but you can’t accuse its developers of lacking bold ideas about education.
But back to the Chinese. An odd thing remarked on the talk page of the Wikipedia article is that Baidu Baike actually has an article about Wikipedia that includes more or less truthful information about Wikipedia’s blockage by the Great Firewall in October ’05, as well as other reasonably accurate, and even positive, descriptions of the site. Wikipedia contributor Miborovsky notes:

Interestingly enough, it does a decent explanation of WP:NPOV (Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View policy) and paints Wikipedia in a positive light, saying “its activities precisely reflects the web-culture’s pluralism, openness, democractic values and anti-authoritarianism.”

But look for Wikipedia on Baidu’s search engine (or on Google, Yahoo and MSN’s Chinese sites for that matter) and you’ll get nothing. And there’s no e-Wiki to be found.

wikimania: the importance of naming things

wikimania logoI’ll write up what happened on the second day of Wikimania soon – I saw a lot of talks about education – but a quick observation for now. Brewster Kahle delivered a speech after lunch entitled “Universal Access to All Knowledge”, detailing his plans to archive just about everything ever & the various issues he’s confronted along the way, not least Jack Valenti. Kahle learned from Valenti: it’s important to frame the terms of the debate. Valenti explained filesharing by declaring that it was Artists vs. Pirates, an obscuring dichotomy, but one that keeps popping up. Kahle was happy that he’d succeeded in creating a catch phrase in naming “orphan works” – a term no less loaded – before the partisans of copyright could.

Wikimania is dominated by Wikipedia, but it’s not completely about Wikipedia – it’s about wikis more generally, of which Wikipedia is by far the largest. There are people here using wikis to do immensely different things – create travel guides, create repositories of lesson plans for K–12 teachers, using wikis for the State Department’s repositories of information. Many of these are built using MediaWiki, the software that runs Wikipedia, but not all by any means. All sorts of different platforms have been made to create websites that can be edited by users. All of these fall under the rubric “wiki”. we could just as accurately refer to wikis as “collaboratively written websites”, the least common denominator of all of these sites. I’d argue that the word has something to do with the success of the model: nobody would feel any sense of kinship about making “collaboratively written websites” – that’s a nebulous concept – but when you slap the name “wiki” on it, you have something easily understood, a form about which people can become fanatical.

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.

transmitting live from cambridge: wikimania 2006

wikimania logoI’m at the Wikimania 2006 conference at Harvard Law School, from where I’ll be posting over the course of the three-day conference (schedule). The big news so far (as has already been reported in a number of blogs) came from this morning’s plenary address by Jimmy Wales, when he announced that Wikipedia content was going to be included in the Hundred Dollar Laptop. Exactly what “Wikipedia content” means isn’t clear to me at the moment – Wikipedia content that’s not on a network loses a great deal of its power – but I’m sure details will filter out soon.

This move is obvious enough, perhaps, but there are interesting ramifications of this. Some of these were brought out during the audience question period during the next panel that I attended, in which Alex Halavis talked about issues of evaluating Wikipedia’s topical coverage, and Jim Giles, the writer of the Nature study comparing the Wikipedia & the Encyclopædia Britannica. The subtext of both was the problem of authority and how it’s perceived. We measure the Wikipedia against five hundred years of English-language print culture, which the Encyclopædia Britannica represents to many. What happens when the Wikipedia is set loose in a culture that has no print or literary tradition? The Wikipedia might assume immense cultural importance. The obvious point of comparison is the Bible. One of the major forces behind creating Unicode – and fonts to support the languages used in the developing world – is SIL, founded with the aim of printing the Bible in every language on Earth. It will be interesting to see if Wikipedia gets as far.