Centre for Internet & Society

The Centre for Internet and Society (Bangalore, India) and the Institute of Network Cultures (Amsterdam, Netherlands) seek to bring together ideas, experiences and scholarship about Wikipedia in a reader that charts out detailed user stories as well as empirical and analytical work to produce.. The organisations will jointly host two separate conferences aimed at building a Wikipedia Knowledge Network and charting scholarship and stories about The Wikipedia from around the world.

CPOV: Critical Point of View

Wikipedia and the Politics of Open Knowledge

Proposal for a research network, two conferences and a reader
 Organized by Centre for Internet & Society (Bangalore, India) and the Institute of Network Cultures (Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Introduction: It would be no exaggeration to state that Wikipedia is at the brink of becoming the de facto global reference of dynamic knowledge. The highly visible clashes amongst opinion leaders, university professors, Web 2.0 ‘evangelists’ and publishers over accuracy, anonymity, trust, vandalism and expertise only seem to fuel further growth of Wikipedia and its user base. In this respect, what does it mean to now say that Wikipedia has become “mainstream”?

The accelerated growth and scope of Wikipedia as a knowledge reference of universal ambition is unheard of. The Google search engine gives preferential treatment to Wikipedia in an attempt to beat search engine optimizers and to provide a more fruitful experience to its users. Apart from leaving its modern counterparts Britannica and Encarta in the dust, such scale and breadth places Wikipedia on par with such historical milestones as Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia, the Ming Dynasty's Wen-hsien ta-ch' eng, and the key work of French Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie.

Wikipedia owns a whole set of characteristics – including number and automation (bots) of contributors, regularity of updates, fluidity, ease of search, number of languages, and growing user base. In doing so, this online encyclopedia might be cited as the most visible and successful example of the migration of FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software) principles into mainstream culture. Those of us who believe in pluralism, and the possibility of another world have reason to celebrate and defend Wikipedia from intellectual- property-right-maximalists and promoters of proprietary models of knowledge production and dissemination. However, such celebration and defense should contain critical insights, informed by the changing realities of the Internet at large and the Wikipedia project in particular.

The Wikimedia Foundation has recently employed its first research analyst and provides spaces for “Wikipediology”, including projects such as the Wiki Project on vandalism studies. Nonetheless, critical Wikipedia research should also be done outside the self-reflexivity of the Wikimedia Foundation and its community. There is an urgent need for quantitative and qualitative research from an Humanities and Arts perspective that could benefit both the wider user base and the active Wikipedia community itself.

More than this though, as one of the largest if not the largest self-contained general knowledge reference of our time, Wikipedia offers critical insights into the contemporary status of knowledge, its organizing principles, function, and impact; its production styles, mechanisms for conflict resolution and power (re-)constitution. New strategic and tactical operations of knowledge/power are clearly at work. The concept of the open remains ambiguous in this formation, serving as both a rallying concept and masking new agonistic encounters.

By permanently (re)formulating the open and inclusive as the guiding Wikipedia principle being formulated by the community itself, one might also look at this norm as a narrative or even call it a founding myth. For example, the demographic profile of the Wikipedia editor as a white male geek with a limited mono-cultural worldview based on Western rationality remains a concern. However, the question of (non)diversity being formulated in Wikipedia discussions needs also to be posed beyond existing stereotypes and at the general level of discourse. The question of (post)identity and representation is not necessarily resolved via the discursive construction of 'inclusion', if such inclusion may require leaving competing knowledge histories and practices at the door and if it puts a culture of editing not next to a culture of listening/hearing.

In the most material and perceptional way, every new technology modifies conditions of possibility for knowledge. The logic of technologies bleeds into the very structures and organizing principles of knowledge and today, both medium and message may reflect the ideas of the (organized) network, multitude or the Deleuzian machine. It is through a selected mix of technological and normative conditions – the distributed architecture of the net, the Wiki software platform, commons-based property licenses and the FLOSS zeitgeist – that Wikipedia as the encyclopedia of the information age emerges, both continuing and transforming the Enlightenment encyclopedic impulse or will to know.

The authors of these proposal are aware of the seemingly conflicting overarching research agenda: At one level is a philosophical, epistemological and theoretical investigation of knowledge artifacts and social, culture construction in terms of , authority and politics. At the other level the research agenda is an empirical, anecdotal, sociological investigation of the specific phenomenon of the Wikipedia. This has been done on purpose so that the learnings from theoretical research activities can inform practice oriented research and vice-versa.

Overall the conferences and reader may include the following areas inviting theoretical, empirical, practical and art-based contributions:

  1. WikiTheory (opening session)
  2. Wikipedia and Critique of Western Knowledge Production
  3. Encyclopedia Models-- from 18th to 21th Century
  4. Wiki Art
  5. Designing Debate
  6. Critique of Free and Open
  7. Global Politics of Exclusion
  8. The Place of Resistance
  9. Wikipedia and Education
  10. Wiki-analytics, Wikipedia as Platform and Software Studies
  11. Wikipedia and Conditions of Knowledge Production


Descriptions of the Sessions/Fields of Interest

 1. WikiTheory – Mining for Concepts (opening session)

Besides providing a general overview of the topics to come, and with an emphasis on diverse global approaches, the aim here is develop concepts that could be used in further research and that could fit into larger projects on Internet culture and the critique of the free and open. Is it possible to develop a counter-hegemony of critical practices that situates itself in the midst of technological cultures? What kind of critical lessons does Wikipedia provide in the face of overwhelming Web 2.0 hype and P2P utopianism? How can a radical Wikipedia critique be developed that does not present itself as the cynical ‘I told you so’ outsider or mimic the neo-conservatist position of Andrew Keen? What kind of insight can Wikipedia offer regarding the continuing tension between knowledge and information?

2. Wikipedia and Critical Histories of Western Knowledge Production

This session may include topics like: western vs. non/post-western knowledge production, textual vs. oral tradition, visual vs. textual knowledge, Wikipedia and language diversity, and indigenous knowledge.

The persistence of almost buried master-narratives: The Western tradition of Enlightenment tends to permeate both common and official understandings of knowledge on Wikipedia. Mirroring the Enlightenment itself, Wikipedia both offers a very particular type of knowledge and simultaneously makes claims upon the universal - e.g. in the formulation of visionary goals, structure of articles, author positions, writing style, categorization of entries, conflict resolution models and so on. The ways in which such ideals persist and continue to bear their mark on the present in often subtle ways requires further attention. Indeed, the 'grand narratives' of the Enlightenment that Jean-Francis Lyotard claimed had retreated with the emergence of 'computerized societies' continue to inform the popular imaginary in ways largely untouched by the deconstructive moment. Frederic Jameson once referred to this as the 'persistence of buried master-narratives', a 'political unconscious' that guides decisions irrespective of philosophical status. Likewise, this resonates with Foucault's urge 'to reveal a positive unconscious of knowledge' as that which performs the task of subjugation but operates beyond contention. What matters here is not truth or belief, but operation.

The predominance of textual or even linguistical cultures: The current system of Wikipedia citation prejudices textual systems of knowledge over oral and visual systems of knowledge. This under-values the knowledge systems of cultural memory and related technique such as mnemo techniques or oral poetry on the one hand, and illiterate populations on the other hand.


3. Encyclopedia Models-- from 18th to 21th Century

The word made durable: In this session we want to give an overview of various attempts to create a collection of global knowledge. In order to get a better understanding of the cultural specificity of the underlying code on which Wikipedia is built, this topic seeks to dig further into the histories of the encyclopedia. D' Alembert's Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedie is often described as the most succinct statement of European Enlightenment, and the Encyclopedie itself as the material project of Enlightenment. It is through the Encyclopedie that the Enlightenment becomes durable, tangible and disseminated. What can be learned by examining such historical precedents?

Encyclopedias have been said to be sources of national images and stereotypes of the self and the other within Europe. In Wikipedia image construction tends to be both disembogue and masked in favor of a cosmopolitan, global self-understanding. This session might interrogate to what extent knowledge production’s construction of national images is shifted from a discursive to an automatic georeferencing system of construction.

As machines think (or maybe Knowing Machines or The Machinic Intellect): This session may also look to historical attempts to revolutionize knowledge through the creation of new technologies and to what extent these alternate histories resonate with Wikipedia specifically and the technologies of the Net as driven by knowledge imperatives more generally. Examples include the Mundaneum, the Memex, the Galactic Network and project Xanadu. 

4. Wikipedia Art

Art at the gates: Wikipedia Art is understood both as artwork and intervention. Taking place largely on Wikipedia itself, the project Wikipedia Art was considered controversial and was quickly removed (see recent debate on nettime-l). What does this project reveal about this type of knowledge production? What is the threshold of legitimacy for this type of knowledge and how are the boundaries policed? What is at stake in the rejection of art?

5. Models of Disambiguation and Designing Debate

May include topics like: Dissent made visible, After Talk / Alerts / Mailing Lists, the role of forum software, technical opportunities for discontent, barnstars/award culture.

The paradox of neutrality: The Neutral Point of View policy of Wikipedia does not always accurately depict the state of debate on topics: The view held by a corporate lobby, using funded research, will find equal space as the opinions of thousands of disadvantaged persons who might be impacted by the actions of the corporate lobby. Would it make sense to replace the NPoV policy and think about Wikipedia as a space of open political agonality; as a battle for meaning underpinned by the desire for reason?

New crises of authenticity: As Wikipedia gains the status of default reference for other printed textual knowledge artifacts – there are emerging challenges of representation; longevity born digital references; digital manipulation of sources; and circular referencing. Shuddhabrata Sengupta of CSDS/Sarai says “Wikipedia encouraged in its community the active exercise of a critical and skeptical attitude towards any received form of knowledge”. In this context the evolving notions of authenticity has to be further interrogated given the rise of peer-produced knowledge and the diminishing cult of the expert.


6. Critique of Free and Open

May include topics like: the parasite model of free culture (“You work for free, others will make the money from your free labour.”), governance, the role of developers, economy of Wikipedia, the beliefs of the founders as the political foundation of Wikipedia, critical interrogation of knowledge in relation to 'the open'.

Vacuous collaboration: Master concepts like freedom and openness are at constant risk of remaining empty or constituting an ‘empty signifier’. The failure to fill such concepts has lead to many descriptions of Wikipedia as 'collaborations' or even 'ad hoc meritocracies' (Alex Bruns). Both these second-tier notions also tend to mask the reconfiguration of the political and new forms of closure.

Paid and voluntary community manipulation: Many Wikipedians hold strong opinions on range of sensitive areas including identity, religion, science, politics, culture, and use sophisticated techniques such as astro-turfing on Wikipedia. Additionally, some states, corporations and organized religious groups sometimes pay specialists to engage in astro-turfing in order to remove critical opinions and rewrite information from Wikipedia.


7. Global Politics of Exclusion

May include topics like: non-western, language, connectedness, oral histories, women, non-geeks.

Tyranny of the connected: In societies which are compounded by digital and participation divides, the connected usually always win over those who don't have access and time to spare.

Gendered Knowledge: While women are strongly represented among readers, globally, they are  hardly represented among contributors. In offlist chats, women express that they do not feel comfortable when contributing to Wikipedia conversations. They even felt silenced by the perception of Wikipedia as a masculine tech culture. Some women have already created an alternative space of discussion at wikichix.org. Does the separation of discussion spaces and the marginalization of domestic issues and social impacts on Wikipedia turn back time?

Morality laundering: Moral standards that exist in one country are being exported to other countries via Wikipedia. For example, photo-realistic images of human bodies on pages dealing with sexuality and anatomy are being replaced with drawings. Does this type of common denominator approach undermine the pluralism of global sexuality? The call and eventual refusal of image censorship for the entry on Mohammad represents a similar scenario.

Language diversity: Despite the self-imposed normative claim of language diversity and the self-description of Wikipedia as a truly multi-lingual project, English is the Lingua Franca in translingual meta projects and policy discussions. Also, on the level of content, is the English Wikipedia the 'Leitmedium' in terms of (content) synchronization. In what other ways does the language divide operate on Wikipedia?

Global governance: Governance of Wikipedia has evolved and become increasingly sophisticated to match its phenomenal growth and the attention it has garnered. While these changes in governance have managed to sustain the growth of Wikipedia and prevent its credibility from being undermined, there is a need to understand the impact that various governance mechanisms have on the different incarnations of Wikipedia throughout the world. Such analysis should consider separately (and compare) different national chapters, plus extend beyond Wikipedia projects to the governance of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Form and format: As the Wikipedia becomes a standard of documentation and knowledge archive, it becomes important to focus on traditional, oral and ephemeral knowledges which might die because of the limitations of technologised platforms to capture them. Oral histories, community knowledges, incipient systems of documenting personal and collective memories, etc. start getting lost as the logo-centric, ‘objectively verifiable’ structures of knowledge production come into being. Rather than a critique of Wikipedia, analysis needs to concentrate on ways by which such knowledge systems are not lost and further tools which need to be developed in order to make them accessible and visible.


8. The Place of Resistance

Why do people resign from Wikipedia? Are critical voices silenced by the majority of the mass? Does the exclusion of the Wikipedia Art project reveal that within Wikipedia is no place for contesting forms, repertoires, styles that go beyond linguistic approaches? Rituals and mechanisms of exclusion offers critical insights into the contemporary status of resistance formation in an paradigmatic age of diversity and inclusion. Going beyond and extending the thinking of social movement scholars such as Touraine or Melucci the study of Wikipedia might inform culture and identity approaches of social movement studies and vice versa.

Can Wikipedia said to be a social movement and/or how do social movement actors appropriate the Wikipedia to built alternatives?

9. Media Literacy and Education

Knowing about knowing: While technologies like newspapers, television, radio and cinema have given birth to educational institutions that engage in media studies, thereby providing tools for the discerning citizen-consumer and future professional, there is still much work required to develop similar critical models for emerging projects like Wikipedia. The common institutional (non)response to warn against the ‘dangers’ of Wikipedia-like projects and discourage or ban their use seems grossly inadequate. The rise of 'prosumers' suggests a need for new 'production literacies' in addition to the traditional 'consumption literacy'. Furthermore, there is also a growing number of meta projects on Wikipedia that seek cooperation with schools and academia. But is the Wikimedia foundation and select national bodies the legitimate actors to teach media literacy or is this rather a public relations effort? What would Wikipedia literacy entail?

10. Wiki-analytics, Wikipedia as Platform and Software Studies

Possible Topics: Protocological Knowledge, Knowledge vs. Information, Cultural Analytics, Cybernetics in the present, (Un)dead labour and the posthuman bot.

Knowledge in the neighborhood of software: Can we start thinking of Wikipedia as an interplay of editors and technology, since software and notification systems are such an important part of the Wikipedia project? Indeed, whilst humans argue over knowledge statements, 'bots' do much of the dirty work and general knowledge housekeeping – a kind of (un)dead labour. The presumption here, of code as politics, is that the wiki principles themselves need to be debated from a perspective of software studies. To what extent has bot politics triumphed over vernacular expertise  or lead to an empowerment of the e-tech geeks in knowledge projects? Related to this is the question of the cultural history of Wikipedia as a platform. What is the relation between policy formation and technical protocols? Is Wikipedia knowledge  Cybernetic?

Wikipedia as a data set: Besides the automation participation in the form of the bot, Wikipedia is an information artifact through and through. What kind of data analysis techniques can contribute to a radical critique or illuminate network regularities beyond human interpretation? What additional anonymised data sets of edit and use history should be released by the Wikimedia Foundation to promote media literacy and education.


11. Wikipedia and Conditions of Knowledge Production

Possible Topics: Politics of knowledge production, question of authority, The fallacy of objectivity, Wikipedia and the Public Sphere.

The alarm that traditional bastions of knowledge production and consumption (like universities and publishing houses) raise against Wikipedia, brings into sharp relief, the fact that the Wikipedia is a part of a much larger knowledge production industry. With the Wikipedia’s integration into more ‘mainstream’ usage, it becomes necessary to focus on how the emergence of such a space (and the principles it embodies) also affects the much larger and global politics, aesthetics and mechanics of knowledge production. Wikipedia has substantially changed academic trends of publication, citation, classroom pedagogy and research. It has also been central to many debates about who produces knowledge and who has the ‘right’ to be an Authority on the knowledge thus produced.

Moving beyond the class-room and questions of plagiarism or teaching, there is need to investigate the pre-conditions and the contexts within which Wikipedia emerges, and the kind of questions it poses to processes of knowledge production, consumption and verification.


Production Details

Besides setting up a network for critical Wikipedia research with its own mailing list and organizing two events early 2010 in Bangalore and Amsterdam (to start with), the aim is to gather materials for a Wikipedia Research Reader that will be published in the INC Reader series around September-October 2010.

Research and editorial group: Geert Lovink and Sabine Niederer (Amsterdam), Nathaniel Tkacz (Melbourne), Sunil Abraham (Bangalore), Johanna Niesyto (Siegen), Nishant Shah (Bangalore).

Contact info:

Sunil Abraham: [email protected]

Nishant Shah: [email protected]



For more information on how to apply to the Bangalore WikiWars conference, please click here.

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