(photo credit: Courtesy)
The seventh annual Wikimedia conference, Wikimania 2011, took place in Haifa this past weekend and celebrated the website's 10th anniversary.
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The conference aims to explore issues surrounding the modern online encyclopaedia, along with other debates about information sharing via the Internet. The sessions ranged from how to write Wikipedia social histories and the constraint of social memory on Wikipedia, to intercultural issues across Wikimedia projects and challenges in Wikimedia projects for endangered languages.
The keynote speaker at one of the first plenary sessions was Dr. Joseph Reagle, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. The MIT Press published his book, "Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia" in September 2010. Focusing his research on collaborative cultures, Reagle posed three different historical questions about the website that has essentially transformed online information sharing. Reagle’s thesis focused on the positive influences that Wikipedia has brought to the online community, and offers proof that Wikipedia was, in part, the fulfillment of a centuries-old pursuit: Wikipedia antecedents are evident in print, microfilm, and network projects.
The conference demonstrated the innovation of Wikipedia, and its ability to foster community and culture. No other versions of online sharing had conceived of supporting community, and Reagle states that Wikipedia “enables incremental, asynchronous, and cumulative contribution with tools that support community and collaborative culture.” Wikipedia was, despite its founding mythology, not inevitable. Its founders, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, were afraid that “many people [would] find the idea objectionable.” An infamous article in the New Yorker
stated that the founders were bracing themselves for an onslaught of "objectionable rubbish." Despite its initial wave of heavy criticism, Wikipedia quickly had a betting pool on when the one-millionth article would be published on the site.
Reagle points to different arguments that emerged about Wikipedia: a global doom, or a global boom. While the journal Guardian wrote “the Wikipedia is one of the wonders of the Internet,” Britannica’s publishers pointed to the fact that “every visit to Wikipedia’s free information hive means one less customer for professionally researched and edited encyclopedias such as Britannica.” In short, Wikipedia was quickly becoming an encyclopedia, but also a proxy in much larger cultural wars. Arguments began to surface about its hand in the death of our culture.
Reagle’s own book argues that there is a universal encyclopedia vision, and believes that there has been extreme foreshadowing of Wikipedia through several concepts: through good faith, the encyclopedia is created by a society of men bound together. Diderot himself wrote that he hoped bias and prejudice could be eliminated by giving cross references in articles: referenced works, when done to try and fairly represent all viewpoints, are good resources. Hundreds of years ago, the core concepts of Wikipedia had already begun to take form; collaborative good faith efforts were already set in motion.
With respect to original research, the ‘encyclopedia’ of Wikipedia is written by those who ultimately summarize and synthesize research: to preserve research, rather than create. Before Wikipedia, the earlier projects utilized similar theories. Project Xanadu, created by Ted Nelson, the originator of the hypertexting concept, believed that human affairs would be better with the invention and dissemination of hypertext. Project Gutenberg wished to create a free encyclopedia online: essentially scanning Britannica and sharing it via the Internet. Once the most highly referenced works of the 20th century, it is now dated.
The founders of Interpedia, likely the invention most closely aligned with Wikipedia’s goals and concepts, grounded it in the principle of “reference sources for people… articles submitted by individuals.” While the distributed encyclopedia, free universal encyclopedia, and finally Nubia - Wikipedia’s predecessor - helped Wikipedia finally reach its ultimate mission, they were all merely “blueprints” of what has become the largest free, collaborative encyclopedia. With the creation and subsequent cultural boom of Wikipedia, Sanger proclaimed that “Interpedia’s noble dream of creating a free, open encyclopedia lives on.”
Those that criticize Wikipedia question whether it is a Maoist hive or a community through beneficial collaborative practice: is it a foolish utopianism, or an unintended dystopia? Many believe that its dedicated contributors are obsessive nerds, and that Wikipedia truly means the death of scholarship. Reagle and his fellow "Wikipedians" have certainly set the bar high for this decade-old innovation. Based on statistics, usage, and influence, however, Wikipedia is a happy accident that has surpassed all expectations. It is, and will likely continue to be, a proxy in larger debates, and its outstanding progress in the past ten years ensures that it will continue to exert considerable influence on our online community.