July 22, 2008

Wikipedia: "Digital Maoism" As Battlefield

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I hope to write a few short things, mainly pretty practical, about the Internet, the Web and the blogosphere in the next week. I do this mainly to think about and address a new "digital divide" I sense arising. (The first and still pre-eminent one, of course, is economic--the haves online, the have-nots cut out). The one I will be commenting on is more along generational and net-savviness lines, with many folks I know shying away, for a variety of reasons, from a lot of the interactive developments collectively called "Web 2.0".

One such development that has seen massive use, even among the Web-shy, is Wikipedia. This collectively produced and edited, free, open source, online encyclopedia has been termed "Digital Maoism"--with some using the term in condemnation (a "hive mind") and some in praise (a vivid example of Mao Zedong's Mass Line as a method for arriving at truth). It has, in any event, become the most used reference work in the world, with over 680,000,000 visitors in the last year.

For all the people who use Wikipedia, the new digital divide I mentioned becomes clearer when one realizes that only about 75,000 people actively produce and refine the content. That's one in 10,000! (With fewer than 10 paid employees, the Wikimedia Foundation has a one to 70 million staff to annual user ratio.)

I want to cite, in praise and as an example of how the thing works, one recent editing job. It is described, in the excerpt below, taken from the blog Liberation Frequency, which I found because they reprinted the nifty article, "The Young & The Leftless" which was also featured at FotM recently.

The whole piece by Brian Van Slyke, "Wikipedia History Wars", talks about Wikipedia's proclaimed underlying principle of "neutrality" and calls it idealist: "Science is not neutral. History is not neutral." I quote below a section of the article relating to revolutionary fighter John Brown, a choice which will not surprise regular readers of Fire on the Mountain.
For instance, I once searched the topic of “slave revolts.” I made my way through the article, and finally came to its discussion on North America. Here’s what it had to say about the abolitionist John Brown:

John Brown had already conducted several massacres of pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, when he decided to lead a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (West Virginia was not yet a state). This raid was an attempt by a handful of white men to cause a slave revolt in the South. It failed in this attempt; in fact, the first man they killed was a local freed black man.

Obviously, I couldn’t let this stand. Here is what I changed it to:

John Brown had already fought against pro-slavery forces in Kansas for several years when he decided to lead a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (West Virginia was not yet a state). This raid was a joint attack by former slaves, freed blacks, and white men who had corresponded with slaves on plantations in order to form a general uprising amongst slaves. It almost succeeded, had it not been for Brown’s delay, and hundreds of slaves left their plantations to join Brown’s force - and others left their plantations to join Brown in an escape to the mountains. Eventually, due to a tactical error by Brown, their force was quelled. But directly following this, slave disobedience and runaways sky-rocketed in Virginia.

My change was reverted back to the original, until some re-reverted it to [the] account I had written, and that’s what it has stayed as to this day. Now, it may have helped that my paragraph had a citation and the other did not--even though in many places the first account is often the historical portrait that John Brown is painted in by our textbooks and our national myths.


Xoff said...

I've found some questionable statements and "facts" in some areas I know something about, and have had mixed success trying to correct them on Wikipedia.

The worst thing about Wikipedia, to me, is evidence I see that journalists as well as bloggers and others use it as a reference, which often results in the spread of questionable information on the Internet. And once it's there, it's there, on Google and elsewhere, pretty much forever -- even if the original entry is corrected.

Despite warnings that you can't believe everything on the Web, too many people rely on Wikipedia as fact, when it may not be.

john-b-cannon said...

That John Brown entry is a good example of how (in this case) someone can be made to sound like a nutjob or a rational political person based on a few tendentious phrases - glad you weighed in.

In general, though, I like Wikipedia as a development, in part because I think many people are somewhat skeptical about its claims. Encyclopedia Brittanica also claimed "neutrality," but due to its apparent authority one would have to be a died-in-the-wool critic (such as a committed leftist) to challenge it. It's easier to point out the impossibility of neutrality with Wikipedia. For example, I remember a while ago they disabled editing on the "Persian Gulf" entry because, although "Persian Gulf" is the preferred term in the US and Iran, "Arabian Gulf" is the preferred term in Arab countries, and people were changing it back and forth every day. When you can see the history of an entry, it makes it easier to talk to people about how "facts" are always interpreted by those with some degree of power, and it is often their power that gains legitimacy for a certain interpretation.

celticfire said...

Going to your point about the have/have-nots, I was living through the period in the 90's before and after every organization, club and somebody had a website and remember it well. Recently while drumming up support for a homeless protest in downtown Portland, the biggest question I heard from people downtown was "do they have a website?"

Jimmy Higgins said...

Thanks to xoff, john-b-cannon and celticfire for chipping in here. Xoff's point about undead misinformation careening around teh Intertubes forever is a good one.

Folks might be interested in a little investigation I undertook at the densely-populated left-liberal Daily Kos website, where I posted a poll about Wikipedia (which prompted some interesting comments). Turns out that more people than I expected have written or edited Wikipedia entries. Now it seems xoff has as well.

As a non-early adopter of new technology, hardware or software department, I never have. And given that I spend too much time doing this crap as it is, I probably won't start anytime soon.

The Union Girl said...

Ugh, new technology. I haven't even added stumble upon to my site. Sure I have digg and I'm ranked on Technorati, but outside of that, I dare not try the new stuff like wikis and twitter. And I want to try it, but there are only so many freaking hours in the freaking day and as a single mom, there aren't even enough hours now, how am I gonna cram in editing wikis? Of course, I do link to them, but it's mostly stuff like Lord of the Rings. What kind of editorializing can really be done on Sauron?