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where Talk is not just talk

index of Harlan Ellison Talk page on Wikipedia, June 17, 2013

I’ve been thinking about an emergent aspect of my Wikipedia use that almost inverts the software’s intended design. That is: I’ve started to use Wikipedia’s Talk pages as if they were extensions of the articles themselves, especially for pages with controversial content. In some cases, I’m even finding the material on the Talk pages more informative and reliable than what ends up on the official page. The reason for this is that the public pages tend to carry only what a group of self-selected and often partisan editors can agree on; in addition, pages must meet Wikipedia’s own standards of neutrality and verifiability. Thus a lot of pages slowly morph towards the kind of pablum that public relations flacks generate. Since value judgments are frowned on, contextual analyses tend to get squeezed out in favor of a laundry list approach to any given subject: X did this, and then she did that, and then she did this other thing. What this means is that if you really want to get any kind of handle on a subject, you have to delve into the page history and the inter-editor discussions of the Talk page.

I first noticed that this had become a reflexive habit a while ago when I followed a series of links on sexual harassment, computer games, and science fiction and ended up on science fiction author Harlan Ellison’s Wikipedia page. There is a subsection on that page about controversies Ellison has been involved in, including an incident in which he groped a fellow science fiction author, Connie Willis, during the 2006 Nebula awards. (There is a YouTube video of this.) I immediately turned to the Talk page, knowing there would likely be a discussion about whether that incident should be included in his page and how it should be handled, and maybe also some indication of the larger context in which it took place. With luck, I would find out more about both the incident and Ellison himself, since he’s not a writer whose work I know well—and his Wikipedia page is an excellent example of the laundry list phenomenon mentioned above. Talk is where Wikipedia wants content discussions to happen, and the result is that Talk is where a good deal of information ends up that is not yet sourced and where the arguments over meaning and context occur.  As it happened, there wasn’t much more about the Willis incident, though there was a good deal more in support of the general view that Ellison is a petty and vindictive person with sociopathic tendencies—some of which has since been excised from the Talk page through a neutering process that parallels that of the main page. (The page on Ellison currently frames him as “abrasive and argumentative,” a phrase that hardly covers groping a colleague.)

If journalism is the first draft of history, then Talk is clearly intended as notes towards a first draft of Wikipedia. But like journalism vis-a-vis history, it has the unfiltered—or at most semi-filtered—quality of all primary sources, making it equally valuable and suspect. Andrew Leonard has an interesting recent post on the editors who use Wikpedia to pursue private vendettas, and Talk is one of the places where that kind of social engineering is most visible, because Talk is as much a contest over desire and between competing agendas as it is over content. Wikipedia—unlike its predecessors such as Encyclopedia Britannica—wants to pretend that knowledge equals facts minus interpretation. The shadow encyclopedia that is Wikipedia Talk shows up the naivete of that approach.

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Accountabilities of crowds

Cross-posted to HASTAC blog. I’m posting a lot lately. It must be finals week.

Google Image Result for http://sselblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/wisdom-of.jpg I’ve been worrying about the wisdom of the wisdom of crowds lately, as evidenced by my Mechanical Turk post. “Wisdom of crowds” is a Silicon Valley religion, like libertarianism and market liberalism. (I’m going off of participant-observation from 10 years of being a valley citizen myself*, but Fred Turner documents these threads carefully.) I find “wisdom of crowds” to have a dark side to “wisdom” that comes from slivers of contributions made by people who don’t know what they’re contributing to and likely don’t have a chance to profit from their participation. Amazon Mechanical Turk, where many people make about a dollar an hour making extra cash to make ends meet, is an example of this dark side. What are ethical conditions under which crowds should labor? (I asked 67 Mechanical Turk workers this very question myself: 67 Turkers Bills of Rights.)

Not only do conditions of work become difficult to account for when the workers are millions of microtime workers. Emergent genderings, racializations, and other modes of differential injustice also are hard to track down. Wikipedia’s story of open participation and user agency becomes a cover story for not worrying about how power and authority gets distributed. For example, I strongly suspect there’s a bias against women in who is considered notable enough to have a biography. I’ve known several women who have had the appropriateness of having wikipedia biographies challenged (danah boyd, for example) while less notable men go unchallenged. Like with the liberal politics of individual choice markets, lots of people get a vote but the powerful often set the agenda and win. And like neoliberal racial politics, when everything is about individual choices and agency — when practically anyone can edit an article — we don’t have to talk about race and gender, right?

Both Wikipedia and wisdom of crowds logic generally have a commitment to emergence and a commitment to getting the right answer — the neutral, objective truth. And in their attention to outcome and mass, the people get blurred.

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*I heard one Silicon Valley CEO rationalize cooperating with Chinese censorship laws by explaining that doing business with China bolsters its middle class, which leads to democracy. I’m not saying “omg how could you do business with that regime” — no government is perfect, so it is about what kinds of business. But markets and democracy are well-yoked in Silicon Valley entrepreneurial do-gooding.

The Battle Over Wikispace

Recently I was made aware, through a listserv I am on, of a contest that was taking place over a new entry on Wikipedia. Although anyone can add an entry to Wikipedia, likewise anyone can nominate it for deletion. Both entry writers and would-be entry deleters are supposed to follow Wikipedia’s guidelines for what constitutes a worthwhile article and not either add or delete items randomly or at whim. Of course, this is not necessarily what actually happens where the avatar meets the interface…

What I found interesting about this particular contest was that it highlights the phenomenon of editorial bias, which has been somewhat obscured on Wikipedia because of its “anyone can write for us” policy. I’m not talking about the problem of bias in individual entries (which has been much commented on) so much as the problem of imbalance in topics and categories—what you might call the categorical topology of Wikipedia—which in turn directly reflects the interests of Wikipedia’s self-defined pool of contributors. It hasn’t escaped my notice, for instance, that just about every U.S.-produced computer game ever released, no matter how obscure, has its own entry, while very significant international artists, especially women and people of color are completely absent. And that’s just to point to two areas I happen to be interested in; I’m sure there are many others. A rather funny article on the Something Awful blog shows up what it terms the “nerd bias” of Wikipedia (I would categorize it differently myself) by comparing the length and professionalism of generally useful entries to loosely related but silly entries—modern warfare vs. light saber combat, for example.

Wikipedia has recognized the problem and is trying to remedy it through what it’s calling the WikiProject: “Wikipedia project suffers systemic bias that naturally grows from its contributors’ demographic groups, manifesting as imbalanced coverage of a subject. This project aims to control and (possibly) eliminate the cultural perspective gaps made by the systemic bias, consciously focusing upon subjects and point of view neglected by the encyclopedia as a whole.” A creditable goal—though I notice that the light saber page is “part of WikiProject Star Wars, which aims to build an encyclopedic guide to the Star Wars saga on Wikipedia”– hardly a neglected topic on Wikipedia! In any case, I think the problem runs deeper and can’t be entirely fixed in this straightforward fashion.

Which brings me to the article in question, which was an entry on “cyberformance,” a term coined by a new media artist and theoretician named Helen Varley Jamieson to talk about a particular form of online performance practice. (Disclosure: I know Helen, and one of my essays is listed under “Further reading” for this entry, probably because I am one of the people who have picked up her term and started using it.) Reading the “Articles for deletion” page where the discussion for and against deleting the cyberformance entry took place, the first thing that struck me was how ludicrous the rationale by the would-be deleter was:

“I’m not going to call Neologism on this one, despite all the sources being self references to Second Life culture… however not every word has a topic associated with it that can be considered encyclopedic. There’s no acedemic [sic] view on “Cyberformances” and more importantly there is little to say on the matter that makes it any different from an extremely sad (POV) form of Real Performance.”

By my count (and leaving aside idiosyncrasies of punctuation and capitalization), that two-sentence comment by “Jimmi Hugh” contains one misspelling, at least two factual errors, and a total absence of reasoned argument. As a subsequent post by the entry’s original writer pointed out:

“Jimmi Hugh’s initial comment that the sources all reference Second Life is just plain wrong and implies a rather careless initial reading. In addition, to make a flippant passing judgment that this kind of work is “extremely sad” seems to me not in keeping with Wikipedia standards of discourse, especially when it is not backed up with an informed analysis of the current state of performance practice.”

My purpose here is not to argue for or against the cyberformance entry itself—indeed, those Wikipedians who took the trouble to discuss the matter in an informed manner were divided on whether it should be kept or deleted, and as of this writing the decision is ‘no consensus’ (which in Wikipedian jargon means the entry stays for the time being). My point has to do with the way in which it was nominated for deletion in the first place. It’s remotely possible that Jimmi Hugh targeted the cyberformance entry through some obscure logic of his own, perhaps as part of a personal campaign to delete entries beginning with the letter c. But given the tenor of his comment, I can’t help thinking that his attempt to have it deleted is a reflection of virulent assumptions about who and what is worthy—assumptions that I suspect are not just individual to Jimmi Hugh but actually underpin the systemic topical bias of Wikipedia. Certain topics, like games, are in effect pre-validated on Wikipedia; and although I have only the evidence of my own casual browsing of entry histories, I seriously doubt that individual entries pertaining to those topics have to meet much, if any, scrutiny of their right to exist. The bar to entry is set low. Other topics—like, say, an unusual form of performance significantly associated with female practitioners—are forced to fight for initial validation. Fighting to be at the table, so that you can then fight to be heard in the discussion—sound familiar?

WikiProject can encourage people to write entries on missing topics—but it can’t keep the next Jimmi Hugh from reflexively pushing the delete button.

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