History, historiography and Wikipedia

The Iraq War: Wikipedia Historiography

I’ve been doing some talking and thinking about post-digital recently. A big part of this involves how our
everyday lives have been – and are being – shaped by exposure to online networks and how this
immersion in networks of practice permeates into our real-world thinking.

Usually this is best revealed through our behaviour
and expectations, but colleague and friend Chris Applegate pointed me towards this
awe-inspiring blog post
by James Bridle that seems to neatly invert the notion of post-digital by
re-imagining a very digital product through a very non-digital channel.

Specifically, the James has published in book-form the entire series of edits made to the Wikipedia article on the Iraq War across a five year period from December 2004 to November 2009 – from invasion/liberation to retreat/victory. 

The series totals 12 volumes and incorporates a total of 12,000 changes and almost 7,000 pages. It's truly awesome.

This idea absolutely inspired me. It sets out and makes tangible the idea of history not as a fixed entity of knowledge for knowing, but as a historiography; a
fluid discourse; a body of knowledge in flux.

Ex-Cluetrainee and Berkman Center Fellow,
David Weinberger, in his book Everything is Miscellaneous, terms this process social
the blogger in question, James Bridle, puts it more eloquently when he states that Wikipedia is:

"not only a resource for collating all
human knowledge, but a framework for understanding how that knowledge came to
be and to be understood; what was allowed to stand and what was not; what we
agree on, and what we cannot.

I cannot agree more.

Call it what you will, the sooner we – and particularly those in positions of authority, influence and power – can recognise and accept that the representation and manifestation of knowledge and
power is a dynamic, fluid, process that yields meaning and suggests outcomes that change over time, the sooner contemporary society will

The Future of Wikipedia: great model, flawed detail

There was a great article about Wikipedia by the Cambridge academic David Runciman way back in the June issue of the London Review of Books. They've kindly made it available online here.

I've been meaning to get round to posting about it as it is possibly the first article written by non-Web 2.0 evangelists that a) made sense of Wikipedia's complexity and b) offered additional insight into the future success of Wikipedia and other wiki projects.

Runciman makes the case for WIkiepdia's strength lying in the ability of multiple edits to be made to knowledge. For me, this is the key to any smart analysis of Wikipedia. Too many media commentators dismiss this as an indicator of Wikipedia's unreliability and weakness:

"One of the remarkable achievements of Wikipedia is to show that on the
internet Gresham’s Law [which states that bad money will always drive out good]
can work in reverse: Wikipedia has turned into a
relatively reliable source of information on the widest possible range
of subjects because, on the whole, the good drives out the bad. When
someone sabotages or messes with an otherwise sound entry, there are
plenty of people out there who see it as their job to undo the damage,
often within seconds of its happening."

But even better Runciman offers an compelling argument as to why the Wiki 'open edit' model to knowledge creation online works for Wikipedia and other 'pure' knowledge-based projects and not for other commercial activities. Citing the case of the Los Angeles Times and its attempt to crowd-source a column via a wiki which ended in disaster, Runciman argues that the paper's editors made two mistakes:

"First, its editors seemed to
imagine that a wikitorial would edit itself, so they left it alone
while they devoted themselves to other things (like editing ‘real’
columns). But as Wikipedia shows, freedom requires constant vigilance,
and a column will write itself only if someone is on hand to fight off
all the people who will try to wreck it.

Second, a newspaper editorial
is actually a much less open-ended form of writing than an encyclopedia
entry. Newspaper writing has a shelf-life: it appears and is read at a
particular time, often on a particular day. As a result, contributors
have an incentive to try to skew the whole process at the moment of
maximum impact. The Wikipedia principle that all mistakes can be
corrected (so that it is hardly worth trying to introduce them) has
much less force in the case of newspapers, because by the time any
corrections have been made most readers will have moved on

But Runciman also avoids being a total blinkered Wikipedia fanboy by highlighting a very, very interesting example which could well be the undoing of Wikipedia. What's fascinating is that having seen many predictions for the future of Wikipedia I haven't ever come across this one – although I have seen it happening in real life, so Runciman's predictions are not without evidence.

Alluding to the title of his article, Boiling a Frog, Runciman believes that a growing problem for Wikipedia could be that it is slowing generating a self-referential cycle of information/knowledge built from online media sources – sources which increasingly rely on Wikipedia as a source of fact.

Ironically, this situation arises from Wikipedia's anxiety for referencing its information from external, 'verifiable' sources (which includes the media) to avoid the potentially emerging situation whereby Wikipedia "start[s] to generate free-floating facts out of nothing".

I can't recall the specific example where I've seen this happen, but in short: someone edited Wikipedia falsely to suggest a European football team had a ridiculous mascot and team tradition. This was covered by the media (who had sourced it from Wikipedia) and as such the 'fact' became 'verifiable' thus making it 'true' according to Wikipedia's standards.

As a footnote to this, The Guardian published some more recent research on Wikipedia showing that the community of editors was crystalling around a smaller, tight niche of participants. Unfortunately I've not yet thought about how this news influences Runciman's smart, knowledgeable analysis.

Tags: Wikipedia, David Runciman, Research