The Encyclopedia Must Fail! – Notes on queering Wikipedia

Version of Record: Raval, Noopur (2014). The encyclopedia must fail! – Notes on queering Wikipedia. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.5. doi:10.7264/N37W69GC

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Creative Commons License
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1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Noopur Raval
Jawaharlal Nehru University

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 In 2011, on the occasion of Wikipedia’s tenth anniversary, theorists Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tckaz, lamented that in the English speaking world, the commentary on Wikipedia was a fairly settled issue replete with factoids, infographics, and quantitative analyses of the project’s reach. What was sorely missing, according to them, was a radical critique of the openness and promise of the project. Interestingly, Lovink and Tckaz’s lament anticipated a much larger moment in the history of the Wikimedia movement which was to unfold from 2011 onward. They also identified a field of global scholarship where only a handful of theorists like Giota Alevizou and Lawrence Liang have investigated reading and knowledge making practices in a post-Wikipedia moment.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 In 2011, the Wikimedia Foundation opened its second office (and the first outside of the USA) in India (Reporter, 2010). The years 2012 and 2013 witnessed initiatives such as Wikipedia Zero that make its content available through cellular phone data and SMS services for free in countries of Africa and Asia (Wikimedia Blog, 2013). The year 2013 also witnessed the closing of the India office and the formation of a Global Chapters Association (Meta), an entity parallel to and rivaling the Foundation’s power over the movement. Against the backdrop of these developments, I believe it is the urgent need of the hour to make some critical punctures into the philosophy and execution of an ambitious project like Wikipedia. The concern of this essay is not so much to reassess measures of success for development entities or to provide more efficient outreach alternatives in order to realize the idyllic mission of “free knowledge for all,” but instead, to provide a critical retrospective in order to highlight the totality of transactions, the people and conditions of knowledge production that facilitate or create challenges to diversity programs within any movement. As Alevizou suggests, “Our collective intelligence emerges within specific media and technological infrastructures and platforms that have specific biases. If it is to avoid overthrowing academic and publishing elites for a new media-savvy and literate elite, we need to interrogate Wikipedia in terms of its social and political properties and limits.” (Alevizou, 2006)

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 What does it really mean to foster diversity? What may one achieve by populating a space with more women or people of non-binary genders? In a post-2011 moment, where Wikipedia is indeed the established mainstream source of knowledge and decentralized in its governance, is it time to rethink the nature of change beyond what Foucault called the ‘positive unconscious of knowledge’ itself. While I agree with Larry Sanger when he calls Wikipedia as the common ground “to organise enormous amounts of labour for a single intellectual purpose,” is the nature of these labours, their social and political contexts and the identities of those who participate being rendered transparent in the process?

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 As a participant in the Critical Point of View conference jointly organized by Institute of Network Cultures and the Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore, headed by Lovink and Tcakz, my encounter with the “back end” of Wikipedia was an academic one, diving headlong into questions of sock puppetry, anonymity and the (in) famed policy of neutrality. I started contributing content to the English Wikipedia in 2012. On 7th January, 2012, I chanced upon a news article on the life and works of Bama, a Dalit writer from the state of Tamil Nadu in the southern part of India and immediately recollected having read Bama’s landmark work in college, Sangati (1994), a novel that revolved around the lives and interiorities of women in a Dalit commune in some part of the state. By January 2012, having become a regular contributor, I decided to create an article for Bama. Within precisely two minutes of creating the article, it was nominated for deletion (Wikipedia). In the next two days, I argued my way out of my first Wikipedia deletion and the article survived. While having repeatedly heard about the unevenness of the Wikipedia’s knowledge geographies and the presence of fervent deletionism, that someone would decide Bama, a pioneer of marginalized women voices and a noted author with multiple web links, mentions and more; not noteworthy by Wikiverse standards within two minutes of its creation, baffled me. At the same time, being associated with the Wikimedia Foundation on a project, made me want to belong to the editor group that understands the complex process of consensus building and negotiations on the platform.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 My experiments with editing that follow in the last section of this essay must be seen as a journey of engagement that strives to maintain this strategic insider/outsider position in relation to the encyclopedia in order to retain my agency to make knowledge interventions. Failure and queering in this essay then, go beyond their literal definitions and become metaphorical for a mode of sustained but often frictional engagement with the encyclopaedia where one can formulate an alternate imagination of Wikipedia. In doing so, as I will illustrate, I do not only intend to speak to Wikipedians or allies but also to a much larger audience that floats seamlessly across news and information networks that regularly privilege and archive knowledge on places, personalities, scandals and more. Thus, if Wikipedia must simultaneously become the place where we write, the book that we publish and the classroom that we imagine, the tropes of failure and queering must be engaged in each context to generate a productive mode of practice that posits the encyclopedia as a formation or an ongoing process rather than a fixed site. Phrases like “live” and “anyone can edit” not only signify its instability but also the much desired dynamism and the hope that we can modify it. In the course of this essay, I will endeavour to make two provocations to move the debate away from the preoccupation with numbers and participation. In my first provocation, I wish to borrow from political philosopher Hannah Arendt, the idea of “having a right to rights.” If one tries to imagine the political economy of Wikipedia akin to a democratic, self governing State form that upholds the right to expression, Arendt’s formulation becomes extremely pertinent. Proposed towards the end of Part Two of The Origins of Totalitarianism (Arendt, 1968), Arendt’s plea wasn’t geared towards justice in a State where citizens are granted “fundamental rights” but rather towards the condition of statelessness that excludes millions of refugees, migrants and those that do not easily belong or are not recognized by a single nation state. Where does one seek recourse if one does not even feature in framework that relies on rights based discourse?

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 4 Returning to Wikipedia, an encyclopedia where “anyone can write!” albeit within the framework of rules and liberties (the rights only conferred upon editors), the situation may be less dramatic than Arendt’s post-War Europe but is no different in producing “unbelonged” and unintelligible citizens on the fringes of the Wikipedia community; some of whom I met, interacted with and tried to train at the National Crafts’ Museum in New Delhi as a part of India’s first GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) project where employees of the museum and outside volunteers alike would come together to learn “how to edit Wikipedia” to write what they knew or liked. Such Wikipedia-GLAM programs have achieved moderate to high success as content digitization programs in many North American, European and Australian arts institutions.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 5 However, my personal experience of writing to and approaching over ten different Indian cultural institutions made me realize that the approach to digitization, the attitude towards sharing cultural resources as well as the infrastructure and literacy levels of the staff involved – were all very different than what had been reported in the experiences of other Wikipedians-in-residence. For instance, the guidelines and GLAM resources developed by this mixed group (globally) could not help us work around the lack of computer literacy of staff members at the Crafts Museum. Similarly, unlike the Crafts Museum, most of the archives the group was dealing with (like the Smithsonian Archives and NARA) were not struggling with sourcing metadata, finding primary documentation in English, negotiating for volunteering activities within employees’ office time. Unlike Wikipedia’s imagined/expected contributor, these were mostly craft workers or those associated with crafts and folk art management with fluency in Hindi language and hardly two people in a group of seven knew how to use a computer. The problem is multi-layered and the “learning curves” huge. Achal Prabhala, a Wikipedia researcher and activist proposed the ‘Oral Citations’ project in 2011 to overcome Wikipedia’s heavy dependency on the printed word (Cohen, 2011). As Prabhala explained, “Germany, whose entire population is a fraction of India’s online population has a massive footprint on Wikipedia. While a country like India is behind … (P.K, 2011)”. The oral citations project was also one of the longest running threads in the history of Wikipedia mailing lists. Its Meta documentation page does not show any activity beyond September 2011 (Meta, 2011). This was perhaps my first encounter with the absolute paradox of open – in that making a platform open access does not automatically translate to equality of participation – ease of access or cultural acceptance of the medium. The question remains – where does one start? Does one wait for these thousands of un-become (those who cannot participate and cannot be recognized) digital citizens standing in the shadows to gradually emerge and adopt new technologies or does one rework the project’s imagination to make space for various stakeholders who may not speak/write and document in the same way?

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The second provocation I wish to make is about the relationship between the technological and the political. Technologies in general are not apolitical and the rise of a new technology does not render obsolete the ideological. Hence, it is very important to consider minutely the process of production, the decisions taken therein as not completely innocent or mechanical in order to achieve a larger goal. In the past decade of Wikipedia’s growth, it has witnessed some major expansions and initiatives like the Wikipedia Offline Project to support reading access to Wikimedia content without an Internet connection and Wikipedia Zero to to enable mobile access to Wikipedia for free in developing countries. Its sister project – Commons is one of the largest repositories of free audio-visual content online. At the same time, maps from Commons have also been implicated in contemporary historical conflicts. I propose that these acts are all constitutive of Wikipedia’s political and social life beyond its existence as an encyclopaedia and a solely virtual community. Also, each of these acts is broken down- into what Latour would call numerous “actants,” each of whom plays a pivotal role in configuring what the online community stands for and looks like. At the same time, the systemic bias, the lack of non-male, non-white participants are also not merely results of an organic, laissez faire kind of evolution of a virtual community.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 So, what, then is the collective effect of these diverse labour practices on the very nature of the knowledge produced on Wikipedia? Do the policies of noteworthiness and neutrality render transparent the identities, processes and the site on which “factual knowledge” is produced? To cite an instance, when I was contributing to the article on Asaram Bapu, a self styled “Indian Godman” who was arrested on charges of sexual assault of a minor, his article was the subject of frequent vandalism and controversial editing. For two self-identified female editors including the author, it seemed logical to include news reports of the potency tests conducted on Asaram since details of the victim’s hymen examination existed already. However, as one identified-male editor, Mr K. argued:

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The victim results establish the fact that she was assaulted so there is no need for expert analysis to add them to the article. But the potency results imply that Bapu was capable of the assault. Per BLP he is supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty through proper analysis, including DNA, by medical and legal experts and proceedings in a court of law. Insinuating that he could have done it goes over that reasonable BLP barrier. (Talk Page archive, Asaram Bapu)

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 3 What constitutes the reasonable BLP (Biographies of Living Persons) barrier? Does the famed Wikipedia “good faith” policy override it? Through a consensus of three versus two, the seemingly voyeuristic information on hymen examination stayed while the information on the potency test was removed because even while applying BLP rules, editor discretion and consensus building play an important role. This account is a classic case of mediation of information through policies and the knowledge of the masses. A month later, the article also witnessed a raging debate on the usage of the word ‘rape’ in the article or discussion pages at all because unless established, rape would be a provocative word and imply criminality despite the fact that news publications worldwide, from where Wikipedians were citing, were constantly calling it “alleged rape.” One can always attribute zealous objectivism to a bunch of editors but what is of more concern is the solidified rules and policies that can be instrumentalized to systematically include or exclude factual information.

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And, hence the encyclopedia must fail!

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 Queer theorist Jack/Judith Halberstam’s book The Queer Art of Failure proposes “failure” as an alternate methodology to uncover the hidden absurdities within mainstream cultures (2011). For Halberstam, comedy films, anthropomorphic cartoon series and other pop culture products that seem absurd on the surface, become sites to mount a critique on heteronormativity. Halberstam also brings back the tropes of irreverence and playfulness to “queer” history writing itself. To extend Halberstam’s proposition, and to revisit what I suggested in the beginning, failure does not necessarily mean a state or a result but can also be a process—one that transforms an object’s purpose and does something that it wasn’t envisioned to do. It is only when the Wikipedia we know today fails as a model that it may allow for subaltern voices to carve their own spaces using the concepts of collaboration, knowledge making and the Open principle.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 To contextualize Wikimedia movement’s gender gap within a larger history of gender equality movements that make interventions on behalf of women and people of non-binary genders, the “gender gap” as it is called in the Wikipedia movement is abysmal. A 2011 study showed that about 91% of Wikipedia’s editors self-identified as male (Poeter, 2011). In 2012, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) blog reported that it continues to be the case that nine out of ten editors are male (Gender Gap Strategy 2013). Simultaneously, the movement has been constantly battling a decline in contributors since 2006 and more recently a sharp decline in page views. While the WMF and various local chapters in different countries have taken initiatives to “reduce the gender gap” by increased outreach to women and soliciting research on why women don’t or can’t contribute to Wikipedia, the real question would be to ask what women’s participation looks like. How will populating a space like Wikipedia with more women or non-male participants change the nature of participation? Do quantitative drives towards diversity on a large scale make an impact on the culture and content of a community? What does it really mean to talk about diversity beyond tokenism and make strategic breaks within movements caught in the flows of migrating anonymous (editor) bodies and collectives with no manifestos or ideologies driving them? How does one then begin to rewrite Wikipedia while writing on Wikipedia?

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 3 To arrive at one of the possible solutions, I will briefly discuss an intervention to illustrate the need for smaller and sustained tactical interventions over mass drives for women and queer participation. In the aftermath of a gruesome gang rape incident in December 2012 in the capital city of New Delhi, India has seen a surge in activism around women’s rights and sexual violence. Since then, various non-governmental organizations, activists, students and journalists have been organizing conferences, public seminars and other fora to contribute towards creating safe spaces. As a part of this drive, I participated in and conceptualized a “Wikipedia editing session” in a social justice hackathon led by the non-profit Breakthrough (Sarah, 2013). This idea is in line with numerous such editing sessions to “edit equality into Wikipedia.” During the hackathon, participants (women and men) were not only told about how to contribute to Wikipedia but explained why contributing to Wikipedia matters, especially for women. Then, the editing group located articles they wanted to work on namely ‘Mathura rape case,’ ‘Vishaka committee guidelines,’ ‘Bhanwar Devi rape case’ and others. These articles were chosen not only because they are about gender or violence but also because legal judgments on the Mathura case and Bhanwari case, both contributed to changing the legal discourse and the terminology around non-consensual sexual acts in the Indian context. So, our aim was not only to increase content on the encyclopedia but to take stock of the immediate history and recent landmark decisions in India surrounding women’s rights. After initial editing, the session led to an important question—does Wikipedia contain information on all “noteworthy incidents” of sexual violence against Dalit women in India? To summarize, the activity of editing became a back and forth journey into asking questions of Wikipedia and recognizing lacunae in histories (of women in this instance) built through Wikipedia. This article does not wish to glorify this initiative specifically and acknowledges it as part of many such initiatives across the globe such as #tooFEW (led by HASTAC scholars) and editing sessions at various universities like Brown University and Oxford University that have tried to insert the legacies of humanities and social sciences back into technological participation.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 2 To conclude, this essay tries to map some philosophical concerns that could only be gleaned from a combination of praxis and theory while working within, without, inside, outside and beside the Wikimedia movement. It demonstrates that there is an urgent need to raise similar concerns in order to mount a critique of the current ideologies (or disciplinary regimes) of ‘open’ and ‘free’ in digital culture to assess their outcomes and prevent them from turning into what Frederic Jameson called persistent master narratives of history. There is a need to increase the total number of non-male participants on such projects but numbers may alone not resolve deeper questions of colour, gender, rights and visibility.

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19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Alevizou, P. (2006 йил 03-September). Encyclopedia or Cosmopedia? Collective Intelligence and Knowledge Technospaces. Retrieved 2014 йил 01-February from Wikimania 2006: http://wikimania2006.wikimedia.org/wiki/Proceedings:PA1/Full_text

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Arendt, H. (1968). Imperialism: part two of the origins of totalitarianism. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Cohen, N. (2011 йил 07-August). When Knowledge isn’t written does it still count? . The New York Times .

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Gender Gap Strategy 2013. (n.d.). From Meta: http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Gender_gap_strategy_2013

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Halberstam, J. (2005). In a queer time and place: Transgender bodies, subcultural lives. . NYU Press.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Halberstam, J. (2011). The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Lovink, G., & Tkacz, N. (2011). The “C” in CPOV: Introduction to the CPOV reader. In G. a. Lovink, Critical point of view: A Wikipedia reader (pp. 9-13). Institute of Network Cultures.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Meta. (n.d.). From https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wikimedia_Chapters_Association/Tasks_(Brainstorming)

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Meta. (2011). Retrieved 2014 from http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Research:Oral_Citations#September_2011

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 P.K, J. (2011 йил 25-August). Oral Citations to be a part of Wikipedia. The Economic Times .

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Poeter, D. (2011). Infographic: Wikipedia’s Gender Gap Exposed. From PC Magazine: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2408256,00.asp

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Reporter, S. (2010). The Hindu. From http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/internet/wikipedia-turns-to-india-to-set-up-office/article863643.ece: http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/internet/wikipedia-turns-to-india-to-set-up-office/article863643.ece

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Sarah, L. (2013 December). Taking back the tech – using Wikipedia to stop violence against women. From Rising Voices: http://rising.globalvoicesonline.org/blog/2013/12/13/taking-back-the-tech-using-wikipedia-to-stop-violence-against-women/

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Talk Page archive – Asaram Bapu. (n.d.). From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Asaram_Bapu/Archive_4

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Wikimedia Blog. (2013 йил 08-November ). From https://blog.wikimedia.org/tag/wikipedia-zero/

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Wikipedia. (n.d.). From https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Bama_(writer)&dir=prev&action=history

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