Meltdown at Wikipedia?

Knifed-Wikipedia-Logo

Things do not look good at the online encyclopedia. I addressed some of the relevant issues, at a very broad level, in a paper I gave at Wikimania in July. But things have gone very badly wrong very fast in the past ten days or so.

Rather than go into details myself, I’ll just link to a blog post by long-term Wikimedian Liam Wyatt: “Strategy and Controversy”. As he puts it, “there is a battle going on at the top for its soul.”

For more, see for instance Pete Forsyth’s blog and his posts “Wikimedia Foundation Ousts Community-Elected Trustee” and “Grants and Transparency: Wikimedia Foundation Should Follow Standards it Sets”. Or look at two stories from the Wikipedia Signpost (the site’s own internal newspaper): “WMF Board Dismisses Community-Elected Trustee” and (especially) “The WMF’s Age of Discontent”.

Then if you really want to go down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia politics, check out the wikimedia-l mailing list for December (start here or here and follow the threads) and for January (start here, here, and perhaps above all here). Then look at Jimmy Wales’s talk page on Wikipedia (this is how it looks right now), this article on one of the new WMF Board members, or this talk page on Wikimedia’s “meta” wiki, about the “WMF Transparency Gap.”

I said back in July that the WMF (an educational charity, after all) “now finds itself in an climate dominated by for-profit corporations that claim to be able to offer the same or similar services as it provides, but more efficiently and effectively. It doesn’t know whether to remodel itself along the lines of these commercial competitors or keep closer to its historic roots.” The conflict between these two tendencies is today well and truly out in the open. The only question is whether the battle has already been lost.

Update: The best and most accessible summary of things to date comes from William Beutler’s post, “The Crisis at New Montgomery Street”.

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Wikipedia’s Women Problem

We Can Edit

There’s much to say about women and Wikipedia… for instance, about the so-called “gender gap” that (it is said) can be seen both among the encyclopedia’s editors, who are overwhelmingly male, as well as in the articles themselves, which tend to treat topics historically coded as male at greater length and with more seriousness than they cover topics associated with women.

Indeed, a lot has been written about the topic, but one of the smartest commentators on these issues was Adrianne Wadewitz: see her HASTACS blog, and entries such as “Wikipedia’s gender gap and the complicated reality of systemic gender bias”.

Wadewitz mentions what she calls “categorygate,” the furor sparked by Amanda Filipacchi’s New York Times Op-Ed: “Wikipedia’s Sexism Towards Women Novelists”. See also James Gleick’s article for the New York Review of Books blog: “Wikipedia’s Women Problem”.

In this context, it’s worth noting that though there are now (roughly parallel) categories for (say) women novelists and male novelists on the English Wikipedia, this is not the case on the Spanish Wikipedia. Here (for instance) the category escritoras is simply a subset of the broader category escritores, and there is no corresponding division of “escritores masculinos.”

This disparity between the treatment of (women) writers on the two Wikipedias is, of course, partly for linguistic reasons, stemming from differences between English and Spanish. But only partly. And in any case, why should such different ways of encoding gendered identities within language remain sacrosanct?

Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez

Anyone who teaches Latin American literature, as I do, has been profoundly affected by Gabriel García Márquez, who has died at 87. For some he may have been their entry into the field. And he certainly is for very many of our students. His short stories and novellas are accessible and (sometimes deceptively) easy to read, so they are often taught at high school or in introductory university classes. More to the point, García Márquez, or what was said about García Márquez, helped shape an image of Latin American literature, and what it meant to study it.

“Magical realism,” the literary style with which he was indelibly associated, seemed to combine exotic sensuality with a vague sense of political commitment. It promised a happy coincidence between aesthetics and politics, such that even the act of reading might make you a better person if not help change the world. No wonder that reading the Colombian Nobel laureate, and especially his classic One Hundred Years of Solitude, was so often experienced as a life-changing event. The spokesperson of the Swedish Academy, at García Márquez’s Nobel Prize ceremony, described his writing as a “spiced and life-giving brew.” This suggestion of vitality crossed with intoxication characterized much of the reception of the Latin American “Boom,” which also included writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. Moreover, it set the tone for our expectations of the region’s literature as a whole.

But “magical realism” is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is an excellent advertisement: it draws readers in, providing them with rationale and explanation for narratives that might otherwise feel bizarre or even off-putting. On the other hand, it is a reductive and restricting framework that denies the sheer variety of Latin American cultural expressions. It is not really a style characteristic of very many authors. Indeed, it is hardly that characteristic of García Márquez himself, supposedly its prime exponent. I have seen many students search for (and claim to find) magical realism throughout texts such as Chronicle of a Death Foretold or “Nobody Writes to the Colonel,” an exercise that sadly ends up massively missing the point. Victim of the appealing and tremendously successful image of Latin American letters that it had helped to create, García Márquez’s work too often fell prey to its own success.

For these reasons, and perhaps also because of a certain satedness, García Márquez’s work is today sometimes treated as a kind of “gateway drug” for students, rather than as a serious object of scholarship. It is as though we give novices a sniff of a levitating maiden or a child with the tail of a pig, holding out the promise of more of the same, only then to turn around and forcefeed them testimonial literature or avant-garde experimentation, colonial chronicle or postmodern play. No sooner are they hooked on the Boom than we try to wean them off it. Meanwhile, there is less in the way of sustained study and attention to García Márquez than ever. Which is surely a pity.

For there is no doubt that Gabo, as he was (over-)familiarly called, was indeed a great writer, if not always a consistent one. One Hundred Years of Solitude will surely remain the book with which he is most associated, if only for its daring ambition to encapsulate the region’s history in a quasi-Biblical arc from Genesis to the Apocalypse, all via the story of one (admittedly sprawling) family in a small town in an out-of-the-way corner of the Colombian littoral. This is Macondo as allegory for the Americas, a transposition that jumps straight from the local to the continental, and even the universal. But perhaps his true masterpiece is The Autumn of the Patriarch, a sustained investigation of authoritarianism by means of ventriloquy and formal inventiveness. The General in His Labyrinth will also have its supporters, as an examination of the paradoxical powerlessness of power, and of the political quagmires that were written in to the region’s constitutions from the outset.

But it is surely worth returning even to the lighter and more sentimental work–and here I include the wildly successful Love in the Time of Cholera–perhaps to rip it, similarly, from the somewhat sickly embrace in which it is cherished and held. For there is and was a harder underside to García Márquez, belied by the almost kitsch picture that he painted both (too) often in his fiction, and for the camera and the press. Maybe it would be best to regard “magical realism” as a rather cynical joke at the expense of its many fans. Maybe it is only a sense of irreverence, in the face of this most revered of writers, that can allow us truly to read García Márquez as he has seldom been read before.

Finally, let me point out with some pride the ways in which our students can give back and produce public knowledge. I taught texts by García Márquez back in 2008, and again in 2010, in courses that had a Wikipedia component with the projects “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem” and “Magical Realism Reconsidered”. Both times, students were asked to write or edit articles on the online encyclopedia, and both times among those articles was the one on García Márquez. And although this entry never became a “featured article” (one of the 0.01% very best), it was adjudged a “good article” (in the top 0.1%) as frankly they quite transformed it: providing sources and references and fleshing it out into a true public resource. So when, unsurprisingly, on the author’s death the numbers visiting his Wikipedia page rocket–from an average of about 1,500 a day in March, to almost 100,000 on Thursday and then almost 210,000 yesterday–it’s a strange but rather satisfying feeling to realize that all those people are reading my students’ words.

Gabriel García Márquez Wikipedia screenshot

Adrianne Wadewitz

Adrianne Wadewitz

“Awadewit hates us,” murmured one of a small group of students as they shuffled into my office. I was teaching a course on the Latin American dictator novel, a course that I had given the title “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem.” One of the assignments asked students to write or edit Wikipedia articles. And as part of this project, we had come into contact with numerous Wikipedia editors, who often went by strange monikers such as EyeSerene, Wrad, Karanacs, and Geometry Guy. One of the editors who stood out and had helped the most went by the name of Awadewit. And Awadewit had bad news for my students: large parts of their contributions to the article they were editing, about the classic nineteenth-century text Facundo, were plagiarized. Hence this meeting to discuss what felt like a crisis.

Awadewit was firm but absolutely fair with my students. There was no tolerance for plagiarism, and the relevant sections were cut from the article forthwith. But there was no demonization, either. The students were well-intentioned, but hazy as to how to deal properly with sources. This was a wake-up call, and a sharp but surely effective way to learn what plagiarism was and why it was significant. This was a lesson they were not going to forget. Where they were fortunate was in that there was still time to fix the problem. And indeed, after plenty more work from the students as well as other Wikipedia volunteers, “Facundo” went on to pass peer review and be declared one of the very few (0.5%) of the online encyclopedia’s entries that are deemed “good articles.”

What was extraordinary, however, was the effort and care with which Awadewit had reviewed the article and my students’ contributions. Tracking down the plagiarism, for instance, had required reading some of the relevant books and scholarly articles that the students had used as sources. This effort was well above and beyond what was expected of these pseudonymous and anonymous editors we had been learning to work with in this assignment. It was no wonder that Awadewit had won deserved renown on Wikipedia not only as a prolific writer of so-called “featured articles” (the 0.01% of entries that are a cut above even “good articles”), particularly in the field of British Romanticism, but also as a careful and conscientious, but very supportive, copy-editor and mentor to other editors whatever their interests or expertise.

At some point, Awadewit and I started exchanging emails, from which I discovered that behind the moniker was Adrianne Wadewitz, a PhD student in English at Indiana University. We had a series of conversations I consistently found illuminating and inspiring, not least because this was someone from a similar background with similar goals. But she was much more familiar with Wikipedia than I was, and had been thinking longer about some of the issues involved in using it in the classroom. She was above all passionate about opening up scholarship beyond the Ivory Tower, and about writing articles on (particularly) women authors such as the eighteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Wikipedia offered space and scope for introducing such figures to a new audience, while retaining scholarly standards and rigor. At the same time, she and I were dissatisfied in similar ways with the current state of the encyclopedia, not least the limited and constricting ways in which (particularly) literary topics were treated. She was unsure about how exactly to bridge the gap between Wikipedia and the academy, or how to calm the mutual suspicions on both sides, which was in part why she still adopted a pseudonym online, albeit one that retrospectively seems relatively transparent.

As time went on, and as academic or pedagogical use of Wikipedia and other online digital resources came to seem more respectable, if still often experimental and cutting edge, Adrianne felt more comfortable with her dual role, and even began assuming a leadership role. She changed her Wikipedia username to Wadewitz, and organized or was invited to seminars and workshops in the burgeoning field of the “Digital Humanities” around the country. A few years ago, she invited me to participate in a panel she organized in Bloomington for a conference on “Writing Across the Curriculum,” and at last I had the chance to meet her in person. It was a delight. She was as smart, charming yet serious, thoughtful but good humoured, as I had expected; if anything, more so. We chatted about her work (she was on the job market by then) and it was clear she had a bright future.

Over the years, we have sporadically been in touch via email and Facebook, as well as on Wikipedia. In the wake of the Bloomington conference we co-wrote an article. Adrianne moved to Los Angeles, where she had a postdoctoral fellowship at Occidental College, learned to drive (in LA, quite a feat), and took up a new activity, rock-climbing, about which she began writing articles (especially about women climbers) on Wikipedia. She became involved in HASTAC, the pioneering “Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory,” and she asked me to write the Wikipedia article on FemTechNet, a feminist project to rectify online bias, not least on sites such as Wikipedia. She wrote frequent and insightful blog posts on issues such as gender representation online, and reflections on pedagogy and teaching. All in all, Adrianne was becoming an authority, and also an inspiration and mentor to others. She was interviewed and quoted by the Huffington Post and the BBC.

Most recently, she and I had been discussing the Wiki Education Foundation, a new entity spun off by the Wikimedia Foundation to run their educational programs in the US and Canada. I had proposed that Adrianne join their board, and I was happy when the WEF took up the suggestion with some alacrity. She was a perfect match for them, and I hoped that she would help reinvigorate and give direction to the fledgling organization. At the end of February, I happened to be going to LA for a talk, and got in touch to see if she had time for a coffee or the like. In the end, she drove across town to have lunch with me, and on a beautiful Southern California spring day, we spent an hour or so chatting about the WEF but also about the next chapter of her life: her recent job interviews, and the prospect of perhaps moving across the country to the East Coast. Again, it was lovely to see her, and it was good to see her happy and excited about the future.

Last week came the dreadful news that Adrianne had died, following a climbing accident in Joshua Tree National Park.

Adrianne’s death is a profound loss. She was a leader in Digital Humanities and in Open Education, and one of the most insightful and knowledgeable commenters on Wikipedia, pedagogy, and gender. She affected many lives, perhaps more than she herself would have suspected, such as those of my students whom she guided and inspired. A couple of times in the past few years, Adrianne suggested that we co-write an article that she proposed calling something like “The Professor and the Wikipedian.” The sad thing is that now she will never take up her rightful place as professor herself. But on the other hand, she already played both roles for so many people. Indeed, she was professor, Wikipedian, activist, feminist, critic, writer, editor, scholar, as well as pianist, climber, daughter, and so on. Awadewit, Wadewitz, Adrianne had so much impact on so many people. Her memory and her legacy will endure.

open

Here is my contribution to a recent workshop on “Beyond Walls: Teaching and Learning in the Open.” This was part of UBC’s Open Access week.

I start from a brief discussion of my Wikipedia project from a few years ago, Murder, Madness, and Mayhem. I go on, however, to a more general discussion of the role of the university at a time when there is both increasing production of the common and ever new attempts to construct new enclosures that would restrict and commodify our common knowledge and intellect.

In particular, I talk about the possibilities for a program I’m teaching on at the moment, Arts One. More on this soon…

yellow

Ha! A funny (but nice) comment on a talk I gave recently in Southampton:

Check out Jon Beasley-Murray’s talk here. Proof that you can turn up straight from the airport with too many bright yellow, text only slides and a low key presentation style and still carry an audience through lots of well grounded theorising accessible to non academics like me. If you want to explore why there is so much more to Wikipedia than meets the eye while side-stepping the cliched debates about its worth (reliability etc etc), then get a cup of tea and and enjoy this. (Paul Sweeney, “Southampton E-Learning Symposium 2011”)

I was rather pleased with the yellow background for my Powerpoint slides; as you can see from this blog, I generally like yellow as a background for text. Oh well.

It’s true that the trip was a little crazy: after a transatlantic flight we turned up at Heathrow and were met by a man with a hired car who drove us straight to the conference pretty much just in time for my talk. And then we took a lift back into London, only to be swallowed up for hours by rush-hour traffic, inching along somewhere in the environs of Barnes when we were hoping to be going to New Cross. Thirty-six hours later, we flew back.