Conference Report Session I: History and Politics of Free Knowledge

Posted: September 25, 2010 at 8:43 pm  |  By: Andreas Möllenkamp  |  Tags: , , , , , ,  |  1 Comment

Author: Stefan Merten

I enjoyed the first session of the German language CPOV conference Wikipedia: Ein kritischer Standpunkt. In fact to me it was one of the most interesting of all five sessions. Here is a report about this session which has been attended by about 100 persons. It took place on Saturday, September 25th 2010 in Leipzig.

Ulrich Johannes Schneider: Forms of Production of Networked Knowledge since the Enlightenment

The session started with a very interesting and relevant talk by Ulrich Johannes Schneider. Schneider’s talk was titled Forms of Production of Networked Knowledge since the Enlightenment. As director of the library of the University of Leipzig he is an expert for encyclopedias. As such he reminded us that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and in his talk explained what that means. He started with the observation that there are many persons who are annoyed that Wikipedia is not exact and that there are errors. Schneider is not annoyed by this. Instead he made clear that this is the normal perspective on every encyclopedia. For instance Diderot as the one who created the first encyclopedia ever was annoyed by his work. Right after he completed the first encyclopedia Diderot wanted to create a new, improved one. Since that time there were always attempts to create improved encyclopedias. However, during the print era such attempts for an improved version often failed.
Schneider outlined that what is new in an encyclopedia as a form of knowledge is that while usually knowledge is presented in books an encyclopedia presents knowledge in the form of articles. However, the only way to present knowledge in the form of articles is by an alphabetical sorting system. This is different for instance to scientific sorting systems which usually try to sort the topics of a certain field in an hierarchical way.
Encyclopedias pull knowledge to the surface. They do not explore topics in depth but may contain links to deeper knowledge. Schneider mentioned that there are also scientific encyclopedias which are usually introductions into a certain field. Another aspect of this pulling knowledge to the surface is that you expect an encyclopedia to have articles which are comprehensible for the average reader. This also differs from scientific texts which need to be comprehensible for experts in the field.
Another common critique in universal encyclopedias is that they are not systematic. Schneider made clear that knowledge as such is not systematic and especially if you want to present knowledge from all fields the alphabetical organization is the only one possible. Besides presenting knowledge from all fields in one encyclopedia it is also common for single encyclopedia articles to combine knowledge from all fields. This particularly includes the practical applicability of knowledge. As an example he told us about an article about vanilla. In an article the content of an original scientific book about the plant was used but also a cooking recipe.
Schneider made clear that an editorial process is decisive for an encyclopedia. The single authors of an article disappear in this process. Of course in practice the editorial process is a struggle. For instance the scientific author claims that the article is still not complete whereas the publisher stresses that the book needs to be printed. Schneider also emphasized that in the editorial process the creation of a certain perspective is necessary. Of course if you have a certain perspective this can be criticized.
Schneider finished with three qualities he finds important for an encyclopedia. First an encyclopedia may not be too difficult. Second
an encyclopedia needs to be written in a single, non-specialized language. Third the success of an encyclopedia is bound to an
audience. In the case of book based encyclopedias this is clear because the publishers can not survive if the audience doesn’t like the encyclopedia.
One question from the discussion was whether there have been encyclopedias with a specific perspective. Schneider replied that there have been such encyclopedias such as a catholic encyclopedia.
As I said, I liked this talk very much because he told us what an encyclopedia is supposed to be. For many criticizers of Wikipedia I have the impression that they want something different from an encyclopedia and in this sense I think their critique is void.

Felix Stalder: From Free Knowledge to a Democratic Order of Knowledge

The second talk in this section came from Felix Stalder. Felix’ talk had the title From Free Knowledge to a Democratic Order of Knowledge. One of the things I liked very much in his talk was the opening appeal that instead of starting from some theoretically thinkable features people should think about feasible alternatives.
Felix explained that today terms like “free”, “open” and “community” are central in information capitalism and that participation can be seen as the new spectacle. In this sense it is very important to distinguish between the frontend of a web application and the backend.
For instance in Facebook the frontends are open and decentralized. The backends, however, i.e. the software which processes all the input and the data, is proprietary, non-open and closed. By this there is a discrepancy between the public and the private knowledge. Felix made clear that this is inherent to commercial products. For advertisement to work the user is seen as the product which is sold to advertisers. Google is another example here.
Felix went on with three guiding principles he sees for a democratic order of knowledge. First the legitimation needs to come from active
participation. Second monopolies of knowledge need to be prevented. Third knowledge of minorities needs to be protected. The remainder of the talk checked how Wikipedia can be assessed regarding these points.
Regarding participation in an economic sense Felix remarked that Wikipedia has been founded shortly after the burst of the dot.com bubble. There was no venture capital involved and also no advertisement. He claimed that today Wikipedia would be founded differently – although Felix gave no arguments why this should be the case. One of the results of this non-commercial nature of Wikipedia is that the user management is not central to Wikipedia. He underpinned this by the observation that the user management of Wikipedia is quite buggy. In a commercial system of course the user management is absolutely central.
As far as the editorial practice is concerned Felix said that there are a few users who edit a lot. Still he emphasized that the mass of editors is important. He also claimed such processes are very characteristic for peer production projects. Felix explained that in Wikipedia there is no data mining or user profiling. In this sense the frontend and the backend are congruent. In fact there is no proprietary knowledge and one reason of this is that MediaWiki as the underlying software is Free Software.
As far as the prevention of knowledge monopolies is concerned Felix said that there is a complex and contradictory set of rules which grew over time. There is no conflict resolution mechanism which is an advantage for insiders. Insiders have implicit knowledge which leads to a social closure.
As far as the knowledge of minorities is concerned Felix sees only a weak editorial control over the various fields. In fact Wikipedia represents topics at the border of the common knowledge and as such Wikipedia represents knowledge of minorities.
On the other hand Felix sees a dictate of the common sense. One expression is the constant battle between inclusionists and exclusionists. For instance in the German Wikipedia there is often a debate whether it is the Wikipedia for Germany or the Wikipedia for the German language. Also in cultural topics there is often a debate about the relevance of topics.
He concluded that Wikipedia is both, a democracy of knowledge and a frustration machine. Felix explained that there are many processes in Wikipedia but after all they are public and they are discussed.
Felix closed with the claim that there is reason for optimism. He argued that the editorial and the economical model force Wikipedia to keep the level of frustration limited. He reminded us that there is a very similar point with the maintainers of Free Software projects.
There as in Wikipedia the maintainers need the community. He finished in saying that this is a great thing already. After all this is real democracy and not an ideal democracy.
During the discussion Felix was asked whether he has practical alternatives regarding the social closure. He replied that this social closure is a standard problem in peer production projects. One of the possible reasons he sees is that in the free time there is less regulation than in business. That might be a reason for instance for the gender problems in Free Software. He also stated that because power structures are not allowed by ideology the still developing power structures are kept implicit and are not reflected. My personal view here is that this may be the case for Wikipedia but in Free Software projects the power structures are usually explicit in that it is clear that the maintainer has more power than others.
As a practical attempt to counter the social closure Felix mentioned assessments from external persons. For Wikipedia he mentioned two examples. One is a prize for the best article which is evaluated by non-Wikipedians. Another form of external assessment is the book project which brings new views into Wikipedia.

Christian Stegbauer: Wikipedia – From the Emancipation Ideology to the Product Ideology

The last talk in the first session was given by Christian Stegbauer. The title of his talk was Wikipedia – From the Emancipation Ideology to the Product Ideology. Unfortunately this talk was so dense and full of details that I had a pretty hard time to follow the talk. Thus I’ll report only about a view points Stegbauer made.
One of Stegbauer’s claims is that Wikipedia undergoes a process of institutionalization. Stegbauer said that this is an unavoidable social process and as such cannot be fought.
In my opinion Stegbauer’s main claim was that Wikipedia moves from an emancipation ideology to a product ideology. The emancipation ideology is still the “official” one and for instance contains claims such as that everyone may participate and the knowledge of the world flows together in Wikipedia. Other parts of this ideology is that Wikipedia overcomes copyright and the access to knowledge is free in Wikipedia.
On the other hand there is a product ideology which becomes important more and more. The product ideology consists of things like an emphasis on quality or competition with established encyclopedias.
According to Stegbauer this change is driven by various things and the pressure from outside is one. He cited one Wikipedian who said that “when something happens on Monday it will appear in the Spiegel (a major German weekly magazine).” Another driver is Jimbo Wales who wants to see quality in Wikipedia. As a result only good authors are welcome. Also the distance between activists and newcomers gets bigger with the growing experience of the elders. At the same time with the growth of the project the separation of work becomes more necessary.
As results of this change Stegbauer mentioned things like secret mailing lists. He cited one Wikipedian by “I don’t want to let every idea to be destroyed by chatting”. Other results is that the admins more and more are seen as a leading class and the existence of criteria for relevance and quality.
Stegbauer stated that ideologies need to stand the test of practice. As such the emancipation ideology still appeals to and invites people but in the perspective of the “makers” it doesn’t stand the day to day practice test. The perspective of the less involved is that they stay with the emancipation ideology by which they have been invited. Of course these different perspectives lead to conflicts.
In a conclusion Stegbauer mentioned that there is an institutionalization in the transformation of Wikipedia. The change in ideologies splits Wikipedia into realists and idealists.
The negative spiral Stegbauer sees in Wikipedia can be explained in that externals can not understand the internal conflicts. Another reason is that the preconditions for participation grow and as a result the emancipation ideology can not be practiced any more. The product ideology deters new participants and keeping or improving the quality in terms of the product ideology becomes more difficult.
Finally the attraction gets less with the institutionalization prozess because there are less options for a “career” in Wikipedia.
In the discussion one participant claimed that the contrast is not as sharp as Stegbauer claims. Rather the difference between the emancipation ideology and the product ideology has always been there. Stegbauer agreed but still emphasized that the main focus moves.
Another participant claimed that this is a quite normal process also seen in other projects. He called it a build-up ideology vs. an updated ideology. Stegbauer replied that you need an ideology as long as you have no institutionalization. As soon as you have an institution the ideology becomes superfluous. Still the problem of the split exists.
In a discussion I had later in a pub someone changed the term “product ideology” to “production ideology”. I like this very much because I share the impression that what we see here is less the orientation in a product but in a certain production process.

Responses

  1. nettime-l says:

    September 30th, 2010 at 11:56 (#)

    CROSSPOSTING FROM nettime

    1) AUTHOR FELIX STALDER
    I spent last weekend at a small conference in Leipzig, organized
    by Johanna Niesyto, Geert Lovink and others, called Wikipedia: Der
    Kritische Standpunkt (A critical point of view), which brought
    together researchers studying Wikipedia and ‘Wikipedians’, mainly
    admins and high-ranking editors.

    What follows relates mainly to the German language Wikipedia, but I
    assume some issues are similar in other large Wikipedia, not the least
    the English language one.

    What came to the fore, at least for me, was that the ‘inner circle’
    — foundation people, admins and high-ranking editors who take
    responsibility for the project as a whole — are feeling increasingly
    beleaguered by hordes of people who are either a) ignorant/stupid
    and thus have nothing to contribute b) hostile trolls out to cause
    troubles c) people who only criticize yet will do no actual work.

    In many ways, this is an understandable feeling, after all, running
    Wikipedia is a major thing, time and man power are always scarce and the
    pressures from the public are high. Any significant misktake, and it’s
    front page news within hours. Yet, there are no clear procedures how to
    handle many of the tasks (e.g. when to block editing an entry).

    This is all not terribly surprising, given the exponential growth
    of the last couple of years and the needds to create policies and
    procedures on an ad-hoc basis.. But it leads to a shift in what this
    project is about.

    The sociologist Christian Stagbauer described a shift within the
    inner circle from an ideology of liberation (FREE encyclopedia
    ANYONE can edit) towards an product ideology (BEST encyclopedia in
    the world, GOOD AUTHORS are always welcome). This shift is also
    expressed in the widespread view among that Wikipedia (again, mainly
    the German and the English) is nearing completion and that the main
    focus should now be on improving quality, a task that most people
    are not sufficiently qualified for. In the German context this had
    created bitter discussion regarding the deletion policy, which many
    outsiders see as arbitrary and draconian, while the insiders see it
    as essential to their quality focus.

    It’s clear that Wikipedia is in a process of institutionalization.
    This is necessary and in itself not a bad thing. The question is, what
    kind of institutions are being created and what is their impact on the
    knowledge that is produced within and through the project.

    In my view, the most likely trajectory in terms of institution-building is
    that of a professional, expertise-driven NGO. Think Greenpeace. There, you
    have relatively small group of professionals, who make all the key
    decisions and hold all the expertise. They are well networked with experts
    outside the organization with whom they collaborate depending on the
    strategic objectives they themselves have established. Around this is a
    group of volunteers who are doing small scale, routine tasks reflecting
    strategies they do not set themselves. Around that is a large group of
    people who have little knowledge of the organizations about feel
    sympathetic enough to donate money from time to time.

    Organizationally, this might be a relatively stable arrangement, but a
    problematic one never the less.

    For one, it’s quite far away from its anti-credentialist beginnings
    and unless very well and transparently communicated, likely to
    produce endless tensions with those still believe the Wikipedia tag
    line and want to get involved without being properly acculturated.
    Their edits will most likely be deleted.

    Second, it’s likely that the variety of knowledges that flow into the
    making of entries is being decreased, in favor of more conventional,
    mainstream expert knowledge. Thus, reproducing the dominant point of
    view, rather than highlighting controversies around main of the issues
    covered. Something a collaborative open process would be uniquely
    capabale of. This tendency towards the dominant center is already
    strong through the policy of the Neutral Point of View and the
    somewhat antiquated notion that there is an uncontroversial state of
    the art, that describes the world out there. Yet, this is acerbated by
    the informal changes in the organization itself.

    I think the fact that Wikipedia depends on donations, rather than
    on advertising, is counterbalancing this tendency, but as long as
    the knowledge & expertise gap between the insiders and outsiders is
    growing, this will be very hard to turn around.

    2) RESPONSE BY MAYO FUSTER MORRELL
    Hi!

    Thank you Felix for your reflections. Complements to Johanna Niestyo for organizing the event and for deciding to brought together researchers studying Wikipedia and ‘Wikipedians’.

    I think Wikipedia logo (a puzzle) is a good representation of what it is. Wikipedia is a multi-dimensional process, which is able to combine diverse organizational logics, even to combine “opposite” strategies depending on the context or what needs to be done. While the shift to focus on quality, which Felix refers to, and also the increase of policies, which might difficult the inclusion of new content and of newbess, is characteristic of the 10 biggest Wikipedias (English, German etc); the opposite strategy is present on the small Wikipedias. The aim to growth in content (any content) and in number of people involved in small Wikipedias facilitate the inclusion of new content and people. I found this second aspect more characteristic of the overall Wikipedia, than the first one. The question of priories the expansion in terms of Wikipedia in other languages (particularly minority languages) and with editors based in other latitude was very present in the discussions of the two last Wikimanias (main annual meeting point of Wikipedians), and in the conclusions of the strategic planning for the next 5 years.

    In other words, to me the shift to quality is not representative of the whole Wikipedia process, but of the biggest (and in languages of the more developed countries) parts of it. Furthermore, the question if all linguistic wikipedias share similar evolutionary paths as they evolve in time and as the community and content growth, is something to reflect carefully; as Wikipedian communities (even if sharing key features) can also be very culturally and in the governing mode diverse between them; and the context of the community of editors of a Wikipedia can be very diverse depending on the language. It is not the same the German Wikipedia, than the Wikipedia in a language where there is any other writing encyclopaedia available.

    The porosity of the borders between “insiders” and “outsiders” might also be different in a big Wikipedia, than in a small one, however, I think Felix point to something which applied to both in some degree: Wikipedia communities select people, filter the participants, not anyone is welcome to stay. However, this filtering is not based on “external” expertise or credentials, but on “internal” credentials, as far as the editor behave appropriately accounting to Wikipedia social norms and policies. In some degree, the question that these norms and policies are writing (even if other aspects such as trust, reputation, capacity of influence etc, also intervene in the inclusion/exclusion of people), make Wikipedia to handle exclusion in a more clear way than in other collective process. For example, to me the exclusion of people in the experience of Squats or Social Centers was more dramatic or opaque.
    Additionally, Wikipedia communities tend to be more mission oriented than method oriented, that is, while social movements such as the Global Justice Movement tend to highly value the preservation of a method (consensus decision-making, horizontalily, etc), Wikipedia process is shaped by the “building” an encyclopaedia, not primarily by building a way of organizing accounting to a pre-established principles; even more, the different tasks that require to build of an encyclopaedia do not necessarily follow the same principles. Let’s think of how diverse is the organizational principles of the Wikimedia Foundations, with the communities, or the decision-making of the main EN page with other pages. In sum, think this puzzling of Wikipedia is the more characteristic of it; which also complicate its characterization and analysis.

    In terms of agenda settings, as Felix pointed out, people more involve have more possibility to set the agenda (and intervene in the governance) than those who are less (in line with the principle of doagraphy present in Wikipedia: who does something have the authority over it). However, I would suggest to also go beyond the thinking in terms of who has the power on Wikipedia, where is the center of the circle, do have the older insider more capacity to set the agenda than the outsiders, etc.. What I found more problematic in these organizational strategies (of large scale participation, decentralised, which combine several forms and degrees of participation, with porous boundaries, etc.) is their difficulty of clearly define and control their collective will, by ANYONE. Even if it sound suggestive, this have some costs. To me it is related to the weaknesses of these forms to re-programme themselves or overcome big changes of agenda or of settings; or to interface with the external world (in both directions, on the one hand, that these forms reproduce (or even in some cases reinforce) social inequalities already present in society (let’s think of the gender gap), and on the other hand, it is difficult to establish the responsibilities and consequences in society of the important services that they offer).

    >Second, it’s likely that the variety of knowledges that flow into the
    >making of entries is being decreased, in favor of more conventional,
    >mainstream expert knowledge. Thus, reproducing the dominant point of
    >view, rather than highlighting controversies around main of the issues
    >covered. Something a collaborative open process would be uniquely
    >capabale of. This tendency towards the dominant center is already
    >strong through the policy of the Neutral Point of View and the
    >somewhat antiquated notion that there is an uncontroversial state of
    >the art, that describes the world out there. Yet, this is acerbated by
    >the informal changes in the organization itself.

    I found the Neutral Point of view a horrible title that does not well represent what actually refer to, and that bring in many cases to confusion. However, my point here is that even if the variety of knowledge might decrease due to the increase of barriers to make contributions in German Wikipedia, this does not mean that it would be towards the more conventional mainstream one for that reason. I would be curious to reflect on this with research that check if the number of edits and the number of editors by articles have increased or decreased in German Wikipedia in recent years; and if the reporting of Wikipedia issues (in comparison to mainstream newspapers for example) tend to reproduce the same vision or not.

    Mayo

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