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Is Wikipedia the New Encyclopedia of Post-modern Times?

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Nathaniel Tkacz. Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness. University of Chicago Press, 2015, 232 pp.

Wikipedia is “the free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit” with more than 40,5 million articles (5.178.924 in English) in 293 languages (up to June, 21), ranking one of the 10 most visited websites on the Internet (62. 687. 899 users).

Academics scorn it and recommend that students do not cite it, but at the same time they use it like anyone else in order to get an initial handle on any subject. Even companies want an entry on Wikipedia, and some do. Twenty editors of the free online encyclopedia were dismissed last year after Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organization which owns and operates the project., realized they were PR men, writing entries for their companies. But what do we know about the “philosophy” of Wikipedia?

Is Wikipedia the new Encyclopedia of post-modern times? Nathaniel Tkacz has tried to answer it in his book Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness.

We are used to looking at the Encyclopédie of Diderot as an icon, a mirror and a powerful conveyor of the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment. Can we likewise point to Wikipedia as a mirror of the deconstructionist culture in which we are living? After reading Tkacz’s book, my answer would be yes.

I will build my argument based on one significant statement from Tkacz’s work:

“As historical artifacts, encyclopedias have regularly offered great insight into the periods in which they were written. They tell us about what constitutes knowledge at a particular time as well as how various bodies of knowledge relate to one another. Encyclopedias also tell us how knowledge is to be received, how it is to be read, and what is at stake in the acquisition of its contents”.

It is needless to say that encyclopedias are also political and commercial artifacts.

Nathaniel Tkacz debunks Wikipedia’s pillars and cornerstones: the principle of verifiability (that something exists as long as it offers a verifiable source); the the neutral point of view; the presumption of it being governed in a collaborative way (ad-hocracy as opposed to meritocracy or bureaucracy) and the legitimacy of the openness of any project based on the actual and continual possibility of forking. Namely, the idea that, in a truly open project, people who disagree with the direction in which things are going can “fork” at any point, creating an alternative version of the project to compete with the original.

In Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness, the author discredits Wikipedia as an instance of the “ideology of openness”, one of the sacred cows of the Internet culture. In fact, there are three related case studies taken from the very same encyclopedia: the deletion of the entry Wikipedia art (an attempt to compose conceptual art on Wikipedia leading to a proof that the principle of verifiability is self-referential), the “resolved” controversy among Wikipedia users about allowing Mohammad’s images in his entry, and finally, the so-called Spanish Fork which raised the question of whether Wikipedia should or could allow advertising.

Through a minute examination of these case studies, a common reader who is not an expert on Wikipedia, can discover how the most visited free encyclopedia is organized, for example its system of different kinds of pages (reader pages, talk pages, history source pages). Or, for instance, its “body of officials”, meaning the agents at different levels of authority who construct any single voice of the encyclopedia (blocked user, unregistered user, new user, auto confirmed user, administrator, bureaucrat and steward); the editing policies and guidelines; the principles -or lack thereof “for there are no rules in Wikipedia”: neutrality, “not original research” and verifiability; and lastly, the rather revealing philosophical backgrounds of their founders (Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanders). Larry Sanders did a doctoral dissertation titled “Epistemic Circularity: An Essay on the Problem of Meta-justification”, and Jimmy Wales’s own Wikipedia page makes clear, in the section “Thought and Influences”, that he is a self-avowed objectivist borrowing from the “Objectivist” philosophy of Ayn Rand.

In short, what Wikipedia conveys as an idea and “ideal” can be summarized in Tazck’s words: “While outside battle for truth are explicitly rejected – ‘the threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth’ [Wikipedia:Verifiability] – Wikipedia nonetheless has a whole body of forceful statements whose function is to establish the truth of any particular statement; a truth of what is neutral, (non-)original, published, reliable, attributable and verifiable. It is this body of written rules that work to define the limits and correct procedures of Wikipedia, its position as a source of authority, and as the base from which the project can be managed” (p. 110). In other terms, truth is something constructed socially, mainly through discourse, and which is permanently changing; it is not something we find. This in reality is an assertion quite characteristic of post-modern culture. The assumed task of any intellectual in post-modern culture is a deconstructing discourse, as Nathaniel Tkacz does with the successful “encyclopedical discourse”, which is Wikipedia.

Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness is a worthwhile read for scholars and specialists in communication in spite of some flaws of the book. The three case studies that are offered, although meaningful, are not enough to make the case. Some of the data is outdated as the research was done in 2010 and 2011, and Wikipedia discussions run fast. Finally, the language is often too loaded with philosophical terminology. For sure the essentials remain, like the criticism of the epistemological mindset, or the fact that some controversies are destined to last. For example, Mohammad’s image controversy was “closed” –declared closed – by the managers of Wikipedia in 2011, while Islam’s entry remains a controversial one, but that is of little surprise, since it is the same with Jesus’ historicity, as with any religion, or anything worthy of public attention.

A full version of the review may be read at Church, Communication and Culture journal.

 

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