15 Mar 2007, 3:11pm
media & technology
by jordan

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digi-pedia: wikipedia’s digital hegemony

the other day on NPR, i heard a brief segment about Wikipedia, and how conservative critics have put together an online alternative called “Conservapedia,” supposedly in correction to the “liberal bias” rampant in the former. i would believe that many of Wikipedia’s articles reproduce liberal perspectives, particularly the academically-informed entries which tend to reflect leftist scholarly criticism, but i’m not convinced that this kind of “bias” needs to be “balanced” by an opposite conservative opinion. the polarized political spectrum doesn’t always represent two equally valid critical positions. or maybe i’ve just been reading too much Althusser.

still, clearly Wikipedia cannot offer a neutrally produced body of knowledge — all knowledge is situated and specific to the contexts in which it emerged. Wikipedia is necessarily a result of the communities that collaborate on it — particularly those that are technologically enabled, and often academically informed. establishing “Conservapedia” strikes me as a bit fruitless, since once you assert your political position openly, you’ve already marked your ideas in a particular way. i suspect that the original site will maintain its dominant ground as the unmarked, normative version which most people will prefer. it’s bad enough when students try to use Wikipedia as an academic reference — imagine those who try to support their arguments with an explicitly biased source!

Conservapedia aside, i’m also not convinced that “bias” is the most pressing issue limiting Wikipedia’s legitimacy. i’m interested more in its overall structure as a site of knowledge production — in particular, what kinds of entries are created in the first place? i’ve noticed an increasing number of individual figures with their own Wikipedia page (especially those who are well-known online, like jwz, danah boyd, and howard rheingold), as well as night clubs, internet memes, and various contemporary yet transient topics. should every person, place, and concept ultimately have its own page? of course, entries on Wikipedia tend to reflect its users’ predilections for all things digitally mediated, a tendency i think is more significant than any alleged “liberal bias.”

generally, i accept the premise that Wikipedia’s content is regulated by an interactive style of editing that allows users to continually tweak and rewrite entries according to their own level of engagement with a given topic, and i’m often impressed by the quality of articles on historical figures, terms from critical theory, and general knowledge of popular culture, all of which make the encyclopedia incredibly useful for general reference. but at what point does it become a promotional site for certain kinds of people and ideas, or an archive of internet fads? the open editing process of a wiki can’t exercise much influence over what kinds of entries are useful or appropriate, something that more traditional editing might allow. interestingly, Wikipedia has been using “dis-ambiguation” pages recently to clarify related terms and redirect users to pages of interest. i think this highlights some of the possible drawbacks of an interactive, communally produced reference work. perhaps the proliferation of pages will be managed through user interest and will self-regulate in practice, but it’s worth considering how interactive and collaborative sites of knowledge may privilege certain trends, ideas, and information over others. Wikipedia’s conservative detractors are feeling nervous precisely because of that potential ability to dominate popular thought.

 
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