The end of Wikipedia as we know it
« Wiki, c’est fini? » one would ask (if one was a cheesy French singer from the 1960s). More seriously, is the dream of an open access encyclopedia over? According to a recent article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education the wiki model has « run out of steam« . Don’t worry, the article is not a trite invective insisting that Wikipedia is not reliable because the author of the article on Platonism is also the author of the one on Desperate Housewives. The message here is mainly that the participatory knowledge base model turns out to be a utopian dream (at best). As of today, Wikipedia is mainly just another social network service (with its profiles, friend counts and online grooming rituals) – and not a very performing one, either.
But this is not the worst part. I’m more concerned with Wikipedia losing its liberal street cred and becoming yet another ivory-towering knowledge institution, with its coercing ontologies and its bigbrotheresque rules. If, in the current intellectual debate over scientific authority, we’re actually fighting the academic equivalent of Star Wars, last thing we need here is to discover that the rebel HQ Coruscant has been replaced by the Death Star.
Ok, I admit that was incredibly geeky of me to drop that movie reference, guys… Let’s just get back to the point. Is Wikipedia showing its dark side? Two eloquent examples, both occurred on Feb. 2009: the « Precarity controversy » and the « Wikipedia art legal dispute ». I tend to consider these two incidents, respectively, as the Invasion of Russia and the Waterloo of the famous online encyclopedia. That is, if a French dictator from the 19th century ran it.
The controversy over the article Precarity can be summarized as follows: after a relentless struggle between a group of European autonomist marxists (regarding precarity as the set of material conditions of temp workers in postindustrial societies) and one isolated social christian contributor (interpreting it as the existential condition of man in the presence of God’s transcendence), the former filed a semi-protection request, preventing all anonymous edits and de facto equating all expressions of dissent to an act of vandalism. I, for one, lined up with the autonomous marxists, and provided my reasons in this Nettime post. My point of view has changed since then, especially in the light of the final outcome. The article has been « balcanized », both ideologically and geographically, with the European marxists on the one side and the (non European?) social christians on the other. Consensus has not been reached. Coertion and mutual usurpation triumph. Way to run a collaborative environment.
The « Wikipedia art » legal dispute took place around the same time. Initiated by Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern, the project was intended to be an artistic performance/meta-intervention on/about/around Wikipedia. In a nutshell: the article Wikipedia art (subtly accusing the website of exploiting authors and providing biased information) is published on Wikipedia. In the meantime, a PR campaign is launched in the blogosphere. Wikipedia admins consider the article useless and not coherent with the websites standards of quality – and delete it. Expectedly, artists accuse Wikipedia of censoring them. Unexpectedly, Wikipedia threatens legals action over potential trademark infringement. The artists make an archive of all the letters from Wikipedia lawyers and legal counsel (and sell it to art galleries? :P).Turns out the Wikipedia art performance follows in the Grand Tradition of Marketing Events Disguised as Harsh Social Commentaries. Don’t get me wrong – I’m more than ok with that. From Yves Klein to 0100101110101101.org, this is the kind of works that have actually helped us explore new artistic possibilities. But for now the project is just another hole in Wikipedia’s reputation.