Interview with Johanna Niesyto and Nathaniel Tkacz from "Critical Point of View"
The Signpost recently interviewed Wikipedia researchers Johanna Niesyto and Nathaniel Tkacz from the "Critical Point of View" (CPOV) initiative. That initiative organized three conferences about Wikipedia this year, in Bangalore, Amsterdam, and Leipzig (see brief Signpost coverage of the second and third conferences). Via e-mail, we talked about these conferences and other activities of CPOV, the state of Wikipedia research in the humanities, criticism of Wikipedia, and the relationship between Wikipedians and those who research their activities.
Johanna Niesyto (at the Leipzig CPOV conference in September)
Nathaniel Tkacz (at the Amsterdam CPOV conference in March)
Let's start with some basic questions: What is the CPOV conference series – how did it originate, what was the idea behind it, and what has been the scope of the three conferences so far?
CPOV has put on several conferences (in India, Netherlands and Germany), but it is more than these three events. We have a discussion list (firstname.lastname@example.org), websites in German and English, as well as one forthcoming book. CPOV is the name we give to our overall initiative, which encompasses all these things.
Regarding the origins of the initiative, several of us were already doing research on Wikipedia. Geert Lovink from the Institute for Network Cultures had the means and desire to bring us all together. We started a dialogue in late 2008 and mapped out our mutual interests and a vision for the project/s. At the most general level, we all agreed that 1) Wikipedia had become well and truly mainstream and part of the ordinary existence and daily routine of people in many countries, and; 2) that it was time to start a deeper and broader discussion about all facets of open network projects, of which Wikipedia is the most visible and successful. By 2008, there were many publications describing and celebrating various dimensions of Wikipedia. This was all fine, but we felt there was more to the story. The role of research is to do more than wonder at the marvels of new developments. We were also, however, very disappointed with the kinds of critique that had been put forward so far. The type of positions advocated by Andrew Keen, but also the oft-cited piece on Wikipedia by Robert McHenry, both seemed very conservative and offered little insight into the transformations that were taking place. Mourning the loss of so-called experts, ivory towers, and institutions seemed to miss the point. We also all share a loosely humanities-based background and we thought that these perspectives were under-represented in Wikipedia research.
Transformations in net cultures – new technologies, new modes of organising, and so on – translate into all areas of life. We are all bound up in these transformations and we see Wikipedia (its license, structure, mode of production, rhetoric, and so on) as a chance to reflect upon them. Indeed, because Wikipedia is so often held up as an example – as a model of successful mass collaboration, participation, transparency and so on – it is an ideal place to begin. In the German conference one participant said: "We have to move away from a culture of participatory ignorance towards a culture of participatory observation." While we are certainly not suggesting that we are all ignorant, we agree that we need to spend more time scrutinizing the new scenery.
In terms of scope, we have covered a lot of ground, all of which is detailed on our website. Some of the things we have covered (all in relation to Wikipedia of course) include: notions of the free and open; the history of encyclopaedias; designing debate; education; Western knowledge; art; resistance; and digital governance.
We have been very deliberate in making CPOV "international", just like Wikipedia. History is that of dead white men and Wikipedia is compiled and ordered largely by alive white men (usually young and geeky). This Western and even English-centrism is well known within the community and an ongoing challenge, but it is something our initiative, as a smaller group, has tried to recognize and address from the start (with limited success). For us, this doesn't necessarily mean increasing the number of entries in marginalized or "underprivileged" languages. What does it mean for a culture to have its knowledge translated into the encyclopaedic form? What is at stake in this process? This brings us into the realms of post-colonial studies, cultural anthropology, and development studies.
The third CPOV conference at the Leipzig university library
Who are the members of the group behind CPOV? Which other organizations and institutions have been involved in the CPOV conferences, apart from the Institute for Network Cultures?
There is no such thing as members or an institutional group. Rather, we see ourself as a loose network that may spread through different channels as well. However, there has been a relatively stable core who came up with the agenda, produced the events, the readers, and so on. Mainly, it is Geert Lovink (Amsterdam), Johanna Niesyto (Siegen), Nathaniel Tkacz (Melbourne), and Nishant Shah (Bangalore) who connected in constant discussion. Next to it there were also more people from the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam and the Center for Internet Society (Bangalore), such as Ivy Roberts, Juliana Brunello, Margreet Riphagen, Sabine Niederer, Serena Westra, and Sunil Abraham, who contributed to the conferences and the websites. On the side of the German conference in Leipzig we have built a cooperation with the university’s library director Ulrich Johannes Schneider and cultiv – a society for international cultural projects that is based in Leipzig.
What about yourself (Johanna and Nate) – what are your personal research interests regarding Wikipedia?
Johanna: I am affiliated with the professorship of comparative political research at the University of Siegen, Germany. In the past I worked as research fellow in the project Changing Protest and Media Cultures: Transnational Anti-Corporate Campaigns and Digital Communication in the Collaborative Research Centre "Media Upheavals", which was funded by the German Research Foundation. My field of research comprises questions of contentious politics, transnational public spaces, and political knowledge production, with regard to the Internet in general and the Wikipedia in particular. The objective of my Wikipedia research is the exploration of the interrelations between knowledge production and the political. The English and German language versions of Wikipedia are taken as examples to explore both the politics of knowledge production and political knowledge production. Do differences in terms of policies and "politics" exist with regard to the language versions or are differences rather due to the type of conflict? How and in which ways is political knowledge produced on the platform? What commonalities and differences can be found by comparing the two language versions? Overall I do elaborate the question of how we can conceptualize the relationship between the political and knowledge production so as not to fall into the trap of a simple dichotomy between "knowledge as independent of the political" and the political as all-embracing category ("everything is political").
Nathaniel: I am in the final stages of a PhD at the University of Melbourne in the School of Culture and Communication. My work sits at the intersection of media theory, political philosophy, and technology studies. I use Wikipedia as a constant case study to explore the political organisation of "open projects" – that is, projects influenced by the rise of open source and free software but translated into other areas. More details about my work, writings and interests can be found at <nathanieltkacz.net>.
How much is the "C" of "CPOV" related to critical theory? Have there been connections with non-academic criticism of Wikipedia?
CPOV was chosen to contrast playfully with the foundational and self-contradictory NPOV policy. We thought it clearly signified that we were not a bunch of "gee-whiz isn't Wikipedia great" academics. We all know what is great about Wikipedia already. The "C" is about the general idea of critical discussion and not so much a reference to certain strands of theoretical thoughts, although such strands are part of the term's history. We do, however, understand "critical" partly as a commitment to describing power structures; how new modes of organising and new practices generate new ways of dividing and categorizing people, new winners, and losers. Other dimensions may include considerations of the interaction of technical artifacts and humans, translocality, (encyclopaedic) knowledge construction, changes in education and sciences, and so on. Part of being critical also means that the terms of debate are up for grabs, that we are not reliant on the language of the Wikipedia community in our descriptions. There is a long and tiresome debate about this in the academic world that might be crudely summed up in the terms "normative research" (the idea that you begin with a set of concepts, such as class, gender, and age, and then apply them to an object of study) and "empirical research" (where the researcher tries not to bring in any outside concepts to "fit" the description). In practice, research is always a combination of pre-existing ideas (what some might call academic baggage) and empirical encounters. What we think is important is to see the productivity in the encounter. Academic concepts, sometimes far divorced from online communities, might hold crucial insights for understanding something happening online. Then again, they might not!
Generally, there is not too much cross-over between non-academic criticism of Wikipedia and CPOV. However, some of the examples given in that Wikipedia article are key historical moments in the popular media, so they do come up from time to time. Perhaps the suitably vague "Impact on Society" section of the article is where we would fit in, but it only has five lines of text so far and it doesn't seem to be about society! A lot of the criticism page is about very obvious things: accuracy of information; conflicts of interest; quality of articles; bias; anonymity; plagiarism; etc. Even though these seem very general, they are really quite specific and are to do with quality and trust. What about how Wikipedia is used in the classroom? What can its organizational form can tell us about working together online? What can Wikipedia tell us about the encyclopaedic impulse? The scope of CPOV is much larger, but our questions are also generally more specific, more directed to a particular set of concerns. Wikipedia becomes a lens.
You, Johanna, observed in another interview that there are currently two generations of Wikipedia researchers – an older one who started to research it after they graduated, and a younger one who already did their thesis on Wikipedia. Would you say that there has been some kind of "professionalization" of academic Wikipedia research, in that the average Wikipedia researcher is now more likely to devote the majority of their research to Wikipedia than a while ago, and therefore has more in-depth knowledge of the subject?
Academic research about Wikipedia is still in its infancy. There is much mainly quantitative research that attempted to grasp the dynamics and developments of Wikipedia. “Professionalization” may not be the right term to describe what is now happening: It is rather a growing awareness from the strand of humanities-based research to seriously engage with Wikipedia. And it's surprising that it took such a long time since Wikipedia has not become a global knowledge-reference overnight. Maybe research needed another generation that more actively participates in net cultures. This is not only restricted to researching Wikipedia but also (commercial) net projects such as Facebook, Google, and YouTube. However, when it comes to research about Wikipedia there are still many areas uncovered in terms of academic analysis of Wikipedia, such as the relationships of Wikipedia to other knowledge institutions such as schools, universities, and museums; or research of the use of Wikipedia that not only looks at editors’ activities but how (young) people use Wikipedia and what cultural practices they develop when it comes to constructing knowledge.
Academics and critics in exchange with a Wikipedian (right): Geert Lovink, Anja Krieger, Anne Roth and Mathias Schindler
at the Leipzig panel on "Wikipedia and criticism"
In your observation, what are the most common misunderstandings or misgivings that Wikipedians have about Wikipedia researchers, and vice versa? How can they be overcome?
This is a very good question! And we would further distinguish between researchers working with the foundation and those with no formal ties. There is also a spectrum of involvement, with some researchers being active community members and others having little or nothing to do with the project. A lot of room for different kinds of work, and different kinds of misunderstanding!
We have noticed that Wikipedians are sometimes critical of academic perspectives because they do not align with their lived experiences. Once again, this is a difference between two types of knowledge. It might very well be that the researcher hasn't done their research, such as when researchers harp on about Wikipedia's claims to the "truth" and pay little attention to the actual policies of verification, no original research, and so on (which are much more interesting). On the other hand, some research is not supposed to align with the experiences or expectations of members. Indeed, it might have little to do with the concerns of the community. The CPOV initiative is of the opinion that Wikipedia is too large a part of many people's lives for all research to be related to and endorsed by and concerned with the community.
Perhaps the most common misunderstanding is when Wikipedia research is aligned with traditional notions of scientific knowledge production and therefore as an authority of truth – an authority that then "tells it how it is" about the project. We would stress that research is plural and always an interaction between the researchers and the objects they research. Realizing the multiplicity of research also means going beyond a "Wikipedia-centrism" towards an awareness of research questions that address broader phenomena, of which Wikipedia is only one part. This could be one way to overcome some misunderstandings as perhaps researchers and Wikipedians would engage in a dialogue that is directed towards a third object of interest. On the other hand, we also think that sometimes a distance from the community is perfectly acceptable.
Panel about "Wikipedia and criticism" at the Leipzig conference
"Sciences and Wikipedia" roundtable, joining Wikipedians and researchers at the Leipzig conference
The third conference in Leipzig appears to have made a step towards the community, involving the local Wikimedia chapter for outreach workshops and a panel discussion, and inviting Wikipedians for a "Sciences and Wikipedia" roundtable. It also seems that the audience contained a larger ratio of very active Wikipedians. Did this result in a successful dialogue?
Johanna: It is true that the Leipzig CPOV conference did more consciously search for a discussion with the Wikipedia community and the institutional backbone behind the German-speaking Wikipedia. While on English-speaking events such as Wikimania or Wikisym an international exchange between researchers and Wikipedians is fostered, we thought it is time not only to translate these discussions into German but also to look for the specifics that are grounded in German speaking humanities research cultures as well as in the German language Wikipedia itself. The German language Wikipedia is one of the biggest language versions and has both its own cultures (think only about the discussions on "relevance criteria" [Signpost coverage]) but also served – in particular with regard to the introduction of the Wikimedia chapter model – often as a provider of ideas or even as a "role model". Also, the Leipzig conference actively sought to launch a broader debate in the media, and here Wikipedians' voices, experiences and criticisms should not be missed. In this respect I think we have been able to get public attention in order to recognize that Wikipedia is plural and worth a closer look that goes behind questions of accuracy and quality.
Within the debate during the roundtable the question of the self-conception of Wikipedia emerged over and over and was also linked to the observed social closure within Wikipedia. How can Wikipedia open up to users and to sciences in plural? Some Wikipedians asked how academia can contribute to Wikipedia – in that way Wikipedia and other free culture institutions are a sign for a change in science communication towards society in Germany.
However, there were also some academics that were puzzled by the discussion cultures of Wikipedians. Reading the follow-up blog entries, there were two conference participants claiming that Wikipedians and Wikipedia researchers did not really talk to each other. We do think there is more to the story: As said, there are different languages that need to find a meta-language going beyond pure internal Wikipedia knowledge and connecting it to broader phenomena as it's about Wikipedia and not at the same time. Also for some researchers who were present at the Leipzig conference that means to value ad-hoc-discussion cultures via social media and not to criticize the low quality of live-blogging and the like. Thinking aloud and sharing thoughts while they come may have a value in itself. To think in the present progressive in public may be something some researchers with humanities background find strange. Where discussion cultures clash, differences become visible and hopefully lead to communication about these differences.
In terms of sciences this debate should be about how to broaden debates to the ‘public’. In terms of Wikipedia the debate should not be restricted to how to attract old knowledge authorities such as sciences but also include how to go on providing ground for new knowledge authorities.
What is the scope and concept of the book that you mentioned (the CPOV reader)? When is it going to come out?
The (English version) reader will largely focus on the same issues as the first three events. The articles are mostly written by people who attended these events and reflect what we think are the most interesting discussion and insights we have covered so far. We hope to have the reader out in March 2011 and plan to have both paper and PDF versions available for free. The reader will be published in the INC reader series.
What future activities are planned for CPOV? Anything else you would like to say?
In spring/summer next year we will publish an online dossier about Wikipedia on the platform of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung). This dossier will strive to explain Wikipedia and its history as well as to bundle the main controversies that accompany it.
More generally, there are two directions we would like to pursue further: education and literacy still needs much more attention, as does interface design. Regarding the latter, there are new questions, for example, regarding the turn to mobiles and the "appification" of Wikipedia, as well as the continued role of video and HTML5. As of yet we don't have any concrete plans for these activities and so they remain, for the time being, on the horizon.
Check back for the next Signpost