Original version of the article The Power of Wikipedia: Legitimacy and Control in “PMS Reader Power Money Sex”, Chimurenga and Open Society Institute of Southern Africa, 2012. Article published.
The widest and most astonishing contemporary global source of information has the power of a new nation, but it acts as an old one. Skip to session 5 if you just want get the point.
Do you know Wikipedia? It is quite easy to cross Wikipedia by searching the Internet. With almost 500 million readers in over 280 linguistic editions, Wikipedia is our universal textbook. Many people read it, but not as many know how it works. Wikipedia is a collaborative encyclopedia, written by volunteers and which anyone can edit.
Actually Wikipedia is an inexplicable product of our century and a very interesting subject for studies. To make it extremely short, research has been focusing on exploring Wikipedia history, contents and structure, but very little has been said about its geopolitical power.
2. Where we are
For more than half a century, many intellectuals have been working to screw-up a knowledge system which is unable to represent the world we live in. Thanks to them, we have now words we can not ignore: connections, borders, contact zones, perspectives, identity, otherness, eurocentrism, intercultural, multicultural, network, porosity, post-colonialism, globalization, power. It is essential at least to thank some of the people who have showed us a different way of seeing and studying the world, people such as Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, V.Y Mudimbe, Homi K. Bhabha, Arjun Appadurai, Achille Mbembe, Jean-Loup Amselle, Bruno Latour, Marc Augé, Saskia Sassen, James Clifford. But also many artists have contributing with their artworks to theory.
We need to rewrite history. This is probably the most violent summery of our time, regularly invoked by the artist Rasheed Araeen, who leads us a major question: how to rewrite history? We are not talking about revisionism, but about the true necessity of a collaborative effort in representing the world we live in, to contextualize information, to analyze it through an historiographical approach and to document the different and major points of view.
3. Wikipedia as a knowledge system
Even if the very concept of an encyclopedia can be questioned as a XVIII century European child, the idea of free encyclopedia that anyone can edit is inclusive and dynamic. The 5 pillars – the fundamental principals beyond Wikipedia – emphasize its role as a reference, the respect for sources and for the community, and the acknowledgement that mistakes are part of the process. Words associated to Wikipedia (free culture, open collaboration, networked social production, open source production, peer-production, crowdsourcing, wikinomics) emphasize it as an active, open and inclusive space. Wikipedia is not only a collaborative production space for knowledge, but it is also the contemporary platform where it is possible to make this new knowledge fully accessible and mainstream.
4. Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge
Wikipedia is a complex archipelago, but what is striking is that the most innovative encyclopedia is in reality incredibly traditional.
Mark Graham with the Oxford Institute, and authors such as Heather Ford, Maja van der Velden and Achal Prabhala have already highlighted the limits of its system. The way Wikipedia contents portrait the world reproduces the way the world believes to know itself. Also on Wikipedia Africa is empty and dark. Slowly even the community is realizing how contents are filtered in a way which considers a good portion of human knowledge spam. What it is still missing though are studies on Wikipedia nationalism.
5. Wikipedia nationalism
On one side Wikipedia foster nationalism; on the anther side the growing power of Wikipedia is transforming it into a new nation. Languages, monuments, education and territorial control are tools for nation building and looking at them from a Wikipedia perspective allows us to focus on some of its macro dynamics.
1) Language is a central aspect of nation building and it is an essential space for the definition, affirmation and construction of borders and identities. The emphasis Wikipedia puts on developing Wikipedia editions in local languages underestimates the meaning and the implications of this process. Wikipedia considers linguistic editions as an essential tool to provide easier and full access to knowledge, and to preserve languages. But languages are also a political and ideological tool. They are used to strengthen independent movements and to nourish ethnic conflicts. For instance, supporting Wikipedia in Wolof is not a bad thing, but it is necessary to also be aware of its ethnic, social and political repercussions.
2) The identification of monuments, heritage and landmarks is another important dynamic of nation and history building, which Wikipedia is reinforcing in particular in the last few years with the project Wiki Loves Monuments. Nations build, promote and invent the symbols of their history and power. A the same time they destroy, select and reinterpret the symbols of former powers to make room for their sovereignty. The very concept of heritage is not innocent; heritage is something which belongs to those “who were already here” and not to those “who just arrived”.
3) Schoolbooks have a determinant role in educating nations and creating a common history. Wikipedia is our today world schoolbook and it has a major responsibility in directing knowledge. The growing distribution of offline editions of Wikipedia in particular in the so-called global south it is also something to be aware of, since it completely reinterprets the very concept of a free encyclopedia anyone can edit.
4) Wikipedia is structured online into a foundation and a series of chapters, which have the role of supporting and aggregating Wikipedia community at a national scale. The fact that Wikimedia Foundation is based in the US and it is regularly accused to impose a US-centric cultural model. Wikipedia in English is the largest Wikipedia version and it is permanently distancing all other linguistic editions.. Wikimedia chapters claim their role in providing a more balanced cultural approach and in managing decentralized outreached programs. In realty Wikimedia chapters foster nationalisms. The growing number of institutions willing to contribute to Wikipedia – also in countries without Wikimedia Chapters – is making issues of legitimacy and territorial control becoming even more evident. Institutions can not edit Wikipedia as institutions, and they usually ask for someone who can present and represent Wikipedia; for this reason they are managed on a territorial basis and Wikimedia chapters have a major role in facilitating those collaborations. Through those new collaborations Wikimedia chapters are gaining a specific national role and they are reinforcing their legitimacy in representing Wikipedia both outside and inside their organization.
6. Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge
To conclude, Wikipedia offers a new and important frame to build and negotiate knowledge and history. Thanks to its pillars, it is space to contextualize knowledge, to provide background information, to create links, to add multiple categories, to follow an historiographic approach, to acknowledge different critical discourses and to correct mistakes. Considering its power, it is not possible to ignore or avoid Wikipedia. But to truly take advantage of its active, open and inclusive utopia, it is necessary to be aware of its nationalisms and its geopolitical power.