By Norbert Bakker

On Thursday the fifteenth of January, exactly fourteen years after the launch of Wikipedia, the Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen has the honour of hosting a mini-conference called ‘Wikipedia as a Research Tool’. While this title, at least for my generation, may conjure up memories of writing high school essays solely with the help of Wikipedia, this is not what the conference is about. Instead, Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia (who has recently received an honorary doctorate at the University of Maastricht), Richard Rogers, Professor of New Media & Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam, and PhD candidates Esther Weltevrede and Erik Borra come together to talk about more unconventional ways in which Wikipedia can be used for research purposes.

While the title of Richard Rogers’ talk, ‘Wikipedia is not an encyclopaedia’, gives off the impression of providing a critical note about Wikipedia’s legitimacy as an encyclopaedia, he quickly points out that his intention is to show that Wikipedia is not just an encyclopaedia. Apart from comparing Wikipedia with Encyclopaedia Britannica (as infamously happened in this Nature article from 2005) for its ‘encyclopaedicness’, we can also regard the website as a publicity management tool, a vigilant community, a place of bureaucracy and stigmergy, and a platform with a special relationship with Google. However, it is particularly the discussion of his own research that investigates Wikipedia as a cultural reference which fascinates most. Using the example of different language versions of Wikipedia’s Srebrenica article, he is able to point out how different cultures remember the same historical incident. For example, the Dutch version of the Srebrenica article is called the ‘Fall of Srebrenica’, whereas the English one uses the word ‘Massacre’ and the Bosnian even employs the term ‘Genocide’. Besides that, a visualization of the images used in the different articles shows how crucial pictures are omitted in the Dutch article. Looking at the references that have been used for the different pages we see that only one source is shared for all pages, therefore partially explaining why the information differs. Considering that this subject has always been a delicate and controversial one, these findings may hardly be surprising. However, Rogers stresses that he is developing a methodology with which it would be possible to systematically investigate a much broader set of Wikipedia articles. This presentation therefore shows a promising start for systematically researching Wikipedia as a site where politics of memory play out.

Central to the research executed by Esther Weltevrede and Erik Borra is monitoring controversial debates on Wikipedia. In the tool they are developing called Contropedia, the aim is to show, through analysis of the history and discussion pages, which points of a Wikipedia article are most contentious. Using the example of global warming, a Wikipedia article that due to its controversial nature contains a lot of discussion, they have been able to point out which parts of a page, thus which issues, are most often edited and discussed  For the full article by Borra and Weltevrede about this case study, click here. By zooming in on these issues it is possible to highlight the exact content of the debates, while zooming out presents the possibility to see during which period in time certain issues have surfaced. Ultimately, the idea is that this form of research shows how knowledge should be considered as a site of negotiation, rather than something that is inherently fixed. Since their tool is still in the beta version, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed and have resurfaced throughout the responses and questions. Primarily, it seems that the project does not include the weight of certain edits, therefore not taking into account the fact that some editors have a much more credible reputation among Wikipedians than others. Besides that, it is unclear when edits should be regarded as an indicator for debate or simply disjointed edits. It is only when editing drags on for a longer period that we can give some certainty about whether a debate is occurring. Nevertheless, the tool seems extremely helpful in locating when and where heavy debates have occurred, therefore being able to tentatively indicate different stances in public opinion.

Finally, Jimmy Walles’ speech called ‘The open nature of Wikipedia’ is a rather immodest celebration of Wikipedia’s potential to improve the world by disseminating knowledge. Wales made it clear that in the future of Wikipedia should be found in the internet explosion that is currently happening in Africa where the introduction of cheap mobile phones and increasing bandwidth strength has connected a large portion of African citizens to the internet. Through a project called Wikipedia Zero the Wikipedia organization has made it possible that cellular networks now give free access to Wikipedia, or to paraphrase Wales: “the pool of collective knowledge made possible by Wikipedia”. The cultural pessimist might see this as a way Wikipedia attempts to capitalize on new markets and improve their market position, especially if we consider how deceptively well-crafted the promotional video for this project looks. While it is easy to maintain a sceptic stance when it concerns, for example, Facebook’s project, Wikipedia’s status as non-profit company makes this harder to maintain. Especially the example of MTP/TTF (Medical Translation Project / Translation Task Force) seems to genuinely make a positive impact. Through this project, many Wikipedians have made it possible to translate English pages of articles such as ‘Ebola’ to languages that are spoken in the areas that have been affected the most, therefore allowing people to have access to much-needed proper information about the disease. Although not specifically mentioned, it is due to projects such as this that the much-anticipated mystery guest of the evening used the occasion to announce that the prestigious annual Erasmus Prize will be handed to Wikipedia this year for their important work in disseminating knowledge through a comprehensible and universally accessible encyclopaedia.

I would contend that the most important thing to take away from the conference is that using Wikipedia as a research tool implies engaging a lot more with what happens behind the scenes (i.e. on the history and discussion pages). These pages can teach us a wide variety of things about cultural conflicts and disputes, but primarily indicate that knowledge is not a given but is a site of constant contestation and inherent instability. At the same time it seems that in order to systematically research Wikipedia’s rich information database, it is crucial that the proper tools need to be developed. In any case, after hearing Wales’ ambition about the future of Wikipedia and receiving the prestigious Erasmus Prize it seems that despite Wikipedia’s senior status in the field of online companies, it shows no signs of losing relevance. After all, if having to leave early in order to appear on Humberto Tan’s RTL Late Night show is not an indication of relevance, I don’t know what is!