The Signpost


Small Wikipedias' burden

Contribute  —  
Share this
By Oop

In a certain way, writing Wikipedia is the same everywhere, in every language or culture. You have to stick to the facts, aiming for the most objective way of describing them, including everything relevant and leaving out all the everyday trivia that is not really necessary to understand the context. You have to use critical thinking, trying to be independent of your own preferences and biases. To some extent, that's all there is to it.

Naturally, Wikipedians have their biases, some of which can never be cured. Most Wikipedians tend to like encyclopedias; but millions of people in the world don't share that bias, and we represent them rather poorly. I'm also quite sure that an overwhelming majority of Wikipedia co-authors are literate. Again, that's not true for everyone in this world. Yet we have other, less noticeable but barely less fundamental biases.

All Things Bright and Beautiful

A Wikipedian bringing light of knowledge, an illustration in the article Wikipedia by d'Alembert (1751)

Wikipedia is a continuance not only for the ancient tradition of collections of human knowledge, but particularly the modern encyclopedic tradition that was most famously represented by Denis Diderot's great L'Encyclopédie. We share several beliefs with the philosophers of the Enlightenment. We believe that knowledge is good, and ignorance is not bliss. It's better to know, even if it's uncomfortable and you'd feel better shutting your eyes to the world around you. Otherwise, we'd have the Encyclopedia of All Things Good and Beautiful that would mention no pain, dangers, disease, or wars—nothing controversial, just the everlasting progress of humanity, with science and religion marching hand in hand towards the eternal sunshine of a splendid future. Yet we've chosen knowledge and, to some extent, maybe even truth. This means we have to acknowledge our social responsibility. After all, that's one of the sources of our aims to be objective and neutral.

In small cultures, languages, and societies, this means a lot more than in the big ones. Of course, in a big culture, your every mistake is read daily by thousands of people in many countries, some of who might possibly fix it. In a small culture, your mistakes most likely stay as they are until they're copied into every book on the topic.

And while talking about books, there are many fewer other dependable sources in small cultures than in big ones—no Britannica, no Larousse, no Brockhaus. In my first language, Estonian, three encyclopedias cover the whole alphabet: one was published before WWII, one during the Soviet times, and one started in USSR in 1980s, then changed its name and was finished in 2000s. It's possible there won't be another finished encyclopedia because it is just too costly to produce for a small market. Try to imagine: what would that mean for local Wikipedians? If you don't get it right, no one else will.

In good themes and in bad, in sickness and in health

Wikipedia tends to take a special place in a small regional culture's media landscape. If there are few commercially successful publications, it is hard to find money for investigative journalism. Instead, the media tends to focus on quick online news that flicks by at an unbelievable rate. Such journalism is cheap to produce and cheap in its content: it doesn't create a balanced media field where every bias is levelled by competition. That means if you want to get a good overview of recent (or even not so recent) events, you either have to wait until someone publishes a good book on that theme, or turn to, well, Wikipedia. The accounts you give on socially and politically important themes in Wikipedia gain much more resonance in small cultures. Proportionally, their impact is much bigger in Estonian than in English.

The same is true just about every controversial subject. I doubt there will ever be lasting consensus on the English Wikipedia's talk page on Estonia about whether Estonia was occupied in 1940 or not. Now, try to imagine how the same events would be described in Estonian and in Russian. There is a faint possibility that a consensus can be reached about the description of controversial issues, but it would need a tremendous amount of diligent work and good will.

Wikipedians carrying their social responsibilities with honor and dignity

For every nation, there are controversial and hurtful subjects; these are not willingly recalled, like childhood memories of being abused or abusing others. A friend recently told me there are numbers and dates on the building blocks from which his house was built. Those blocks were made during World War II in a local concentration camp. Currently, all numbers are covered by plaster because his father doesn't want to see them.

That's understandable. Nobody does want to remember. But if we stick with our belief that it is better to know, we should acknowledge those memories. We have to write about parts of history that no one is proud of—about "unpopular" ethnic minorities, social problems that are not yet admitted. If the majority in a particular culture states that a certain issue is not worthy of an article, this might be the exact reason why we need to face it.

We can work it out

It's hard to write about the demise of the White Russian North-Western Army after WWI, or the expropriation of Baltic German estates in the Estonian Wikipedia. It must be quite difficult to give a balanced account of the Abyssinian campaign in Italian, and I can't imagine writing about Armenian Genocide in Turkish. But this does not mean it shouldn't be done. Quite on the opposite. We just have to be very careful about it.

That's where it's helpful to stick to policies that are designed with the community consensus in mind. Wikipedia is unique among all big encyclopedias in that its articles do not reflect the viewpoint of a certain expert or two. They're written by a motley crew with a colourful mix of views, luckily joined by the will to reach an understanding—or at least a balanced presentation of all important views on a subject. In some respects, we might say we can never reach objectivity, as only objects are objective; we are a community of subjects, and even if we reach a consensual decision, it will always be subjective. At any time disagreement might emerge. Indeed, if there are enough newcomers, they can raise a discussion and influence community to review the original decision. But the most important thing is the process: the habit of arranging the public meeting of the minds, the belief in the possibility of common ground, and the will to reach it. If we can make an example of that every day, teaching the societies around us, then we'll have succeeded.

The same goes for the big Wikipedias: every big society consists of smaller ones: people of a city block, pupils of a school class, customers in a coffee shop, town people, newspaper readers, philatelists. But these goals are much easier to reach in small societies, small cultures, and small languages. And if we don't do this, it may very well be that nobody does—noblesse oblige. To paraphrase Kipling, that’s the small Wikipedias' burden.

+ Add a comment

Discuss this story

These comments are automatically transcluded from this article's talk page. To follow comments, add the page to your watchlist. If your comment has not appeared here, you can try purging the cache.

Marion Strecker (Brazilian journalist living in the US)2604:2000:1009:C01D:ADC6:C857:28CF:8D19 (talk) 15:16, 14 August 2012 (UTC)[reply]

  • I just wanted to add some compliments and appreciation to your writing. I was really pleased that I can read something so reflective and well written. I also like that you reflected the burden the smaller languages are facing up to. So true. Very nice. Thanks. Reo + 10:03, 16 August 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • I also liked this story very much, and it has made me reflect on just exactly what I am doing with all the hours I've put in here on this project ... well, I'm even more glad now that I edit here than I was before, and I want to redouble my efforts to try to persuade current editors to stay, and to keep recruiting new ones into the project. Nice job! Cliff (a/k/a "Uploadvirus") (talk) 09:23, 19 August 2012 (UTC)[reply]


The Signpost · written by many · served by Sinepost V0.9 · 🄯 CC-BY-SA 4.0