The Signpost

Interview

Joseph Reagle and Jackie Koerner

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By Smallbones

In January 2021, Wikipedians will celebrate the twentieth birthday of our encyclopedia, now the world's encyclopedia. Wikipedia @ 20, a book of 22 chapters from MIT Press, helps mark this birthday. Co-editors Joseph Reagle and Jackie Koerner agreed to be interviewed on the occasion of the book's publication. Other stories in this issue related to the book include a book review, and Reagle's article from the book on The many (reported) deaths of Wikipedia.

Joseph Reagle

Signpost: Many of the authors of the chapters include a couple of paragraphs about how they were first attracted to Wikipedia. How did you first get involved with Wikipedia? How did you get involved in editing "Wikipedia @ 20"?

Joseph: A long time ago I was working at the World Wide Web Consortium for Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, and was excited by the emergence of blogs and wikis. When I returned to grad school in 2003, I figured my PhD work should be related to one of those topics, and I’m glad I chose Wikipedia. It’s an extraordinary project, and I thought the twentieth anniversary would be a good opportunity to reflect on its two decades and see what they tell us of expectations fulfilled or disappointed, myths confirmed or busted, lessons learned, and the probable future.

Jackie Koerner

Jackie: Like Joseph, I became deeply interested in Wikipedia in graduate school. I was completing an internship for the campus department of information systems. I studied information sharing amongst departments. I found the practices terribly inefficient and greatly improved by adopting wikis for documentation. Eight years later I experienced a sudden depression. After my PhD I planned to stay home with my daughter. That meant I left my full-time job, the non-profit I started, graduated, and completed a research project all at the same time. I had unscheduled time for the first time in my life. I didn’t know what to do. My husband suggested I take some of the literature review from my dissertation and add citations to Wikipedia. Editing Wikipedia @ 20 is just one of the great things that I found myself involved with after that first edit in 2016.

Joseph: One of the exciting things about the collection is the emergence of inversions in Wikipedia's history. Jackie and I aren't the only ones to have begun with an interest in Wikipedia while students. This is the case for many of the contributors, who now use Wikipedia in the classroom as teachers. For us, Wikipedia was new – and not necessarily appreciated by or approved of by our teachers – and now, as Alexandra Lockett writes in "Why Do I Have Authority to Edit the Page?", most of our students have never lived in a world without Wikipedia. From then to now, Wikipedia went "From Faculty Enemy to Faculty Enabler" – the title of Robert Cumming’s essay.

SP: The subtitle is "Stories of an Incomplete Revolution". How do you define the "revolution" and why do you think it is incomplete?

Joseph: When discussing possible titles, I kept thinking of Andrew Lih’s (2009) book The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia. In the tech world, it is easy to speak of "revolutions," but it’s rare for the phenomenon to stick around as conceived – most everything becomes just another advertising platform – and people's attention moves on to the next "revolution".

Wikipedia was revolutionary because it exemplified what Yochai Benkler, author of the essay "From Utopia to Practice and Back" labeled "commons-based peer production". That is, "nobodies" were collectively building the largest encyclopedia in human history. How was this possible and where might it take us? But then, over the years, this "revolution" was outpaced by social media platforms, dependent on user surveillance and overrun by misinformation. Also, Wikipedia's aspiration to represent "the sum of all knowledge" had fallen short. So though Wikipedia was revolutionary, the revolution itself didn’t happen as envisioned and hoped for.

Jackie: Precisely. There is still much to be done. The sum of all human knowledge is an exciting phrase but it only becomes a mission if we truly live it. Some of the policies and practices on Wikipedia interfere with knowledge equity, which is access to quality educational content available for all people regardless of their geographic or personal identities. These policies worked when there was not something better, but just like society evolves and changes with the needs and awareness, Wikipedia needs to do the same. Contributors in the book mention challenges to inclusion – particularly chapters authored by Black Lunch Table, Art + Feminism, Whose Knowledge?, and Alexandria Lockett. Katherine Maher brings the volume to a close with a nice call to action for us all to really consider what the future of Wikipedia looks like. My hope is we all listen to what these activists and scholars are saying and reflect on how Wikipedia should change to be more inclusive. If we don’t there is no way we can claim to be the sum of all human knowledge.

SP: The book marks Wikipedia’s twentieth anniversary, which is a conventional time to look back and take stock. But is there something else special about the present, is there something happening now that makes this period special?

Jackie: Certainly. We are living in a time with rampant misinformation, blatant acts of racism by people in power, and systemic dehumanization. Oh, and let’s just add in a global pandemic. This is a time when people need to have quality information. Over the past few years, we have seen this need grow with the increasing reliance of tech giants on Wikipedia’s information and related APIs to combat misinformation and propaganda on their own platforms. We as contributors shouldn’t look back and say, "Wow! We did great and that’s why people trust Wikipedia!" but rather, "Great job! What can we do better? How can we safeguard information from bias and manipulation and improve knowledge equity during this time of uncertainty?"

Joseph: Jackie is spot on about the serious challenges of our moment and the important role Wikipedia has to play. Indeed, seeing Wikipedia’s portrayal flip from the dietary equivalent of a Big Mac, in its first decade, to the "good cop" of the Web, in its second, is another one of those extraordinary inversions described by Omer Benjakob and Stephen Harrison in their chapter "From Anarchy to Wikiality."

SP: There are three main sections to the book, titled Hindsight, Connections, and Vision, which I view as roughly: past, present, and future. Perhaps one of most striking things about Wikipedia is how little it has changed in some ways over the last 15 or 20 years – in article format, in its major rules, in the types of editors it attracts, in technology, even the appearance of the main page! Do the chapters of the book show something beyond a slow moving evolution, or do you see real fast-moving change in any particular areas? Do you see any of the proposed changes in the Vision section having a real chance of being implemented?

Joseph: The organization of the collection into three parts seems so natural now, but there was a moment when we were wrestling with how to organize the twenty-two chapters. Given my interest in historical insights, and Jackie’s work with Wikimedia 2030, we had natural bookends: past and future. The idea of a section on connections was inspired by the essay "Three Links," by Amy Carleton, Rebecca Thorndike-Breeze, and Cecelia Musselman. They wrote how "working with the encyclopedia and its community has been a valuable forging ground, shaping each of us into links in a wide-reaching mesh of personal and professional connections". The book exemplifies how Wikipedia connects volunteers, teachers, librarians, scholars, and activists; many of our contributors bridge these communities by serving in multiple roles.

To your question on the pace of change, I describe the phenomenon I see at Wikipedia as a type of vertigo. Alfred Hitchcock pioneered the camera technique of the dolly zoom: of zooming in on the subject, optically, while pulling the camera back on its dolly. It feels as if the vision is advancing while the subject, roughly speaking, remains in place. That said, I am inspired by the piece "Towards a Wikipedia For and From Us All" by Adele Vrana, Anasuya Sengupta, and Siko Bouterse from Whose Knowledge? They took the editorial charge of illuminating myths in Wikipedia’s two decades to heart (e.g., "The gender gap is the main or only diversity problem to solve on Wikipedia") and proposed practices to move forward.

Jackie: That is exactly it. Joseph’s right. We wrestled with the organization, thinking of section names, and rearranging chapters. We kept coming back to the chapters where people felt such intense personal fulfillment from their work with Wikipedia. "Three Links" did inspire us to name the section. I think that’s the section of the book people will feel the most nostalgic reading. We all have such unique stories about how Wikipedia became a part of our lives.

Like Joseph wrote [in his chapter], "At this point, it’s foolish for anyone to predict Wikipedia’s death. While such a prognostication makes for catchy headlines – which will probably continue – Wikipedia persists." The Wikipedia community is invested in Wikipedia’s success and now the broader world is depending on it more than ever, as Heather Ford writes in her chapter "Rise of the Underdog."

The chapters in the Vision section express frustration with a lack of growth over time, which can be difficult to hear for long-time contributors. During my work with Wikimedia 2030, it reaffirmed my understanding of how Wikipedia is crucial to knowledge equity and quality educational content. Unfortunately, Wikipedia is at an age now where we should expect certain things, like a Code of Conduct, a better handle on harassment, and more progressive policies and practices to embrace knowledge equity. We as a community need to reflect on how we must grow in age-appropriate ways so we don’t end up on the Internet’s obituaries after all.

SP: The most controversial topic will likely be a perceived contradiction between Jimmy Wales famous goal, "imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge" and the tools of the Age of Enlightenment that Wikipedians use to document that knowledge – mainly the printed word, together with the concepts of verifiability and reliable sources. The argument is most often applied to women, who for social and economic reasons have been left out of many books and other "reliable sources" for centuries, but the same arguments apply to the LGBTQ+ community, indigenous peoples, and religious and national minorities. Do you see Wikipedia modifying its commitment to verifiable sources? Or do you see a modification of the commitment to provide knowledge to "every single person on the planet"?

Joseph: My intellectual origins are in the Enlightenment tradition of classical liberal and libertarian thought. This contributed to my attraction to Wikipedia as a place where people could civilly but vigorously knock heads within the constraints of reason and science. That’s still my default disposition. However, when I first read Susan Herring’s work in graduate school about how men dominate online conversations under the pretense of reason and flaming miscreants, I began to appreciate how "open to all" is not necessarily so. This began my work on gender bias in Wikipedia and free culture – and the geek feminism response.

Wikipedia's policies on reputable sources is also aligned with my default way of thinking. Quacks, scammers, and POV pushers need to be repulsed so that Wikipedia is not overrun. I still think this is the case but also, now, appreciate how this perpetuates the biases in what, historically, has been deemed worthy of notice. I greatly appreciate those who've thought about and experimented with oral citations, for example, and would like to see such work continue, but I haven't given this issue enough thought to say I understand it well or if there is a possible solution. This is something I'd like to better understand.

Jackie: I have to smile considering this question. Joseph and I had some deep conversations about bias, gender equity, and lived experiences during the development of this book. We differ in perspective, but this is what made our co-editorship of this book so strong!

I believe education is a human right. I want everyone to have access to the sum of all human knowledge and see themselves represented there too. I deeply understand how not all knowledge is created equal. Dominant power structures foster an environment where people feel empowered to create inequitable standards. Alexandria Lockett’s chapter "Why Do I Have Authority to Edit the Page? The Politics of User Agency and Participation on Wikipedia" engages with what it is like to experience barriers to knowledge diversity on Wikipedia.

My hope is Wikipedia contributors choose to engage with what knowledge is and not what we have been told knowledge is. For Wikipedia to honestly represent knowledge the verifiable sources policies must change.

SP: The book is unusual in many ways. At 373 pages (22 chapters), it's large. It’s academic, being published by MIT Press, with about two-thirds of the authors working in academia. At the same time, almost as many of the authors are Wikipedians. It's open access, working with a new MIT project PubPub, which is a platform for scientific communities. It's published with a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. How did all these pieces of the production process work together?

Joseph: It wasn’t easy! We touch on this a bit in the preface so I'll just say, in short, how grateful I am for the effort, wisdom, and support of everyone who helped make it happen.

Jackie: I can only echo what Joseph said. I feel inspired by every one of the contributors in the book and in the Wikipedia @ 20 project https://wikipedia20.pubpub.org/. I am grateful for all the kindness, hard work, and energy from everyone involved.

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