The Signpost

Book review

Wikipedia and the Representation of Reality

Contribute  —  
Share this
By Ian Ramjohn

Wikipedia is the encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Making a change to its content is as simple as clicking the edit button and typing something in. And more often than not, what happens next for new editors is that their addition gets reverted and is hidden from everything but the edit history of the page. In theory Wikipedia's barriers to entry are very low, but the barriers to making a meaningful contribution to the encyclopedia's contents are much, much higher. In some ways this is a good thing – Wikipedia's exclusion of a lot of new additions helps it achieve the seemingly impossible task of presenting reliable, high-quality information on a wiki that anyone can edit. But it also means that Wikipedia's base of contributors, the topics they choose to write about, the information they choose to include, and the way they choose to phrase their contributions is limited to the group of people who make it past these barriers.

For those of us who work on trying to expand the demographic profile of Wikipedia contributors, it's important to understand the policies and processes that shape content inclusion and exclusion on Wikipedia. But even a basic understanding of the key policies and processes can take years to grasp. A nuanced understanding of how they play out in practice – both the written and unwritten rules – is even more difficult.

This is what makes Wikipedia and the Representation of Reality such a valuable addition to the growing collection of scholarly and popular writing around Wikipedia. Zach McDowell and Matt Vetter are experienced members of the community of Wikipedians and educators who have been incorporating Wikipedia assignments into their teaching over the last decade. The authors have worked with Wiki Education for years both as instructors and, in Zach's case, as a research fellow.

Over the two decades of its existence, Wikipedia has grown to the point where it has become the encyclopedia. Instead of explaining Wikipedia as an online encyclopedia, we now explain other encyclopedias in relation to Wikipedia. While Wikipedia's policies on inclusion and exclusion were meant to limit its coverage to reality and avoid hoaxes, the project has come to shape reality, or at least shape what's important for the many of its readers: if it isn’t covered, is it really that important?

In the book, Zach and Matt take a careful look at key policies and try to tease out a lot of the underlying assumptions of the policy-writers. From the perspectives of the early techno-utopian Wikipedians, a statement like "Be Bold" was a way of telling potential contributors that they didn’t need to ask anyone's permission to make Wikipedia better. But for a different audience, this means something different; the book quotes their students as saying they "ultimately felt more anxiety than boldness" and found themselves "afraid to upset, anger, or disappoint" the original authors of the work they were editing.

These disconnects between policy as designed and as interpreted, between intent and effect, are the kinds of things that have kept Wikipedia from being what it was designed to be.

By looking at the interplay between policy and the way that policy is applied, Zach and Matt manage to introduce readers to the importance of the community aspect of Wikipedia. Many of Wikipedia's readers don’t understand that behind the text, there is a community of individuals with different ideas and opinions of how to interpret policy. When someone reverts your edit, it isn’t Wikipedia, it's a certain Wikipedian. Unlike a top-down organization where there's someone who can decide what a policy means and how it's going to be interpreted, the application of policy on Wikipedia is a socially constructed reality built through a process of discussion, debate, and negotiation. The book explains this by invoking Steven Thorne's "culture-of-use" theory, which provides a conceptual framework that is likely to help people who are new to Wikipedia make sense of this sort of thing.

By creating a framework for understanding Wikipedia, I believe that the book will demystify Wikipedia for a wide range of people. The book is an academic work (albeit a very readable one) and should be a necessary primer for anyone interested in studying Wikipedia. But it's also very helpful for Wikipedians who are interested in fixing its problems. The book is a critique of Wikipedia, but it's written by people who love the project and are optimistic about its future. Far too often Wikipedia is written about either in purely positive terms or dismissed as hopelessly exclusionary and sexist.

As a person who has spent much of the last 17 years thinking about and interacting with Wikipedia policy and its impact on knowledge, existing editors, and new ones, this book gave me a lot to think about. I didn’t agree with everything they said in the book, but even when I disagreed it tended to be over matters of interpretation rather than matters of fact. I love the fact that I finally have a source I can reference instead of feeling the need to explain everything from first principles.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about how Wikipedia works, or who wants to make Wikipedia better. The fact that they were able to release it under an open license means it's freely available (either as a .pdf or through Amazon's Kindle store) and easily accessible to anyone who has the time.

You can watch a presentation about this book from WikiConference North America here.

In this issue
+ Add a comment

Discuss this story

Well, I didn't like the offered online presentation (fed up with talking heads like that) but appreciated the book review text very much. Ian Ramjohn's statements about the gap between "policy as designed and as interpreted" are realistic, unpretentious and fair. I'm also an experienced wikipedian so I actually wasn't surprised by anything he described. BTW with one exception I have to point to: it isn't at all desirable to mislead any naive people to confuse an online encyclopedia with a place to edit willful private nonsense. Which misunderstanding is daily matter of procedure of our recent changes observers. Well, nothing new to any experienced people but nevertheless our policy texts don't communicate it down-to-earth.
The marketing formula phrase "Wikipedia is the encyclopedia that anyone can edit" is not really a truthful communication. No, not everyone can do (and remain uncanceled), not everybody has learnt enough skills to easily adapt to the new situations. Just try to remember the difference between going through a situation when all school students together were new or else when you have been the only new one to enter a group situation. In social life as psychology and own experience alike have found out any newcomers have to adapt gradually to the established group structures. Stranding is always possible! Some frustration is almost always part of it. The only real difference you can shift/soften a little bit is the degree of frustrations. The online scenario of Wikipedia editing is a little bit more complicated than real life newbie conflicts because the persons involved aren't present (have no faces, no smiles, no facial warning signs). --Just N. (talk) 21:15, 2 November 2021 (UTC)[reply]

Go back 13 years, and I was busy writing How Wikipedia Works with User:Phoebe. This work looks more like a sequel than anything I've seen in the meantime. Early on there is a heading "How Wikipedia Actually Works", which seems fair: the old joke being that WP only works in practice, not in theory. The authors make no bones about the amount of unpacking required to bridge those two, so +1 to them for that.

That said, this is a deliberately discursive work, not the "primer" people often and hopefully request. It is based on teaching experience, and that is a good thing on which to draw. Whether you call the main WP activity "production of knowledge", "construction of reality", or simply "wiki work" which gets my vote, it is inherently messy (and at least intermittently frustrating, divisive and a time-sink). Readers of the book will probably get why, fairly soon. I didn't read further than to see that this basic point, related to the apocryphal Bismarck-on-legislation-and-sausages quote, comes through.

I once gave a pub talk on online communities and WP, in which I introduced a point made by Jacob Bronowski about art. You should ask not only what is done, and how it is done, but why it is done that way. If you applied it to WP, you might get a book like this; we need books plural, in fact. Charles Matthews (talk) 10:16, 3 November 2021 (UTC)[reply]

While I haven't read the book, I really appreciate the emphasis on the difference between the rules - or the way things are officially supposed to be done - and the application or interpretation of these official norms. These difference occur in all organizations, but it seems to me that they are particularly obvious on Wikipedia. Much of the time it seems like our rules don't determine the outcome in contentious cases, they only determine the starting point for the debate.
I certainly agree with Charles Matthews that we need more books like this - and more books about Wikipedia in general. But ultimately newbies are only going to learn by diving in, learning by experience. It would be nice if there were short learning aids for newbies organized along the path from newby to established editor. Much of that path should cover material covered in this book.
As a Signposter I ask that if anybody sees another book about Wikipedia, please bring it to our attention or just go ahead and submit a book review! Even if the book is only about the Internet ecosystem with Wikipedia's place in it - I'd love to see those reviews. Thanks! Smallbones(smalltalk) 16:00, 3 November 2021 (UTC)[reply]
Or in other words, the guidelines have some wiggle room. The pedagogic point, I suppose, in line with what I said above, is to ask "why wiggle room?" Because (I suppose) it is clear enough, when the question is posed, that there should be discretion and negotiation in our mix. In any case, that kind of teaching is not the same as basic Wikipedia training, along the lines of "what you type to get what you want on the page." The endless pressure to deliver such tutorials, with their clear value, should not mean that nobody addresses higher-order issues, and supports understanding that does not come from being on the wrong end of a case study. Charles Matthews (talk) 16:14, 3 November 2021 (UTC)[reply]
On to reading Chapter 3 of the book, What Counts as Knowledge: Notability, Knowledge Gaps and Exclusionary Practices. On p. 46 it leads off with the Donna Strickland speedy deletion case study. A surprise here. Much indeed has been made of this event of March 2014. Looking at the nomination, it was for deletion under CSD G12, i.e. copyvio. Now, I can see that as an admin. But under "reliable sources", it seems that reportage has relied on hearsay. If perceived lack of notability had an impact on Strickland's inclusion in Wikipedia, and who can say that it didn't, it was not on the surface the reason for the deletion. Charles Matthews (talk) 08:22, 4 November 2021 (UTC)[reply]
Gosh, such a notorious case, and it was a G12. It's a real pity that couldn't have been said some years back, indeed that it wasn't clearly displayed on the talk page. I don't know that it's actually damaged Wikipedia but it certainly didn't do the reputation any favours. Chiswick Chap (talk) 16:13, 15 November 2021 (UTC)[reply]
In a way that is not quite preaching to the choir, McDowell and Vetter present a refreshing reminder to those of us editors who think we know it all, and that despite its enormous cargo of bureaucracy Wikipedia is still afloat and far from on the rocks - thousands of pages of policies, rules, guidelines and essays that would already require a lifetime to read them all and which would immediately scare away any newbie editors if they knew about them. I don't regret reading the 'book' - so thank you for the review, Ian - but personally, apart from a few recent statistics, which one can get any time, I didn't really learn anything new. Kudpung กุดผึ้ง (talk) 19:16, 5 November 2021 (UTC)[reply]


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