Heather Ford's Writing the Revolution is a timely book. Wikipedia, along with its younger sibling Wikidata, is as influential as it has ever been. Its contents inform the Google Knowledge Graph and are read out by Apple's, Amazon's and Google's voice assistants to millions of people, as definitive answers to users' queries. It's a level of success few people would have predicted fifteen or twenty years ago.
It's also a development worth questioning. While facts can be contested and changed on Wikipedia, this possibility is lost when Wikipedia content is delivered by an electronically generated voice or displayed as incontrovertible fact in a search engine's knowledge panel: You cannot argue with your voice assistant, and Google is famously unresponsive to users wishing to draw the company's attention to errors in its knowledge panels. As Ford says in the first chapter,
Wikipedia is no longer just an encyclopedia. Like Google, Wikipedia constitutes critical knowledge infrastructure. Like electricity grids, telephone and sewerage networks, platforms including Wikipedia and Google provide knowledge infrastructure that millions of people around the world depend on to make decisions in everyday life. Despite their importance, we are usually unaware of the workings of our knowledge infrastructure until it breaks down. When that happens, we get a glimpse not only of how platforms share data between one another but also the attempts of people trying to influence their representations.
Given Wikipedia's near-ubiquity (China being the most notable exception; the country has its own huge, crowdsourced, internet encyclopedias, and Wikipedia is not welcome), it is therefore appropriate to scrutinise how information on Wikipedia is compiled. This applies in particular to current-affairs articles, which, in a departure from the traditional encyclopaedia model, are among the most consulted on Wikipedia, shaping perceptions and thus actually influencing the very events they are reporting on.
Ford focuses her attention on the development over time of a single Wikipedia article, the one on the 2011 Egyptian revolution, from its preparation in the days before the 2011 Egyptian protests even started, through its early Sturm und Drang days on-wiki, and on to the present day.
Retold in meticulous detail, based on both edit histories and interviews with the Wikipedians who shaped the article's contents and development, it becomes a fascinating journey, a microcosm that serves to illustrate the practical operation of Wikipedia's collaborative editing process, the strategies contributors employ to make content "stick", and the functioning and occasional non-functioning of the policies and guidelines supposedly steering and controlling the entire enterprise.
Above all, the story Ford recounts makes clear how much emotion there is in Wikipedia. Writing Wikipedia is not a dry, analytical endeavour designed to arrive at a sober description of consensus reality, but one driven by passion and rewarded by the occasional exultation. As she recounts the actions of Wikipedians like The Egyptian Liberal, Ocaasi, Tariqabjotu, Lihaas, Mohamed Ouda, Amr, Silver seren, Aude and others, it becomes clear that struggle is inherent in the process:
Because of Wikipedia's status not only as an encyclopedia, as one representation among many, but also as the infrastructure for the production and travel of facts, the ways in which decisions are made about which descriptions, explanations, and classifications are selected over others become critical. Wikipedia is authoritative because it seems to reflect what is the consensus truth about the world. How, then, is so-called consensus arrived at? Who (or what) wins in these struggles? What does it take to win? How do battles play out across the chains of circulation in which datafied facts now travel? Does this ultimately represent a people’s history, reflective of our global collective intelligence? Is history now written by algorithms, or do certain groups and actors actually dominate that representation?
These are the questions that the book seeks to answer. Journalists may write the first draft of history, and historians document expert accounts by revisiting those sources after events have occurred. But on Wikipedia, accounts of historic events are being created in ways that are more powerful and more popular than any single authoritative source. Rather than representing global consensus, the facts that are curated and circulated through the web’s most trusted terrains are the result of significant struggles and the constant discarding of alternatives. Some actors and technologies prevail in this struggle, while other knowledges are either actively rejected or never visible from the start.
This is the premise of the book, and it succeeds brilliantly at explaining how Wikipedia works to the general public – and indeed to Wikipedians themselves, who may have become so habituated to Wikipedia's internal processes that they don't consciously perceive them anymore, just like a carpenter who uses a hammer daily generally only has eyes for the structures built, rather than the tool they use to build them.
In the end, Ford argues that our knowledge infrastructure suffers from three key weaknesses: first, Wikipedia is vulnerable to crowds driven by collective emotion; second, algorithms that carry Wikipedia facts to other delivery channels remove the traces of the facts' origins; and, third, knowledge authority is vested in a very small number of platforms, all hosted in the United States.
Ford's Writing the Revolution provides a more clear-eyed explanation of what Wikipedia is, who Wikipedians are, and why it matters, than any other book published to date. It reveals a profoundly human project – full of human talent and human flaws – as well as a writer whose own humanity shines through in the way she relates the stories of the Wikipedians involved.
More about this book has been written elsewhere –
There is also a related article by Heather Ford on The Conversation: