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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Professor Encounters Wikipedians

Originally uploaded by Tobias Higbie.
My apologies to my loyal cadre of readers (all three of you) for the long delay since my last post. I got bogged down in research and teaching; typed too much and had a return of a long dormant case of tendinitis/carpal tunnel. Occupational hazard.

During my hiatus, I made my plunge into the role of "Wikipedian," that is, I edited entries--and was edited--on that knowledge-zeitgeist known as the Wikipedia. My foray into the Wiki world was interesting and instructive, and I offer this self-ethnography as a jumping off point for some thoughts on the shifting terrain of knowledge and power online and beyond.

My students are union officers, activists, and representatives. I strongly believe that they ought to understand and engage new media like the Wikipedia, blogs, Flickr, and YouTube. So I asked students to write a Wikipedia entry as a course assignment. I explained the them that there is a group of Wikipedia editors who are working collectively to improve the representation of labor unions within the encyclopedia, the Wiki Organized Labor Project. But knowing that the idea of editing the Wikipedia would be daunting to my students, I simply required them to turn in text that I would later input. This, as you will see, was my first mistake.

So after much delay, I got around to trying my hand at editing the Wikipedia. One of my students, Tim Denardo, is a UAW rep. at the Bloomington, Illinois, Mitsubishi plant. The Wikipedia article for Mitsubishi (Diamond Star Motors) was short, and contained not a word about the union. It also said of the factory: "1,900 people are employed as well as 1,000 robots," which to my reading is offensive in that it tends to equate people and robots. In short, a perfect opportunity to add labor perspective to an otherwise nonlabor entry.

I pared down Tim's 2 page text to four paragraphs, logged in and clicked the "edit this page" tab. After puzzling through the code, I added a new section on UAW Local 2488 and dropped in my student's text, and added a link at the bottom of the entry to the Local 2488 web site. I clicked save, and marveled at my power to instantaneously edit the most popular reference source in the world!

Whoops, don't get too excited, Professor. Within two minutes, my additions disappeared. Confusion and mild anger followed. Maybe I didn't do it right? Check the "history" tab, which lists all page edits. No, I did it right. One of the watchdogs of Wikiland was monitoring the page and deemed my addition irrelevant: "information on every single little union group isn't necessary. It constitutes 'cruft'."

I clicked around for a few minutes, discovering that my editor is an expert in math and gaming, speaks French at the intermediate level, and is a member of a national honor society for high school and junior college mathematicians. He is also the recipient of several Wiki awards for battling spam/vandalism. Although he laments that it is a thankless task, and that people sometimes think he's a jerk, he feels good about doing a job that needs doing.

I also learn that I've been dissed by my editor. The term "cruft" is wiki jargon for information that "is of importance only to a small population of enthusiastic fans of the subject in question.... Thus, use of this term may be regarded as pejorative, and when used in discussion about another editor's contributions, it can sometimes be regarded as uncivil and an assumption of bad faith." On the other hand, some editors like to use it as a motivational tool to get writers to craft their text more appropriately for the Wikipedia.

One way or the other, my contribution was disappeared at the hands of someone who, while an expert in math and Wikipedia editing, probably has no understanding of the role of labor unions in modern automobile factories. I immediately re-edited the entry, inserting two or three sentences stating the fact that the workers are represented by the UAW, and replacing the link to the union's website. Just as quickly the editor deletes the link because it does not "provide more information about [the company] as a whole (just the union)." Well okay, but the union represents the workers at the company's only US plant, and most of the entry is about the plant, and the cars produced there. It's not just robots working there for heaven's sake!

Frustrated, I click over to the "Discussion" tab and appeal to the "community": I'm new here, but it seems like I'm being unfairly edited. My original editor never replies, but a new Wikipedian, apparently the original author of the entry, affirms that I've been very bad and he would have cut my text too. He likes my shorter additions, but the link is not appropriate. A third Wikipedian, a self-identified "blue collar worker with pro-labor tendencies" and a member of the Organized Labour project, posts a pleasant welcome note to my "Talk Page" with helpful links to various policies. Bruised but now feeling a little less hostile, I make another edit, creating a separate section on the union, no one messes with it and so it stands today. Success, sort of.

My experience taught me two very important things. First, despite the hype about the wide open nature of Wikipedia, there are gatekeepers who perform functions that resemble processes in the traditional publishing world. Certain "editors" oversee parts of the resource and simply say "no." The goal is to drive off troublemakers and the less worthy contributers (although they would probably say their goal is to police vandalism). If you persist, someone else comes along to explain the process. There is, in other words, a kind of hierarchy of editorial work, and functional differences between types of editors (whether this is something they have developed consciously, I do not know. More likely it reflects the personalities of various editors).

My second realization is that you really have to try editing this beast yourself to understand how it works. From a pedagogical standpoint, it is the process of paring down your addition to the bare minimum that helps you understand what the wider community thinks is important about your subject. The overt reason for my slap down was that I added text out of proportion to the rest of the article. Underlying that reason also was the assumption (typical for many Americans) that the union, and the workers, were ancillary to the story of the company. The speed of my slap down was most likely due to the fact that this is a corporate entry, and these entries are often vandalized. A few days later I re-wrote large sections of the entry on "graduate student unionization," and no one bothered me. If I was starting this process over, I would be able to craft a better addition to the Mitsubishi entry, and then defend my contribution.

My adventure with Wikipedia happened about the same time as my academic colleagues on H-Labor (a listserv for labor historians) were having a conversation about the value of the online encyclopedia, its use among their students, and the wisdom of various university and departmental policies that seek to ban or regulate student use.

Like other academics, the H-Labor readers were divided on the wisdom of student use, although there weren't too many hardcore anti-wiki voices. The consensus: like any source, use Wikipedia with caution, and use it appropriate to its nature as a first line reference tool. But more interesting was the way the discussion of Wikipedia's alleged "unreliability" raised issues of academic authority and the corporatization of university education.

Several posters noted that student reliance on Wikipedia to the exclusion of deeper research reflected contradictory aspects of contemporary student experience. On the one hand, the creeping credentialization of liberal arts education: students are customers paying for degrees so they can improve their future incomes. On the other hand (and I cannot confirm or refute this), students today are assigned much more reading than was the case 30 years ago. Pressed for time by the jobs they take to pay for their education, loaded down with seemingly pointless reading assigned by professors who are disconnected from reality, so the argument goes, naturally the students turn to Wikipedia.

What struck me most about the H-Labor conversation was just how out of touch we are with these emerging resources. I consider myself moderately web savvy, and I use the Wikipedia several times a week as a general resource. But editing the Wikipedia was, frankly, a little scary: a new set of rules, a new and unknown set of editors, and worst of all, a total lack of respect for my expertise!

Why should they respect my expertise? I had none, in their world, and in fact I acted like a fool. I was heckled. And I deserved it. Welcome to the world of democratic information. Not perfect, not always right. But different, very different, from the authoritarian world in which we operate every day. Refreshing.