I’m a new wikipedia editor. If I make it past the fourth day, I will have reached the status of “Established Editor” – apparently most people don’t make it that long. I feel a little bit like Atreyu approaching the Southern Oracle in The Neverending Story.

THEORACLE

I hope I don’t get zapped and I have a sense that there is something a bit mysterious about this test.

But a couple of things are currently tumbling around in my head about what I’ve learned thus far.

The first is just how conservative Wikipedia is as a knowledge structure. As a “tertiary” resource, an encyclopedia, Wikipedia is designed to depend on the printed word for its authority. If it isn’t in print, it’s going to be hard to have robust citations of the sort that Wikipedia demands. It’s not about truth, it’s about what can be cited.

Of course, there are problems here, especially as a group of us begin to tackle issues of inclusivity by improving or adding pages by and about women and people of color. These are often the very same groups whose histories, voices, and art have not made it into print. There the claim is often that it isn’t profitable, and the driving force of market forces is part of what the “free” space of Wikipedia is supposed to push against. Of course, we recognize that there is a lot that isn’t “free” about Wikipedia, but I had not recognized that as a “tertiary” structure, Wikipedia may reproduce many of the same market effects that we’ve long seen in print. While twitter this evening brought the notion of oral citation into the conversation, I know very little about it and will have to search further.

This issue of print dependence comes to a head in Wikipedia’s policy regarding “notablity” which is remarkably literal in privileging that which has been “noted” by means of being printed. It seems strange in our current context that what is “worthy of notice” remains so intricately tied to what has been printed. I’m sure someone has done some great work on this, but I’m just coming to it and I’m a bit flabbergasted. Given that the Wikipedia standard is to write for a global audience (a laudable goal in many ways), the bar is quite high for what can be argued to be “notable,” and I worry that the work of women, people of color, queer and trans people, and those of lower economic class fall right through the sieve. What’s worse, as the economics of print become even more untenable, the problem is going to get worse, not better.

While the Wikipedia folks seem to think this is not necessarily problem, noting that “If the subject has not been covered outside of Wikipedia, no amount of improvements to the Wikipedia content will suddenly make the subject notable,” I think we have a knowledge transmission structure that is worth spending a fair amount of time thinking about. This is a topic of much debate, I’m learning, which seems right to me. We should be taking an interest in how we build and disseminate knowledge.

Now this post was prompted by the suggestion that an ongoing twitter conversation could be more robust in comments, so bring on the comments. I hope they’ll teach this newbie more about a subject she could clearly get engrossed in.