Wikipedia and the sum of human knowledge

We’re only a couple of hours into Wikimania 2012, the global gathering of Wikipedians, and fascinating questions are already swirling around the online encyclopedia’s mission “to make the sum of human knowledge accessible to everyone on Earth.” It’s a bracing call—and yet as the community struggles with questions of diversity and global reach, seeking purchase and impact in Africa and elsewhere, its editors, developers, and users confront puzzles around what constitutes knowledge and information for the species writ large. As a platform, a suite of technologies, and a content source, Wikipedia is making extraordinary efforts: bringing the encyclopedia to a vast and growing array of languages; looking to mobile and mesh-networking to leapfrog technological divides; reaching out to women, rural communities, and youth.

And yet as these cohorts find their way to Wikipedia as users and editors, will the knowledge they wish to aggregate and share conform to the standards of online verifiability that famously condition the encyclopedia’s content? What if the best authorities on local leaders or cultural figures turn out to be their family and friends—people Wikepedia formally eschews as authors of biographical entries? In the global context, what is encompassed by terms like originality, authorship, credit, intellectual property, and freedom of expression? Can Wikipedia find ways to incorporate video documentation; to acknowledge orally-attested evidence; to encompass sources that aren’t captured by the linkable, institutionalized paper machines that articulate colonial and globalized relations of power and knowledge? Does the sum total of human knowledge look like an encyclopedia?

The contradictions manifest themselves at every turn; in his plenary, Jimmy Wales articulated the dilemma with stark humor. As more Africans get online, he argued, they turn to the Internet for exactly the same affordances that attract people from the wealthy North: not to share tips on sorghum cultivation or documentation of orishas or sharia law, but to use Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia. There is a global village emerging, Wales seemed to suggest, and Wikipedia—operating outside governments, industries, and NGOs alike—wants to be its town crier. And yet at the same time, Wikipedia as a community relishes diversity; its collective ambitions cohere around plenitude and comprehensiveness. The encyclopedia struggles to foster diversity not only over against the irreducible challenges of epistemology and technological access, but in relation to its own internal norms and biases as well, as Wales illustrated with a telling comparison: new pages on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress were quickly taken down, dismissed as trivial by legions of editors, while English Wikipedia offers more than one hundred articles devoted to different distributions of the Linux operating system—well-sourced to the last, but of questionable relevance to global concerns in sum.

The problems are fundamental; they extend from the aesthetics of the encyclopedia (off-puttingly technical and falteringly intuitive, as Megan Garber points out at the Atlantic); to technological affordances that constrain or determine access; to questions of relevance, rigor, and prose style. It’s important to note, however, that these questions are known issues, very much the substance and concern of the Wikimania 2012 conference and the community it convokes. As a relative outsider, I’m struck afresh by the singular nature of this community—part club, part polity, an emerging hybrid of sovereignty and benignancy with few obvious historical precursors.