Writing Revolution – Wikipedia and the Online Battle for Facts
Is it any wonder that a Wikipedia entry titled “Egyptian Revolution of 2011” was ready for publication the day before the protests began in Cairo’s Tahrir Square?
An intriguing but inconclusive new book takes a fresh look at the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit through the lens of a single article, and finds reason to challenge contemporary assumptions about what has been dubbed “the last best place on the internet”.
Heather Ford, a South African internet activist turned academic, spent 10 years studying the entry covering the Egyptian uprisings on Wikipedia. In the process, she met many of her authors (or “editors”, as they are called on the platform where original research is the equivalent of original sin) – from a Cairo liberal to inside events to an agoraphobic American college graduate for whom the handling of this slice of history proved “a turning point”.
Ford combines his original and captivating research with a forensic study of tech journals and site talk pages, dissecting the edit wars that followed the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. It recounts the endless euphoria of the following years reflected in the slow decay of the article, as the hive mind “buzzes to other pages”, only to be gradually replaced by robots browsing the article at the searching for dead links and crawling it for data.
Write the Revolution evokes two themes that together encompass virtually all contemporary concerns about truth and technology: how humans create knowledge and how machines manipulate it. We favor Wikipedia content, writes Ford, because we believe it is a product of mass consensus, which journalist James Surowiecki first dubbed in 2004 “the wisdom of the crowds”. And we are confident that its editors adhere to strict policies, the main ones being that articles must present a neutral point of view and that any questionable claims they contain must come from reliable sources.
In an age of hyper-awareness of subjectivity and misinformation, these beliefs are reassuring. Yet, by revealing key points in the story of the Egyptian revolution article, Ford shows how vulnerable Wikipedia’s process is to distortions of power and influence.
Wikipedia content is further privileged, she writes, because it is encoded as structured data about objects in the world and their relationships to one another. This turns them into machine-readable data, which means they can be digested by the algorithms that power the products of major commercial players, Google’s Knowledge Graph (the fact boxes that appear next to Google search results) to Apple’s virtual assistant Siri.
This, Ford says, is “rocket fuel” for Wikipedia’s slammed truths, propelling them beyond the website’s millions of daily readers and into the orbit of the billions of people who use search and voice assistants. . For Ford, the most disturbing result of this land grabbing by machines is that facts now travel beyond their contexts and sources, and the opacity of machine learning means that even those motivated to verify them cannot always chart the course. return.
Ford’s writing is very engaging. Her fondness for the Wikipedians who populate her story means she never condemns them, though she questions how their motives fit into Wikipedia politics. As an element of ethnography, the book is set to accompany Georgina Born’s 2004 BBC study, Vision uncertaina work like this, which looks behind the curtain and reveals the recognizably human and fallible activity that animates a great cultural institution.
But Ford never quite manages to reconcile its two main themes. In places, it feels like she’s rigging the AI reviews to fit her narrative. She declares very early that she started with this work to “break” Wikipedia. By her own admission, she does not.
Write the Revolution is neither a gospel tract nor a dystopian rant – and for that quality alone, it stands out. Ford’s work covers a period in which our attitudes toward technology reversed polarities. In 2011, the world was excited about the Twitter and Facebook revolutions; a decade later, we fear the distorting effect of social networks “surveillance capitalism”.
Around the same time, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales went from describing it at a conference in 2008 as “subversive” (at the Wikimania conference in Egypt in 2008) to telling the UK parliament the year last that it was “old fashioned”. Perhaps, in the end, it is possible to be both old-fashioned and subversive.
Write the Revolution: Wikipedia and the survival of facts in the digital ageby Heather Ford, MIT Press $25, 184 pages