Tag Archives: Wikipedia

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Realism and Utopianism in Discussions of Digital Labor

All of the readings we did for this week touch on a tension that exists in many forms of Left politics. On the one hand, there is a desire to find sites of possible resistance and encourage the development of an affective basis for modes of activity that exist outside of Capitalism, which seems to be what Barbrook is attempting to do in his discussion of the early open source community. On the other hand, there is the desire to bring injustices into the light—hence, the “Wages for Facebook” manifesto’s attempt to enable a discussion of the exploitative nature of Facebook by referring to people’s use of the service as “work.” One thing I find particularly striking about this juxtaposition is the way in which naming an injustice produced by Capitalism seems to require that we take on the language of Capitalism, referring to an ostensibly personal form of activity as “work,” while Barbrook’s claim that the Internet is “anarcho-communist”—as radical as the terminology of this argument is—seems to imply a much less critical attitude towards the world as it is.

While I am generally more sympathetic to Ptak than Barbrook, I am concerned that interventions like “Wages for Facebook” will only get us so far. Referring to Facebook activity as “work” brings an issue that was hidden to the foreground, but it also seems to go right along with a broad trend in American discourse towards framing more and more activities within Capitalist and managerial categories. Referring to clicking like buttons as “work” and stating that ad-driven services treat users as “products” may serve the interest of social realism, but this rhetorical move could also backfire, feeding right into the madness that, for instance, leads people to obsess over their “personal brands” and use the word “metric” to refer to any sort of standard against something is to be judged, acting as if the entirety of the world worked like a marketing firm.

One writer who has noted this specific issue in oppositional discourse is Theodore Adorno. At the end of his book Minima Moralia, Adorno arrives at a critique of Hegelian dialectic from the perspective of the anti-fascist Left. One of the issues that he raises is the tendency of dialectical thought to inadvertently reinforce the system that it is meant to critique. To use Adorno’s example, the Left must acknowledge that the romantic view of marriage can cover up the exploitative economic relations that underlie the institution. But if we instead reframe marriage as a purely economic arrangement—realistic as this view may be—we can lose sight of the possibility that it could or should be something more. The structural analogy between the two sides of a dialectic, Adorno argues, makes the immediate division of Hegel’s followers into Left and Right factions inevitable—since the vocabulary of pro- and anti-Capitalist writing is necessarily similar, politics comes to be discernable less in the formal character of a work than in the social, institutional, and discursive formations in which it is enmeshed.

We might find an example of this structural analogy between Left and Right in Franco Moretti’s work on the literary marketplace, which we discussed last semester. In a cursory reading, Moretti’s Marxist account of the “slaughterhouse of literature” could easily be mistaken for a Capitalist analysis—the terms of discussion (market, product, consumer) are largely the same. Christopher Prendergast’s accusation that Moretti’s use of evolutionary ideas makes him a Social Darwinist is unfair, but I don’t think it’s too implausible that Moretti’s work could be mistaken for a Social Darwinist project on a cursory reading, given how much his terms of analysis borrow from this viewpoint. The difference is a hair’s breadth.

Adorno responds to this seeming bind with one of his most famous aphorisms: “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption” (247). This formula suggests a different grounding for criticism that aims for transcendence rather than for “realism” of the sort that borrows its terms from the prevailing order. There are some ways in which this response is problematic, and it certainly dates itself as pre-1968. Adorno’s approach bears a suspicious resemblance to the positivist idea of a “view from nowhere;” and his big problem, of course, is his tendency to presume knowledge of what is best for other people. But I think this formula might still be useful in thinking about our own motivations in undertaking online labor. How would we articulate our reasons for blogging, for contributing to Wikipedia, or for clicking a like button if exploitation finally came to an end? How distorted would our activity appear from this standpoint? Framing the question in this way allows us to name the negative aspects of reality within terms that are not determined by the current order—but unlike the sort of techno-utopianism that peaked in the 1990s, it allows us to keep in mind that the alternative is, and perhaps will always remain, not wholly real.

Is Wikipedia too idealistic in its aims? Are Wikipedia editors equipped to deal with other editors on the spectrum?

When we were claiming blog topics at the beginning of the semester, I jumped on the opportunity to motivate the discussion on dystopic views of Wikipedia. After going through this week’s readings, though, I found that the positive and negative aspects of Wikipedia’s collaborative project are often inextricably linked.

As Joe Mullin’s article demonstrates, the Wikimedia Foundation doesn’t always make clear its positioning … to the point of hypocrisy. In Mullin’s discussion of Sarah Stierch’s termination, he quotes Wikimedia’s Senior Director of Programs, Frank Schulenberg, standing behind Wikimedia’s decision on the grounds that “it is widely known that paid editing is frowned upon by many in the editing community and by the Wikimedia Foundation,” while somewhat contradictorily spouting that “the Wikimedia movement is a place of forgiveness and compassion.” Well, apparently it wasn’t a place of forgiveness for Sarah Stierch. Clearly, though, paid editing is a potential problem. And I do mean potential, because who is going to determine if the editing itself is biased, meaning in violation of Neutral Point of View and/or Verifiability? Is the “bright line rule” (that paid advocates should limit their comments to  the “talk” page of an article) necessary? Presumably the Wikipedia community would eventually discover such biases and make the necessary changes to restore a NPOV. Should we believe that paid advocates will never adhere to the goodwill of Wikipedia’s guidelines?

I would also like to open up a discussion about Wikipedia’s democratic structures. We looked at the Categories for Deletion (CfD) discussion about American Women Novelists, the Article for Deletion discussion about David Horvitz, the Arbitration Committee (ArbCom) discussion about the Gender Gap Task Force (GGTF), as well as multiple articles discussing the ArbCom decision surrounding GamerGate (Reddit thread, Mark Bernstein’s “Infamous”, and Alex Hern’s article). Is the existence of the Arbitration Committee a sign that the Wikimedia Foundation’s goodwill does not work? In particular, the ruling surrounding the GamerGate ArbCom decision are extremely upsetting. I don’t think that the banned editors were guiltless, but doesn’t the ruling seem to favor GamerGate? Is that my own perspective on the conflict and issues at hand, or is systemic bias more deeply ingrained than I thought?

I was very drawn to ThatPeskyCommoner’s article “Wikipedia:High-functioning autism and Asperger’s editors”, which humorously draws attention to the fact that Wikipedia editors do not always know how to effectively communicate. (I came to this realization myself while reading through the various discussion pages.) Are Wikipedia editors equipped to deal with other editors on the spectrum? Maybe it’s human nature and the complexity of human emotions, but the discussion pages on Wikipedia are filled with much more than just productive conversation.

Processing the changes that were made to my most recent Wikipedia edit and deciding if I need to revert any of the information that was removed

For our small exploration into the world of Wikipedia editing, I took a crack at revising the entry on Theatre Journal, which is one of the top journals in theatre studies. Prior to the revisions I submitted yesterday afternoon (4 March 2015) at 19:36, the page had had no activity since 9 July 2014, but even the edits made last year were only minor; the content of the entry had not been substantially altered since March 2012. When I came upon the entry, it looked like this:

Robertgreer revision to Theatre Journal Wikipedia page

As Michael had suggested to me during our Wikipedia workshop, I began my edits by looking at entries on other academic journals. I quickly realized that at the very least I could add some information about the history of Theatre Journal, find some much-needed citations for the entry, and make minor corrections to the entry’s content (e.g. updating the name of the current editor). I thought that my edits took a huge step in improving the content (and usefulness) of the Wikipedia page.

Josephpaulhilll revision to Theatre Journal Wikipedia pageAnd thus ends the editing process, right?!

Minutes before class last night, I decided to check on the entry and see if anyone had swooped in to revert my edits, and I was surprised to see that Randykitty published additional revisions to the Theatre Journal page less than an hour after my own revisions went up. Before I decided to get personally offended, I checked out the revision history page.

I synthesized the edits one at a time. “Cleanup” … okay. That’s generally a good thing. “Remove contents list” … I don’t like the idea of removing any of the material I added, but perhaps I added something to the entry that should not have been included. I am new to this and others out there know much more about it than I do. “Add abstracting info” … absolutely no idea what that means, so I’ll have to check it out on the page itself.

As you can tell from the revised page, Randykitty’s revisions did a lot to cleanup the entry and make it look more like a standard Wikipedia page–and by that I mean that there’s now magically a Contents box listing the page’s different headings.

Randykitty revision to Theatre Journal Wikipedia pageI had added information about the journal’s history, but I hadn’t made a section heading. Thanks, Randykitty. The abstracting and indexing information is also something that I would never have done. Another positive improvement. My list of recent special issues was removed, but as Randykitty informed me, pages should not be used as directories. After some reflection (and my initial anger at having my own [perhaps not so] invisible labor become even more invisible), I understand Randykitty’s rationale behind removing my list as it was. Indeed, I had merely cataloged the last six special issues of the journal. However, there still might be cause to mention some of the journal’s past special issues in order to demonstrate the types of subjects that the journal considers noteworthy. Perhaps this is something that I should discuss on the talk page. It’s also interesting to note that my brief list of notable previous editors did not get removed. My list, which consists of Sue-Ellen Case, Susan Bennett, and Jean Graham-Jones, is factual, although the inclusion of prominent female scholars (and the omission of male editors) clearly demonstrates a political positioning on my part to fight back against systemic bias.

The only other noticeable deletion was a sentence taken from the front matter of the journal itself about the publication’s subject matter and approach. I had revised a simpler version of the statement in my own edits, so I had some attachment to its inclusion, and I haven’t yet decided if the removal of the statement helps or hinders the page’s content. My shift from “performing arts” to “theatre arts” (another conversation worthy of the talk page) was retained in a different sentence, which I like, but the deleted statement also included information about the journal’s scope, and I think that such information could be informative for Wikipedia users.

It’s interesting to consider that some of Randykitty’s revisions could have been made before my own. Certainly the abstracting and indexing information could have been generated previously, as could the LCCN and OCLC numbers (whatever the heck those are). Yet, Randykitty, whose user page indicates that s/he spends most of his/her time editing articles on academic journals, waited until after I had made some significant changes. At the moment, though, and having just finished reading Joseph Reagle’s book chapter “Nazis and Norms,” I’m deciding to perpetuate the notions of goodwill and collaboration. This is part of the process, right? If I want to continue to edit and talk about the Theatre Journal Wikipedia page, it looks like there’s someone else here with whom I can engage.

Structural Change or a New Society

The readings I ended up with all focus on collecting and revealing the sexism and other forms of discrimination that seem to form the fabric of some developer communities’ culture, and that are being broadcast (often anonymously) through apps and websites.

Moya Z. Bailey explores how the very semantics of “geek” and “nerd” that we use to describe those working in web development are gendered male and white (though Steve Urkel does come to mind as a notable exception) She challenges us to move beyond an “‘“add and stir’ model of diversity, a practice of sprinkling in more women, people of color, disabled folks and assuming that is enough to change current paradigms.”Her solution is for DH scholars to be “brave” enough to expand the definition of the field to include projects created by and for people of color, and to push for structural change in how sites and apps are designed in order to include within them the needs of the disabled, women, etc.

Greek Feminism Timeline of Sexist Events is a wiki where folks compile sexist actions/statements coming out of the tech world. These include anything from rape at conferences; to the sharing of an app like Titstare, which lets you “stare at tits,” presented in September, 2013 at the TechCrunch Disrupt 2013 conference, to private incidents made public such as when Biologist Dr. Danielle N. Lee was asked,”Are you an urban whore?” by an editor at the Scientific American after she declined an offer to write for free. She wrote a snarky post in response which was originally taken down, but has been returned.

Reply All reports a story of racial minorities at Colgate College who felt uncomfortable in an all white environment. After creating a support group and demonstrating, they became targets of hateful speech and threats of violence on the anonymous YikYak app. The college was powerless to prevent the hate speech as YikYak would and could not block their access.


These readings convinced me beyond a doubt that there are real structural problems in the evolving society we’re creating online.Further, I see real value in collecting evidence from around the web and bringing to light discrimination and the deeply troubling possibilities for bullying in an anonymous cyber world. In fact, one point these readings (and especially Reply All) drove home to me is that the web has great power to force conversations about issues that might otherwise fly under the radar. Because the internet with its possibilities for anonymity encourage people to say what they really mean, many deep-felt prejudices can be exposed and (maybe, hopefully!) addressed. It’s this “maybe, hopefully” part that stuck a bit in my craw in these readings. They are full of problems and severely lacking in solutions. (Beyond exposing and collecting this evidence which, again, is extremely important.)

How do we make a “structural change? in the cyberworld?” If just telling women to code isn’t going to fix the inequity, then what will? Is a better model the “separate” (and hopefully equal?!) model of HOTGirls, the Atlanta-based non-profit that works with young women of color to train young women in media literacy? (GoldieBlox, the engineering kit for girls, comes to mind here, especially when seeing the pink website.) This whole approach smacks to me of the “American Woman Novelists” problem Filpachi describes.

The only other solution I saw presented was the Colgate professors who try to “take back the YikYak” (my term, not theirs) through posting positive messages and attaching their signatures. The podcast hosts poo-pooed this idea though it did seem to make students feel less isolated and generated many more “likes” than the hate messages. Call me naieve, but I was shocked that students didn’t self-police and it came to the point of needing professors to step in at all. How could so great a proportion of the student body be so complacent/unaware of what was going on on campus? Is this indicative of larger trends in apathy/prejudice? Or about expectations of certain cyber spaces in which folks expect to see hate, and therefore those spaces don’t require policing? Does this mimic any other arena Americans have had for broadcasting hate in the past? And if so, how is this climate any different? And does it require different types of responses?

In short, I’m asking a pretty basic question: Is the cyberworld a reflection of our Analog society? And do the tactics we develop to address structural change in reality also work online? Or is the cyberworld a whole new society? If the latter is true, then there are huge possibilities about how etiquette, social relations, labor relations, gender roles, etc. will develop. If the table (to use one of Bailey’s metaphors) is still in the process of being set, then what tools might historically marginalized groups use to create a very different power dynamic in this new society?

American Women Wikipedians: Categorygate and Working for Free

Amanda Filipacchi’s article Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists shows that sexism in categorizing information is alive and well. The category “American Women Novelists” is especially depresssing/ironic/unsurprising (take your pick) for librarians, editors and other knowledge workers because we thought we fought and won this battle years ago (circa 1975). Not many users of Wikipedia are old enough to remember library subject headings such as “Women as Poets” or “Poetesses,” but sexist ways of organizing information were standard operating procedure in the bad old days. Changing times and the active efforts of a largely female paid workforce made some real differences in how information was presented in libraries, textbooks, encyclopedias, and educational resources of all kinds.

Now that the internet has ‘disrupted’ the production of educational information, much of the largely female paid workforce has been displaced by volunteers working in a system of peer production and sharing. Wikipedia is a wonderful resource, not least because it is free and immediately available to anyone with an internet connection. Yet as we all know, “nine out of ten Wikipedians continue to be men.” Many possible explanations have been offered for the gender gap, but I think it is a labor issue.  As a librarian, I couldn’t agree more with DNLee’s statement that “This is work. I am a professional. Professionals get paid. However, even if my ‘old economy’ view of encyclopedia publishing seems sadly out of date, asking women to contribute unpaid work raises some complicated issues. As Adrianne Wadewitz pointed out, “In actively recruiting women to Wikipedia, we have to be aware of the systemic inequities in the amount of time women have available for unpaid labor.”

If women miraculously had more free time to devote to Wikipedia, would the “add more women and stir” approach really solve the sexism problem? Wadewitz notes that activism around the gender gap rests on some rather questionable assumptions (It is the responsibility of women to fix sexism on Wikipedia. Women do not further patriarchal knowledge and power structures. Women will edit underrepresented topics. Women will make Wikipedia a nicer place.) The drive to get more women to contribute is well-intentioned and admirable, but perhaps it runs the risk of repeating old patterns? Women are not a single entity and perhaps some of them would prefer not to be in the “American Women Wikipedians” category.

Overview of Assignments

This semester we will be working on three major assignments, with continuous blog writing throughout.

Provocations and responses: We will continue the practice of having several students write provocations on the blog on the reading/subject of the week, and carrying on a conversation on the blog in advance of class. Those who write provocations, will lead off the discussion of that reading in class. Because we meet a day earlier than in the past, we need the provocations to be up by Saturday  by 5PM, so that discussion can start Sunday, with enough time to bear fruit. Several of the provocation assignments will scaffold towards the three larger assignments below.

Project Abstracts/Short Proposals: Your midterm assignment is to create at least two different project proposals that each have at least two scope variations: one full and a reduced version.

Collaboration and Wikipedia:  Collaboratively write a Wikipedia article on one of the readings from last semester.

Final Project Proposal and Proof of Concept: Your final project is to turn in a proposal for a larger project, that includes a proof of concept. Your goal is to convince us that your proposal is relevant and productive AND that you can actually pull it off. The details will be discussed on when we discuss the short proposals, and will be due at the end of the semester. We will have three days of presentations, and the written proposal will be due during finals period.