Last week, I was in Bangalore for ‘WikiWars: Critical Point of View‘, a workshop organised by the Centre for Internet and Society (India) and the Institute of Network Cultures (Netherlands). As our invitation letter outlined, ‘WikiWars is not a traditional conference. It has attracted not only people from across disciplines but also people with different kinds of stakes in the Wikipedia knowledge network that we seek to build.’
I was pretty nervous about the event. It was the first time that I spoke publicly against the architecture of “free and open” organisations and projects, and the first time in a very long time that I’ve presented an academic paper rather than speaking from my experience or with my “free and open” advocate hat on.
I’ve discarded that hat for now. I think I had probably discarded it a long time ago – or at least started to understand that my role as critic will be much more useful. I had started to become disenchanted many years ago, but kept thinking that I just needed to work a bit harder, be a little more convincing, in order to prove that we really could build something better, more globally united, more fair and just than what we had built before.
WikiWars was an eye-opener. Almost everyone came from a similar place. Many of us are (or were) Wikipedians or open-source activists, and this is, I think, what differentiates this kind of critique from most of the mainstream criticism that we hear about Wikipedia. The perspectives of the participants came from a very deep understanding and experience of Wikipedia. It was this experience that made the one perspective from an academic with little (or no) experience of Wikipedia so stark against the background of such rich experience.
There were geographers, political scientists, social scientists, media researchers and artists – a hodgepodge of the people from Israel to Taiwan, the United Kingdom to Australia who shared what is so rare these days: a critical perspective on one of the world’s most powerful information sources.
At the beginning of the event, co-organiser, Geert Lovink talked about the role of the critic. ‘We know what a literary film critic is, but what is an Internet critic?’ he asked. ‘Usually the way we look at critics is that they are losers, but they have an important role that can be very productive – productive because there is a direct relationship between the way we talk about things and about how they are actually represented.’
‘It shows that people from the outside care so much that they will put something like this on,’ said Lovink. ‘It is a desirable state of emancipation that Wikipedia research moves out of the Wikimedia Foundation.’
After I had presented, I talked to Nishant Shah, research director at CIS, who must be one of the cleverest, most eloquent people I have ever met. He talked to me about the ‘politics of despair’ and said that my talk reminded him of this. ‘Despair is not negative,’ he told me. ‘Negative would be if you ignored it.’
I feel like many long, dark days of isolation are over – for a while at least – and that this is a community that I have the utmost respect for. Watch this space. WikiWars will be publishing a reader later this year with the papers from the event series.