Review of Wikipedia and the Representation of Reality

Wikipedia and the Representation of Reality
by Zachary J. McDowell, Matthew A. Vetter,

Routledge, NY, NY, 2021
140 pp. Trade, $59.00
ISBN: 9780367555702
Open Access, Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-NDDOI

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
October 2021

The starting point of this timely and excellent book is simple but very sound. While teaching their students how to use Wikipedia, not just as passive consumers but as active users, since after all Wikipedia boasts of being the encyclopedia that anyone can edit, the authors systematically noted that “everyone was using Wikipedia despite being told not to, and no one knew how it worked” (Preface, xi). The first of these two issues proves easy to solve: blind peer-reviewed analyses amply demonstrate that Wikipedia is no less reliable than other scholarly sources and similar publications. Moreover, there are no indications that its standards are weakening, on the contrary. In addition, there are good reasons to believe that Wikipedia is still “the last safe place” on the Internet, as shown by its successful battle against fake news and, more generally, its radically nonprofit character (on all these points, the comparison with Facebook and other commercial players speaks volumes). The second issue is a more complex one: in spite of its typically 1990s techno-utopian ethics of openness and democracy, Wikipedia still seems to be a black box that is less welcoming than most people think it is (or that itself wants to be). Even experienced users experience serious difficulties when trying to edit the encyclopedia’s content, that is to participate in the collective creation of a website that claims to give access to all the knowledge of the world, whereas for beginning users the technical and above all human thresholds often seem insurmountable.

The goal of this book is to describe how Wikipedia works, by explaining its general principles, rules and guidelines as well as elucidating the concrete practices that these principles involve. More specifically, the book envisages this clarification as a form of constructive criticism. The idea of the authors is less to highlight the flaws and imperfections of Wikipedia than to analyze the hidden causes of these deficiencies and by doing so to make suggestions to remediate the current working of the encyclopedia and thus to make room for a new and more open version of it. As McDowell and Vetter rightly remind, Wikipedia has indeed many problems and biases (and most of its problems are related to exactly that: inbuilt but implicit biases). However, it still remains a unique achievement that its own principles may help change and evolve outside of the still too small community that is currently limiting its own ambitions. We should not forget that Wikipedia is independent as well as human. It is not a logarithm driven structure that uses consumer generated content, but a space where users themselves decide on what is being published and how it is presented and shared. This fundamental characteristic, which generates part of the problems of the site, is also what can allow its community to make it better.

The greatest quality of this book is that it reveals the link between these two things: On the one hand, the general principles of Wikipedia (the so-called “pillars” that define first what knowledge is, what counts as knowledge and how it has to be presented, and how the encyclopedia can make sure that it contains just that: knowledge that counts as knowledge, nothing more and nothing less); on the other hand its practical limitations, which do not result from a partial or flawed implementation of these general rules, but appear instead as the direct consequence of too strict and direct an application of Wikipedia’s own standards and guidelines. McDowell and Vetter offer an illuminating close-reading of the principles having to do with the definition of reliable and neutral knowledge, on the one hand, and the rules that govern the collective verification of this knowledge, on the other hand, and their analysis points to a certain number of structural difficulties.

Chief in this regard are two elements. First, the text-based condition of “facts” and knowledge, which are never defined in themselves but always in relationship with reliable “sources”, more precisely published sources in reliable venues by reliable people – in theory an excellent tool to exclude fake news and all forms of “original” research; in practice, an unfortunate obstacle to facts and knowledge that are less text-centered or less mainstream. Second the fact that assessing the reliability of facts and knowledge is supposed to reflect what the Wikipedia community considers as such. Once again, a wonderful principle that helps resist the imposition of monolithic interpretations of knowledge (facts are not just “facts”, but what people have said on facts, that is written and published on them), yet here as well it often proves a way of excluding minority and marginal voices, given the fact (sic) that the current composition of the active Wikipedia community does not reflect at all the totality of its more passive or possible users. The most active users, that is those who as editors and administrators can control what actually gets to Wikipedia’s free published content (for instance by refusing to publish new information or withdrawing previously published material), are mainly male, white, Western, and highly educated, which in practice generates all kinds of biases and censorship, as shown by the examples of female and black scientists, crudely underrepresented if not shockingly ignored. McDowell and Vetter do not suggest that these deficiencies are produced by individual or subjective attitudes. They do not put the blame on this or that specific gatekeeping community, but adopt instead a much broader, Foucault-inspired archeological analysis, trying to understand the general procedures that control, select, and organize knowledge and, more generally, the relationships between power and knowledge. For example, the first rule that users have to follow is for instance “Be bold”, which once again may seem theoretically encouraging (one is supposed to read it as: yes, we need you, and your contribution is valuable, even if you think that you are not an authority in the field) but which in practice easily degenerates (some gatekeepers interpret the “boldness” imperative in a way that discourages starting editors and thus weakens the community and, more broadly, the very content and quality of what Wikipedia may offer). The “be bold” Wikipedia pillar relies upon a type of agency that is far from being universal.

Although very critical of some of the encyclopedia’s flaws, this book is adamant in its support of Wikipedia and ends with sketching a certain number of practical proposals to make it better, not just by simply adapting or changing its principles, but by making a more radical use of them. By enlarging the Wikipedia community and fostering engagement by users that currently shy away from it, the encyclopedia can show, the authors argue, that it is possible to come closer to the great ideal of offering all the knowledge of the world. In other words: Wikipedia is not just shaping the world (that would be the narrow constructivist point of view), it is also shaped by it, that is by its users, that is by us, even if for the time being not all of us are already as committed and involved as we can or should be. The representation problem of the encyclopedia has therefore less to do with the robustness of its rules and guidelines, but with the insufficient inclusion of until now underrepresented groups and voices.