Book Review: “Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness” by Nathaniel Tkacz
By Wanjiku Karanja**
The Internet, as a ubiquitous platform, was founded on the principles of openness, participation and collaborative development. ‘Openness’ in this context refers to the policies and procedures that allow Internet users to make free and autonomous choices on the online services and content that they use and create. Openness is cited as having been similarly fundamental to the development of world’s most popular reference tool, Wikipedia. For example, some observers point to Wikipedia’s slogan “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” as evidence of this openness.
Wikipedia, as its prefix ‘wiki’ and suffix ‘pedia’ suggests is an online encyclopedia launched in 2001 with the goal of creating a publicly edited encyclopedia grounded on “neutral-point-of-view”, “verifiability” and “no-original research” policies. In the ensuing decade from its inception, it revolutionised the public’s accessibility to information on scale that ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’in its 200 years of publication failed to achieve. Its success has been attributed to its embodiment of the principles of “collaboration” and “participation” and is, as such, heralded as a poster child for “openness” in discourse on Internet governance.
Nathaniel Tkacz in his book “Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness” however challenges this notion through a critical analysis of Wikipedia’s organisational structure.
Tkacz in his opening remarks draws parallels between the role of openness in shaping policy in the United States vis-a-vis President Barack Obama’s 2009 Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government and its centrality in Wikipedia’s ecosystem. In this sense, his aim is not to challenge the veracity of openness or to develop a yardstick of what qualifies as open, but to illustrate that his book presents “what might be called a politics in the face of openness”.
Tkacz’s examination of Wikipedia’s structure is influenced in part by his desire to contextualise the Wikipedia’s rise i.e. “what Wikipedia could tell us about the conditions of knowledge production in the networked present”. In doing so, he delves into the process through which contributions are made to Wikipedia articles and the perception that they are guided by the principles of collaboration and participation. However on a further analysis of these themes, Tkacz in his 2nd chapter presents the idea that Wikipedia is not an embodiment of true collaboration and participation as: edits made by participants are not necessarily retained, collaboration is inherently hierarchical as seen in the rules used to determine the status of the collaboration and the designation of “desirable”versus“non-desirable” contributions.
Tkacz posits that the notion that Wikipedia is a “model without politics” and exists is a “post-political space” is fundamentally flawed. He identifies a disconnect between the perception of Wikipedia as a bastion of openness and the inherent political nuance at its core. Tkacz thus deconstructs the conception ”openness” though the contradictions in Wikipedia’s perceived “apoliticalness” to build his thesis that openness and politics are inextricably linked, which he weaves into his book’s entire narrative.
Additionally, Tkacz through his unpacking of the above assumption of collaboration, builds on Gregory Bateson’s analogy of a “picture frame”, to develops his notion of “politics of the frame”. He presents his argument that collaboration on Wikipedia cannot be examined without an acknowledgment of the process’ political dimensions through a compelling analysis of the debates surrounding the deletion of Nathaniel Stern and Scott Kildall’s experimental art piece “Wikipedia Art” and the controversy surrounding the publication of images depicting prophet Muhammed on Wikipedia. Through his analysis of the former, he suggests that interaction between Wikipedia and attendant political dimensions arose at the article entry level with the question being “does Wikipedia Art fit into the Wikipedia frame” which was further explored in the Article for deletion debate and the compatibility between Wikipedia and Wikipedia Art’s identities i.e. “if there was a possibility that the Wikipedia frame could both be art and encyclopedia”. In contrast, Tkacz analyses the latter as involving a frame war between “religious Islamic versus encyclopedic knowledge” and the compatibility of the two, in light of Wikipedia’s principle of non-censorship.
Through these two case studies, Tkacz presents his view that Wikipedia ultimately aligns different perspectives to fit its policies (frame). Tkacz further critiques Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view policy” stating that while it purports not to “tell the truth about a thing, there is nonetheless a truth of what is neutral”. This raises the question of whether a true neutral point of view exists to which Tkacz responds by stating that “the truth value of a statement is not at all rejected just redirected” in a which a new regime of truth develops namely Wikipedia’s “internal truth”. Here Tzack directs the reader to his core thesis on “openness” i.e. it is a fallacy that openness can subsist in anything short of a utopia.
Lastly, Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness’ fourth and fifth chapters examines the 2002 Spanish Wikipedia fork where the Enciclopedia Libre Universal en Espanol was established by Edgar Enyedy a user on the Spanish Wikipedia, in response to concerns that Wikipedia would host advertisements. Tkacz uses a twofold approach in his analysis as follows. Firstly, he examines forking’s constitutive nature in which he explores Reagle’s conception of forking as an identifier of an open community in that “a constituency that is dissatisfied with results of such a discussion can fork (copy and relocate) the work elsewhere”. Secondly he examines its “function as a safety net” as the “last resort of the disgruntled, the marginalized or otherwise unhappy in open projects”.
From this, he draws the conclusion that forking is fundamentally a form of political action which is central to openness while ironically also being “a process of frame-making” that is the “precise opposite of openness”. While Tkacz attempts to challenge the idealism behind openness through forking, his analysis of this issue comes across as overly pedantic.
In conclusion, while Tkacz does not overtly state that an “open internet” and by extension an “open Wikipedia”does not exist, he exposes the fallacy in the conception of “openness” in a market that does not operate in a vacuum and is shaped by political thought. His arguments certainly raise questions as to the implication of his critiques of openness” on global copyright policy debates such creative commons and the copy left movement. Nothing personifies his underlying thesis perhaps as much as his closing statement that “the problem with openness isn’t that it isn’t open; it is that it conceives the world in terms of this question.”