May 14, 2009

Wikinography Part 5: Wikilove

I first realized it one afternoon during an extended session on Wikipedia. Sniffing regularly, I sat wrapped in blankets to deter my sickness as my eyes strained to look through the vivid pages of both prolific and neophyte wikieditors. Somewhere amongst the polychromatics on my screen, it dawned on me that user pages are not just spaces for self-identification. They are also the place on Wikipedia where other users recognize and enumerate the contributions of their fellow editors. In the course of this usage, user pages have come to represent the most consistent and varied site of digital object construction that I have ever encountered. This digitization occurs predominately in the form of ‘wikilove’.

Broadly speaking, wikilove is the philosophy of kindness and non-enmity on Wikipedia. In order to share wikiove, Wikipedians are instructed to be polite, conscientious, and to ‘assume good faith’.[3]

The most prominent practice of wikilove is the construction and deployment of ‘digital objects’. Rather than being completely original concepts imagined wholly in the space of the internet, digital objects tend to be real world objects that have been ported into the digital space. Though their meaning and function differ from their flesh-world counterparts, these objects are not meant to lose or overcome their ‘real world’ connotations, at least not completely. Rather they seem to be selected in part because of such connotations.

As I took a meandering look over various users and their talk pages, I came across many examples. Cookies seemed to be the most frequent artifact of wikilove, and I encountered other examples including kittens, ‘relaxing tea’, and fried chicken. This category of wikilove is relatively unqualified; users do not need to ‘earn’ them, but instead are encouraged to give them freely and without reserve.

Qualified or semi-qualified ‘barnstars’ deserve an entirely separate mention. Another digital object with a real world counterpart, barnstars are meant to indicate accomplishment, and come in the largest variety of any single imagined internet object I’ve ever seen. The Epic barnstar, the Chemistry barnstar, barnstar of life, university barnstar, technology, music, lesbian gay bi transexual barnstar–Harry Potter, Belrusian, the list went on and on. Each of these barnstars was a form of accolade, a signifier of accomplishment and due respect inferred upon an editor by their peers.

At first I found myself wondering what the purpose of all this might be. Though I felt I understood how wikilove functioned, it was not immediately apparent to me why the role these items played was necessary.

3. Good faith in the context of wikipedia means ‘honesty’ or ‘benevolence’. In theory, good faith is a shared assumption amongst editors that each of them are attempting to be constructive, and that editors differ only in their point of view. In contrast, bad faith would be motivated simply to be malicious, spiteful or disruptive.

May 6, 2009

Wikinography Part 4: Let’s Talk (User pages and more)

Over the past few months I had become aware of something called a ‘talk’ page. Talk pages are always ‘attached’ to an associated article page, and their subject matter is meant to be the deliberation and nuts-and-bolt development of that article. In this way, while the main article title may be ‘Anthropology’, the associated talk page would be ‘Talk:Anthropology’. The article itself stands as the accomplishment, the general front face of Wikipedia at any given time. On the other hand the talk page, at least by design, is a tool for that accomplishment, a means to create that end.

The talk page is also referred to as the ‘discussion page’, and this is an apt description. By examining any given article’s talk page, one can see the diverseness of its historical evolution, and the conflict mediation that had to occur during the path to its present incarnation. To give you an idea of the volume of discourse this can produce, many of these talk pages are so vast that they feature a ‘Talk archive’. In the case of the article on the recently inaugurated Presidnet Obama, the archive has fifty-two archived talk pages, each one of which is no less than the equivalent of thirty printed pages.

In some cases these talk pages are linked not to an article page but instead to a user. I decided to take advantage of my own and make it a grounds for discussion amongst the editors I contacted as informants. I was surprised to find it (pictured right) swelling quickly to a cumbersome mass in the days following my registration as a unique user. Indeed, it grew almost immediately to a size that, at least for me, felt unmanageable.

As for the user pages themselves, the most concise description is that of a multipurpose space of identification. When I say identification I mean both attributed and self-inscribed, and I say multipurpose because they inhabit both a stylistic/personal space, relatively remote from the formal purposes of Wikipedia, as well as information that functions core to those purposes.

The functional aspects of user pages are often an editor’s interests or technical specifications[2], and both kinds of information are frequently identified in the form of a ‘babel box’. For instance, taking my cue from many prolific editors, such as Casliber, I added some boxes to my own user description (pictured on the next page).

According to Wikipedia’s own description, Babel boxes were originally intended to indicate language comprehension, which helped to augment discourse and facilitate translation projects. Somehow over time the function of the babel clearly expanded to include all sorts, ranging from project affiliation to social occupation — even frivolous humor.

2. In this case interests can be interpreted as a function because it may indicate an expertise on or ready availability for certain article topics.