Only a handful of serious books about Wikipedia exist; one of the first, and arguably the only essential one, is Andrew Lih’s “The Wikipedia Revolution”—though it was published in 2009 and could surely use an update. Another one I liked is Andrew Dalby’s “The World and Wikipedia”, published the same year. To this short list, and far more current, let’s add Dariusz Jemielniak’s “Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia” published in May of this year.
Like the above authors, Jemielniak is well-positioned to write on this subject, being an academic and a longtime Wikipedia contributor (especially to the Polish language edition). I have to acknowledge that work and travel has conspired to keep me from reviewing this book for some months after Mr. Jemielniak’s publicist kindly sent me a copy for review, and that I am writing this post without having read it cover to cover. (But really, does anyone? How did Michiko Kakutani review Bill Clinton’s 1,000-page memoir in 24 hours? The same way I’m doing with this one!)
That said, I chose one chapter that seemed especially interesting and relevant to me, chapter three’s “Conflict on Wikipedia: Why Die for Danzig?” Wikipedia veterans will instantly recognize this is going to be, in part, a retelling of the infamous Gdansk–Danzig edit war, considered the longest content dispute in Wikipedia’s history. It’s territory that Lih covered as well in his book, although he dispenses with most of the details in a handful of pages—Jemielniak gives it nearly 20.
It’s debatable how many readers want that, but I think I speak for many longtime Wikipedians in saying that it’s a story worth telling in a bit more depth. Here it is well told, and used to illustrate how Wikipedia resolves issues that lie beyond the letter of policy: painfully, in isolation from other topics, often at great length, and not always definitively.
To me it’s especially relevant, having recently written about the (as yet ongoing) fight over whether it should be noted on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Wikipedia article that he used anecdotes that proved to be, at best, misinterpreted. Or in a case that I only tweeted about, where I personally got involved in a debate over the alleged non-neutrality of the barely stub-length Apple Watch article. In either case, it can be a frustrating experience, to play a part in this process. This may all be part of the process, and eventually Wikipedia will get it right, but I can attest it is also absolutely no fun to be one of the gear-cogs grinding out the sausage.
Jemielniak doesn’t avoid the emotional side of this process entirely: the Prologue is about a wrenching debate he held with other editors, one which turned personal, and in which Jemielniak found himself writing more passionately and carelessly than even he would have liked. This is not a rare occurrence on Wikipedia.
In this chapter he eschews any personal view of the issues, taking the disinterested, academic view that one might expect, and creates a table called “Typology of conflict trajectories” that reads like a kind of a mirror-image Prisoner’s dilemma, accounting for whether disputants are confrontational or not, and whether or not they have an equal commitment to the rules. It’s a useful way to think about how these disagreements reach conclusion (or don’t) even if it’s difficult to see theory in practice. (Not his fault: you try parsing 50,000 words of argument over a single topic.)
If this reads as a criticism, it shouldn’t really. I would rather more Wikipedians took an observational, Sherlock-pipe-thoughtfully-in-hand approach to the “dirty work” (as one combatant recently described the process to me) of writing and debating Wikipedia content. Of course, as Jemielniak allows, even he found that very difficult. So long as humans are the principal actor in debates over Wikipedia, the emotional factor is going to play a significant role.
Jemielniak’s view, if I am not misrepresenting it, is that these processes generally work over time. My own view has grown somewhat more skeptical, and I find suitable outcomes to be increasingly topic-dependent—although I acknowledge that this is based on highly personal, anecdotal evidence. Because seriously, I am going to rewrite that Apple Watch “Reception” section just as soon as I find a free moment.
Briefly, the rest of the book focuses on Wikipedia (and Wikimedia) governance in theory and practice, some of which I’ve done a Kakutani “skip and skim” and seemed on point, on this pointillist basis. To the casual reader, I would probably still recommend Andrew Lih’s book, simply for being a more accessible entry point, albeit with a huge caveat that it is best read as history, not a current depiction of the Wikipedia community.
For those seriously interested in how Wikipedia works (or maybe doesn’t) and for anyone who wants an up-to-date view of the community, however, I’d certainly recommend it. In fact, I’ll recommend that I keep it on my own end table, and browse further when work and travel are next paused.