Although it is more powerful than it has ever been, Wikipedia is reliant on third parties who are increasingly ingesting its facts and severing them from their source. To survive, Wikipedia needs to initiate a renewed campaign for the right to verifiability. This article appears in the book “Wikipedia@20: Stories of an Incomplete Revolution” edited by Joseph Reagle and Jackie Koerner and published by MIT Press. Find other chapters on pubpub or buy the book.

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David and Goliath, a colour lithograph by Osmar Schindler (c. 1888) — PD (public domain)

We all love an underdog. And when Nature announced that Wikipedia’s quality was almost as good as Encyclopæedia Britannica for articles about science in 2005, I celebrated. I celebrated because Wikipedia was the David to Big Media’s Goliath — the little guy, the people’s encyclopedia, the underdog who had succeeded against all odds. …

Originally published by Ethnography Matters in 2012, I’m republishing this post for the reboot of Ethnography Matters this month. Since this time, I’ve published my PhD research about Wikipedia and am in the process of writing a book about the reconfiguration of authority and expertise in the age of crowdsourced fact-building. I still think a great deal about myself as a researcher/participant in my field of study but these guidelines have continued to be helpful.

The vision of an ethnographer physically going to a place, establishing themselves in the activities of that place, talking to people and developing deeper understandings seems so much simpler than the same activities in multifaceted spaces like Wikipedia. Researching how Wikipedians manage and verify information in rapidly evolving news articles in my latest ethnographic assignment, I sometimes wish I could simply go to the article as I would to a place, sit down and have a chat to the people around me. …

In late 2011, I was in Nairobi working as an ethnographer for Ushahidi when I heard news of Kenya’s army invading Somalia. After interviewing local Wikipedians, I found out that the Wikipedia article about this story was being nominated for deletion on Wikipedia because it didn’t meet the encyclopedia’s “notability” criteria. This story indicated some key design changes that could be made to Wikipedia policy and practice as a result of ethnographic research. …


Heather Ford

Researcher and former Internet activist studying data politics, governance and practice. Views my own.

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