Rise of the Underdog

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

Once the Underdog

The underdog is a common archetype of some of the most enduring narratives, from the world of sport to politics. Studying the appeal of underdogs over a number of years, Vandello, Goldschmied, and Michniewicz define underdogs as “disadvantaged parties facing advantaged opponents and unlikely to succeed.”[1] They write that there are underdog stories from cultures around the world: from the story of David and Goliath, in which the smaller David fights and kills the giant, Goliath, to the Monkey and the Turtle, a Philippine fable in which the patient turtle outwits the physically stronger and selfish monkey.

Wikipedia Wars

With few resources and Big Media set against them, Wikipedia was once seen as the underdog to traditional media. As the bastion of openness against the selfishness of proprietary media, its fight was seen as a just one. This was fifteen years ago and now much is changed.

New Goliaths

From all appearances, then, Wikipedia is now the top dog in the world of facts. Look a little deeper into how Wikipedia arrived at this point and what role it is playing in the new web ecosystem, however, and the picture becomes a little muddier. The printed Britannica may be dead and Wikipedia may be the most popular encyclopedia, but Wikipedia is now more than just an encyclopedia, and there are new Goliaths on which Wikipedia is so dependent for its success that they could very easily wipe Wikipedia off the face of the internet.

The Right to Verifiability

Wikipedia was once celebrated because it was seen as the underdog to Big Media. As Wikipedia has become increasingly powerful as a strategic resource for the production of knowledge about the world, battles over representation of its statements have intensified. Wikipedia is strategic today, not only because of how people, places, events, and things are represented in its articles, but also because of the ways in which those articles have become fodder for search engines and digital assistants. From its early prioritization in search results, Wikipedia’s facts are now increasingly extracted without credit by artificial intelligence processes that consume its knowledge and present it as objective fact.

Notes

[1] Joseph A. Vandello, Nadav Goldschmied, and Kenneth Michniewicz, “Underdogs as Heroes,” in Handbook of Heroism and Heroic Leadership, ed. Scott T. Allison, George R. Goethals, and Roderick M. Kramer (New York: Routledge, 2017), 339–355.

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Heather Ford

Heather Ford

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