Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Should everything have a history button?

On Wikipedia, Cultural Patrimony, and Historiography: This particular book—or rather, set of books—is every edit made to a single Wikipedia article, The Iraq War, during the five years between the article’s inception in December 2004 and November 2009, a total of 12,000 changes and almost 7,000 pages.

It amounts to twelve volumes: the size of a single old-style encyclopaedia. It contains arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes “Saddam Hussein was a dickhead”.

This is historiography. This is what culture actually looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification.

James Bridle's printed and bound Wikipedia article the Iraq War, with edits, is a fantastic visualization of how Wikipedia works when covering a contentious and ongoing topic. "For the first time in history, we’re building a system that, perhaps only for a brief time but certainly for the moment, is capable of recording every single one of those infinitely valuable pieces of information," Bridle enthuses. "Everything should have a history button."

I have mixed feelings. Whatever the opinions of academics like myself, the cultural importance of Wikipedia is only growing. I think it is fair to say that it has become the first stop for basic factual information for most people in our culture--college undergraduates, journalists, professionals in all kinds of fields, and (rumor has it) even a few history professors. There is no use fighting it anymore. At the same time I suspect the genesis of Wikipedia articles is fairly mysterious to most users. Brindle's row of bound volumes illustrates the mutability of Wikipedia. It is shifting sand.

What Brindle doesn't do is offer any analysis of the forces that went into the 12,000 edits of the Iraq War article. It would be interesting to see someone mine the data. Are there spikes in the editing activity, and do they coincide with breaking events? Can the users be divided into categories or factions, and how do the factions seek to control the narrative? What has the role of the moderators been in shaping the article? This article points to some interesting possibilities for such research. As one of the commenters over at MetaFilter wrote, "I guess that's the difference between 'making an art project' and 'writing a book.'"

Bridle's talk which accompanied the project is available online, as are the slides. His blog,, featuring "literature, technology and book futurism" is wonderfully thoughtful and interesting.

~ Larry Cebula
Cross-posted from Northwest History

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