Rethinking Hospitable Texts

Photo Credit: Phillie Casablanca

I began rethinking my book project this week along two different lines.

The first line has to do with investigating the history and development of MediaWiki. I spent part of this week reading about the history of MediaWiki, the wiki platform of Wikipedia. Platform is an interesting way to characterize MediaWiki because in actuality Wikipedia and MediaWiki are mutually constitutive (each is the “platform” of the other). MediaWiki was developed specifically for Wikipedia, but it has now become a platform in and of itself. MediaWiki will always be identified with Wikipedia (the default skin is Wikipedia’s skin) but the platform itself is now supporting any number of wiki projects. It’s interesting to think about how MediaWiki has been defined due to its relationship with Wikipedia (and vice versa). How could this platform have been different had it not been developed for an encyclopedia project? How could Wikipedia have been different had a different collection of developers worked on MediaWiki?

I began reading about the people and code behind MediaWiki in an attempt to fill in what I saw as a gap in my dissertation, Hospitable Texts. That project examined the hospitable code of Wikipedia, and it did deal a bit with how the computer code (1’s and 0’s) of Wikipedia influenced its ethical code of hospitality. But I am now seeing that a fuller exploration of MediaWiki and of the history of Wikipedia’s platform is necessary if I want a full exploration of Wikipedia’s ethical code. The people (Lee Daniel Crocker, Magnus Manske, and others) will be an interesting part of this story. Most people donated time and money to the development of MediaWiki in order to get Wikipedia to the “next level.” Without these people donating time to the development of the platform of MediaWiki (which went through a number of iterations), there would be no Wikipedia (at least not in it current form).

Another new line of thought: The present state of Wikipedia.

My project focused on the controversies of Wikipedia (the Essjay controversy, the Seigenthaler contorversy, various BLP controversies), and I’ve realized that all of these flare ups happened during a really interesting time in the trajectory of Wikipedia. I was writing about some of these events while they were happening. In fact, I started blogging because I was getting daily emails from friends and colleagues who knew I was writing about Wikipedia. I couldn’t keep up with all of the stories, and a blog gave me a way to jot down some thoughts as the Wikipedia controversy of the day came down the pipeline. Wikipedia was growing at an astronomical rate, and that meant any number of celebrations/critiques of the text and its community in the press.

But recent discussions of Wikipedia are suggesting that its growth is slowing. A recent piece in The Guardian paints this picture:

During Wikipedia’s first burst of activity between 2004 and 2007, the number of active users on the site rocketed from just a few thousand to more than 300,000…However, statistics released by the site’s analytics team suggest Wikipedia’s explosive growth is all but finished. The quickening pace that helped the site reach the 2m article milestone just 17 months after breaking the 1m barrier suddenly evaporated: adding the next million has taken nearly two years. While the encyclopedia is still growing overall, the number of articles being added has reduced from an average of 2,200 a day in July 2007 to around 1,300 today.

This is to be expected. Wikipedia is no longer a “new thing,” and one would expect that the system would begin to seek out a kind of equilibrium. But what articles like this suggested to me was that this period from 2004-2007 was a) the exact period I was writing about and b) an extremely important period in the development of Wikipedia, MediaWiki, and the Web in general. During this tumultuous period, a number of rules were being negotiated and renegotiated. An ethical and rhetorical code was emerging and developing. Things were changing on the fly. This means that reflecting on this period becomes extremely important. Now, with some historical distance, it becomes more important (and easier) to figure out exactly how everything shook out during that three year “boom.”

These two new ways of thinking about my project – in terms of a more detailed consideration of “code” and in terms of the historical moment that my project will deal with – have really helped me to see the project’s bigger picture. As I was in the middle of writing about all of these various controversies, it was difficult to see how I might justify writing about Wikipedia. It was something that was happening, and it seemed to be drawing a lot of fire. This seemed like a good enough reason to focus on this virtual-textual community. But it never felt like a full or rich justification for the project. Now, in 2009, it’s easier to see that this time period was when the code of Wikipedia (the computer code and the ethical code) was being developed, written, rewritten, and negotiated. It’s going to be interesting to revisit and revise this project with these ideas (the justifications) in mind.

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