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Manipulating Data

Photo Credit: Mez Love

When I picked up Daniel Barrett’s book on Media Wiki, I didn’t expect to be engrossed. That’s not a knock against Barrett or O’Reilly books (which are always pretty useful). I just assumed that I’d be reading your run of the mill software manual. I wanted to know a little bit more about the guts of Media Wiki. And while I wouldn’t say it’s a “page turner,” I’ve been fascinated to find out how easy it is to learn and use Media Wiki.

From an administrator’s perspective, Media Wiki is fairly straightforward. Installing and maintaining the software is pretty much a snap. But beyond this, Media Wiki offers end users a really easy way to manipulate a lot of data. With a tool called Dynamic Page List (DPL), Media Wiki users can query the database of the wiki. With a wiki like Wikipedia, this is an amazing tool to have. Imagine that you wanted to pull a report on all Wikipedia articles about your favorite baseball team or comic book and that you wanted to manipulate, sort, and display that data in multiple ways. DPL allows you to do that. For me, this was a revelation. I knew that Wikipedia was “open” and that its data was there for all to see, but I didn’t realize that one could query the database that easily. After learning a few easy commands, anyone can run a lot of really useful reports and queries of the Wikipedia database.

As I learn more about Media Wiki extensions like DPL, I am realizing how important it is for people to understand that these tools exist. ProfHacker recently ran a couple of posts about working with APIs, and many others in new media scholarship (Bill Wolff comes to mind) argue that new media scholars have to learn APIs and teach students how to use them. But those calls can always seem so daunting. They seem daunting to me, and I even understand some of this stuff. How could I possibly convince folks in various English departments that they should be teaching students how to manipulate the Wikipedia database or build Google maps using the Google API?

But the task of both learning these tools and teaching them to others (students or instructors) is not nearly as daunting we sometimes think. After reading about DPL, I started to think of some really interesting ways to teach the tool. Teaching this kind of skill moves well beyond teaching students how to create tables and pages that query the Wikipedia database. Instead, this kind of teaching shows students that Wikipedia is a database, something I’m not sure most students really understand. The content they see on a Wikipedia article is nothing more than a database query, sorted for them by various tools, software, and developers that have decided the order and placement of bits of information. It’s not really a page at all.

When new media scholars argue that the interface is the new “thing” we should be studying, it’s easy to dismiss this work as a bunch of computer geeks interested in programming. And you certainly need some basic understanding of programming to learn something like DPL. But the language and logic of programming is slowly influencing all of our writing tools and genres (our novels, our blogs), and its time for everyone (not just the geeks) to get a chance understand that logic and put it into practice.

All of this is to say that Barrett’s book has really made me think differently about teaching with new media. The next time someone asks me if I let my students use Wikipedia, I think I’ve got a new answer. I don’t want students to read Wikipedia or cite it. If they do, fine. But it’s a boring way to use one of the most interesting databases in the world (and, frankly, the debate about whether to cite it or not is boring as well). But instead of teaching students how to read Wikipedia, we should be teaching them how to write with it. And I’m not talking about the articles. I’m talking about data structures. We should be teaching students how to manipulate all of the data that Wikipedia presents in a way that remakes it, reshapes it, and provides them and others with a new way of looking at the database. That data manipulation is writing, and I hope the folks in the humanities start to see that soon.

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