Wikipedia’s Tangled Web

Ars Technica has a write-up on a legal battle Wikipedia has decided to take on:

Two artists attempted to create a performance art piece by establishing a Wikipedia entry entitled “Wikipedia Art,” which could then be freely edited and “transformed” by anyone choosing to do so. The page lasted a mere 15 hours before being summarily deleted by Wikipedia editors and admins. Now, the pair’s archive and continuing discussion of the project is being threatened by the Wikimedia Foundation’s legal counsel, which has effectively threatened to pursue legal action against the artists for trademark infringement.

The case calls into question the ideology behind Wikipedia; that is, how ideas such as “neutral point of view” structure or even determine what ends up in Wikipedia’s page. The Wikipedia Art project aimed to get at exactly that — by calling into question the standards the wikipedians have created for their content, these critical artist have exposed Wikipedia’s reliance on things like the mainstream media to validate what and what should not be “knowledge.”

This, of course, is a terrible thing, in the sense that Wikipedia merely becomes an extension of a corporate-owned news media and other such “official” organizations, rather than an all-encompassing body of digital knowledge:

“Wikipedia Art is an art intervention which explicitly invites performative utterances in order to change the work itself,” reads the archive of the original Wikipedia post made by artists Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern. “The ongoing composition and performance of Wikipedia Art is intended to point to the “invisible authors and authorities” of Wikipedia, and by extension the Internet, as well as the site’s extant criticisms: bias, consensus over credentials, reliability and accuracy, vandalism, etc.”

The pair meant for the article to be a functional critique of Wikipedia as an information source, using Wikipedia as the “venue” and its users as participants in the “performance.”

And, of course, there’s a real irony here, called out by Ars Tech:

…a non-profit foundation’s online knowledge repository, which largely exists because of free speech and fair use, is threatening legal action that could stifle free speech and fair use. That irony, however, seems lost on the Wikimedia Foundation. Like previous legal action against Wikipedia itself, the threats seem to draw attention to the Wikipedia Art site and make Wikimedia Foundation look bad, playing right into Kildall and Stern’s project. Hopefully Wikimedia Foundation will see the folly in pursuing this action and, instead, focus on its core mission: to provide a free, online encyclopedia of “notable” human knowledge.

Definitely something to watch.

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2 responses

  1. Mike Godwin’s side of the story:

    http://lists.wikimedia.org/pipermail/foundation-l/2009-April/051505.html

    Number of tech press who contacted WMF before writing up a story: 0.

  2. Thanks for the link, David.

    I would agree it’s unfair to not contact WMF before publishing this. On the other hand, it’s a difficult line for Wikipedia to walk, trying to make a legal case around fair use, etc, when it’s the foundation upon which it’s built. Just from a perceptions point of view, you know?

    My main interest in the story, though, is how this exposes a very valid critique of wikipedia’s operations.

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