I anticipated the Carte Blanche story about Wikipedia with great interest, but was highly disappointed when the program was finally shown on Sunday evening. Here was a wonderful opportunity to show how the Wikipedia community has developed a widely acclaimed free global resource – but more importantly, to show the democratic process by which the community governs itself and to give some insight into the local Wikipedia community that highlights its relevance and importance to South Africa in particular.
The first problem with the program – common to many reports on Wikipedia by the mainstream media – was on the focus of the segment. The questions: ‘What is Wikipedia and why is it relevant?’ was answered by assessing whether the articles are as accurate as more traditional resources. This reflects a particularly masculine way of analysing the phenomenon by focusing on the phenomenon as a black or white issue – accurate or inaccurate, reliable or unreliable – rather than focusing more on the process of meaning-creation in a more holistic way.
The very fact that most people are aware of the fact that this is a resource created ‘by all for all’, and that it is subject to bias and incorrect facts (true of all information but rarely admitted) makes students come to the resource with a critical eye that is almost always lacking when approaching something like Encyclopaedia Britannica. Research by ‘Nature’ magazine shows that Wikipedia has about 4 errors per article, while Britannica has about 3 – other research shows that the error rate is lower in Wikipedia articles because they are longer. Whatever the true comparison is, you start to understand that ‘accuracy’ is a very subjective way of assessing the resource. More important is the critical eye of the user as well as the opportunity of the user to actively be involved in changing and improving the text itself – something that is virtually impossible with traditionally published texts like Britannica.
Secondly, the ‘experts’ interviewed for the program were from a very specific demographic. All of them were over 40, male and white – but more importantly they were all from the ‘old guard’ mainstream media. (Derek Keats from the University of the Western Cape who has done incredible work in South Africa to build free digital resources like Wikipedia was the brief exception here). Although I completely respect Barry Ronge for his great movie reviews and Anton Harber for his contribution to the journalistic field in South Africa, I find it puzzling how these two men were all that Carte Blanche could find to give some depth to a story that is really about how South Africans are creating meaning in the world in an active way – not as the immobile ‘victims’ that the media so often to portray us as.
Where were the people who develop local language articles for Wikipedia? Where were the people from the local community who actually contribute to the resources on South Africa in Wikipedia? Where were the active users – the new producers or navigators of meaning from one of the most democratic media resources on the planet today? Where was anyone under 30 in this program?
When I came to thinking about how the program was framed, I realised that it was really set as a story about being “on the outside looking in” – a common perception with technology in the developing world that media such as Carte Blanche seem to continually reinforce rather than critically examine. The insert actually began with the words “In this country we are used to our (Internet whiz) kids making loads of money and shooting off into space or even building the rockets to get there.” Right from the beginning, this was going to be a story about ‘our kids’ rather than ‘us’.
Secondly, it was framed as a story about a foreigner’s visit to see how his creation was being used when, in actual fact, the incredible thing about this story is that it is about so many people – many of which live in this country. Jimmy Wales is not Rupert Murdoch. He initiated a project that empowered people to create meaning together rather than as isolated experts. But the Carte Blanche program frames the story as one about a man with ‘the people’ in the background of the entire insert. They were at the University of the Western Cape during school term – all they needed to do was turn the cameras to a couple of students who use Wikipedia!
Carte Blanche wasn’t the only one to ignore local efforts in such areas. ‘Maverick’ magazine produced articles on Jimmy Wales and on Creative Commons CEO, Lawrence Lessig, but in seven pages didn’t even mention the fact that there is a local Wikipedia volunteer community and that there is an active Creative Commons South Africa office.
And so, like many of the stories about the Internet that we see reported on by our mainstream media, the way that this story was framed is exactly about reinforcing existing power relations in a way that denigrates and disempowers the incredible democratising power of initiatives like Wikipedia in this country. This does complete injustice to the incredible work going on locally to build active citizens of a new media that defies individual supremacy over the combined efforts of communities.
It’s disappointing. I guess I’m disappointed mostly because if Carte Blanche – with a (albeit depleting) brand of criticism and alternative viewpoints – can’t grapple with the future in a critical, knowledgeable way, then who will?