Infoboxes and cleanup tags: Artifacts of Wikipedia newsmaking

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Infobox from the first version of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution (then ‘protests’) article on English Wikipedia, 25 January, 2011

My article about Wikipedia infoboxes and cleanup tags and their role in the development of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution article has just been published in the journal, ‘Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism‘ (a pre-print is available on Academia.edu). The article forms part of a special issue of the journal edited by C W Anderson and Juliette de Meyer who organised the ‘Objects of Journalism’ pre-conference at the International Communications Association conference in London that I attended last year. The issue includes a number of really interesting articles from a variety of periods in journalism’s history – from pica sticks to interfaces, timezones to software, some of which we covered in the August 2013 edition of ethnographymatters.net

My article is about infoboxes and cleanup tags as objects of Wikipedia journalism, objects that have important functions in the coordination of editing and writing by distributed groups of editors. Infoboxes are summary tables on the right hand side of an article that enable readability and quick reference, while cleanup tags are notices at the head of an article warning readers and editors of specific problems with articles. When added to an article, both tools simultaneously notify editors about missing or weak elements of the article and add articles to particular categories of work.

The article contains an account of the first 18 days of the protests that resulted in the resignation of then-president Hosni Mubarak based on interviews with a number of the article’s key editors as well as traces in related articles, talk pages and edit histories. Below is a selection from what happened on day 1:

Day 1: 25 January, 2011 (first day of the protests)

The_Egyptian_Liberal published the article on English Wikipedia on the afternoon of what would become a wave of protests that would lead to the unseating of President Hosni Mubarak. A template was used to insert the ‘uprising’ infobox to house summarised information about the event including fields for its ‘characteristics’, the number of injuries and fatalities. This template was chosen from a range of other infoboxes relating to history and events on Wikipedia, but has since been deleted in favor of the more recently developed ‘civil conflict’ infobox with fields for ‘causes’, ‘methods’ and ‘results’.

The first draft included the terms ‘demonstration’, ‘riot’ and ‘self-immolation’ in the ‘characteristics’ field and was illustrated by the Latuff cartoon of Khaled Mohamed Saeed and Hosni Mubarak with the caption ‘Khaled Mohamed Saeed holding up a tiny, flailing, stone-faced Hosni Mubarak’. Khaled Mohamed Saeed was a young Egyptian man who was beaten to death reportedly by Egyptian security forces and the subject of the Facebook group ‘We are all Khaled Said’ moderated by Wael Ghonim that contributed to the growing discontent in the weeks leading up to 25 January, 2011. This would ideally have been a filled by a photograph of the protests, but the cartoon was used because the article was uploaded so soon after the first protests began. It also has significant emotive power and clearly represented the perspective of the crowd of anti-Mubarak demonstrators in the first protests.

Upon publishing, three prominent cleanup tags were automatically appended to the head of the article. These included the ‘new unreviewed article’ tag, the ‘expert in politics needed’ tag and the ‘current event’ tag, warning readers that information on the page may change rapidly as events progress. These three lines of code that constituted the cleanup tags initiated a complex distribution of tasks to different groups of users located in work groups throughout the site: page patrollers, subject experts and those interested in current events.

The three cleanup tags automatically appended to the article when it was published at UTC 13:27 on 25 January, 2011

The three cleanup tags automatically appended to the article when it was published at UTC 13:27 on 25 January, 2011

Looking at the diffs in the first day of the article’s growth, it becomes clear that the article is by no means a ‘blank slate’ that editors fill progressively with prose. Much of the activity in the first stage of the article’s development consisted of editors inserting markers or frames in the article that acted to prioritize and distribute work. Cleanup tags alerted others about what they believed to be priorities (to improve weak sections or provide political expertise, for example) while infoboxes and tables provided frames for editors to fill in details iteratively as new information became available.

By discussing the use of these tools in the context of Bowker and Star’s theories of classification (2000), I argue that these tools are not only material but also conceptual and symbolic. They facilitate collaboration by enabling users to fill in details according to a pre-defined set of categories and by catalyzing notices that alert others to the work that they believe needs to be done on the article. Their power, however, cannot only be seen in terms of their functional value. These artifacts are deployed and removed as acts of social and strategic power play among Wikipedia editors who each want to influence the narrative about what happened and why it happened. Infoboxes and tabular elements arise as clean, simple, well-referenced numbers out of the messiness and conflict that gave rise to them. When cleanup tags are removed, the article develops an implicit authority, appearing to rise above uncertainty, power struggles and the impermanence of the compromise that it originated from.

This categorization practice enables editors to collaborate iteratively with one another because each object signals work that needs to be done by others in order to fill in the gaps of the current content. In addition to this functional value, however, categorization also has a number of symbolic and political consequences. Editors are engaged in a continual practice of iterative summation that contributes to an active construction of the event as it happens rather than a mere assembling of ‘reliable sources’. The deployment and removal of cleanup tags can be seen as an act of power play between editors that affects readers’ evaluation of the article’s content. Infoboxes are similar sites of struggle whose deployment and development result in an erasure of the contradictions and debates that gave rise to them. These objects illuminate how this novel journalistic practice has important implications for the way that political events are represented.

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