The wikipedia paper, the good questions and the aching legs

The aching legs are easy to explain. After spending 7 hours at the conference sitting on chairs that inevitably eventually do turn uncomfortable, Anna and I spent 2 hours walking through the streets of Wuppertal. Neither Berlin nor Hamburg are cities with declivities worth mentioning and we had to admit that we were not trained for the whole going up and up thing. Not to talk about the fact that we got badly car-sick (or maybe sea-sick would be more appropriate) in the Schwebebahn. Anyway, none of these experiences did our legs any good.

(View from inside the Schwebebahn)

The few more ideas were gained at the conference on the legitimation mechanisms of biography. The first thing that struck me there was how little research on biography has to do with texts. We were presented several papers on films, there was one on music as well. Yesterday evening, it was the author of biographical comic books who presented his work process.  The philological fraction was everything but dominant, which disturbed somewhat my orientation. One thing that did not surprise me, on the other hand, was the inevitable confrontation of historical and literary standards. It became particularly obvious in the discussion on Anna’s paper. The expectations you have towards biographies are different if you consider them as a literary product or if you consider them as a historical testimony. Most of the biographies do evolve in some in-between zone. Interestingly too, and as was remarked during the discussion of my and Christof’s paper, the difficulties, although they change with the media, mostly all come up to the same elements: neutrality vs. interpretation, choice of the sources and the way they are referred to, assessability of the sources (should you check or not the 50 references in the footnotes to see if really the information is proven?), definition of biographical truth. As tortuous as the theoretical ways I heard of today could seem, none of them seemed to be able to sort all of this out.

My own paper (written together with Christof Schöch) dealt with legitimation mechanisms in wikipedia-biographies. I was somewhat apprehensive of the discussion, since it was clear that everyone in the room would have used wikipedia and was likely to have their opinion on it. I was also somewhat afraid of being asked questions on Christof’s part of the paper that I would not be able to answer properly. Both things turned out to be true. I was asked how the inner circle of the decision takers in wikipedia does constitute itself, which I could not answer properly. I am not sure it matters so much, but my lack of a proper answer made it impossible to me to re-interrogate that question (that was asked to me about 3 times over the day, in the paper’s discussion and afterwards). Because the interesting thing is that this question itself is symptomatical of a refusal of the new authority forms developed by wikipedia: it supposes that there must be somewhere someone who can be held accountable. There was one professor who was unhappy about the wikipedia page someone had written about him: I suggest him to post a comment in the version history of the article, but he did not seem convinced.

There were two very interesting questions which I really need to discuss with Christof. One was the question of the quotability. If a student quotes a version of a WP-article that has been erased since it was consulted, it turns out to be very time-consuming for the teacher who read their paper to counter-check the quotation. I really had zero idea on this question of the quotability of volatile information. The other aspect I found interesting was the question whether there is – within WP – room for discussions and reflexions of the epistemological principles like the neutral point of view and the no-theory-finding-imperative. I was unable to say at what level and in what form this kind of discussion takes place within the Wikipedia community, which was not so good considering that the whole paper tended to show that such a reflexion is absolutely necessary (since there is no such thing as absolute interpretation and giving information without interpreting it). This question of the epistemological relfexion on the principles is the one that interests me most about wikipedia for the time being.

Cite this blog post
Anne Baillot (2012, September 21). The wikipedia paper, the good questions and the aching legs. Digital Intellectuals. Retrieved May 28, 2024, from

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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1 Response

  1. Alex says:

    Regarding quotability of Wikipedia articles: Why not tell students to use the revision ID that is current when they view the article? So instead of quoting , they quote .

    When I retrieve the latter URL—which is the current revision at the time of writing this comment—Wikipedia promises: “This is the current revision of this page, as edited by … at … . The present address (URL) is a permanent link to this version.” So this is what we want.

    One can find out that URL by following the “View history” link on any article page and then selecting the topmost revision.

    Of course, HTTP URLs are still volatile by definition and any information lying beneath may still be changed at any time by anyone who has control over the web server: Imagine Wikipedia changes the URL format for retrieving old article revisions, or a malicious Wikipedia admin manipulates a certain revision at a later date … but then—why imagine that when it comes to Wikipedia?

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