The first in a series of conversations initiated by Quenton Miller, where we look into the different voices and technologies that write and rewrite Wikipedia as we speak.

An Interview with Achal Prabhala

Achal Prabhala’s bio is like a massive collage of careers. Since 2006 he’s been a member of the Wikimedia Foundation’s advisory board, he writes for publications like Bidoun and Caravan, is part of programmes to make learning materials and medicines accessible, and is sometimes a Wikipedia editor, a busy schedule he finds time for by not getting involved in social media. In 2011 he worked on a documentary titled People Are Knowledge exploring the ways nonprinted information can make its way onto Wikipedia.

Achal and I spoke over a frequently disappearing Skype connection. When I wasn’t doing much of the talking I’ve moved some of the words from his answers over to the questions, stealing a few of Achal’s lines. Hopefully this is all within the spirit of Wikipedia.

—Quenton Miller


THE BELIEVER: What makes a Wikipedia article good?

ACHAL PRABHALA: I think that what makes a Wikipedia article good is contention, and how the page handles that contention, and how it grades the different kinds of contention. When enough people get together there is a natural and fair way they give weight to different perspectives. The more people we have participating in Wikipedia, the better it gets. I could put it out as a lofty philosophical principle, but this is really just the most evident effect.

BLVR: Which gets to the structure of Wikipedia. It’s based on citations, and to cite something it needs to be published in a book, and you need access to that book.

AP: This is a problem: if something isn’t written down, does it exist?  There are a thousand temple dance forms in every single village and town and city in Kerala. The umbrella term for these dances, or performances, is Theyyam. So you have these dances that forty million people see on a weekly basis, but to document that knowledge on Wikipedia you would have to wait for somebody to come in, do fieldwork, write a book, and then use that book as a reference on Wikipedia.

BLVR: I see.

AP: I don’t mean it’s a conspiracy. If you’re an archetypal Wikipedia editor, you live in a country with an excellent knowledge infrastructure, you come from a region that invented printing, and you build a Wikipedia around this.

BLVR: As well as a first world versus developing world thing, I can also see lots of implications for participation in the bigger Wikipedias in the west.

AP: The entire Wikipedia community is facing a crisis of editor retention. That’s in part because it’s much harder to edit the strongest Wikipedias, and to the extent this continues, Wikipedia will become more mundane. And I think opening up the idea of referencing and citation might be a very useful way for Wikipedia as a whole to regenerate itself.

BLVR: It’s interesting how the way people use the internet has changed over Wikipedia’s lifetime. Someone today who’s sixteen or eighteen or twenty-one is able to trust the internet in a way that someone who was twenty-one a decade ago could not.

AP: I agree. Young people have a better idea of how to trust certain people or sources in certain ways. Even though it’s an online resource, Wikipedia is surprisingly distrustful of the internet. Now, especially with communicative media, most people have a way to figure out exactly which YouTube channels they like and why; which social media feeds they trust and why—one for culture gossip, another for political analysis. Very few blogs, if any, are allowed as reliable sources. Certainly not social media, except when a tweet enters history and gets written about in a number of mainstream media outlets.

BLVR: It sounds amazing, to have trust as an organic and contextual thing, rather than the walling off of a fixed source. In your documentary People are Knowledge you bring up the idea of “oral citations,” phone or audio interviews conducted by Wikipedia editors and uploaded as citable sources. Where did the idea come from?

AP: By osmosis, somehow, or just by knowing lots of people who are historians and sociologists and so on. In conversation with someone trying to originate some aspect of Indian or South African knowledge on Wikipedia, it was immediately apparent that if you want to document aspects of that knowledge you have to create it. And that could be uploaded to Wikimedia Commons.

BLVR: What are other some other ways of doing it? This seems like a fun thing to brainstorm.

AP: Another solution might be to look to YouTube. The fact that people are looking to YouTube for traditional recipes or dance steps doesn’t register as such on Wikipedia. And this is because Wikipedia hasn’t found a way to assimilate the trust that people have organically built up around the non-Wikipedia Internet.

BLVR: Which is strange for Wikipedia! At first it wasn’t trusted, then it was trusted, and now it’s so trusted it’s become the old grandpa who wouldn’t know the thing you’re looking for.

AP: Which is ironic, no?

BLVR: What do you think about translation as an idea for non-European language Wikipedias?

AP: When you’re trying to get people to participate in a project like Wikipedia, one of the primary driving motivators is a kind of selfish generosity—a space where people can perform their ability to know and give. You can’t really expect success in India, Africa or Brazil, unless you hand people that ability to give. So if you say “Hey, welcome, Kenyan Wikipedian who wants to edit in Swahili! Why don’t you translate all the astronomy articles from English into Swahili,” that’s not exciting in itself. No one’s interested in doing only that, and I suspect one of the reasons translation fails is that it’s just a lot more exciting to give than to take. There are very few things that get translated from Swahili Wikipedia into English and it’s for the same reason.

BLVR: There’s been a lot of talk about machine translation lately.

AP: Google and Microsoft have both attempted to run machine translation projects. Google’s project resulted in a near rebellion on any language they tried it on; the Microsoft program is more nuanced and is ongoing with greater success. But neither of those projects has become something big. In Google’s case, Wikipedians who speak Tamil (a language that dominates South India, where I live) were incensed by a sudden influx of machine-translated articles on American pop music—strangely enough, Lady Gaga in particular, about four years ago when she had just emerged on the scene.

BLVR: Lady Gaga?

AP: The outrage was over the idea that this could be done without anyone’s consent, that a machine in California could say “here, people who speak Tamil, have Lady Gaga.” In the case of Google it was done with almost no consultation with the community of editors, and the manner in which it was thrust on them was unwelcome. And yes, bizarrely—or perfectly—much of the outrage was centered on Lady Gaga.

BLVR: So if five Tamil people chose to write an article on Lady Gaga it would be welcome?

AP: Yes. Wikipedia is a way of saying, look, this is my world and I’ll decide what I want to have in it. The presumption of translation is a way of saying “look, the world is one thing. We’ve written it down. Why would you bother to rewrite it?”

BLVR: Which gets back to Wikipedia being this very democratic thing. If enough people are interested in something, then they can have an article or visible point of view, in a way that Encyclopaedia Britannica could never do.

AP: People like to dismiss Wikipedia as “the website with the longest list of alien Pokémon characters,” or some other seemingly meaningless and utterly random list of things, to signal absurd miscellanea which can’t possibly be knowledge. But this is precisely why I’m drawn to it.

BLVR: How dare you give more importance to Madonna than Mahler.

AP: Exactly. It offers a place for an honest account of things that really matter to people, often preceding the eventual legitimization of these things, and aspects of our lives that are sometimes dismissed as trivial and silly are often treated with an endearing sincerity, which is so useful and thrilling and nice.


BLVR: Back in the more chaotic growth years, how were things regulated so you didn’t get people making up imaginary animals and so on?

AP: My understanding is that rules were made if a situation arose when too many people were spending too much of their time combating something silly, so when that happened often enough you made a rule. Just in order to make it easier for the nice people to work.

BLVR: I know that there is this “no original research” rule you really don’t like.

AP: Yes. The rule of no original research, which came into existence in 2003, was intended to thwart crank scientists who, for instance, wake up one day and decide to disprove the theory of gravity, or undo some other aspect of a couple of centuries’ worth of human thought. But from there the rule blew up into a universal principle, a moral imperative, really, which now gets applied to prevent someone from uploading a recipe or social history of a dish of food that everyone knows but that hasn’t received adequate coverage in the gourmet cuisine press.

BLVR: So this rule has always been around, but it wasn’t so universally applied?

AP: The rules absolutely weren’t fixed. I’ve talked to plenty of the old-timers, and they all say the same thing. None of the rules—not “no original research,” not “notability,” another enormous bugbear of third-world participation—were written for the purposes for which they are being used now. They were written broadly in response to very specific situations, and they were meant for a small group of people. I doubt anyone from that time imagined they’d get set in stone. This was a time when you could edit the big Wikipedias with ungrammatical, unreferenced text, and then a month later someone else could add something, and again three months later. Ten years later it becomes this amazing, dense, article.

BLVR: Is there a Wikipedia history page of the way different rules were implemented? How did these rules start to appear?

AP: The rules were and are very broad because it’s impossible to envisage every situation, and if you were to write specific rules then you’d have a very large and unwieldy rulebook. The rules were not written to be unduly prescriptive, but they’ve been increasingly interpreted in an unjustly restrictive manner.

BLVR: Thinking about citations starts to raise a problem: what knowledge is behind what we know? And what knowledge is behind that knowledge? Which is, in a sense, endless; you can keep tracing sources back to other sources.

AP: It sounds like a cheesy theme from a low-grade science fiction novel, but it’s very funny how new worlds very quickly begin to look like old worlds.

BLVR: It could be a movie, or a Borges story. All of a sudden Wikipedia is the old version of an encyclopaedia, then a medieval manuscript.

AP: Literally. Up until 2007 or 2008 there was an idea that you couldn’t trust Wikipedia because it was either plain wrong, or, much worse, a radical revolutionary project to rewrite the world. And I think that it’s no coincidence that that Wikipedia became respectable roughly around the same time that the rules were really solidified and enforced.

BLVR: But still there are spaces for experimentation. Could you talk about the trial state of a Wikipedia page?

AP: It’s called a Sandbox, which is exactly what it implies: it’s like a playpen. It mimics the Wikipedia template, and it’s in your own user space, but it’s not on Wikipedia. So you can create a sandbox for an article and get other people to come in and comment and do things, but it’s not something that anyone is going to come to on their own.


BLVR: How does being a writer change the way you think about Wikipedia?

AP: I grew up speaking English—and Kannada, Telugu and Tamil—but my parents and I converse in English, and I’ve lived and worked in Guyana, South Africa and India. I deeply care about the world I live in. And yet I can’t come to terms with the fact that, for the most part, I’m written out of it. Which would explain the exhilaration—the sheer thrill—that I felt reading Dambudzo Marechera or Salman Rushdie, the first as an adult, and the second as a wide-eyed young child who could not believe his world was real and true and in the pages of a book between his hands.

BLVR: And Wikipedia could also work that way? Or does it work that way?

AP: Malayalam Wikipedia is a solid but fledgling Wikipedia where anything goes, but they haven’t turned that into a policy, it’s just that because they’re growing they understand the need to keep things. So all these projects are at different stages of growth, and they deserve to have their own parameters to be judged under, but they’re not going to grow unless they have a chaotic upsurge. Right now the opportunity, especially with the smaller Wikipedias, is to mimic the ways in which French and German and English Wikipedia were operating in 2001, without the strict rules.

BLVR: What do the grown up Wikipedias think of their “wild” youth in hindsight?

AP: The community at large is a little embarrassed at how things used to be, which is a shame, because it’s also how we got to where we are now.

BLVR: I know you’ve received some angry letters regarding your work with Wikipedia along the lines of “please leave history to the historians.”

AP: Naturally. From a German-Dutch historian. On the subject of German-Dutch historians, I can’t think of another particular group of human beings who might be as anxious about a project to rewrite history.

BLVR: I will have to look that up. But I can sense this joy in switching between the tiniest, most innocent detail, to the rewriting of the whole of history.

AP: Of course oral history has almost nothing to do with the project I undertook: I’m only interested in boring, uncontroversial oral “presents” if you will. Sadly, the social history of small things isn’t about to unseat our conventional understanding of global geopolitics—not just yet. My motivation is more to look at present-day knowledge that has a less than adequate presence.

BLVR: But you love to talk about power and history.

AP: I do, and I’ll get there one day, even German-Dutch history, but… that was a joke. I’m really interested in going for the lowest hanging fruit here. I’m not an essentialist. I don’t think everything is culturally fixed and geographically specific and that only someone who’s lived in some area and been brought up in some language can speak for that language or for his or her people. For now, and here, on Wikipedia, and in relation to the project I led, I want to work on things that, more or less, everyone sees every day; things that are easy to describe, and known by everybody, but not yet as well documented in books as their equivalents in Europe would be. And I want anybody or everybody who has an interest in rescuing these undocumented objects to be able to do so.

BLVR: At the start of your documentary there’s a quote from Plato: “what’s the point of going back to a book when, every time you read it, it gives you the same answer?” Could you explain what this means to you?

AP: What it means to me is that knowledge isn’t static, that words don’t simply sit still on the page, and a world in which meaning is fixed for eternity is a limiting and boring world. Words and books, when they’re beautiful, produce new meanings every time you read them. And that’s at its core, the nicest thing about Wikipedia. Even the very best article is not complete, because the world is not complete.

Photograph by Masimba Sasa.

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