This has been an extraordinarily complex 24 hours. On the one hand, in the Wikimedia free knowledge world, I am celebrating Christophe Henner and Maria Sefidari being made Chair and Vice-Chair of the WMF Board (there’s power for you). And then the new Board’s bold and brilliant decision of making Katherine Maher WMF Executive Director, removing months of possible uncertainty and waste in a fell swoop (there’s leadership for you). And the Wikimedians of the Year being declared as Emily Temple-Wood and Rosie Stephenson-Knight (there’s almost redundant affirmation for you; Emily has been my Wikipedian of the decade for a while now).
On the other hand, there’s the world beyond, the expanse of the ‘real world’ these past few days: the awfulness of the Brexit vote, the portents for the November election in the US, and the overall environment of hate, racism, xenophobia, and ‘othering’ of multiple kinds. And yet, these two worlds are connected. In multiple ways.
Take as an example, the two English Wikipedia articles on the Orlando shootings and Jo Cox’s assassination in the UK, both awful, gut-wrenching acts of violence and hate in the past weeks, occurring days of each other. The descriptions of the perpetrators in the lede paragraphs are currently this, respectively: “The assailant was Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American” and “A 52-year-old man was charged with her murder and will stand trial under terrorism protocols”. In the Orlando article, the lede goes on to describe Mateen’s alleged (and disproved) links with ISIL. The Cox article has nothing further in the lede, not even the name of the proven neo-Nazi Thomas Mair, who shot her; you have to scroll down to the end of the article to find a single paragraph on the man. Omar Mateen has a long, separate, article on him. Thomas Mair doesn’t. In previous versions of the articles that I remember seeing just a couple of days ago, Omar Mateen was described as ‘being of Afghan descent’, while the unnamed (from the start of the article) Mair was believed to have ‘a history of mental illness’ and links to ‘right-wing extremism’.
These two articles demonstrate both what is extraordinarily brilliant and amazing about the Wikimedia community – and what is deeply, deeply troubling, and needs shared, collective, reflexivity and leadership. The fact that they exist, that 608 distinct humans have worked so far on the Orlando article and 243 on the Cox article, that each iteration is meant to improve in all good faith, the substance and quality of the article… all this matters, is meaningful, and worthy of celebration. At the same time, the fact that these brilliant, passionate, committed authors have their own systemic – possibly unconscious – biases of how they describe the perpetrators of these crimes, while possibly lacking the self-reflexive thought on how that impacts countless innocent people tarred unfairly with the same biases… that is the critical challenge for the future of knowledge on the internet, and far more broadly, the critical challenge for the future of our world as we live it today.
What does each of us take away from reading these articles as ‘fact’, as ‘information’, as ‘knowledge’? What ways of seeing the world, of seeing *each other* do we imbibe?
I deeply miss being at Wikimania right now, celebrating the joys of moving on from mayhem with some sense of balance and thoughtfulness. Yet I urge everyone who is lucky enough to be at Wikimania to look at each other today and over this weekend, and ask yourself this question (as I asked it of senior leadership at the WMF a few years ago, to uncomfortable silence): ‘Do we in this room even begin to represent the swathes of humanity that exist in the real world, that are on the internet today, that will be on the internet tomorrow? How can we possibly begin to design with, create with (*with* _not *for*), and amplify the knowledge of, those who do not look like most of us in this room, and who have had very different life experiences?’.
My hope is in the fact that people like Katherine, like Emily, like Maria, like Christophe – they are brave enough to ask this question of themselves, and of each of us, knowing that the answers are going to be messy, uncomfortable, painful, and yet will lead us in the only direction worthy of free-as-in-‘libre’ knowledge. Towards a world in which we truly see each other fully. Whether on Wikipedia or in the real world.