For much of the year, as they have been doing for centuries, many women in South Africa’s Limpopo province sit around piles of ripe marula fruit, peeling and preparing them to be turned into a variety of local liquor. But if internet users search for information about amarula, the first mention they will find is for a cream liqueur going by the same name that has been aggressively marketed by a South African liquor company for the last two decades. The age-old product made by the women of Limpopo can’t even have its own Wikipedia page, because the free online encyclopaedia insists that if articles are to be considered credible, written material must be cited. Since the women use a recipe that has been handed down orally from generation to generation, they have no texts to show as references.
The insistence on textual references deters Indian contributors from helping to expand the online encyclopaedia, says Wikipedia advisory board member Achal Prabhala. Wikipedia’s standards – which are designed to maximise accuracy and veracity – make it difficult to create a page on children’s games, temple rituals or marriage customs. But Prabhala has a solution: he believes that the online encyclopaedia should allow oral citations. He’ll make his case for this at the Wiki Conference to be held this fortnight.
To demonstrate how this can be done, Prabhala made a film called People Are Knowledge in August. He and a team of Wikipedia editors travelled to Limpopo, Bangalore and Kannur and made audio and video recordings of interviews with people they met. They then created Wikipedia articles about amarula, gilli-danda and a Kerala temple ritual, using these recorded interviews as citations.
Prabhala’s work has resonated with Wikipedia editors like Andrew Lih, who teaches journalism at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and has written a book titled The Wikipedia Revolution. He first got a sense that the standards of English Wikipedia could be an impediment for Wikipedia users in other languages when he attended a Wikimedia conference in Alexandria, Egypt, in 2008. He visited the city’s New Library to see their efforts to scan Arabic language texts. “They said there was not enough Arabic language source material on the Internet, so their scanning effort was very important,” said Lih in an email interview. “We, in English, German, French, have the first-world luxury of tons of source materials from libraries, universities and cultural institutions that have had decades to put content online,” said Lih.
When Lih learned of Prabhala’s project, he realised there was an alternative to digitisation of reference material. “It meant that we could depend a lot more on non-textual knowledge sources, and perhaps Wikipedians should be front and centre in creating these, with story gathering efforts, such as oral citations,” said Lih.
Since they are open to being edited by any user regardless of academic or editorial background, Wikipedia’s articles have always faced derision. In fact, maintaining a high standard is the reason Wikipedia only allows published work to be used as citations. Prabhala said that the English language Wikipedia started out with lax rules which made it easy for people to contribute. “But as the English Wikipedias and the European language Wikipedias grew bigger, people started focusing on quality instead of growth,” he said. “The problem with that is when one extends Wikipedia into parts of the world like India and South Africa, there simply isn’t as much that is published.” In 2005, according to Prabhala’s Wiki research page, one book was published in the UK per 372 people, while in India that ratio was 1 book for 11,371 people.
Some people point out that the published texts aren’t necessarily error-free. “Why is it always assumed that oral narratives or what people have to say does not have as much importance or as much weight as the written stuff?” asked Urvashi Butalia, who has collected oral histories about the Partition for a book titled The Other Side of Silence. “Actually both are rich and both are faulty.” Butalia gave the example of the book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War by Sarmila Bose. If excerpts from that book were used as citations, she said, the Wikipedia article on the Bangladesh war would be skewed in favour of the sources the author has accessed. “An intelligent researcher looking at that might think, is there another point of view and is there a way to track it down,” she added.
Being able to accommodate varying perspectives is one of the best aspects of Wikipedia, said Prabhala. “A Wikipedia article allows for multiple perspectivesand we don’t want to forego that,” he said. However, to maintain maximum accuracy and keep disputes to a minimum, Prabhala said that he’s more interested in “oral presents” rather than “oral histories”. “These are things that are seen and done by millions and millions of people on a daily basis but do not have as much of a place in print,” said Prabhala. The Limpopo women Prabhala interviewed are “probably the world experts on the making of this liquor; as a housewife in Chennai would be on a recipe for a chutney”, he said.
Though many users have supported the idea of oral citations idea, it has also faced criticism. Said one Indian Wikipedia user on a mailing list: “Now we can finally have those thousands of articles about cure-alls and diet-pills, and penis-enlargement exercises, since the manufacturer’s own research would satisfy those standards.” To maximise the credibility of non-published citations, Lih suggests using video recordings. “It’s much harder to ‘fake’ a video piece than an audio piece,” he said.
According to Prabhala, however, a credible oral citation could be “an audio recording of an individual, a Twitter stream, a Facebook feed, a television interview, a YouTube home video, a pamphlet, a folk archive, or anything that is conversational in nature and not printed on paper by the formal publishing industry”. Wikipedia users are now discussing how to provide information on the interviewee and the interviewer so that the reader can decide how much he or she wants to trust that oral citation.
Wikipedia will also have to start recognising more virtual sources like social media for the online encyclopaedia to grow, said Lih. “I’ve made the argument to the Wikimedia folks that they should look at social media sites like Quora and LinkedIn, where you can flag content and recommend others to participate,” said Lih. “Say you’re looking at a Wikipedia article that needs work, and even if you don’t know how to fix it, you know the perfect person who can. Right now there’s no easy way to tap folks to do this.” Lih imagines a button or hook into Facebook where one could prod or invite others to fix a Wikipedia article. “It seems only natural to take advantage of this capability. It sure would be a much more useful thing than to simply ‘poke’ someone,” he said.
Prabhala believes that adopting oral citations would be a more accurate reflection of the state of knowledge in developing societies. “In general, to think of the universe of knowledge not as a hierarchy but as a swirling universe of surprising sources is, in my opinion, a more honest and more useful way to approach the idea of knowledge on Wikipedia,” he said.
The three-day Wiki Conference is meant to give Wikipedia editors a chance to meet in the real world – many of them are already well-connected in cyberspace – to share their views, exchange tips and discuss the challenges they face. Each day will start at about 8am; the first will begin with a speech by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Three simultaneous streams of events have been scheduled in three areas of the Mumbai University’s Fort campus: the Convocation Hall and two Seminar Rooms. Some of the presentations are about using Wikipedia as an educational tool in schools, colleges and at the post-graduate level. Another presentation is about how galleries, libraries, archives and museums can work with and benefit from Wikipedia, while yet another will discuss the possibilities of the online encyclopaedia helping visually-impaired people. For an updated and detailed schedule of the conference, http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/WikiConference_India_2011 To attend, register by visiting http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Registration_Convention before Tue Nov 15, 2011 and paying R1,550 per person. Only online payments will be accepted. For more information, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Aditya Kundalkar on November 11 2011 4.30am
Photos by Sachin P