WARS OFTEN RAGE behind the estimated ten million Wikipedia pages: edit wars, where editors repeatedly override each other’s contributions to a page and cannot reach consensus about what the final content should be. This can extend to many thousands of edits. While some of the most famous edit wars have been about classically nerdy topics – whether Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader should be considered the same character in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith; whether the tiger is in fact ‘the world’s most powerful living cat’. Factual matters have also been under debate, such as whether Europe is a continent or not, or whether Freddie Mercury’s ancestry was Iranian, Indian, Farsi or Azeri. But increasingly these wars are about the politics of definition. The Wikipedia entries for figures such as US President Donald Trump, the television star Roseanne Barr, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, US Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh, or the Sudanese-Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, become the sites for seemingly endless edit wars. As all of these figures are politically contentious, their Wikipedia entries become online proxies for larger culture wars.
Agonistic exchanges around politics, news and culture on digital platforms are now part of the rich texture of everyday life online. But the case of Wikipedia is important as it has become the most enduring success symbol of what we called the web 2.0 era, where open, easy-to-use digital platforms could become spaces where a multitude of users could come together and create new forms of culture and information. It has become the de facto first source of information for billions of people around the world, not least students drafting essays and assignments. It speaks to what was known as the ‘wisdom of crowds’, where content co-creation and the willingness of people to give up their free time and expertise – what the author and consultant Clay Shirky termed their ‘cognitive surplus’[i] – led to knowledge sharing for the common good. The phenomenal growth of Wikipedia saw it expand from 17,000 entries in 2001 to over a million in 2006.
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