The Disciplined Article

Presentation abstract:
This presentation is a comparative analysis of Wikipedia and Britannica Encyclopedia’s categorization of articles. It reports on my research that compares the sub-headings of ten articles from two hundred years of the Encyclopedia Britannica with the same ten articles from Wikipedia. Thus, by analyzing how articles such as ‘America’, ‘Atheist’, ‘Black’, ‘Canada’, ‘Cannon’, ‘Cat’, ‘Democracy’, ‘Human’, ‘London’ and ‘Oceans’ differ in time and publication, we witness how the process of writing encyclopedic knowledge privileges certain knowledge statements and at the same time, invalidates others.

It is undeniable that after ten years, Wikipedia can easily claim to be the number one encyclopedia on the web. Yochai Benkler states in “The Wealth of Networks” (2007) that the success of Wikipedia is due to the “large-scale cooperative efforts” of peer production (p.5). The results, he writes, is “a radically new form of encyclopedia writing” (p.70). This enthusiastic sentiment of the site’s novel and radical approach is reiterated in Manuel Castells’ “The Network Society” (2004), Don Tapscott’s “Wikinomics” (2006), and Clay Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus” (2010). While Wikipedia is undoubtably unique for its scale and popularity, the scholars Featherstone & Venn (2006) doubt whether the Wikipedian product is entirely new or particularly radical. These two authors observe that Wikipedia tends to follow “traditional disciplinary divisions” that were prominent during the European Enlightenment (Problematizing Global Knowledge and the New Encyclopaedia Project, “Theory Culture & Society”, 23, p.10). In the ten years since the site’s inception, Wikipedians have not only continued to rely on these idealogical categories of knowledge but have, in fact, implemented them more consistently and on a greater scale than their ancestral counterparts.

Thus, my presentation argues that Benkler’s claim that Wikipedia possesses a new and radical encyclopedic writing is misleading. Instead Wikipedia, should be critically analyzed for being exactly the opposite, of establishing traditional categorizations that reinforce and maintain the status quo.


Critique, Democracy, and Philosophy in 21st Century Information Society: Towards Critical Theories of Social Media
The Fourth ICTs and Society-Conference
Uppsala University, May 2nd-4th, 2012


Wikipedia, encyclopedism, content analysis, knowledge

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