Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Wikimania 2008 (Alexandria, Egypt)

In other news, I’m currently on a train to New York, from which I fly to Athens, with a day-long layover, and then Alexandria, Egypt, where I am due to talk at Wikimania 2008, the annual Wikipedia/Wikimedia conference. I’m talking on “LibraryThing and Social Cataloging.”

I plan to center my talk on how LibraryThing’s social production, or “Social Cataloging,” stacks up against the Wikipedia model and similar projects. I think there are some interesting similarities, and more interesting departures. I shall post a screencast, at a minimum.

Anyone know these people? I am particularly eager to mingle with the other attendees and speakers. Apart from Brewster Kahl (Internet Archive), I hardly see a name I recognize. But I’m sure there will be some interesting conversations.

When it comes to Wikipedia, I’m no expert. My account lists some 746 edits since 2004, which probably puts me in the top percent, but my output is spotty, and I have never been obsessed with the site as some have.

Things not to say around Jimmy Wales. Worse, I am not a true believer. Of course, I think Wikipedia is extraordinary. I use it every day. When it’s works, like most pop culture, it’s an unmatched resource. But from working mostly on topics of Greek history, I have acquired a sour perspective on Wikipedia’s ability to resolve conflicts, tamp down ignorance, and cover topics which, quite simply, require more than curiosity and popular secondary sources.

Alexander the Great, for example, has seen periodic, bitter warfare on national or sexual grounds and, although randomly wonderful, with extensive hyperlinking and some exceptional tidbits, has never grown into a decent summary. It’s lumpy, unbalanced, poorly written and poorly sourced—a bright fourteen year-old child sitting next to you on a bus, telling you everything he knows.* Parts are good. Parts are bad. Parts are just off somehow—their correction requiring un-Wikipedia-esque virtues like restraint, proportionality and style. At one point I watched it closely and made substantial edits. I’ve moved on. In my opinion, if the Wiki culture and process were going to produce a good article on Alexander, they would have done so already.

If that’s too pessimistic, it’s surely true of bit players like Ada of Caria, Aristander of Telmessus or a work like the Geoponica? I think all three are passable now, but almost all the work is mine. Not only am I not scalable, but it shouldn’t work that way. Tim Spalding, a PhD drop-out whose knowledge of the Geoponica is mostly second hand, even if he does read Greek, should not be the almost sole author of the article on this rather important work.**

Anyone know Alexandria? I should have no trouble filling my layover in Athens. I’ve been a few times before, so I’ll be filling holes. But I’ve never been to Egypt.

I’ll have early mornings, nights and one day free in Alexandria. (I’m not going to try to get to Cairo and the pyramids.) I want to make the most of the time I have, and feel extremely ignorant. Although Hellenistic Alexandria was a research interest of mine, the ancient city is largely gone, and I know little about what came after. I love Cavafy, so I shall probably check out his house museum, but I am completely ignorant about Durrell, the usual touchstone. Nor is Alexandria what it was in their day–the Greeks, Jews, Albanians and other minorities have mostly left. What the modern city is like, I have no idea. I can’t count to ten in Arabic. I don’t even have a guidebook. This is the new, non-obsessive tourist me. ..

If you know the city, leave comments. Tell me where to go and I’ll tell you what I thought of it! Think of it as social production of tourist memories…

*My favorite Wikipedia criticism is surely Karen Schneider’s, best expressed with reference to Orson Scott Card’s page: 

“But if you read this blog you know I have written that Wikipedia often seems more like a Secret Treehouse Club than everyone’s encyclopedia. Card’s Wikipedia page isn’t a biography, it’s an encomium by true believers who maintain fierce control over Card’s myth.”

Labels: Alexandria Egypt, Social Cataloging, Wikimania 2008, Wikimania2008


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