10 July 2006

A history of wikiphobia in Sydney

Worrying about the subversive potential of Wiki has long preoccupied The Project. The message has been publicly enforced for over a year now: "We will decided what is Sydney's history, and the manner in which it is written" is a Project subtext.

Before the launch of The Project the message was clarified. It was firstly market tested in small community newspapers, apparently with no negative reaction from local historians:
City Weekly 30 June 2005 Tap into history
"Members of the public will ... be able to submit suggestions for the dictionary which will be reviewed by the board."

Sydney Central 6 July 2005 Sydney'’s defining tales
"It's going to take years", Dr Fitzgerald said "We've already commissioned about 600 articles and that's just the start". ... The Project ... will rely on input from local historical societies and libraries.
...a number of cities across the globe have been working on compiling their history in similar ways. .. The ability to add to the resource so it reflects the City as it changes is, according to Dr Fitzgerald, one of the strengths of presenting the information online."

Then it was into a 'big' newspaper, with national circulation amongst Australia's commercial sector and business elite:

Australian Financial Review 30 August 2005 Work begins on online Sydney dictionary
"Work has begun on a dictionary of Sydney that will be similar to Wikipedia online encyclopaedia.
Hundreds of historians, academics and institutions are expected to contribute entries.
It will be web-based but could also spin off various hard and soft-copy publications.
The use of web technology means there is no limit to the size of the dictionary. The English version of Wikipedia the online encyclopaedia that began in 2001, boasts more than 700,000 entries. But unlike Wikipedia, contributors to the Dictionary of Sydney will be by invitation only - although members of the public will be able to submit suggestions."

After the launch the media remained on message, with once again the minnows swallowing the hook without question:

MX 7 June 2006 Digi-Sydney launch near
"It [the dictionary] will be compiled by experts from the University of Sydney with the help of the City of Sydney Council."

Inner City Courier 13 June 06 Sydney'’s new centre point of reference "The university's Professor Stephen Garton and City of Sydney historian Dr Shirley Fitzgerald will lead hundred of researchers, who will be contributing to the project. ... She said all contributions will be read and considered for inclusion on the site but she is "not promising to publish everything"

The main state-wide 'quality' broadsheet then also followed the authorised line:

Sydney Morning Herald 14 June 2006 Tale of one city - interactive and online "There will be something on every suburb"” said Dr Shirley Fitzgerald, the City of Sydney council historian who is helping to co-ordinate the mammoth project. "You never know what stories people are going to come up with"”.
The dictionary may be similar to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, for which hundreds of people contribute information each day.
Members of the public will be encouraged to submit suggestions, but they will have to convince a panel of historians that their story is accurate before it is included.
"There are a heap of people who want to get their information about Sydney from the internet, not from books - it'’s not going to replace books of course" Ms Fitzgerald said.
"Because it is online, there are no size limits, and the thing can just keep growing."
Professor Stephen Garton, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and actively involved in the project, said the concept of producing an interactive city history in online form was a world first. "“It will be unusual or unique in terms of city histories" Professor Garton said."

Notice the threads running through these media stories: ordinary folk can provide 'suggestions'’, but topic selection and writing will be managed by invited experts (their authentic version of history will be followed); it won'’t publish everything received, you never know what people will come up with (stories that don'’t fit the line will be repressed); the online format offers wonderful new opportunities to continually grow and expand the dictionary (by a linking of databases - nothing will escape its purview); it is not going to replace books (don'’t scare the commercial publishing industry to which too many academic historians remain tied). It is not a wiki (the media still seem to be having trouble getting this message).

Perhaps the most telling of these quotes is from the post-launch SMH article: "Members of the public will ... have to convince a panel of historians that their story is accurate"”. Apparently, a bench of magisterial historians will be deciding what is Sydney's history and what is not. And like all judges, they are unelected and on the public payroll. Necessary, of course, for real independent and impartial judges of law, but a dangerous path for historians to tread. "Authentication" may be their mantra, but who authenticates the authenticators and their authentications?

The uncritical acceptance of these messages by Sydney's media is evident in their headlines: 'tap, tales, digi, interactive, online' - its all so whizz-bang, not dull old boring history stuff; 'new centre point' suggests the Centrepoint Tower and one of its analogues the hypodermic syringe, alluding to the soporific escapism of well-massaged 'information'; while 'tales of one city' unmistakably suggests that other city where violent retribution awaits those who fail to conform to the new regime.

Wikiphobia is being used to ensure that the dictionary will not be a democratic exploration of Sydney's many histories, but an overwhelming and ongoing (re)statement of a particular view of Sydney's history and its future. Let's hope that independent publishers (paper and online) do survive - they may be the only source of dictionary-free history in the Sydney of the future.

09 July 2006

Wiki Worries

The Project has been at some pains to explain that it is not a wikipedia, or anything to do with any wiki thing. Why? Is it really a matter of quality control, or just that control matters?

In e-newsletter No 2, June 2005 The Project had to explain to some poor souls who had foolishly imagined it to be “a kind of ’wikipedia’ for Sydney” that “this is a long way from our aim of producing a site that is carefully researched and trusted by its users”.

Wikipedia has two main faults they said: information is not authenticated, and other people can alter your writing. By contrast, the Dictionary will only contain entries that have been edited (presumably something more than making sure it conforms to the house style), and entries will only be altered after a “further transparent editing process”. The trouble with this neat dichotomy is that it doesn’t actually relate to the real Wikipedia, but sets up a straw Wikipedia.

Entries often have a good selection of references and further reading that function as an ‘authentication’ process by explicitly acknowledging both sources of information and a context for understanding the information. Entries can be edited by other readers, but the whole editing process can be followed through the ‘discussion’ and ‘edit’ tabs. Editing processes are often accompanied by informative debates that reveal the biases of the various contributors, which allows the reader to make their own decisions about reliability and believability of the current entry. Sure, Wikipedia isn’t perfect, but it isn’t necessary to set up a straw wikipedia to defend The Project - or is it?

The Guidelines for Contributors take another shot at Wikipedia: the Project “is not just a collection of disparate entries, as in the 'wiki' tradition ... Part of the challenge of developing any entry is to be clear about what the relevant linked articles might be”. Again, a straw Wikipedia is set up. Links between Wikipedia entries, and to external sites, are a central element of the wiki structure, and form part of its organising principle. The links between entries are multilateral, with chronological links being just one of many different ways of linking. There is nothing random or disparate about the real Wikipedia (see Wikipedia ‘wiki’ entry).

The real difference between The Project and Wikipedia is this: Wiki allows the reader to use and develop their own critical skills as part of the reading experience ; which stands in stark contrast to The Project’s traditional reliance on the reader being a passive consumer of their ‘authenticated’ information churned out of a centrally controlled ‘editing process’. Wikipedia uses an evolving software that allows a single contributor to be reader, editor, critic and writer - to be actively involved, a participant in a global, cosmopolitan, collaborative writing exercise - it is the opposite of the dumbing-down implied by The Project.

While seeming to be developing a new approach, The Project is still thinking ‘book’, with editors producing a single, agreed-upon version that is printed on paper, and then remains the same forever. It is a database approach that actively avoids the potential in wiki software and provides a means to ensure entries conform to a particular agreed-upon view of Sydney's history (and future). The straw Wikipedia is central to maintaining the illusion of objective editors producing authentic historical information: it is the historical chaos that The Project valiantly keeps at bay.

The Project fears the omen that wiki is: it portends the demise of authorised versions of our history - as it should!

03 July 2006

Rhetorical or what?

“If it happened in Sydney, it belongs in the Dictionary” claims the Project. You would think that there needs to be some evidence that ‘it’ actually did happen if ‘it’ is to be subjected to the dictionary - but is that the case?

Take for example this extract from the most recent Project newsletter: "When the British got busy naming points and places around the settlement at Sydney Cove, they inscribed a nomenclature that ... paid homage to ... to His Majesty's cronies..."
‘What’s in a Name?’, Dictionary of Sydney Project, e-Newsletter June 2006 - also featured on ‘News & Updates’ page of Project website

No evidence is provided for this statement - either that George III had any cronies, or that any places were actually named in honour of these cronies. The writer of the piece distinguishes between cronies and ‘patrons, supporters, political officials, and themselves’. There are clearly particular people and place names in mind. Perhaps the Duke of Cumberland whose title forms the county name? If cronyism is an aspect of corrupt business practices, where is the evidence of the King engaging in corrupt commercial activities with a cohort of corrupt family members (the title being that of one of the King’s brothers, and later of one of his sons)? Considering that the 1780s had seen a gradual strengthening of parliamentary power over royal power, and that George III’s prophyry was entering its disabling stage by 1788, doesn’t this seem a little far-fetched?

While the article is generally a good introduction to the history of place naming in Sydney, the use of such rhetorical and unverified language is disconcerting, to say the least. The Project might say ‘it’s just a newsletter article, not a dictionary entry’, but does that excuse a lack of verification or fairness in a publicly-funded Project that purports to be historically accurate and reasoned? There is a certain irony in the Wikipedia (the Project’s nemesis) entry for one of the dukes of Cumberland: There is, however, little to no historical evidence that any of these events were more than rumor.

Old Government House at Windsor

'Historic Buildings' postcard series, published by James M Tyrell, Sydney c1910

Dictionary Quiz#1

Which of these statements about events at Windsor's Old Government House is correct? Cite your sources.

1. Mrs Meredith remarked that the frondeur at Government House was the best she had ever been served.
2. Captain Macarthur finally rejected the breeding of a frondeur flock after a heavy rum lunch at Government House.
3. Blaxland, Lawson & Wentworth were greatly frondeured after their official reception marquee at Government House.