By Dydimus Zengenene
Online knowledge production in digital platforms is often associated with such values as freedom, neutrality and openness which resonate with the democratisation potential of the internet, the enthusiasm in user generated content and amateur expertise(Osman 2014). The basic assumption is that everyone (‘all’) can contribute to the utopian capture and availability of the sum of ‘all’ knowledge. Because of the decentralised participatory architecture of the internet, it is even argued that the traditional knowledge authorities and hierarchies are under threat (König 2013), courtesy of the power of everyone (‘all’). However, from the perspective of social inclusion, the practices on the internet lead to questions over the ‘allness’ of that which is captured and the ‘allness’ of who contributes. Apparently, in parallel to the democratisation potential the internet is characterised by elements of exclusion on the basis of such factors as gender, age, priviledge, interests and social circumstances. This strengthens the argument by scholars that territories (socially produced spaces with certain rules for exclusion and inclusion) do not vanish or become less significant through the expansion of the networked media and increasingly ephemeral flows of capital and information. (Wilken 2012)
One of key cases of exclusion is the non participation of some social groups in open platforms like Wikipedia. Despite a widespread outcry, the participation of women in Wikipedia is still comparatively low and the way women are portrayed differs from the way men are portrayed.. (Anon 2013; Bear and Collier 2016; Wagner et al. 2015). In a study of Wikipedia non-participant students, perceptions of female students participating in Wikipedia have been found to be marred with lack of confidence, negative image of the Wikipedia content exacerbated by the schools and college systems which advocate against the use of Wikipedia articles as trusted sources of knowledge. It has been suggested that the social environment and subjective norms act as barriers to their participation in Wikipedia editing. Non-participation of the underrepresented is also attributed to lack of expert knowledge in disciplines of interest and to the complexity of rules which govern participation (Kim 2013). There seems to be a steep learning curve to full participation and a plethora of barriers. Therefore, free and voluntary contribution of knowledge online is evidently a hobby and a preserve for a group of people of certain qualities and interests, not all. Participations are often ‘middle aged men with some profession’ even if they do not necessarily contribute in their area of profession (Dobusch 2013; Shen 2012). Knowledge and opinions of women and girls can arguably be regarded as less documented in open online environments. The same can be said about people with disabilities who use the Internet and related technologies at levels way lower than the rest of the population (Wilken 2012), the politically incorrect (as defined by some actors) as well as the underprivileged.
The tendency to refer to these contributors as ‘online communities’ shows our acknowledgement of the existence of various boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. These are characterised by a) groups of contributors to a specific subject and topic of interest, b) contributors with specific roles (unregistered users, new users, auto-confirmed users, administrators, and bureaucrats in the case of Wikipedia), as well as c) contributors of specific languages and d) geographic backgrounds. Such boundaries comprise elements of inclusion and exclusion some of which are defined by the corporate world (institutions), some by the community and some by affordances of technology.
A mere count of articles on Wikipedia shows that some languages are better represented than others and some do not even exist in the free encyclopaedia. That imbalance can be viewed
as a symptom of systematic exclusion of knowledge and cultures of those that can’t speak the dominant languages of a given platform. This raises questions about cultural inclusiveness of the internet and open digital social space as a whole. Such gaps in representation are also gaps on what will be documented and remembered by future generations.
The platforms themselves offer possibilities to group around various topics and subjects of interests, options to invite others, options to block them, options to regulate behaviour of others and options to report them elsewhere. In platforms such as Wikipedia, new communities of administrators have emerged to regulate both content and other participants. Such communities have come up with complex rules and regulations which some potential participants view as restrictive.(Jemielniak 2014). Even if the intentions are undoubtedly often benevolent the ultimate effect is the creation of boundaries of who participates and who does not.
Who sets these boundaries?. Recent developments in the U.S saw the former president being suspended from major social media platforms by Apple, Facebook, Twitter and other major technology companies. This raises questions about the power of the private sector to include and exclude actors in the digital realm. While President Trump himself complained that his freedom of speech was under threat, the companies argued that his participation on these platforms constituted a threat to the U.S national security. The same can be said of many other countries that have shut down the internet or censored online content in the name of national security. A key question is, who makes such paramount decisions to include and exclude others? While politicians have been at the forefront in most circumstances, the U.S case illustrates the potency of the hand of the corporate sector in the governance of the internet as a social space and the extent of its democratizing potential in the determination of who participates, what should be contributed and ultimately what can be captured and remembered.
There is not much doubt that the internet and the available platforms within, have been both liberating tools that provide increased access to information and increased connectivities as well as creators of new or additional barriers to accessing information and the benefits of an information society (Stienstra, Watzke, and Birch 2007). This implies that the excluded in access to the internet and its services are equally excluded in contemporary knowledge production and sharing.
In conclusion, even if the internet supported participatory knowledge production is purported to be democratic and socially inclusive, several factors make it unintentionally exclusive. Though it claims participation for all, it still remains the ‘all’ for some and not for many others in defined circumstances. Boundaries of participation have been redefined but not abolished. Critical inquiry into these new boundaries, what happens within and outside them, how they form and re-form is paramount to envisioning the future of culture and knowledge in the placelessness of the online environment and as mediated by the internet.
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