Ep 4 | Jun 13, 2019


Jake Orlowitz on “Decolonizing the Internet as a Reparative Movement

Kira Allmann: Yeah so if you wouldn’t mind introducing yourself and why you’re here?

Jake Orlowitz: So my name is Jake Orlowitz. I work for the Wikimedia Foundation, which is the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia, and I operate a program called the Wikipedia Library. It is a way to help our editors do research and expand the scope and coverage and quality of the content on Wikimedia projects. I’ve been a volunteer in the movement since 2007, and my journey to caring about decolonizing the internet, seeing that as something valuable, it began at the other end of the spectrum I think, which is thinking Wikipedia – because it was anonymous, and thinking that it was meritocratic, meant that it would be a utopia of sorts. And what I was attracted to, I learned over time, is the cause of some of its greatest biases. So the, um, counter-side to being anonymous is that there is a lot of harassment. There is abusive language, there’s a number of conversational dynamics that are very unwelcoming to people who are – who don’t enjoy conflict, or who are often the subject of personal attacks, especially attacks based on their gender or their ethnicity, their religion, and so Wikipedia is a very robust place of debate but it’s also a place where people are vulnerable. And when people come to Wikipedia, they are often idealistically thinking that this is a place where I can share my knowledge, and what they find, very often, too often, is that even though Wikipedia’s the encyclopedia that anyone can edit, that effectively they are not welcome.

It’s not always intentional. Sometimes it’s just because as any community develops, it builds an insider language, kind of jargon. It has its own technologies and policies and Wikimedia, Wikipedia, is like that. It can take years to really master the site. The downside of that, of course, is you lose people who don’t have this massive chunk of free time. There’s kind of a saying that Wikimedia is really a middle-class hobby, and middle class mostly in terms of what that means for Europe and North America. So the very nature of having hours to spend on a debate about whether or not there should be a hyphen in a title of an article – actual debates we’ve had – when you look at it in the scope of what many people are challenged to deal with, the competition for making a living wage, taking care of their families, their health, water, sanitation, things that some parts of the world get to take for granted, other parts of the world, it’s a daily struggle. For some, Wikipedia is a hobby, and for others it’s really a luxury. And yet for the average citizen coming online to the internet today, Wikipedia is neither a hobby nor a luxury, it’s an absolutely essential source of information.

So I’ve learned to see Wikimedia as vital part of the open culture of the internet, but also one that is struggling with the same challenges of inclusion and of harassment as Twitter or Reddit, you know, these idealistic communities that produce a tremendous amount of content, but when you look closely, it’s not a representative sample of the world producing that content. And if you look more closely, it’s consistently white men from the global North who do well in those communities and often don’t see a problem because they see what is produced, or they think ‘ok there is a problem, but it’s not me – I’m not part of that’, and I think my role in decolonizing the internet is using effectively my privilege as a white man from the global North who understands communities like Wikipedia to raise awareness and to push the window towards thinking that what we have is great, what we’ve built is amazing, and yet it’s still broken. And in order to fix that, it takes this alliance between the folks who were kind of born native, privileged into the system, and the folks who have been excluded on the margins of that system, and yet who carry so much knowledge that I can admit I don’t even know what we’re missing, but I know – I just have this growing, gnawing feeling that we are missing so much and that we can’t rest on our laurels, we can’t say ‘oh, it’s the fifth largest website, and we built it ourselves’, you know, there’s huge, huge chunks of languages, of cultures, of regions, demographics, that are missing and are excluded.

We often take a kind of attitude on Wikipedia like, ‘well, whoever shows up, that’s what you get.’ And that’s not good enough. It has to be more like – our mission is to represent and to share the sum of all human knowledge. Who shows up – first of all, that’s a question you need to interrogate. Why is it that some people showed up and some didn’t? Why is it that some stayed and others left? And ultimately, you know, Wikipedians, they care, they care about the freedom of their community, but they also care about quality and they care about comprehensiveness of coverage.

If we are to take our mission seriously, we have to look outside of what comes naturally to us based on our demographics. We have to ask harder questions about – not just who made Wikipedia, but who didn’t. Who’s been excluded? Who’s been pushed to the margins? And how we fix that?

There’s been an understanding or at least a meme initially that Wikipedia had a problem with systemic bias. This has been known for about a decade. But that’s, like, the first step – is just acknowledging that there is some systemic problem. Of course, as lots of activists know, systemic problems are very difficult to fix because there’s not a single actor that’s responsible for them. And what I love about decolonizing the internet is that it takes a, kind of, collective activist approach – that if you’re gonna change these systems, you need people from all different walks, all different sectors, you know, all different races and colors, and whether artists or technologists, scholars, or librarians, or anyone who has a unique angle – and not just to bring people together because they’re different but because of a fundamental belief that you actually need that diversity of skills and perspectives in order to move things.

And that’s an attitude that some who are, kind of, born Wikipedians might initially say ‘well, no no. we’re all capable of objectivity. We don’t need perfect diversity in order to come up with neutral content’, but what we find in the scientific studies of Wikipedia articles is actually that the ones that are the most neutral are the ones that are most contested. Because when you have people pushing from a variety of sides, the analogy is – the pole stands upright. Not because someone put it straight in the ground but because everyone is pushing from all sides.

And in decolonizing the internet as a conference, and I think as a budding movement, there’s this sense that we are trying to get this flag pole to stand up straight. And it takes all the different varieties and roles of people to do that. And of course we’re not in conflict – we’re coming together intentionally to collaborate, and that’s a beautiful thing. And I think that this is a model that can be replicated and applied to lots of communities on the internet and if we increasingly, or as we increasingly live our lives on the internet, you know, that flag pole is us – it’s our future, our knowledge, our culture, our destiny – and, like, right now, it’s slanted and broken. And so I view decolonizing the internet as a reparative movement in the sense of fixing a problem but also in the sense of healing a lot of damages that have already been replicated in the online world from a world that is rife with inequity and oppression and abuse and harms. It’s tragic to me that the optimism – the techno-utopianism – you know, of silicon valley and the early tech adopters – that if you look at what silicon valley has become now, it’s not about freedom of communication. It’s about who has the largest IPO. So there needs to be a counterweight to the way the internet is heading now. The internet is not just Facebook and Google and Amazon and Twitter. It can’t be. And yet it’s becoming that because everyone else who cares, everyone else who is affected, hasn’t had a kind of central, magnetizing force to oppose. And not just oppose, as in to criticize, but in to create and model an alternative online world. In order to do it online, we have to organize offline. And if we can do it online, I think it speaks well to our ability to live that way and to create a different model of interacting and relating outside the confines of the internet and in our actual communities and cities and nations.

Kira Allmann: Wow you did all my work for me – I didn’t even have to ask you any follow-up questions. That was so easy…

Jake Orlowitz: I’m a spokesperson for the program that I run, and I often represent the Wikimedia Foundation at other events, and it’s nice here, it’s a change of pace, it’s a challenge, but it’s nice to bring more of my ears than my mouth – to listen and to see what I can absorb and take away rather than what I can put out and influence.

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