North African protests

March 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Tahrir Square - February 8, 2011

On 17 December 2010 Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit vendor in the central town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire in front of a local municipal office. On 25 January 2011 Cairo was shocked by a series of protests against the government. In the following days, the protests quickly spread across the countries and finally led to the departure of the Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from the country on 14 January 2011, and to the resignation of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011. These happenings since their very beginning received an extensive mediatic attention. However, in addition to this they also triggered an intense activity on the related articles on the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia (see for example the articles “2011 Egyptian revolution” and “Tunisian revolution“).

Traumatic events like these are inherently shocking for the involved comunities and involve different layers of the social and cultural tissue. For these reasons they are deeply connected to the formation of the emergent collective memory and collective identity of these communities. The widespread diffusion of Web 2.0 services and technologies and the massive participation to social networking websites provide researchers with new opportunities to study the progressive formation of collective memories about these events since their very beginning.

In fact, since Wikipedia records every edit made to every pages by every user (registered or anonimous), it is now possible to study these memory building processes as they unfold an on a large scale, without going through laboratoy-based experiments and self-reports (which may be biased, especially when it comes to deeply traumatizing events like these).

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Commemoration in Wikipedia

February 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

If we consider Wikipedia’s articles and talk pages about traumatic events, we can find signs of commemoration during anniversaries, not only in the comments posted by users, but also in their edit activity.
These graphs show the number of edits in time to the articles about September 11 attacks, 7 July 2005 London bombings, and Chernobyl disaster. We can see that the edit activity visibly increased during some anniversaries of these traumatic events.
Edit activity to the September 11 attacks article on Wikipedia

Number of edits per month over time to the article on September 11 attacks

Edit activity to the 7 July London Bombings article on Wikipedia

Number of edits per month over time to the article on 7 July 2005 London bombings.

Edit activity to the Chernobyl disaster article on Wikipedia

Number of edits per month over time to the articles on Chernobyl disaster.

Grief and mourning comments during anniversaries

February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

In Memory of a Victim of September 11, 2001 te...

Image by Beverly & Pack via Flickr

If we consider Wikipedia as a place where memory is shaped (Pentzold, 2009), we can search for signs of commemoration in the articles and talk pages about traumatic events. For instance, these are some of the messages posted on 11 September 2006 (the fifth anniversary of the attacks) to the “September 11 attacks” talk page:

“Let us pray for the souls of the deceased instead of insulting their memory by not terming those who so cruelly killed thousands of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, as terrorists.” (11:08, 11 September 2006)

“Tonight in Australia is the 5 Year anniversary of the Sep 11 attacks. I lost my mum a few months before Sep 11 to cancer, and I know what grief is like. My prayers are with those who are related/friends with the dead of Sept 11.” (13:34, 11 September 2006)

“[…] my sympathy and prayers to those who mourn this day.” (14:08, 11 September 2006)

“Spare a thought for those whose lives were torn apart that day.” (14:39, 11 September 2006)

These comments represent grief and mourning, and they are meaningful pieces of collective memory building processes related to commemoration. It is also important to note that Wikipedia guidelines explicitly state that talk pages should be used to discuss improvements to the related article pages. However, when articles are about traumatic events that shock a community’s identity, we can find many signs of commemoration occurring around the anniversaries.

This video shows some pieces of comments posted during the fifth anniversary of September 11 attacks and during the first anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre (occurred on 16 April 2007) on the related talk pages.

Wikipedia as a global memory place

February 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Wikipedia is one of the first "user gener...

Image via Wikipedia

Christian Pentzold, in his article “Fixing the floating gap: The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia as a global memory place” (2009),  argued that the processes of article construction and discussions in Wikipedia can be seen as part of collective memory building. In particular, these processes can be seen as the passage from communicative memory (interactive, informal, non-specialized, reciprocal, disorganized and unstable) to cultural memory (formal, well organized and objective; Assmann, 1995).

From this point of view, we can see that memories in Wikipedia are formed through social interactions between users, and with the platform. In fact, technologies play a key role in shaping how memory is formed (see for example Bowker, 2005; Van House and Churchill, 2008; Garde-Hanse, Hoskins and Reading 2009).

In Wikipedia, there are a number of policies and guidelines which provide behavioral rules that influence the way articles are written and people interact. One of the most important is the “neutral point of view” (NPOV), which means that articles should be accurate, state verifiable information, provide authoritative references and be written proportionately and without biases. Moreover, since Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia, it doesn’t promote original research, advertising, personal opinions and memorials of deceased friends, acquaintances or relatives.

However, we can see that sometimes people make use of Wikipedia articles and talk pages also to express grief and mourning, making Wikipedia an interesting place for the study of memory building processes, possibly allowing for the first time the empirical study on a large scale of collective memory processes.

“[…] the online encyclopaedia is a global memory place where locally disconnected participants can express and debate divergent points of view and that this leads to the formation and ratification of shared knowledge that constitutes collective memory.” (Pentzold, 2009, p. 263)

What has been done

January 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Recently, several studies in the psychological field investigated collaborative recall in small groups (see for example Barnier et al., 2007; Barnier and Sutton, 2008; Cuc et al., 2006; Ekeocha and Brennan, 2008; Weldon and Bellinger, 1997), while others addressed flashbulb memories (Brown and Kulik, 1977; Conway, 1995; Winograd and Neisser, 1992).

In general, it can be argued that while psychologists have largely studied memory processes at the individual level (Harris et al. 2008), philosophers and sociologists have investigated collective memory on a global level, mainly referring to nations as communities.

In 1997, Pennebaker and Banasik argued that “in stark contrast to the assumptions of collective memory, most traditional laboratory-based memory research has attempted to understand memory as a context-free, isolated psychological process” (p. 4).

In general, a review of the state of the art on the study of collective memory highlights the need for empirical validations of the vast amount of theoretical research carried on so far.

Why Wikipedia

January 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Image representing Wikipedia as depicted in Cr...

Image via CrunchBase

Launched in 2001, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia built by the independent work of millions of people. Wikipedia articles can be edited directly on the website by anyone: registered or anonymous users.

Pentzold (2009) proposed that Wikipedia can be interpreted as a global memory place (Nora, 1996), where memory is formed through the discussion of different perspectives and points of view. For instance, this is true in the case of Wikipedia pages about traumatic events, such as the September 11 attacks or the 7 July 2005 London bombings.

Every Wikipedia article has a related talk page in which anyone can discuss the article content and structure, negotiate and suggest improvements or changes. Usually contributions are signed and this allows to associate every edit to the user who wrote it. In a non-registered users edits Wikipedia, she can be identified by the IP address of the computer used to connect to the platform.

The Mediawiki open source web platform which powers Wikipedia records any change made by any user to any article or talk page. In this way it is possible to keep track of the entire history of each user’s contributions. Every edit is recorded along with its date and time, the author and an optional comment.

At January 2011, the English Wikipedia counts more than 13 million users, almost 23 million pages and nearly 3,5 million articles. This huge amount of data by millions of users in different languages makes Wikipedia an interesting platform for the empirical study of social processes on a large scale. Thanks to the users participation to the platform, it is now possible to study collective memory processes from their beginning and in large population, overcoming some of the constraints posed by self-reports or by traditional laboratory-based research.

Collective memory of traumatic events in Wikipedia

December 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...

Image via Wikipedia

Cultural trauma research offer an interesing opportunity to study collective memory processes (Alexander, 2004). Unlike psychological trauma, cultural trauma affects a social group with some degree of cohesion, shaking the foundation of its collective identity, and is closely connected with the formation of its emergent collective memory and identity (Eyerman, 2001).

Neal (1998) and Sztompka (2000) pointed out the feature that an event should have to be potentially traumatizing. It should be a “volcano-like”, “extraordinary event” that causes “disruption” and “radical change … within a short period of time”.Moreover, it should be sudden, radical and deep, perceived as imposed from outside and as unexpected, surprising, shocking and repulsive. According to this characterization, a number of public events can be considered as potentially traumatizing: revolutions, genocides, deportations and ethnic cleansings, mass murders or assassinations of political leaders, acts of terrorism, lost wars.

Today, our life is meshed with digital technologies: we share online personal memories, photographs, videos, text messages, blogs, digital archives and storytelling. Through Web 2.0 and social networking sites (boyd & Ellison, 2007), we can produce and consume content (and memory). We interact publicly on platforms such as Facebook or MySpace, talking about our lives and sharing our thoughts and emotions; we upload family videos and photographs on YouTube and Flickr; and we can also collaboratively write the story of relevant public events such as September 11 attacks or 7 July 2005 London bombings on Wikipedia.