Wikipedia as a global memory place

February 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

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

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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

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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...

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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.

(Empirical) collective memories

December 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

Couverture du livre de Maurice Halbwachs, Les ...

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The term “collective memory” was introduced in the early century by Maurice Halbwachs. The key concept is that individual memory and identity are always mediated by some collectivity: for example, a family, a community or a social group. In other words, every step of the memory processes is embedded in the social environment and is influenced by social resources (Halbwachs 1950; Eyerman, 2001; Hirst & Manier, 2008).

Until now, collective memory has been traditionally investigated mainly by philosophers and sociologists. Psychologists have recently begun to study collective remembering in small groups (Hirst and Manier, 2008; Harris et al., 2008; Cuc et al., 2006; Ekeocha and Brennan, 2008),  but what seems to be missing in this research field is a connection between the micro and the macro processes of collective memory building. Indeed, even if some scholars argued that the relationship between individual and collective memory can be examined empirically (Wertsch, 2002; Hirst & Manier, 2008), most of the laboratory-based research carried on so far on memory has tried to understand memory as a context-free and isolated psychological process (Pennebaker and Banasik, 1997).