Wikipedia has become practically the only source of historical knowledge for a huge number of people around the world. Ekaterina Zadirko, a graduate of “the History of Soviet Civilization” program, explains, using the example of the pre-war Stalin era, how the historical narrative on Wikipedia is formed, and how the average reader takes part in this.
Wikipedia as a field of humanitarian research
Research in line with WikipediaStudies appeared in the middle of the 2000s, shortly after the creation of Wikipedia itself, when it became clear that the platform was unique not only technologically, but also epistemologically. Now it is a large an interdisciplinary field, in which sociologists, conflictologists, historians, IT specialists and those who are engaged in DigitalHumanities - digital humanitarian research work.
The reason for the rapid development of this direction is obvious: Wikipedia revolutionized the way we produce and consume knowledge, opened up new opportunities for studying how people interact with each other, how they enter into collaborations, resolve conflicts, work towards a common goal.
The success of Wikipedia came as a surprise to its creators: it was originally developed as a draft, as a backend for another project - Nupedia, an online encyclopedia written by experts. It was assumed that ordinary users would write amateur articles on Wikipedia, and professionals would create authorized expert texts for Nupedia from them.
Wikipedia has revolutionized the way we produce and consume knowledge, opened up new opportunities for studying how people interact with each other, resolve conflicts, work towards a common goal.
However, in the first year of its existence, Nupedia consisted of only 12 articles, while Wikipedia consisted of more than 1000. The professional encyclopedia simply turned out to be unnecessary and in 2003 it ceased to exist.
The main phenomenon of Wikipedia - in contrast to thematic communities in social networks and forums - is that people create an information product in a coordinated manner. And all the disagreements and conflicts that arise in the process also serve this purpose. One might expect that nothing will work out, the participants will endlessly argue with each other, but the "free encyclopedia" was able to refute this pessimistic view of human nature.
A particular treat for a researcher at WikipediaStudies is that the platform is a space with laboratory conditions offering data ready-made on a silver platter. You can view the history of all edits: when, at what time, who made a particular edit, how much it weighs in bytes. You can see the version of the page that was relevant at the time of this change. You can compare any versions of the page you choose and see their differences - they will be marked with special markup.
There is a special page with statistics, which shows the average number of edits per day, month, year, and lists all the participants who edited the article. All quantitative data can be easily pulled out without resorting to the help of special programs and without manually calculating them.
What is historiographic narrative?
The past objectively existed, but we have no direct access to it - we can only be content with reconstructions of this past. Historiographic narratives offer us such a coherent understanding of historical phenomena, processes, or personalities.
For example, what the Great French Revolution is. Or what World War II is. Different historiographic narratives give different views of these events, sometimes contradictory. But each of them strives for internal consistency, for the expression of a certain point of view.
I was interested to find out how such narratives are formed (and whether they are formed at all) in Wikipedia articles, which are created by a potentially unlimited number of authors who did not agree in advance on a single vision.
To clearly show how this happens and what role the specific mechanisms of Wikipedia play here, I needed a historical period on which there is no public consensus or influential interpretation that can be imposed even before any controversy begins, as in the case, for example, with the Great Patriotic War.
If there is no powerful ideological construct that can be appealed to as a kind of common sense, the participants have to reflect more on their position, discuss with each other, construct their position based on several sources, reading documents, reading secondary literature, etc. The result is a wide range of different positions - from radical Stalinists, although they were in the minority, to militant anti-Stalinists.
That is why I chose the pre-war Stalin era, 1928-1941.
It never happens that there is only one historical narrative. It's just on the official agenda the victory in the Great Patriotic War is an important national symbol, emotional glue that should hold us together. What do the citizens of the Russian Federation have in history that the overwhelming majority would agree with? Apparently they do not have very much. And the victory in the Great Patriotic War is a successful project to create such a unifying narrative, to which almost everyone is involved, one way or another.
However, Wikipedia instructs authors not to express their own point of view, but to collect and retell all opinions that can be considered authoritative. This requires high responsibility both from those who write (they must select and correctly retell authoritative sources), and from the reader, who must carry out his own work of thought - reflecting the similarities and differences of the proposed positions and form his own idea of a fragment of the past.
Actually, we have to be trained a lot to be the “perfect reader of Wikipedia”. But this, of course, does not happen. In reality, the representation of a historical event or era on Wikipedia depends on several factors.
What does a historiographic narrative consist of on Wikipedia?
First - the activity of the participants working on the article. It is very often that which position will prevail in a Wikipedia article depends not on who is right, but on who is more persistent! Who continues to write in the article, edit it and fend off opponents on the discussion page, regardless of his views, selection of sources, style, and in general the ability to write a good article.
People often just get tired and leave the battlefield, leaving it to the one who has proved to be more resilient. The Polish researcher Dariush Yemelnyak has a chapter Why die for Danzig? in his monograph about Wikipedia. He examines the "war of edits" in the title of an English-language Wikipedia article about the corresponding city in it. The article ends up being called “Gdansk,” not “Danzig,” simply because those who insisted on Gdansk were more persistent in this controversy.
Which position will prevail in a Wikipedia article does not depend on who is right, but on who is more persistent!
Secondly, Wikipedia differs from all other platforms for public discussion in that the "middle ground" prevails here - participants try to adhere to the conditionally main line so as not to be caught in specific Wikipedia sins: violation of neutrality, original research, and others. For example, the notorious radical Stalinists, who are louder or brightest in declaring their position, are pushed to the periphery of the discussion on Wikipedia.
The third is the sources with which the authors support their position with, and how other participants evaluate these sources. In general, everyone is guided by academic standards, but they often take formal requirements too literally, trying to avoid the reproach of bias. In the Wikipedia corpus that I researched, controversy often arose around articles on the Stalin repression - the credibility of some of them could be questioned, for example, because the author was a philologist, not a historian.
Finally, the dynamics of communication between the participants plays a decisive role. What kind of team is formed in the work on the article, is the Wikipedia administrator involved in this work - a person who has the right to prohibit them from editing the article, send people to the ban and freeze the article in a consensus state. If a "war of edits" unfolds and it becomes clear that the article is falling apart, the administrator can freeze it at one of the previous stages of editing until the participants agree among themselves. Sometimes this turns out to be very effective.
Now the editing rules have become stricter - the rule of three rollbacks applies: you cannot delete or insert the same fragment (make the same edit) more than 3 times. Plus, pre-moderation appeared, when participants make their own edits, but they are not displayed to the user until the administrator has checked them and found signs of, say, vandalism.
Narrative techniques of Wikipedia on the example of articles about the Stalin era
I selected several representative, in my opinion, articles devoted to the pre-war Stalin era - "Collectivization in the USSR", "Industrialization in the USSR", "Dekulakization", "First Five-Year Plan" - and analyzed how they evolved. They were created during the heyday of Wikipedia, most of them - in 2006-2007. I looked at the very first version and tracked its development until the moment when a stable narrative skeleton of the article emerged. In addition, I analyzed the discussions on the discussion pages, where the participants had a real historiographical debate about how to approach the choice of sources, how to write to make the article easy to read, how to remain neutral.
I deliberately limited my focus - it is clear that not all changes that are made to the article relate to its narrative structure. They can be stylistic, not discursive - pictures, sources can be added, bibliography can be edited.
It turned out that not all authors are responsible for narrativization, but a narrow circle of those most interested. They form a narrative that offers a relatively consistent understanding of the phenomenon that the article is about. This contradicts Wikipedia's position on pluralism, but it confirms the stability of the narrative as a form of historical knowledge.
Not all authors are responsible for narrativization, but a narrow circle of those most interested. They form a narrative that offers a relatively consistent understanding of the phenomenon that the article is about.
There are also cases when alternative points of view on some phenomenon compete in an article - for example, it is seen in the article "Industrialization in the USSR". It was almost entirely written by a contributor who understood industrialization as a success. At the same time, it contained the beginnings of the opposite position, which was represented by another participant who worked in parallel with the first, but less actively. The alternative position was originally placed in the section "Criticism of industrialization", but today the section has grown so much that it is not a criticism, but an exposition of an alternative position, refuting on all points what is written in the main part of the article "The course of industrialization".
A holistic narrative did not happen. There were no third participants who would rewrite the article so that one of the positions obviously prevails, or it would be clear that these are two positions that should be stated from some meta-point of view.
However, sometimes articles manage to get closer to the "ideal" state, when conflicting positions seem to be placed in different corners - and for each of them the participants find supporting sources. Then the article becomes more structured, as we see that different points of view have external sources, bringing it closer to the ideal construct (a simple set of different points of view).
An example of such a successful collaboration, to my surprise, is the article "Stalin's repressions." It has a gigantic train of reasoning with a lot of conflicts, but in the end it is a detailed enumeration of views on repression, and quite representative from the point of view of historical science. There we see an absolutely photographic presentation: how many people, when, by what order, etc.
The thing is that point changes to the article are regularly made by a large number of participants, and this did not allow the formation of a unified narrative, although initially the article tended to unequivocally condemn repression as senseless violence.
How are Wikipedia's narrative techniques and school history books related?
The simplest way to construct a historical narrative is chronological: this was at first, this was later. The more complex one is causal: first this one said, and then the other went, because, etc.
There is a synthetic structure of a history textbook, where the reasons for this or that historical phenomenon are given at the beginning, the results - at the end, and between them its sequential description with dates and personalities. This is the standard preparation for the 10th grade history test. Very stable, very comfortable.
And it seems to me that the authors of Wikipedia transfer this way of dividing a historical phenomenon into writing articles. Because it allows them to initially figure out what to write, in what order. If in the very first versions of articles the authors choose the path of free essay writing, their text is almost always reworked or completely deleted. And it is never saved in the form of a long monologue statement - very quickly sections appear that facilitate collective writing.
That is, a person comes and “Ok, the Reasons section is not filled! I know what to write here." Or "I see that the results are presented in a confused way, it is not clear - I can correct it." Or he knows another reason, another outcome. It structures your letter and removes the fear of a blank slate.
The Dutch philosopher Frank Ankersmit, whose methodology I refer to in my work, divides the historical narrative into 2 levels. The first is the level of simple statements, which in themselves can be true or false. The second is the metaphorical dimension, the general meaning of the narrative, which is not a simple sum of the meanings of the statements included in it, but manifests itself only in their connection with each other. It cannot be judged as true or false - only as convincing or unconvincing.
Let's say the statement “Napoleon became the emperor of France” is in itself true. But it can be integrated into different narratives. “Napoleon became the emperor of France. France has imposed its political will on the whole Europe”- this is one narrative. And “Napoleon became the emperor of France. And France turned out to be doomed” is quite different. This is what Ankersmit is talking about: the same statement in combination with different ones takes on different meanings. Ankersmit calls this new meaning a narrative direction: towards which understanding do all these statements point, to which image of the past they lead you.
The statement "Napoleon became emperor of France" is true in itself. But it can be integrated into different narratives. “Napoleon became the emperor of France. France has imposed its political will on the whole Europe”- this is one narrative. And “Napoleon became the emperor of France. And France was doomed" is completely different.
The trick is that we have a set of statements and facts that we agree with, they relate to specific actions or dates. But our historical knowledge is born only with a narrative structure - events in history do not have it. Here we have an authoritative school textbook narrative. If we do not reflect on it, it seems to us that we learned from the textbook how it really was. But this narrative was also written by someone! He gave events a certain structure that they did not have. Thus, according to Ankersmit, we perceive the pictures of the past, and not the past itself, no matter how much we would like to think otherwise.
Pictures can be different; they compete with each other - both in different school textbooks and in different historiographic works. On the one hand, we want our narrative to be evidence-based, so that it does not contain lies. On the other hand, we want a person to have a holistic picture of how the past described by us looked like after reading the narrative. And here Ankersmit says: in order to a narrative to be successful, convincing, its metaphorical dimension must be strong enough. So the picture should be bright, capture the imagination captive.
However, the historian is at risk here. The more this metaphorical dimension is, the more meaning that is not contained in single statements, but arises only when they are combined, the more difficult it is to prove the actual accuracy of what we are talking about.
Ankersmit argues that each historian chooses his own degree of risk: how vivid, emotionally compelling picture of the past he is ready to offer. It seems to me that this analytical construction explains well why some controversial, scientifically contradictory theories become popular. In any science there are charismatic theories that capture the minds and “explain everything” - they finally open our eyes to how everything works. But Wikipedia explicitly forbids its authors to develop such vivid convincing pictures of the past - it orders them to engage in collecting other people's paintings, pointing to other people's interpretations.
Here we come to the general problem of the humanities: any research in this field contains more than a simple set of facts. A set of facts is not yet a holistic understanding of the phenomenon: with their help we cannot answer the question "What is this?" or "What does this mean?" In history, sociology, anthropology, without a subjective point of view, there is no knowledge at all.
Wikipedia prohibits its authors from developing such vivid convincing pictures of the past - it instructs them to engage in collecting other people's paintings, pointing to other people's interpretations
An additional complication lies in the fact that in narrative writing, the subjective point of view cannot be excluded - simply because the narrative implies the point of view from which the narrative comes, it cannot be otherwise! It turns out that for an article on Wikipedia to be successful, it must become a set of single statements arranged in a digestible order. But people tend to organize their knowledge as a narrative - this is one of the main forms of conceptualizing human experience. Therefore, Wikipedia cannot come close to its ideal - it still contains narratives.
This is one of the main conclusions of my work, which allows us to make an appeal to the Ankersmit method. The problem of this discourse, the semantic tension within Wikipedia is that, on the one hand, it wants to be a narrative that is interesting to read, and on the other hand, it wants to get rid of everything that makes such a narrative interesting.