I’m pleased to announce two new Community Fellows: Victoria Doronina and Maryana Pinchuk who are beginning an eight-week project to develop methods for writing histories of Wikimedia projects. The objective of this short project is to experiment in several directions toward developing a more in-depth plan for writing the histories of particular Wikipedias.

We found both Victoria and Maryana through the Community Department “open call.” Maryana is a PhD student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at Harvard University but is currently based in Berkeley, CA, and therefore will be working partly in the San Francisco Wikimedia Office.  In addition to literary history, she is interested in cultural studies and community formation, which were the subjects of her undergraduate honors thesis on the semiotics of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.  (Dr.) Victoria Doronina is a molecular biologist by training, located in the UK.  She is also an administrator and active editor of the Russian Wikipedia (User:Mstislavl).  Victoria is interested in communicating the practices and lessons of the Russian Wikipedia to other Wikipedia projects. Between them they read eight languages, which will enable them to compare many different Wikimedia projects.

Some attempts have been made to study Wikimedia history, but these studies have tended to focus on the English Wikipedia as their primary model, neglecting the individual historical evolution of other projects and the contextualization of all Wikimedia communities within a real-life geopolitical space.  In order to better understand the issues unique to each project community and to highlight solutions to common problems faced by many, it is necessary to begin experimenting with methods for researching and writing systematic comparative project histories — and make them available to the Wikimedia community at large.

Writing WikiHistory will require the development of new research methods that can grapple with the novel characteristics of wiki-based projects, which are the complex, somewhat chaotic product of anonymous contributors and prolific, highly public online figures alike.  Our Fellows will explore possible avenues for undertaking this kind of research, including the potential suitability of both off-wiki and in-wiki methods.  Some of the questions to be addressed in the primary stage of this project are:  How can the key players, events, and structural features in a Wikipedia be identified and incorporated into a historical narrative?  Is archival information enough to develop a full picture of the community’s history, or is it necessary to reach out to specific contributors?  Can wiki technology be used to create a collaborative Wikipedia history, or does synthesizing historical information and conducting original research contradict the principles of neutrality and verifiability that are fundamental to Wikipedia?  How can the results of these studies best be presented to the community, and what problems can (or can’t) they be expected address?

For this project, we are intentionally pairing a scientist with a literary historian, and a non-Wikimedian with a longtime Wikipedia contributor and functionary. Maryana’s familiarity with combing through archival records, and Victoria’s experience with scientific research methods both feel necessary for this project to succeed — as does Victoria’s intimacy with Wikimedia projects and Maryana’s outsider’s perspective.

Please wish them luck as they undertake this experiment. If you would like to offer help, please let them know in the comments below. They could use some additional support in picking through Wikipedia data dumps.

– Zack Exley, Community Department