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Ilya Utekhin

Though Ilya Utekhin became a Wikipedian only in more recent years, the St. Petersburg-based university lecturer has lived the ethos of community and sharing all his life.

Utekhin was born into communal living and came of age at a time in the Soviet Union when people could not buy Western rock music in stores. Rock music was considered underground culture then, and Utekhin was among a community of Russians who exchanged their records with each other, using cassette and tape recorders to record the music. At the time, counterculture was spread by samizdat, or self-publishing.

“The political dissidents published underground journals [using] typing machines,” Utekhin said. “Parallel to that … the recordings on cassettes were a part of the free exchange. There was no notion of copyright, because it was much more important to spread the word.”

Utekhin first became involved with Wikipedia when he came across an inaccurate entry about the rock band to which he belonged as a 14-year old. Since then, he has contributed to entries about everyday life in the Soviet Union, including life in Soviet communal apartments, an experience that has colored his outlook and influenced the course of his profession. Following his undergraduate degree in linguistics, Utekhin pursued graduate studies in anthropology, though he was unclear about his focus area. As he observed communal living behavior and sought to deconstruct it, he became interested in describing everyday social reality, decoding the structures behind how people behave, including how they communicate. Eventually, his studies blended anthropology with sociology and cognitive science. “At some point I found the topic – and that was everyday life, which is difficult to imagine as an object of scientific research, but, you know, I was born in so-called communal apartments.”

One of Utekhin’s Wikipedia entries in Russian is for an esoteric subject called affordances, which refers to the perceived properties of an object that allow people to perform an action. Today, the concept of affordance is widely applied to usability design (for instance, a computer mouse affords not only grasping it, but also pointing on the screen with a cursor). At the time he made his entry, Utekhin was teaching a class about the anthropology of computing that explored the design and evolution of computer technology and how people interact with the technology to make it integral to their lives. When Utekhin saw there was no Russian entry about affordances, he changed that.

Today, Wikipedia plays a no less palpable role in Utekhin’s academic life. When his students ask him what they ought to write in an exam, his response is: what would you write for a Wikipedia entry?

“I tell them to use Wikipedia as a model for their answer,” Utekhin said. “So to some extent, the ability to create a Wikipedia entry is a criterion of knowledge, of a successful education.”

Additionally, the courses Utekhin teaches are posted online, with links to Wikipedia articles. He is unfazed that anyone can contribute to them, confident that the entries he’s linking to are validated by knowledgeable contributors. He says these articles include credible sources for anyone who wants to dig deeper, including cross links to bibliographies and further readings. Sometimes these resources point to servers maintained by universities which are not accessible to the public, suggesting that academics are contributing to them too.

“Wikipedia is collective intelligence, and low quality materials cannot be there for a long time. Because the more people use it, the more people who know something about the topics in question see those articles,” Utekhin argues. “Wikipedia is so great an endeavor … that embodies the spirit of this new stage of our human civilization. You have on the Internet something which is part of your everyday life: You can touch it, you can contribute to it, either by writing or just donating.”

For someone who has done both for Wikipedia and who studies everyday life behaviors, this statement couldn’t ring more true.

Profile by Rita Chang, Wikimedia Foundation Communications volunteer
Interview by Victor Grigas, Wikimedia Foundation Storyteller