Heated debates following our Haaretz interview

On Tuesday, May 15th Yuval Saar, design reporter for Haaretz, published a lengthy interview with us about the Wikipedia Illustrated project. The article was first published in Hebrew and then translated and published in English on the Haaretz.com site.

The interview covers some of the themes we discuss through images in the blog and it goes especially into the suspicions raised by our peer illustrators, who are less excited about disappearing within the endless pages of Wikipedia.

To the surprise of some (not us) the comments quickly turned negative. This project is obviously seen as provocative to many who insist on an automatic rejection of the visual contribution idea. Some stated the need to keep illustrations technical, others went as far as warning us to stay off their Wikipedia… 🙂

Here are a few notable comments translated into English:

03 – No illustration and no nothing. Let Wikipedia be. It’s an important encyclopedia and as such it is not supposed to be entertaining or visually pleasing

If you want, you can make a Wikipedia for children (like there is a Jerusalem Post in light Hebrew for new immigrants), there you can put illustrations and Flash effects as far as you can imagine.

But leave this reservoir to people who don’t want to be distracted.

—Don’t touch my wiki

…

13 – The Illustrations themselves are beautiful

Though from the examples stated in the article it is not clear how much they fit as illustrations to an encyclopedic article, but in my opinion it is an interesting experiment to challenge the Wikipedian character and to offer it a more artistic extension. Maybe there’s room for “artistic impressions” under articles, maybe on a separate page (like the talk page) and maybe otherwise.

Maybe there’s room for things like that in Wikipedia and maybe not, one thing for sure, comments like the ones above (most of them, unfortunately), helps to make certain the fastened stiffening of Wikipedia and the closing of its community. Maybe it’s a good thing, I don’t know, but a mix of ideas and new approaches is mostly a useful thing for long term projects, so maybe also not.

Either way, one thing is for sure, Wikipedians don’t have a sense of humor, or a sense of art.

—Oded

…

15 – In my opinion this is a beautiful project

I don’t really understand the fuss in the comments – the analysis of the articles is artistic and associative – it’s a personal project and in my opinion the idea is charming and it’s actually very refreshing that the illustration is not one to one. The beauty of Wikipedia is that it’s a platform open to the public, and in that it is also open to artistic interpretation on the side of the article. It is clear and obvious that Wikipedia is an Encyclopedia that is written by the wide public and hence it would feature different types of expression of information and now also an illustrative analysis.

—Keren

There was more back and forth going on in the comments on the Hebrew version of the article which you can probably get some sense of through Google Translate. Overall, we’re very excited about the heated debate. It is after all exactly the conversation we want to have, and this interview was a great opportunity to start having it.

Another interesting effect of this exposure is that it seems some vigilante Wikipedia editors have decided to go on a crusade and remove each of our illustrations from Wikipedia. But on that we would follow on a separate post…

May 20th, 2012

Now Discuss:

10 Comments

  1. gershon May 21st, 12

    love your project and work.

    your link to the english Haaretz article is broken.

    live long and prosper,
    gershon

    • mushon May 21st, 12

      Thank you Gershon for the kind words and for alerting us to the broken link. All fixed now. 🙂

  2. Ron May 21st, 12

    Your project isn’t “provocative”. it is an interesting idea art-wise, but it is simply irrelevant and unsuitable for an encyclopedia. You can create your own personal encyclopedia which you can annotate and decorate to your heart’s desire (this is allowed by Wikipedia’s license so long as you allow others free usage of your creation), yet such illustrations have no place in a general encyclopedia. Your artistic interpretations are not factual representations of the articles’ subjects, so they simply don’t belong on Wikipedia.

    • mushon May 22nd, 12

      For what it’s worth, the project did “provoke” you to write this comment right after the end of our Pecha Kucha presentation. 🙂
      The art context of the event might be a bit misleading. Our intervention concerns the still limited perspective Wikipedia covers when it comes to public and collaborative knowledge gathering. We argue the left-brain kind of analytical knowledge tells only a partial story, and the right-brain non-linear thinking that involves image making (and image reading) is a constant blind spot for Wikipedia. Ours is a very initial attempt to address the questions. It is indeed considered by many as a provocation, as it attempts to surface this debate and start asking the tough questions Wikipedia has rightfully earned the luxury of asking.

      So yes, if you directly translate the guidelines for text into image making you would get what you have now, only old or mediocre imagery and only a few image makers interested in contributing to Wikipedia. The rules as to what images fit into Wikipedia are much more fuzzy than most people think. We want to start addressing them and hopefully change Wikipedia and its culture for the better.

    • Ron May 22nd, 12

      It seems you have some interest in the verb “provoke”. I saw your presentation in pecha kucha, yes, and yes, thought it was interesting (as opposed to clever or helpful), then read the links and thought I’d add my two cents here. If you prefer to think of this process as a provocation, fine.

      The right brain cannot, should not be part of encyclopedic creation. Generally, these should be neutral, factual and documentary, not creative. Wikipedia does not, nor should it, prepare artistic illustrations; the only images prepared are documentary: pictures of people/places/objects, diagrams and maps, etc.

      There is nothing old or mediocre about this approach – it is necessary to maintain encyclopedias which provide readers with fact, rather than impression and interpretation, i.e. fiction. There are no tough questions here, these are very basic qualities of wikipedia or any other encyclopedia. Have you ever tried to make a significant contribution to some wikipedia articles (and I mean the text…)? It usually doesn’t take one much time to realize that it is necessary to insist on verifiability, neutrality, factuality etc, – which your images can’t meet. “only a few image makers interested in contributing to Wikipedia” – are you quite sure this statement is factual, for example? Have you checked how many image makers contribute to wikipedia (in the ways described above, obviously — artistic illustrations are not contributions in wikipedia and similar projects)? If you check, I’ll think you’d be quite surprised at the number of image contributors, and the number of contributed images.

      You can make your own and add illustrations as you fit, using your wildest imagination if you so wish, just don’t attempt to call it an encyclopedia, because it isn’t.

      • mushon May 24th, 12

        So just to get this straight, as far as you’re concerned Wikipedia is getting visual contributions right, and everything is ok? If the answer is ‘no’, do you have any other idea of ways to change things for the better? We are going through the trouble of doing this, not as a way of saying “we got it right” but as a way to (yes) provoke this discussion and collaboratively addressing this ongoing blind spot.

        • Ron May 25th, 12

          Generally, wikipedia is getting things right – its success is proof of this. This holds true both for written content and to visuals. If you get the impression that many articles are still lacking visuals, you are likely correct. However, many articles also lack text, or are lacking in text quality. Wikipedia is not perfect and it is not complete – this is a known fact to all (I hope). But it is continues to improve. It still needs more articles to be written, it still need many articles to be improved, it still needs many more images uploaded. But not the illustrations you propose.

          I see you’ve not answered my question whether you’ve made a significant contribution to the written text of some wikipedia articles. Does this mean “no”?

          • mushon May 27th, 12

            Thanks Ron,
            I really appreciate your questions as they really help me put what we’re doing into words.

            There are simple examples of where an illustration makes an agreeable “significant contribution” such as in technical or scientific illustration. Such an example can be seen in the moustache styles illustrations we collaborated on for the Moustache article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moustache#Styles

            The thing is, technical illustrations including the moustache styles illustrations are following the same pattern of thought as text. They are predominantly left-brain literal descriptions of a visual representation. By that they might make an easily agreeable “significant contribution” as these have been defined by a rule set predominantly favoring the word, the literal, the left-brain type of knowledge over the image, the visual, the right-brain kind of knowledge.

            There is a statement in what we do, and that is that there is room for ambiguity in culture and in its documentation. This ambiguity has always been a part of culture and of knowledge construction, you can even see it in text within the pages of Wikipedia (in articles such as Bathroom Singing for example). The technocratic urge to disambiguate should be taken with a grain of salt. We do agree Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, it should be neutral, should strive for verifiability and accuracy. But we also think this does not necessarily contradict the use of illustrations. Take the illustration for Little Albert Experiment for example. There is some low quality video footage from the experiment’s documentation, it is unusable for Wikipedia because of licensing restrictions. The illustrative interpretation is obviously not a photographic one, but it serves the article well. The same can be said about the use of courtroom illustrations, they serve to visualize where photography cannot or should not be available. And while doing that they function on more than just the literal interpretation of written language.

            Finally, there’s the issue of Conceptual Blending (look it up ;)). Neuroscientists are discovering new and surprising things about how our brain works. The non-linear, multichanneled, often unfocused way of thinking is a huge part of what makes us do more than just simple cognition, it helps us analyze often critically the information in front of us. Images have a role in that, an illustration immediately flags itself as an ambassador of this type of thinking. Making an illustration less literal does not mean it is misleading or unhelpful (quite the contrary, a literal representation might be much more problematic in that sense). For example, the use of color on the Little Albert Experiment is not factual or verifiable, it is based on B&W footage. The anatomy in the illustration is not 100% correct and that as well would not make anyone argue the image is misleading.

            To summarize, yes we do realize this proposition might be tough to swallow in the highly literal culture of Wikipedia (I won’t use the ‘P’ word, I know you don’t like it). But out of sincere admiration to Wikipedia’s achievements and concern for its future we do think this debate is important, should take place and should not be dusted under the rug. It is tough rejections like your that are helping us better define our message and even if you’re not convinced we hope you do appreciate the importance of the debate.

  3. Mattan May 22nd, 12

    Hi guys, I’ve just seen your presentation in the Pecha Kucha event. loved the illustrations, but i do have a question, if I may – don’t you think that by adding illustrations to the different articles, you will then prevent the option of editing and changing that article? I mean, if there is an artwork related to the article as it is now, and someone will want to edit it and make it better, than won’t the artwork will lose the thing that connected it with the article? the article won’t be the same as it was when the artwork was made, so the artwork now has no meaning to that article, no?

    • mushon May 22nd, 12

      Like the text, the illustration’s relationship to the page should be dynamic and change with it. The images are by no means there forever and they should play an equal part in better representing the encyclopedic term.

      So no worries really… Plus for reference the edits will always live in the history pages of the Wikipedia article.

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