Sunday 13 March 2022, by Louis Christie

The internet giant Wikipedia just turned 20. We take a look at its background and the future of the online encyclopaedia. Louis Christie reviews Maria Teresa Curzio 2021’s documentary.

Now in its third decade, Wikipedia faces some complex questions. What role can robots play in writing and regulating articles? Can automated translation help save indigenous languages? What are the implications for an online encyclopaedia when nine in ten contributors are men? In a world where data is the most valuable commodity, how can we stop big tech from cashing in on freely shared knowledge? Do editors endanger the whole project when they’re bankrolled by corporate PR firms?

These are pressing and difficult questions, and The Charm of the Swarm does well to flesh them out. The documentary is guided by conceptual issues, and reels out a cast of endearingly camera-shy characters to help address them. Being a Wikipedian costs a huge amount of time and doesn’t offer much in return, apart from the expansion of human knowledge. As a result, the people who find their calling in the website share a deep idealism. Their commitment to truth and free dialogue is inspiring, and provides hope that the unlikely and beautiful success story of Wikipedia, a voluntary, democratic knowledge base, might continue beyond the challenges it faces. These challenges, on the other hand, are fundamental. Elwin Huaman, a Quechuan researcher committed to creating a thriving Wikipedia in his native language, comes up against the epistemological limits of the project. There are no citable sources for the kinds of traditional knowledge he wants to document, meaning his articles (e.g. about medicinal uses of certain flowers) are declared invalid and taken down. “If our culture cannot be represented under current Wikipedia rules,” he argues, “it is time to change the rules.”

In choosing to explore a virtual subject (Wikipedia) through the medium of a relatively straightforward talking heads documentary, the film straddles a disjuncture. Sometimes there are animated infographics. These feel most successful when they look like the internet; sections where the screen is filled with code feel dynamic, whereas more generic effects, aimed at bringing variety for its own sake, look out of place. Nevertheless, the film largely holds back from mimicking its virtual subject matter. Some interviewees are given full narratives, and the camera follows them going about their lives in the physical world, as if that’s where the action happens. Having a story to hold on to is always welcome. But in some moments – restaged conversations about AI, or interviewees talking to camera about waging fierce editorial battles online – it felt like the documentary was missing out on the real drama. It would have been interesting to see the same rich questions addressed more experimentally, in their own language, the language of the internet.

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