Performance photo from The Great Internet Wikimarathon (2008)
(left to right: Bennett Williamson, Steve Lambert)
(Photo: Lamar Clarkson)
It was Saturday at 2 p.m., and our pages were getting flagged for removal nearly as fast as we’d posted them. The first Great Internet Wikimarathon would be a total failure if we couldn’t keep our submissions alive for more than a few minutes. We were doing it wrong and trying to learn fast.
Two months before this I'd been talking to curator Joseph Del Pesco about Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia written collaboratively by volunteers around the world. Both of us appreciated Wikipedia’s open, anyone-can-contribute attitude. For scientific and historical information Wikipedia is a significant and central reference. For pop culture, it’s nearly exhaustive. But for contemporary art, we agreed, it was seriously lacking.
The premise behind Wikipedia parallels the concerns of my own and Del Pesco’s work. Del Pesco founded a research-oriented arts organization, the Collective Foundation, whose projects thrive on bottom-up and decentralized forms of organization, while my own work has an admittedly anarchistic slant, often using open source methods with a focus on organizing large numbers of people and celebrating public spaces.
Because we understood the principles of Wikipedia, Del Pesco and I were well aware that we were partially responsible for its lack of art content. With our education and experience, we were more than qualified to contribute, but all we’d done so far was fiddle with grammar and fix spelling errors in other people’s postings, and huffed when we didn’t find the information we wanted.
When we discovered there was no page for historic alternative spaces, like San Francisco's Southern Exposure, or that radio artist Joe Frank's entry was disorganized and lacking, we took note of it and set aside a day to make improvements, though the prospect of building Wikipedia’s contemporary art content ourselves was a bit daunting. We realized that we needed help, and were more likely to get it if we made a party around it, so Del Pesco and I sent e-mails to friends, calling the event “The Great Internet Wikimarathon.”
I sent the e-mail to just five people—some of New York’s geekiest culture producers—and within a week the upcoming Wikimarathon was circulating on blogs around the world. Clearly people wanted more contemporary art content on Wikipedia, and were willing to help make that happen.
In the meantime, I began my research. Not on art, but on Wikipedia itself. Founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, the site now contains over 7 million articles in over 200 languages. Millions visit Wikipedia daily—and over half that traffic comes from Google search results. Beneath its surface, Wikipedia has an internal network and culture where users communicate and organize their efforts; editors work collaboratively and out of courtesy in groups called WikiProjects. I contacted the arts-related WikiProjects and let them know what we were planning. I also created a page on California artist William T. Wiley to get my feet wet and learn the conventions on citing sources, adding images, and formatting. Del Pesco began researching the history of San Francisco Bay Area visual art, which he later posted as a stub, or flag for other editors that says, “This is the beginning of an entry; help me to expand it.”
Afganistan 5012 km (2003)
San Francisco Art Institute
William T. Wiley
Inside & Outside (2000)
Watercolor and ink on paper
Fast-forward to marathon day. Rather than organize a large and potentially unwieldy event at a central location, we followed the model of WikiProjects groups and encouraged those who were interested to arrange small gatherings and house parties in their own neighborhoods. A few friends hunkered around my kitchen table on laptops; another 20-plus group took part in online chats from elsewhere in Brooklyn, while others came together from as far away as Malta.
It started slow: We created user accounts, made edits, got oriented. In the process “How do I do ____?” was heard a lot. But the learning curve was fast. We did the less glamorous but necessary grunt work of organizing articles, adding links, and submitting images of artists and their work. Soon we were doing the big-picture building of new pages for notable artists that were missing like Graffiti Research Lab, Lee Walton, Jens Haaning, William T. Wiley, Malaquías Montoya, and Trisha Donnelly, and for arts organizations like Chicago’s Mess Hall and Machine Project in Los Angeles.
Graffiti Research Lab
“Pac-Man” tag project
And then suddenly some of our pages were being deleted—which, of course, we took personally at first. It turns out that Wikipedia is monitored by “robots,” which automatically comb new content looking for potential Wiki-vandalism, like people adding irrelevant pages. We had made the mistake of posting drafts that were often too short or lacked sufficient sources and weren’t marked as stubs, so the robots promptly nixed them—sometimes within minutes of their posting. Luckily, along with these deletions came helpful notes from the “bots,” with explanations of why this had happened and what we could do to prevent it in the future. These notes, along with the support of other marathoners, helped us learn quickly from our mistakes.
At the end of the day our worldwide group had made over 100 edits, from fixing grammar to adding paragraphs of text to existing entries. More substantially, we created 25 new pages. In the process we introduced many new users to Wikipedia. During the weeks that followed, most of the participants continued tracking and editing their contributions.
The Great Internet Wikimarathon took place on Saturday, January 26. A marathon is, by definition, 26 miles long, and the plan is that every time the 26th lands on a weekend we’ll hold another Wikimarathan. Our second one was held on April 26 and the next one will be July 26. If you're interested in participating, go to http://thegreatinter.net/wikimarathon.
Steve Lambert makes short-term, temporary, working utopias like closing every McDonald's in Manhattan, setting up art openings on sidewalks, and building software that replaces banner ads with art. His projects and artworks have won awards from Rhizome/The New Museum, the Creative Work Fund, Adbusters Media Foundation, the California Arts Council, and others. Writings about his work have appeared in the New York Times, Punk Planet, and Newsweek. Lambert is founder of the Anti-Advertising Agency, currently a Senior Fellow at Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology in New York, and teaches at Parsons/The NewSchool, and HunterCollege. For more information, go to visitsteve.com, antiadvertisingagency.com, and add-art.org.