Wikipedia for academics

Academics have traditionally been somewhat suspicious of the hugely popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia as a credible source of scholarly information. They are concerned about the validity and reliability of the information presented, and the fact that entries are open to editing by any comer. Few academics thus far have contributed to Wikipedia as content generators or editors, although they admit to using it regularly, and they know that their students constantly refer to it.

Given that Wikipedia is now the most visited online reference work, surely it is time that more academics played a role in shaping its content? It should be noted that Wikipedia has changed in its approach to content generation over the years. A sophisticated quality control process is now in place by which entries are created, accepted and edited. Wikipedia entries must now be correctly referenced with credible and reputable sources. Although the entries do not have contributors’ names directly appended, it is easy to see who has contributed by clicking on the ‘edit’ button, as well as to view details of the edits they have made.

An increasing number of libraries, art galleries, archives and museums are using the ‘Wikipedian in Residence’ idea to promote their holdings. Under this scheme, a person experienced in editing and creating Wikipedia entries spends a period of time (several weeks or more) at the institution to train staff members in the art. Institutions that have taken advantage of this scheme include the august British Museum, the Palace of Versailles, the Museu Picasso, the Smithsonian Institution, and here in Australia, the State Library of New South Wales.

This seems to me to be a good idea for universities to adopt. If students and academics are regularly using Wikipedia, then they should also learn about how to contribute to the body of knowledge in this platform. For academics, this means that rather than simply sitting back and letting others create content on a topic in which they may be particularly expert, they can take an active approach and shape the content themselves. The entry can be revised and added to at any time, making it responsive to changes in the field about which one is writing.

Those academics who have worked on entries are often positive about the experience. One, Martin Poulter, argues that writing for Wikipedia has taught him how to write about academic subjects in an accessible manner. He gives examples of using Wikipedia writing for students as a means of allowing them to engage in online publication, and notes that Wikipedia entries often shape public debate because they are so widely consulted. He sees Wikipedia as an ‘online community for researchers, educators and students to take part in’.

I have created my own Wikipedia entry on the topic of digital sociology. This entry is now the first hyperlink to appear when the term ‘digital sociology’ is input in a search engine. It was not a particularly onerous task, once I had become familiar with the protocol.

Wikipedia provides clear outlines for how to create and edit entries. Nonetheless, providing training programs for academics by those experienced in creating Wikipedia content would make the process far easier. Some academics have held Wikipedia ‘hack days’ or ‘editathons’, gathering together to work on entries as a group. In the UK the organisation Wikimedia UK offers assistance for such training and events.

Engaging in Wikipedia content creation or editing can be a form of political resistance to marginalisation. Women contributors are far in the minority in Wikipedia, as are entries about high achieving women, and it has been contended that existing entries about women are deleted or severely edited disproportionately compared to those about men. There is clearly a ‘politics of Wikipedia’ involving the same types of marginalisation of and discrimination against less powerful social groups that occurs in other areas of social life, despite the platform’s rhetoric about open collaboration and democratic participation. Some feminist academics have taken up the gauntlet to redress this imbalance, organising mass editing days as part of the ‘Storming Wikipedia’ project, in which female students and academics work together to create entries about influential women.

Participation in the dynamic forum that is Wikipedia, therefore, can take many forms. As an academic (or student) one can engage in active content creation as part of shaping the public discourses on one’s chosen topic. Social researchers can also use the platform as a source of research data, investigating the ways in which knowledge is created and contested as part of the process of Wikipedia content creation and editing, the types of content that shape Wikipedia entries or how people respond to Wikipedia as a source of information. Surprising little critical social research thus far has been conducted on Wikipedia — there seems great scope for further investigation. More radically, contributing to Wikipedia can constitute a resistant political act.

The rise of the quantified self as a cultural phenomenon

The Quantified Self movement was first developed in 2007 by two Wired Magazine editors, Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, who set up a website devoted to the movement in 2008. Interest in the concept and the associated movement has developed rapidly from there. According to The Quantified Self website, there are now over 130 quantified self groups in 34 countries around the world, many of which have regular meetings involving ‘show-and-tell’ discussions of how members have been engaging in self-tracking activities.

As part of investigating the ways in which the quantified self as a new term and practice has developed, I conducted a search for the term as it has appeared in English-language news media articles in the Factiva database, which archives newspaper and magazine articles (including digital and print articles) from over 8,000 sources from the world’s press.

Not surprisingly, given that the Quantified Self website was only established in 2008, the first news article to appear using this term was not until September of that year, just prior to the group’s first-ever meetup. The Washington Post (9 September 2008) noted the establishment of the group and interviewed Gary Wolf and several other people who were engaging in self-tracking.

In 2009 only two news articles appeared mentioning the quantified self: one in the American Life Science Weekly that reported a study on the relevance to healthcare of self-tracking, and the other in the Canadian Globe and Mail that discussed The Quantified Self movement and people involved in it. But the number of articles rose to 21 in 2010 and 33 in 2011 and by 2012 148 articles had been published that used the term. 2013 has witnessed even greater interest: by the end of July 2013, 188 news articles discussing the quantified self had already been published.

While these are not particularly high numbers relative to the thousands of topics that were reported in the news outlets included in Factiva, they do demonstrate evidence of growing and continuing interest in the quantified self which has gathered momentum each year since 2010.

The tenor of news reporting on the quantified self has changed over time. Early reports focused on its innovative aspects and debated whether such close attention to the details of one’s life and bodily functions would extend beyond ‘uber geeks’ or those ‘weirdly narcissistic’ few who are interested in ‘extreme naval gazing’ to the general population (Forbes magazine [USA], 25 April 2011). By 2012, news articles represented the quantified self as growing in popularity and becoming not only an important feature of health promotion but part of everyday life, as a way of maximising productivity and happiness as well as health. The term ‘quantified self’ was now frequently used not only in relation to members of the Quantified Self movement itself, but more generally to refer to the practices of self-tracking or life-logging.

Bearing headlines such as ‘Apps that will help you keep your resolve’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 December 2012), these news reports normalised the practice as applicable to everyone interested in improving their bodies or the selves. As the British Sunday Telegraph Magazine (2 December 2012) put it: ‘It began with a small group of digital obsessives recording their every heartbeat. Today the “quantified self” movement is a gadget-filled fitness craze.’ By June 2013, The Guardian (UK) was contending that ‘the “Quantified Self” movement (is) all the rage for people tracking their physical activity, food intake, vital signs and even their personal genome through digital services’.

News articles also increasingly referred to the plethora of new devices that were being released onto the market to support self-tracking efforts, involving major corporations such as Nike, Apple and Qualcomm, demonstrating a growing interest in the business world in taking advantage of the phenomenon. As 2012 drew to a close, several news reports noted how self-tracking devices could help people achieve their New Year’s resolutions. These technologies were also frequently mentioned in lists of innovations that would attract significant attention in the new year to come from those seeking to develop and sell products for quantified selfers.

News articles in 2013 appearing thus far demonstrate the growing dimensions of this potential market for wearable digital self-tracking devices, with many articles reporting new devices that are in development or that have been released, including ‘digital diapers’, wearable devices as fashion accessories, the use of self-tracking by elite athletes to improve their performances and devices for the ‘quantified pet’. There has been a focus on big data as well, with articles noting the power not only of individualised data in contributing valuable knowledge to self-trackers, but also that of the aggregated big data accumulated across many users uploading their data to websites.

However there is also evidence in recent news reports of the growing realisation of privacy concerns in relation to these data collected with these devices. Questions were raised about who should own these very personal data and how self-trackers can protect their rights to access their own data, as in The Guardian’s (26 June 2013) article headlined: ‘Wearable tech: why Intel thinks we should own our data.’

To establish further how general interest in the quantified self is developing, I used the Google Trends1 tool to see how often the ‘quantified self’ was used as search term for the same time period. The resultant graph showed that searches for the term ‘quantified self’ have risen steadily since early 2009, reaching its peak in April 2013. The regional interest figure, which highlights which areas of the world have used the search term comparatively the most, demonstrates that the USA has by far the greatest interest (top of the scale on 100), followed by Germany (60) and the UK (52). No other countries register on this scale, demonstrating far lower interest2.

I am using these analyses in a current article* that I am preparing on the critical sociology of the quantified self. For previous blog posts on the quantified self in relation to digital health, see here and here.

* Update: This article has now been published as ‘Understanding the human machine’ in IEEE Technology and Society, and can be accessed here.


  1. Google Trends analyses a portion of worldwide Google searches to compute how many searches have been conducted for the terms entered relative to all Google searches over that time period. This indicates the likelihood of a random user to search for the search term from a certain location at a certain time. The tool draws a graph showing interest over time plotted on a scale from 0 to 100 (100 representing the relative peak of interest, not the absolute numbers of searches).
  2. This does not mean that no searches for quantified self were initiated from these countries, but rather that the numbers did not reach the threshold set by Google for registering on the scale.

Google Glass: a sociological perspective

Google Glass, the mobile computer device worn on the head in the form of spectacles and currently being tested by ‘explorers’ hand-picked by Google, has aroused a multitude of comments and responses. Glass works with voice commands and head movements, and the display is projected onto the glass lens of the spectacles so that it can be read by looking straight ahead. A tiny digital camera is mounted on the side of the device, facing outwards from the wearer’s face. It can therefore be used hands-free and unobtrusively for video, audio or still image capture as the user moves around carrying out everyday activities. These images can be instantaneously streamed to one’s social media platforms to share with others. Users can walk around and interact with other people as they simultaneously give Glass commands and read the screen on their lens. Glass therefore has the potential to meld more seamlessly into everyday life than the other mobile digital devices that are currently available.

Before it has even reached the mass market (it is currently predicted that the device will be available to consumers in early 2014), many discussions have emerged on the web concerning such aspects as how Glass wearers are perceived by others, how those who have been entrusted with the new technology are experiencing its use, and the privacy and ethical issues of Glass. As a sociologist interested in digital media technologies, I have been fascinated by these discussions for what they reveal about responses to and experiences of new technologies. I am also interested in thinking about how Glass may be used for sociological research, as part of new ways of using digital technologies in the quest to develop ‘live sociology’ (creative and innovative approaches to sociological research). Here are some of the sociocultural aspects of Glass that have so far emerged in accounts of this device in its very early stages.

There has been much discussion of how Glass wearers appear to others, with some comments about how these devices mark out their users as ‘nerdy geeks’ or alternatively as ‘cool’, attracting attention from others because the device is so new and interesting. This raises issues of the ways in which new technologies – both their form and their function – are incorporated into everyday routines (‘domesticated’) by their users. As material objects interacting with human actors, any new digital devices must be worked upon by their adopters, and in turn work upon those who use them, altering their bodies and selves.

The capacity for technologies to change the ways in which we interact with others and feel about our selves and our bodies have been remarked upon by several commentators. In his piece entitled  ‘O.K. Glass: confessions of a Google Glass explorer’, for example, writer Gary Shteyngart notes that when wearing Glass he is approached by many people wanting to learn about the experience of the device. His bodily demeanour changes when he wears the Glass: he jerks his head, slides his finger along the device, raises his right eyebrow, squints his right eye and mouths words to active the device. To onlookers his bodily movements appear rather strange. Friends tell him that he looks as if he has a nervous tick, a lazy eye, a faraway, distracted gaze as he scans the readouts on his lens; his wife thinks he acts like a robot when using Glass. But Shteyngart feels a sense of power from wearing Glass. Writing in the third person of his experiences he observes: ‘It’s as if the man with the glasses has some form of mastery of the world around him, and maybe even within himself’.

The potential for Glass to change the way in which memory operates has been suggested. It has been argued, for example, that Glass takes images so readily that ‘It doesn’t feel like taking a picture. It feels like making a mental note to remember what you’re looking at.’ It can therefore act as a ‘life-logging’ device, taking constant images to preserve memories and even automatically making gifs of images taken close together. Wearing Glass and taking frequent images, therefore, ‘is less cell phone and more neural augmentation’ (observations by Glass Explorer Mykola Bilokonsky). Another commentator is less sanguine, warning that this is akin to outsourcing our memories to a device, thus ‘hindering our ability to experience the moments those memories attach to’ (John Warner).

Some writers, inevitably, have commented on the surveillance features afforded by Glass. The device’s unobtrusive nature and its form as mimicking spectacles, it is argued, will mean that those people who are observed by Glass users may be unaware that they are being filmed or photographed. Although when the device is filming the LED display glows as a signal, this may not always be easily noticed by those who are being filmed or audio-recorded, particularly if they are some distance away or have their backs turned to the device.

It has been speculated that as Glass becomes more commonly used, the ultimate surveillance society will result. Users will become both observed and observers: they will monitor others at the same time as they themselves are being surveilled (Joe Brodie). Many commentators have noted that constant surveillance of people by others around them will result in multitudes of data about individuals being stored in the cloud that may potentially be accessed by government or other agencies (Jason Perlow), a particular concern in the light of the recent American government’s PRISM surveillance scandal. It has been also asserted that Glass may be used to further stigmatise and marginalise minority groups by contributing to the surveillance technologies that are already disproportionately directed towards them and to the humiliation and stalking of women via such digital recording strategies as ‘creepshots’ and  ‘revenge porn’ (Whitney Erin Boesel).

What of the potential for Glass to be used as part of ‘live sociology’? Many possibilities spring to mind. Quite apart from the important issue of investigating features of the lived experience of using Glass (how does it feel to use it, how do people respond to users, how does use affect social relations and moving around in space, what are the implications for education, healthcare, journalism and other occupations?), the device can be used as a tool itself for social research. With its powerful observing eye, Glass could be employed productively for ethnographic research as the ultimate tool for recording people’s social behaviours in real time. Participant observation research can be undertaken easily by using the recording features as the researcher moves around in specific social spaces and interacts with others.

Alternatively, research participants can be asked to wear Glass as they go about their everyday lives and the consequent data uploaded to the researcher’s device.  The device allows their users to record what they themselves are looking at directly, so these data can provide a unique opportunity to ‘look through the eyes’ of other people. Once these visual data are recorded and uploaded, the researcher could then sit down with the research participant and look at the material together, asking questions about the participant’s thoughts and experiences as they engaged in the activities and moved through the spaces depicted in the recordings. All this, of course, will need to be thought through in relation to the kind of ethical and privacy issues identified above.

See my Bundlr ‘Google Glass: social and ethical implications’ for a collection of the articles referred to above and more.