Wikis are cognitive and organisational entities that can serve as catalysts for the emergence of self-organised groups sharing a common interest. They may be a good means of establishing forms of community activism, which would complement the efforts of activists in their organisational and other activism affiliations. They also have the potential to serve as testing grounds for self-organisation, as well as loci for the accumulation and provision of specialised knowledge in hard sciences or human sciences, including their intersections with issues of governance, social organisation and public policy.
In this paper, I present an aspect of an ongoing experience as someone concerned with public affairs who has witnessed the emergence of blogging, its golden age, and the political mobilization of 2011. I claim to have insights, of varying degrees of depth, into the different aspects of information technology (IT), both in the theoretical and practical sense and its creative and artistic uses, as well as interest in understanding the social, political and legal effects of technological developments, and how their applications and modes of production, consumption and management are affected by social, political and legal givens, all of which constitute the complex system in which we live today as subjects and objects. To me, this experience has been a daily practice, forming an aspect of both my professional and personal preoccupation.
Blogging and individualism
In the early 2000s, the Internet saw the emergence of a new social space that expanded and scaled up until it peaked at the midpoint of the decade. This space consisted of personal blogs, which joined a series of cyber-social networking tools that have been emerging in cyberspace since its genesis as a global-social phenomenon. At different points in time, this series had included bulletin board system (BBS) communities, mailing lists, Usenet groups, web forums, up until the mainstream, centralised, commercial social networks that have become a subject of daily news and an arena of international political conflict.
In the years between 2005 and 2007, the ever-expanding cyberspace was still much smaller than it is now, with the blogosphere brilliantly shining within it. That brilliance was in part due to the geography of the non-cyber world and its current events. Among the very prominent localities in the blogosphere, Egyptian blogs were the most notable Arabwide – rivalled only by the Iranian blogs in the region – which was not surprising considering the social and political movements ongoing in both countries. Both Egypt and Iran had substantial populations and sets of political issues, and blogs helped not only in disseminating the news about those political movements and documenting their developments, but also in making them. This has been the subject of many studies and research conducted by media scholars, social scientists and other researchers from adjacent and interdisciplinary fields.
At the time, blogs emerged both as a result of the surging social and political mobilization in Arab societies and constituted one of its manifestations. This mobilisation coincided with the youth reaching an age group that required most of them to engage in public affairs in their countries. Moreover, these young individuals were technologically savvy and connected to the Internet, thereby existing in a social space that was then beyond the purview of governmental scrutiny and repressive apparatuses, contrary to the physical spaces inhabited by the bodies of bloggers. This was one of the reasons for the rapid move to inhabit that cyberspace by groups having diverging convictions, values and social belongings, all of them sharing a common dissatisfaction with the physical lived reality, or at least a critical outlook on it. Each according to their distinct views and perspectives, these groups shared an aspiration towards a different future. Additionally, other interested groups were attracted to this growing space, where an individual could be an invisible observer of developments, if they wish, or alternatively engage as deeply as they like to. These are general features common to all cyberspaces, which notably allow members of social, religious and sexual minorities to exist without the permanent sense of threat that hovers over them in the physical spaces. These threats increase and even materialise in physical spaces should these groups decide to openly express themselves and their identities. The same applies to women in most Arab societies, including in Egypt where this is particularly noticeable.
It is also noteworthy that issues of religious and ethnic diversity (such as sectarian strife between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, and the rights of religious minorities such as the Baha’is)as well as sexual and political orientations, were very present in the collective conversations that took place in the blogosphere at its peak. This was also the case of women’s issues in general, specifically those of sexual harassment and verbal and physical violence against women in Egyptian society. The coverage provided by bloggers of such prominent incidents constituted an entry point of the blogosphere into conventional media, and the introduction of its role in shaping public opinion. As expressed by Amr Gharbeia, one of the active bloggers of that era, “We used to report the news, and now we became the news.”
The influence of blogs in the press went beyond being a medium for disseminating news, a subject of coverage for media outlets that designated space for them in their pages, and a hot topic on TV channels hosting guests to comment on its whereabouts and theorising about their origins, prospects and impact on the media, society and politics. In addition to all that, blogs have also produced a new generation of journalists – or at least facilitated their emergence – who directly influenced the conventional media and press institutions for which they later worked, shortly before some launched their own journalistic platforms. This generation is characterised by a tendency to investigate and to anticipate scepticism and the questioning of their work, as well as a willingness to receive criticism and engage in dialogue with the audience – all of which are practices that had not been common among Egyptian journalists before.
Furthermore, the bloggers’ direct engagement with political movements was at the core of the impact of the blogosphere. The early symptoms of this wave of mobilisation were ushered in 2003 with the public protests in Egypt over the invasion of Iraq – which itself constituted a milestone in the global emergence of blogs. Shortly afterwards, Egypt witnessed waves of protests against the constitutional amendment of 2005 – which Egyptian dissidents perceived as an attempt to transfer power from Hosni Mubarak to his son, Gamal. That period also saw the escalation of labour protests, culminating in the strikes of 6 April 2008, as well as the continuous upsurge in human rights demands and calls to hold the police accountable for the pervasive practices of torture and deaths in custody. These demands reached their peak with the death of Khaled Said, whose consequent protests were a direct and fundamental factor in the outbreak of the revolution in early 2011.
It was during this highly dynamic period, with many issues being collectively discussed on possible solutions and desired and foreseen futures, that blogs presented a media platform for the protest and demand-based movements, including marginal and radical views which were typically hard to advocate in traditional social spaces, often because of the rarity or geographical dispersion of their proponents and their weak acceptance by the broader society. Such views included, inter alia, the rejection of modern states, whether based on Islamist, internationalist, or anarchist foundations, radical environmentalism, as well as on the secularisation of society and the unleashing of sexual liberties.
Even in the most popular and widespread political demands, including the rejection of the power transfer from Mubarak to his son, the opposition to against torture or sectarianism, blogs contributed to the mobilisation of political activism, seeking to attract as many concerned people as possible to join the growing mass of activists, directly involving them in protest activities and bringing about a qualitative and quantitative leap.
This new mode of communication has also extended bridges of acquaintance, constituting a medium of direct personal networking on the ground – outside cyberspace – between like-minded activists which strengthened the bonds of the activists’ community and further empowered it, thereby paving the way for other forms of engagement, either in mobilisation and organisation or in artistic and creative forms. Importantly, blogs have been an arena of literary and artistic experimentation that produced literary works as well as authors who remained in the literary field even after the golden era of the blogosphere ended at the turn of the decade, including authors such as Ahmed Naji, Mohammad Rabie and Youssef Rakha as prominent examples.
The authority of the code
We are not concerned here with the technical details of how blogs function, the characteristics of the blogosphere and its actors, or even the political trends and views that prevailed or existed during that period. What concerns us instead is the type of relationships prompted and perpetuated by mass dissemination and networking tools once they are made available to those online. Such relationships contribute to the formation of community ties of new sorts, which may have been immensely difficult to form in a closed society where the state systematically disintegrates and weakens its civil components, blocks its individuals and groups from mass communication – let alone access and circulation of information – and suffocates freedom of expression and thus the ability to envisage a new reality.
Blogs have elevated the value of individualism, thus stimulating interactions based on debate, criticism and deconstruction – none necessarily methodical or rational. Explicit declaration of autonomy and individuality was either written on blog headers or implied as a fundamental rule of communication – “This is my personal blog. I do not owe anything to anyone. If you do not like what I write, get away from here.” This appears to have been a direct reaction to the authoritarianism and totalitarianism pervading the non-cyber society in its vision of the relationship between the individual and society, and reinforced by the coercive force of the state. Such authoritarianism was present in other Arabic-speaking cyberspaces that had preceded blogs, such as web forums and mailing lists, whose forms of creation and administration concentrate actual power in the hands of a few individuals who were governed internally by hierarchical or meritocratic criteria. In those authoritarian cyberspaces, the few used to set the rules of engagement, communication and hierarchical promotion on their platforms, in addition to banning – equivalent to exiling – and censoring the content produced in the forums that constitutes the subject of engagement between their members. In the final analysis, these were local subsidiary authorities whose limits could be seen by considering the larger sphere of rule-makers: the hosting service providers and the owners and administrators of informatics’ systems that constitute the boundaries of the miniverses in which those cyber communities existed in the expansive cyber-multiverse. This was the case even if rule-makers seemed too haughty and uninterested in engaging in the minutiae of events within these miniverses. Here we see how a software code can have the actual power of a legal code.
This combination of individualism, the rejection of identification with the masses and the preference for “going against the grain” seems to have remained a feature of a wide range of middle-class youth engaging with public affairs, and even activists involved in ideologically and organisationally loose protest movements and in nonviolent action at many milestones up until the 2011 revolution and beyond.
Reading and writing for all: the protoweb
In the original view described by Tim Berners-Lee, the Web consisted of a vast ocean of documents interconnected with links that identified their paths, with each document being one hop from any other – a logical structure constituting an abstraction laid over the physical infrastructure of the Internet. In this endless library of documents, reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, those browsing the space of documents are not mere readers, but authors as well. In Berners-Lee’s vision, which later became known as the read-write web, whoever browses the web can edit the document they read to revise it and annotate it to improve its quality and utility to others browsing it.
This conception, which did not actually materialise, was naturally based on several presuppositions. As citizens of what has become cyberspace today, what first draws our attention is the assumption of a general good faith and the refrain from deliberate vandalism. In addition, browsers are supposed to be sensible persons, whose behaviours are supposedly governed by an academic tendency to justify statements when made, to maintain reservation and scepticism, to present evidence and sound arguments when drawing conclusions, to cite when quoting and to reference sources. Overall, this was consistent with the environment in which the Web emerged in the early 1990s as a tool to author and disseminate scientific papers and notes in a scientific laboratory setting – which was the nuclear physics research labs at CERN. It was in this workspace that Berners-Lee, assisted by Robert Cailliau, put together the first web server and client in 1990. The first Web was still an internal information system at CERN, and Berners-Lee pragmatically established its protocols and document description language that together form the concept of hypertext.
The Internet had been at the time and for a considerable period thereafter a very elite social space, characterised by ethics and behaviours different from what we are familiar with today; a space largely dominated by the assumption of good faith, with a low level of technical barriers, walls, gateways and authentication controls.
Although this vision did not materialise on the Web, which development – and that of the Internet as a socio-technical phenomenon – has taken on a different evolutionary path, the essence of the idea of a collective document which everyone can co-author found another manifestation, albeit on a smaller scale within the Web. It was an experiment initiated by Ward Cunningham in a website he called WikiWikiWeb, which first came online in 1995 with the purpose of facilitating the exchange of ideas and notes among programmers. Cunningham explained the name as a combination of the Hawaiian word “wiki wiki,” meaning quick or prompt, with “Web” which had by then been established as a proper name for the part of the Internet accessed via the HTTP protocol.
The first wiki was a website run by a special software that allowed visitors to edit its pages, add and delete texts from them, and then save them as new versions of the document. The wiki system preserves the history of edits on each page since its creation, records the names of the editors– usually pseudonyms, as was and still is customary in cyberspace. This system also allowed each visitor to view all previous versions of the document, i.e. the way each looked at a specific previous time.
The wiki in Cunningham’s view was seemingly not a mere technical experiment, but a philosophical one as well. We can still see in the original Wiki (which is still available as of the date of this writing at http://wiki.c2.com/?WikiWikiWeb) the theoretical framework that Cunningham and other wiki editors sought to develop as a social contract for the cyber-citizens wishing to engage in that experiment. This contract consisted of several Wiki pages with titles such as “Wiki Philosophy FAQ”, “Universal Mind”, “Why Wiki Works” and “Edit Conflict Resolution”, which cited David Hume, Lao-Tzu and others and referred to the concepts of free software and scientific thinking.
Wikis: a collaborative organisation of knowledge
Wikis are thus cognitive tools of the cyber age with a variety of software applications which, while varying in the details of their design and method of function, have basic components that allow for content creation in a collaborative manner. Beyond providing cooperative content editing to their users, the majority of wikis are also experiments in self-organisation, wherein editors are set to participate in putting forward the rules governing their cooperative community, from the boundaries of that community, its degree of openness and rules of engagement, down to the rules of editing previously authored content and the nature of content to be authored, accumulated and preserved. Furthermore, they also address the field of knowledge that constitutes the subject of that collaborative platform, including the methods of documenting the data and information contained therein.
We cannot mention wikis without mentioning Wikipedia, the most famous and the largest wiki on the Web, which defines itself as a project aimed at producing a free encyclopaedia that gathers all human knowledge – an ambitious project that has grown steadily over more than 15 years. With its strengths and shortcomings, Wikipedia has developed its own models for organisation and governance and its massive community has become the subject of various social studies.
However, the mental image with which Wikipedia has coloured the concept of the Wiki does not necessarily apply to all wikis. For instance, wikis may be tacit knowledge containers in large tightly governed organisations such as intelligence agencies. They can also be knowledge repositories in a particular field, such as the wikis of the physics, chemistry, and biology departments in universities – across their different specialisations. They can also include documents on designing and developing complex systems, the means of constructing them from their components, and operation and use, as in the wikis of computer system applications or any complex information system.
Moreover, wikis can be theatres of creative, literary and imaginative activity, constructing imagined realms or parallel realities, be they fantastical or utopian – separated from reality by the crises of governance, dominant forms of authority and flaws of political and legal systems. We can find many examples on the Web for each of these. Additionally, wikis can also be used as scraps and drafts for one individual and are therefore a flexible tool that offers many prospects without imposing a pattern.
In addition to allowing collaborative authoring and preserving a history of content edits, wikis can also provide an organisational or hierarchical structure between their content elements through links and categories while content is being developed, in a flexible manner that can be continuously shifted and redesigned – a process which more often than not lasts the entire lifespan of a wiki.
This mode of developing information retention and retrieval systems does not impose a rigid data structure and requires only minimal prior analysis, which makes it suitable for situations where knowledge of the knowledge body evolves while evolving the body itself, and the knowledge bodies that evolve by reflectively exploring their own structures and the relations between its parts. This is in contrast with other modes that require their structures to be immutably established, their maps drawn, and their tables filled prior to their population with data.
Wikis have created a function that had not existed in the Web before – being the most comprehensive and most famous hypertext system –, which is the possibility of linking to the future, i.e. creating links within the body of text to sections, pages or files that are not yet present in the system, the following of which activates the mechanism of creating the target document. As such, these links serve as a notice or a reference point to contributors, indicating information that could be added, saved, defined, explained, researched or authored altogether. This is conducive to the rapid establishment of structures in a nonlinear fashion and without the need for an a priori outline. As a wiki documents its own rules of operation as a system, it also documents the structure of its content and the desired plans for its development.
Due to these attributes, wikis can be activated as focal points for research groups, seminars, civil society organisations, and initiatives active in areas of social and political change. On the one hand, they provide a convenient framework for documenting and aggregate knowledge that arises as work progresses – be it in the form of data and preliminary information generated from empirical research, outcomes of a study, compilations and classifications of knowledge from secondary sources in the field of interest, or critical analyses and collective theses on more abstract issues such as governance, public policy, political programmes, and medium- and long-term societal plans.
The accumulation and provision of knowledge allow for continued revision over longer periods of time, creating a practical framework for individual engagement and involvement in that systematic effort. In certain circumstances, this framework may make up for fluctuations in the activity and efficiency of individuals, therefore, helping maintain organisational memories that are less affected by the shifting roles of members or their departure and rendering the overall effort more sustainable.
Since wikis are informational tools of the Internet age, they also provide – optionally – mechanisms for dissemination and accessibility that are inseparably embedded in the authoring and working processes. They also provide a framework for involving wider audiences in the process of producing, gathering and organising available knowledge wherever appropriate and needed.
On the other side of using wiki organisation groups as tools to regulate knowledge, wikis can be the nuclei around which active communities can form, bringing together individuals who share an interest and have not previously been involved in an organisational framework. The creation and effective functioning of a wiki require the formation of a community of contributors to develop its content. Once the community is formed, it faces the challenges that all organisations face in terms of task distribution, efficient implementation, operation management, employment of members’ capacities and exploiting their potentials, the resolution of conflicts that arise between members, reaching a consensus and a unifying vision, as well as developing the vision through the internal and peripheral changes experienced by the community. As such, wikis are experiences in organisation and governance that are useful in and of themselves and can be transferred later or in conjunction with other organisational spaces in which these individuals are engaged.
The use of Wikis for such purposes, however, is not without difficulties.
Although the nonlinear structure through which wikis represent relationships between the parts of the system of knowledge is similar to the knowledge structure in the mind, it is somewhat contrary to the methods and skills that people acquire and become accustomed to during their education and training as a means of imparting and, to a lesser extent, receiving and understanding knowledge and ideas. This requires that participants in wikis make an extra effort to master these unfamiliar methodologies.
Furthermore, there is a learning curve associated with the use of new IT tools, which differs from person to person according to their preparftness, as well as from group to group according to its dynamics.
The setting up of a regulatory vision of the body of knowledge under development is an arduous process that requires considerable mental effort. Those leading such an effort need to present ideas to experiment with and build upon. They also need intensive personal communication, which necessitates facilitation and maintenance. This is especially the case with new wikis, in which the spectre of blank pages can discourage many potential contributors. This challenge can be mitigated by individuals with reasonable expertise in the use of wikis, who may be interested in a nascent wiki and capable of communicating easily with new contributors. These are all catalysts for the growth of a nascent wiki community.
The case of Wiki Gender
Since 2015, the Goethe-Institut in Cairo has focused on projects and activities that address gender issues and women empowerment. In December of the same year, the Arab Digital Expression Foundation (ADEF) – which works in community education, promotes creative uses of information technology, advocates for free culture, and helps civil society groups benefit from ICTs – was sought by the German institute for consultation and support in establishing an online directory of basic information about NGOs and initiatives working on women’s issues. The envisioned project grew into an Arabic knowledgebase of gender, feminism and women’s issues, with the directory of organisations being one component of it. This was how the Wiki Gender project ( https://genderiyya.xyz) was incepted.
The project began with a preliminary vision that later developed in collaboration with the founding group. It consisted of Egypt-based Egyptian and Palestinian individuals with different interests, some salaried employees working on women issues within NGOs, and other interested observers, independent researchers and activists. The initial vision and early coordinators emphasised that engagement in the wiki project was on an individual, non-representative basis, meaning that the individuals involved represent themselves, not the institutions or groups they are members of. This vision stems from the fact that individuals, not groups, are the building blocks required for nascent communities developed in this way.
As they acquired skills in the wiki method of collaborative work, members of the founding group – and of the subgroups that were later formed – quickly founded sub-projects within the wiki structure, but in different areas of focus varying according to personal interests. These ranged from systematic collection and entry of information on active NGOs and biographies of persons, to collection and categorisation of relevant documents and studies, to authoring articles that explain the basic concepts and theories in the field. All of these were to be continuously revised and expanded, promoting the collaborative self-learning journey of those involved, each according to their degree of interest and availability as a contributor to the project.
This momentum produced discussions among group members that reflected ongoing discussions in the broader field and highlighted different intellectual standpoints. A dialogue ensued thanks to the collective investment in the project and the minimum common ground among its participants. In addition, a peculiar organisational experience was born out of the need to organise work, develop selection policies and criteria, and set rules for categorisation, all of which necessarily led to epistemological questions at the core of the knowledge field and theory itself, with varying degrees of explicitness and implicitness, theory and praxis.
One of the questions posed was the anticipated degree of mutual identification among participants, not only in terms of ideology – as one would predict – but also in terms of gender and sexuality. Indeed, many participants tended to consider themselves as nonconforming with regards to gender and sexuality. Another question concerned the means of addressing current events and issues, whether to take positions, how to formulate and declare them, and by which method they should be documented.
As the group’s identity developed and its self-awareness grew as an active group, bridges began to emerge between the new entity and other entities that regarded it as a unit with which to interact, exchange benefits or achieve common goals. The Wiki Gender project was invited to present its experience, to absorb other bodies of knowledge relating to the subject of common interest and include them in the Wiki, or to consider other means for further cooperation.
Since early 2018, the group has sought to formally make itself and its activities known to traditional feminist institutions, in an attempt to attract more participants with access to the accumulated knowledge contents of these institutions and are aware of its natures and interrelations.
The group presented its experience in content management and organisation at the Bread&Net conference in Beirut in November 2018. The Gender Wiki was then invited to participate in the Forum on Alternative Archival Practices organised by the Arab Council for Social Sciences (ACSS) in Beirut in December 2018. This participation coincided with efforts by the founding group to expand participation in the Wiki by creating two chapters in Beirut and then in Tunis.
These chapters are currently engaged in a complex dialogue necessitated by actual practice. The main axes of this dialogue include the questions of how to govern the Wiki, the nature of the relationship between the groups as entities and stakeholders working in a loose environment – both inside chapters and between them – how to best manage each chapter internally, the extent of their autonomy, and the role of the founding group.
These are difficult questions that remain unsettled but are yet fundamental to the shifting nature of organisation, engagement, and roles and prerogatives therein. They also raise other sets of questions relating to sustainability and the relationship with the two institutions sponsoring the project since its inception; how to expand geographically by establishing new groups in other countries, particularly in light of the enthusiasm and desire expressed by individuals from Arab countries to participate.
What is remarkable about such experiments is that much of it is documented in the Wiki itself. Just as we can find, in the vast number of organisational Wikipedia pages, documents on the free Encyclopaedia’s history, development, policies and sub-projects, we can similarly find a history of discussions in the pages of the Wiki Gender, if to a lesser extent given the relative novelty of the experience. This particular aspect of documentation and record-keeping was given attention by the group in addition to the knowledge production and organisation for which it was created. For example, we can find draft working plans, minutes of meetings and task lists assigned to team members, all of which can enable new members to learn about the group’s methods of operation and organisational trajectory. They may also be useful for students of this type of community, which exist equally in cyberspaces and physical spaces.
Agency and the ability to contribute effectively to shaping the public sphere require familiarly with the issues raised in many subjects. The more content is available on these issues, the more people are aware of them and thus willing and capable of influencing their societies, as well as more qualified to devise solutions and make choices.
The creation and dissemination of such knowledge has traditionally been the role of scientific and social research institutions, as well as the press and the media in their different forms. However, the Internet has allowed new players to emerge, with modern practices such as “citizen journalism” and “citizen science” transforming a large segment of the audience from consumers to producers – considering the digital gap and its different manifestations.
Here, wikis emerged as a means of collective work on the accumulation and organisation of bodies of knowledge. Wiki projects have provided valuable experiences in management and organisation, with questions of organisation following the common – initially apoliticised – goal of collaborative learning and accumulation and provision of knowledge. This allows for the emergence of new forms of organisation among active groups of society, which adds to the immediate goal of producing knowledge that may be built upon later once opportunities for political and social change arise.
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.