Archive: Issue No. 134, October 2008

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by Chad Rossouw

Potential Unrealised: Web 2.0 and the ArtWiki Marathon

The Internet is a great place. Needless to say it is a researcher's heaven; instant, searchable information. It is also a site for collaboration and sharing. The Internet is as much about uploading as downloading. This is facilitated by Web 2.0, a slightly jokey term used to refer to developments in the Internet's usability, essentially the user-generated content revolution.

Good examples of Web 2.0 are Wikipedia, Flickr (for photo-sharing), Facebook (for personality-sharing) and blogging. Web 2.0 is an incredibly powerful tool, especially here in Africa, because it is decentralised. What the cellphone did for telecommunications in Africa, Web 2.0 can do for the Internet here, in terms of content not infrastructure. An example would be the interesting project Museums In Libya 2.0, which is attempting to use interactive web tools to document the phenomenal museums in Libya, which lack centralised resources to produce a database in a traditional way. The project hasn't necessarily been a resounding success, but the concept holds much potential.

The reason, I imagine, that projects like these don't realise their worth is partly the high cost and lack of access to the internet (even here in South Africa), and partly a matter of net education: people are unfamiliar and afraid of the tools and unconvinced of the significance of publishing online. This has resulted in a decided lack of information about Africa online, and in our more arcane field of contemporary art, even less.

ArtWiki Marathon, was a project facilitated by Kathryn Smith, which sought to change this, albeit on a small scale. Reacting to the lack of information on South African artists on Wikipedia, specifically, and inspired by a similar concept in the US (organised by EyeBeam), the project set up hubs in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Stellenbosch and Durban where people were encouraged to join in and upload.

At my count there are only 22 South African artists listed, and the number of those whose entries are detailed is even less. Considering that Wikipedia has taken over as the centre of all knowledge, this figure is a bit depressing, and Smith's idea to push our representation was a good and necessary one. I wish I could add that the project was a success, but attendance was low. There could be a variety of reasons for this, including the ones I mentioned above, but the good marketing campaign and load of effort on the organiser's part convinces me otherwise.

I think we have yet to develop the culture of sharing and knowledge contribution, without financial gain, that would make a project like this work. Essentially, although we complain, we must be happy with the status quo. It's a crying shame, because we are the ones that lose out. I do however believe that with time and perseverance, projects like this could take off and decisively change the way we access and approach knowledge: as something to be shared and grown, not hoarded. I just hope that people like Smith haven't lost faith by then.