In an effort to better understand how video could best serve underrepresented cultures online, I spoke with acclaimed technologist Ethan Zuckerman.

100715-zuckerman-01.jpgEthan Zuckerman is a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and founder of Global Voices - a global community of citizen media authors, an advocacy group that works to preserve freedom of speech online, a media development organization that promotes participatory media in developing nations, and a vast and distributed translation project. Zuckerman is the chair the board of Stichting Global Voices, a board member of Ushahidi, PenPlusBytes and the US programs board of the Open Society Institute. He is a prolific author and speaker on such issues as Quantitative Media Analysis, Free expression and the Digital World and The Wider Web.

(see Zuckerman's TED Talk)
(see Zuckerman address the Open Video Alliance)

Download Full Interview (mp3)

Language is Politically Relevant

"If you are capable of writing in English or in Arabic, there was a political advantage to writing in English and you're much more likely to have a broad influence."

Previously, "we saw a lot of people in the arab world who were writing in English because what they really wanted was representation in the rest of the world. What happened over time, is that after there became enough of an audience domestically, then suddenly it was possible for more people to blog in Arabic because suddenly you had the possibility of having domestic influence because people were following Arabic language blogs; it was a massive shift."

It became a question of "what's in it for me in terms of political power."

Language Issues

While discussing the possibility of Arabic language standardization, Zuckerman framed the issue as "a recently well-solved problem. One of the ways to do it is to write in a colloquial Arabic that is specific to places that have specific industries." He went on to give the example that "you'd use technical Arabic for those built around Computer Shopper Magazine- published in Dubai - and so the colloquial Arabic that's being spoken in Dubai is kind of what technical Arabic sounds like."

Additionally, "Spanish has been kind of verging on Mexican DF (Mexico City) Spanish, because that's the Spanish of telenovelas. - so that's ended up sort of being the colloquial Spanish that people end up agreeing on."

Warning of the potential of video to further fragment communities, Zuckerman discussed Tunisian Arabic, characterizing it as "this bizarre hybrid language - part Italian and part French and part Arabic- and when Tunisians wanted to share what was going on in the Tunisian Revolution, they had to subtitle their own videos in Arabic."

"I think video is great in terms of giving it a richness, but I worry about it in a way, where you end up with a situation where you bring in video but what you end up doing is pointing out how fragmented and difficult Arabic has become...In some ways, video makes that worse."

Wikipedia Cultures

Zuckerman framed the debate as a "culture clash of Wikipedia and other ways of writing online," where Wikipedia itself is a culture and "more to the point...each Wikipedia is a culture."

He recommended that "what you really need to do is you need to understand, not just Wikipedia culture but for the greater Arabic Wikipedia culture, who's in it, what do they speak, how do they think about references - and then you need to think about how to contrast them with the people you want to get to participate in it ...then you want to think about how you align those two things."


While discussing the potential of Egyptian involvement in Arabic Wikipedia content generation, Zuckerman states that "I don't know that this is the moment to get Egyptians involved with a Wikipedia project, for the simple reason that most of the Egyptians that I know that are reasonably technically savvy and care about open culture, are busily trying to overthrow military governments."


Discussing the particulars of university involvement, he posited that "maybe the best people to participate in this are university students at non-American universities in Cairo... at Arabic speaking universities in Cairo. And we start with the hard sciences and we say that the incentive for these guys is to have scholarly output that's recognized by their professors. So maybe we go in and talk to professors about making part of an assignment doing high quality science writing for the Arabic Wikipedia."

YouTube Partnership

What do you think about a Youtube-Wikipedia partnership? "I think YT potentially would be thrilled about the idea. The argument that I've been making is that it seems like it's obvious that what you should have is a Wikipedia-type, citizen-owned YT where we control the content and we control the platform. And that all sounds great, up until the moment you sort of look at it and try to figure out how much it costs to do it...before you slam the door on YT, think about what they're doing for you that you don't want to do."

Zuckerman then reframed the question. "Does Wikipedia need to have the infrastructure of a YT or is there a way for Wikipedia to partner with YT? And my instinct wold be to say that, I would sure try that before I committed to going in a different direction...I don't think that a Wikipedia YT partnership would be a bad thing. I know that it would be hard to do within Wikipedia but I also think that there are all sorts of worthwhile practical reasons to actually work to make it happen."

Ban on Original ResearchScreen_shot_2011-12-13_at_3.31.09_AM.png

We then discussed the topic of video as sourcing and the potential for potential contributors to record information via mobile devices. But Zuckerman pointed out a core obstacle embodied in one of Wikipedia's presets. "The problem is that as soon as you're going out and sourcing something - "here's the piece of video that i shot" - there's an extent to which that in its purest form is original research. I've never been convinced that "no original research" is the best Wikipedia preset but i think that is what you're going to bump into."

Why does this preset exist? "The idea is that you don't want anyone using Wikipedia as their platform for their own original research. What you want is research that has been cited and published elsewhere assembled into an encyclopedia-type article."

He then went on to cite his own work with the Swahili Wikipedia, stating that "if we understand that this is a piece of Swahili culture and we are talking about it as Swahili speakers that know our community - well then obviously we're going to go with original research...It sucks that no one has written about this aspect of our culture but our job is to document our culture."

"So if you want to make an argument that for some of these smaller language Wikipedias, you really want to get over that original research ban because what you really do want is native language documentation of what's going on in the community."

Research Strategies

Exploring the role of video on Wikipedia and the role of Wikipedia and smaller cultures, Zuckerman states that "when you put the two together and you basically say, 'one of the reasons we don't have a good Wikipedia in Bengali is that a lot of aspects of Bengali culture are not well documented and not well cited', you bump into a third issue of original research.

"I would suggest that maybe if you look at that original research issue as a way to limit the other two vast issues and basically say, I'm interested in how video might help us with smaller language Wikipedia and that bumps into the notion of creating and documenting our own content - which on the surface is in conflict with core Wikipedia principles. Does that now mean that we should reconsider those principles? That to me turns into a very interesting philosophical question."

To read the full interview, click here


This research was done by Corey Boling, a graduate student at Columbia University. Email him at

This is a page under The Use of Video a sub-topic of Wikimedia in the Arab World.
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