Lilliputians and Yahoos
These days there is a huge number of requests for closure of wikipedias in African Languages. The issue is controversial as obviously one can look at them from a number of conflicting points of view. From one end you can pretty much say these requests are discriminatory in nature, as they tend to ignore the potential amount of public for information published in such languages and they deliberately ignore the objective problems (low alphabetization, lack of connectivity, to name but the first that come to mind) that slow down the production rate for such projects. On the other end, there is a number of practical problems associated with the management of an empty project, as spammers do not know linguistic boundaries and must be dealt with no matter if you have users for a project or not.
I do not know what will come out of the current discussion, but I am honestly amazed by the presence of a sacred cow in the middle of the field. While lots of people are ready to discuss whether a wiki in African Language should be moved to the Incubator or not, and do discuss it with lots of detail about how much production was there under what conditions, nobody makes what would seem to be the next logical step: people are stubbornly avoiding to ask themselves whether Wikipedia is a universal model or not.
In my absolutely personal and humble opinion, it is quite evident that writing an encyclopaedia according to wikipedia standards is a 100% Euro-American behaviour. The underlying encyclopaedic model is based on that produced by the Enlightenment model and the social model of a wiki has been created by Anglo-Saxons who made a software that is perfect for their needs. Now, as it turns out, other cultures appear to be far from enthusiast about using it. Those who DO use it are mostly people who are
bilingual in English, and create a project in their languages for sake of seeing them represented in such a cliquey environment, but in the end do get their relevant info from en.wiki, as most of the planet does. Over and over again you are going to be asked by those people WHY they should take the time to translate things in their languages, when en.wiki is already there, ready to be used.
In reality, all wikis are made of very small numbers. With the incredible penetration that the internet has in the western world, I remember a total number of ~50K voters for the election of the Trustees. This would make a very small number even for a radical political group like Hamas. And yet it's all the wiki-model for sociality could gather by summoning ALL its languages together in environments that are 100% wikipedia-ready. This has nothing to do with writing an encyclopaedia, as the thousands of mediawiki based failed projects that crowd the internet can easily prove. On the opposite, the idea of an on-line encyclopaedia (and all kinds of on-line manuals) are the one and only field in which this model could manage to capture audience enough for a working project to be born.
I'm afraid that what the current situation with the African wikis is telling us is much more relevant than moving a project from one server to another. It's rather about the feasibility of imposing Euro-American media on other cultures. You can pretty much impose the European tonal system on African musicians, and they sure can learn it. Eventually you'll get results ranging from Duke Ellington to Barry White. You may simply adore them, but are they 'African' at all? The answer is no, they are not.
All cultures have their social models, and most of them considers the Euro-American social standards as weird and remote as those of the Yahoos were to their Equine Masters in Swift's works. Now when you develop a software that is broadly based upon a given model of social interaction this definitely becomes an issue. Localization is not just a matter of choosing another alphabet, it's a matter of transposing a whole train-of-thought into another and make it usable. It's NOT about making "strings" understandable, it's about making "processes" agreeable.
So I'm afraid it's time for us to quit 'educating the poor stupid savages' and simply start to humbly ask what they would find more natural to use. Because in the end it's always the market (the people, that is) who dictates the answers. And what the Africans and most Asians are saying is a big wiki-yawn. Instead of being accused to be 'lazy' (because such is the implication of most of the ongoing discussion) they should be heard. Too bad that something tells me that the average Euro-American is far from the maturity it takes for such a step.
Yet maybe this is good news, after all. It's much better to wait for a native developer to make a software that will fit his own native culture than it would be to see more and more web 2.0 marketing rubbish thrown upon them. When the Africans refuse to work with wikis they are not weak: they are strong enough to ignore the N-th colonial gadget being pushed upon them. It remains to be seen if they will have the guts to make the next step: produce a tool that better fits them and use it.
Anyway, this is but a matter of time. As globalization advances it becomes more and more of a commercial advantage for people to develop their software offshore. The number of non Euro-Americans who actually design and make everyone's IT tools can only grow. So get ready for the time in which non Euro-Americans will discuss on THEIR media whether keeping en.wiki on-line makes sense or not. Given the state of the dollar it can happen much more quickly than we would expect. And given the much larger expansion of mobile phones with respect to the Internet... maybe it's already there, and it simply happens to be located on another medium, one in which wikis do not even exist, by all practical means.
Wikis maybe relevant for western and post-communist countries (all of which have deep roots in the Enlightenment mindset), they may even become central to their everyday information flow... and it's a still a LOOOONG way from being even just known to exist on most of the planet. We, the westerners, are LOCAL, as anybody else. So who is lazy, in the end? Those Africans who do not give a damn about becoming Europeans, or those Europeans who do not take the time to respect the differences?
Funnily enough, you won't find any such issue in the meta discussion... maybe because 99% of those who are discussing happen to be... yes, you got it! They are almost all Euro-Americans, Oceania Anglo-Saxons, Japanese and post-Communists :)
Was it done on purpose? No, I don't really think so. So how did it happen? Now... try and use a bottle to gather stones. It's made for water. It will get a few stones, if they are small enough to get through the neck, but anyone in his mind will carry stones in a box, maybe on a lorry, but certainly not in a bottle. When the software you make is built to manage Enlightenment based social models what that software will gather is mostly Euro-Americans. And that's it. People can discuss as much as they please about choosing servers, but wikis are never going to be an answer for native cultures, unless those cultures quit their being "native" to become somehow "tamed".