National

Writing culture on the
web: Are we still better
at talking?

Ivan Lanin, a linguist and former executive director of Wikimedia Indonesia, said he could only find a few Wikipedia entries in Indonesian — which were mostly poorly written — when he decided to become a contributor to the site five years ago.

Not much has changed since then, he told The Jakarta Post. As of March this year, there were about 3.6 million English articles in the free online encyclopedia, while there were only about 160,000 entries in Indonesian.

Siska Doviana, the executive director of Wikimedia Indonesia, an independent association established by Indonesian volunteers originating from Indonesian language Wikipedia contributors, said the site was running short of contributors.

Wikipedia English has 3,652 active contributors and 36,800 seasonal contributors, while Wikipedia Indonesia has only 30 active contributors and 200 seasonal contributors, she said.

Compared to other Southeast Asian nations, Wikipedia Indonesia falls behind Wikipedia Vietnam, though it still fares better than Wikipedia Malay. Vietnamese has only 80 million speakers but Wikipedia Vietnam has around 210,000 articles, while Malay has 300 million speakers and Wikipedia Malay only has 118,000 articles.

Wikipedia Indonesia comes in 17th out of the 200 Wikipedia language sites around the world. As of February, the Indonesian language Wikipedia received 1.6 million page views every day.

Siska said the problem could be that the writing and editing work for Wikipedia was voluntary. Last month, Wikimedia Indonesia received a US$40,000 grant for their initiative, “Volunteer Recruitment and Capacity Building”.

The initiative was launched to increase volunteer capacity to design free knowledge projects and attract talented young volunteers from academic circles to participate and contribute using the wiki platform while running a project or writing on the internet.

As much as Rp 90 million ($10,260) will be allocated for a program in cooperation with Semarang State University (SSU) to increase activity on the Javanese language Wikipedia, which currently has only two regular editors since it launched in June 2006. Around Rp 50 million from the grant will be allocated to revive the Sundanese language Wikipedia, which has not had any regular editors since 2009.

Some sociologists believe that Indonesians have long been living in a verbal culture and the shift to a writing culture did not necessarily  happen after the arrival of the Internet. But, not all experts believe that’s the case.

Felicia Utorodewo, a linguist from the University of Indonesia, said the main problem was Indonesians’ lack of ability with the Indonesian language. “Not all Indonesians know how to use the Indonesian language properly. Most Indonesians have traditional languages as their mother tongue, so when they have to write in Bahasa, they still use the logics of their own language.”

Nevertheless, she said that a common mistake Indonesians made in writing was to mix informal, day-to-day speech in their writing. For example, Felicia said, people often left out the subject in conversation and then applied it in written sentences. “There is nothing wrong with using the informal language in writing as long as they follow the grammatical rules.”

Ivan said the lack of a reading habit might be to blame, saying that reading influenced how people wrote because the more books people read the better their writing becomes.

Felicia said that Indonesians had the potential to develop the habit of reading but that it was hampered by the high price of books. She cited the case of Wamena, a town in Papua, where there were no bookstores.

Despite all these problems, Felicia said she was optimistic that writing could become a popular activity for Indonesians, especially with burgeoning social media such as blogs and social networking sites.

“Unlike people in the past who only knew literary works as writing and reading material, people of today can write anything, anytime and anywhere,” she said.

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