posts tagged with 'wikipedia'
Apparently today is the tenth birthday of Wikipedia. I'm a huge fan of the encyclopedia from user perspective, although as a potential editor I do tend to take exception with how the most vocal and active participants choose to run the place. I was going to expand on these themes in this evening's post until I read The Economist's take on the anniversary; the author says the same things I would except with the authority of a 170 year old publication behind him. So go read that.
As an aside, I'll note that I spent some time this past week looking back over the articles that I wrote way back in the day, and I was surprised to see how little they've been updated since then. That means that not only am I responsible for the majority of the text in, for example, the encyclopedia's piece on the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (a fairly notable group), but that my words have been copied in countless places all over the internet. Not bad for an article that "needs additional citations for verification." I have half a mind to just let them know that the whole thing was original research on my part and should be removed. But I won't, because it's just too well written.
Happy Birthday, Wikipedia
It's the beginning of a new school year, so once again the fifth graders are being introduced to historiography—which is to say, being taught about "sources". Sadly, time does not permit the budding young scholars to investigate any topic more deeply than would be satisfied by a glance into their textbook, but form demands that they be taught at least two facts: that there are things called "primary sources", and that Wikipedia is not reliable. Naturally, the justification for this latter point is that "anyone can edit it".
You know that I think that's ridiculous. There are basically two reasons for there to be "false information" (quote-marked judiciously) on Wikipedia: vandalism and bias. Obviously, the first can't possibly be a problem in a traditionally-edited text, and so it is presumably the cause of teachers' concern. But really, how often is Wikipedia vandalized in a way that would trick even a fifth-grader into thinking that the vandalism was true encyclopedic content? If "ROSA PARKS WAS SO GAAY LOL!" makes it into a school project there are bigger problems than the student's choice of sources. Yes, we can imagine that there are people maliciously changing, say, the birth dates of obscure historical figures; but knowing that Ethan Allen was born in January instead of June is hardly vital to an understanding of the course of the American Revolution.
Plus, you may not be aware of this if you haven't actually read Wikipedia but there are some serious experts—and seriously dedicated people—posting things on that site. Anyone can edit, sure, but User:Magicpiano is going to edit a lot more often than any vandal, and he won't let any shit slip by that doesn't belong on that Ethan Allen page! Which is to say, obvious vandalism is generally dealt with instantly, and subtle vandalism will only be able to hang around on pages that no one is watching; pages that won't, most likely, be needed by fifth-grade researchers.
But what about bias? Surely the random... No, I can't even formulate a hypothetical that would make Wikipedia seem dangerously biased compared to any other historical source. Yes, I noticed recently that anarchists seem to be more active on Wikipedia than Marxists: witness the one-sided treatment dealt out to Hague Congress (1872). But the same research project also led me to A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, by Richard Pipes... who as it turns out was a Cold-War-era analyst for the CIA who argued that there could be no hope of detente with the totalitarian Soviet state. That doesn't make his book useless by any means, it just means that it won't be the only one I read on the subject. And how did I check on Richard Pipes, when I saw how many books he had written about Soviet Communism? I looked him up on Wikipedia, of course!
It isn't even as if that sort of bias is something that bothers fifth-graders—or their teachers, in fact—in the slightest. For the most part they limit themselves to the barest account of facts, and parrot those facts from whatever source they happen to find. Speaking as a historian, most things written for a fifth-grade reading level are, if nothing else, infected by the biases that are almost inevitable in that sort of simplifying and compressing. But that's a problem that is much too big to consider at the end of this already-long post, and one that has nothing to do with Wikipedia in particular.
One final point, just to drive home how much it bothers me to hear people complaining about the collaborative aspect of Wikipedia: Wikipedia is almost certainly the most reliable source about historical events on the internet. Yes, it's written an edited my many people, and you may not know who they are. But everything else on the internet is written by one person (well, one per page... you know what I mean!) and that person's motivations and biases, to say nothing of their actual level of knowledge, are just as opaque as those of the Wikipedia editors. School teachers can't say that kids shouldn't look things up on the internet—the internet is like all the rage these days, with the technology and the interfacing and everything—so they should lay off the Wiki-hate. And also consider getting a degree in history, but I understand if not everyone has the time for that.
I am now a published wikipediast—not that it's hard, you could go and change just about any page on that whole site if you had a mind to, which counts as publishing. But I put alot of effort into my first article, so instead of a blog entry this evening I give you the art Ensemble of Chicago on Wikipedia. Enjoy!
All my writing energy today went to working on the Wikipedia: like reviews on Amazon.com, more public improvement projects for which I'll never receive personal credit. It's all for the betterment of humanity, though. I find, however, that though I can churn out entries here with a bare minimum of thought (as I'm sure you've noticed) the act of writing a review or encyclopedia article for public consumption slows me down to a crawl, as I check every fact twice and mold and reshape each sentence with painstaking care. Clearly, I should note, those are not activities undertaken by all Wikipedia contributors. But they are by me, so my first article isn't even done yet, despite hours of work this afternoon. Almost though, almost. I'm expanding the entry on the Art Ensemble of Chicago; after that I'll move on to other marginalized jazz figures, and after that who knows? Sharing knowledge is just such a joy.