Editor’s note: Another feature of the sort-of-new The Wikipedian is author bios. This post is authored by occasional contributor Rhiannon Ruff, but from here on make sure to look for the author byline above to see who’s writing.
Earlier this week, The Daily Dot reported on a new study that found Wikipedia has become less politically biased over time, at least where U.S. politics are concerned. The study contrasts with previous data such as mid-2012 research by Engage DC which found that Wikipedia was slightly skewed towards liberal viewpoints.
Researchers Shane Greenstein and Feng Zhu analysed over 70,000 Wikipedia articles for phrases that indicate either Democratic or Republican bias including “Obamacare,” “civil rights” and “illegal immigration”. Their findings indicated that since 2001, Wikipedia has become more neutral as a wider range of editors have become involved in the project. Versions of articles from Wikipedia’s early days in 2001 tended to be slanted towards Democratic viewpoints. More recently, their analysis found Wikipedia shows a balance of views.
However, the findings come with a caveat: it may be that increase in the overall number of articles is balancing out the encyclopedia’s political leaning, such that overall the site is less biased, but individual articles could be slanted to any particular viewpoint.
The new research is particularly interesting coming after heated debates on Wikipedia in 2012 over bias in political articles. For instance, on the Paul Ryan Wikipedia article, editors clashed over perceived bias on both sides: arguments arose that detractors wereadding negative information, while at other points editors argued there was too much “puff” being added. Around the same time, Wikiproject Conservatism came under fire from some editors for perceptions that its members had been attempting to insert Republican viewpoints and counter liberal views in political articles. More recently, questions have been raised about “whitewashing” of controversies from Senator Elizabeth Warren’s biography.
Could it be that political biases vary by article, or perhaps such bias is in the eye of the beholder?
A year ago, I wrote a blog post called “The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2010”. Perhaps, then, I should write a follow-up this year? For some reason, I’m having a harder time of it. Was 2011 less of a newsworthy year for Wikipedia? Not if this Google Insights for Search analysis of Wikipedia-related news stories is to be believed: if anything, Wikipedia was a more prominent news generator this year than last. Make what you will of the proprietary, nontransparent methodology of Google’s news judgment, but at least it seems Wikipedia has been plenty newsworthy.
It’s my personal judgment that Wikipedia was somehow less newsworthy than it was last year. Maybe that speaks to the absence of WikiLeaks / Wikipedia confusion in the public discussion, or maybe it speaks to the fact that I think some of the big topics simply repeat.
Whichever is the case, I say let’s do what we did last year, and count down through the most important and / or impactful news stories about the year in Wikipedia, using my own proprietary, nontransparent methodology, which is to say these are my personal judgments:
10. Superinjunctions — In May, Wikipedia was one of several websites (notably also Twitter) that came into conflict with UK court orders—”superinjunctions”—seeking to suppress scandalous gossip about sports and film celebrities (I know, right?). Wikipedia servers, like Twitter’s, are based in the U.S. and so are protected by the First Amendment. But that doesn’t mean some won’t try.
8. Wikipedia meddling —Politicians don’t fare well when they try to edit Wikipedia. Nor do some famous newspaper columnists. You know who seems to an even worse job of this? PR firms. As I’ve written about more than once, it’s not impossible to contribute to Wikipedia on a topic you are close to without getting burned, but those who are determined to subvert Wikipedia will keep getting burned.
7. Drawbacks of Wikipedia’s openness — It’s not just politicians who sometimes run afoul of Wikipedia… their supporters do, too. This summer, Sarah Palin said something about Paul Revere that was factually inaccurate, and anonymous someones presumed to be in her corner tried to change relevant Wikipedia articles… and then a few days later, Michele Bachmann said something about John Wayne’s hometown that was incorrect and John Quincy Adams’ status as a founding father that basically is too, and unhelpful Wikipedia edits commenced. Oh, and of course Stephen Colbert was there to fan the flames. To paraphrase a real founding father, if eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, so too is it the price of an online encyclopedia anyone can edit.
6. But how open is it, really? — This will come up again later, but many Wikipedians have become concerned that Wikipedia is too difficult to use, both for reasons related to the community and the once-revolutionary but now-creaky collaborative tools (i.e. the MediaWiki software that powers Wikipedia and its sister sites) and the often-insular community that defines it. Over Thanksgiving weekend, search engine-focused blogger Danny Sullivan published a blog post blasting Wikipedia for being “closed” and “unfriendly” and, even though he wasn’t very friendly (read: a total jerk) in his brief on-site activity, his point that Wikipedia is difficult to use is not incorrect. Wikipedia volunteer developers have created multiple versions of an Article Feedback Tool, something called “WikiLove”, a rather condescending smiley face / frowny face tool still in testing, and there are more user interface (UI) changes in store. But if the community itself is the issue, that’s a much trickier question.
5. Integration with museums and archives — One of the most interesting things happening on Wikipedia these days is the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) project, in which researchers collaborate with the aforementioned institutions to make their material more easily accessed by Wikipedians for use on Wikipedia. Started by Liam Wyatt, who received considerable attention in 2010 for a stint as “Wikipedian in residence” at the British Museum, the project has grown far beyond him. In the U.S., the Smithsonian and National Archives are now participants, with attention paid by The Atlantic, among other news organizations. If Wikipedia’s reputation for accuracy and depth improves in the years ahead, the GLAM project will play a big part.
4. Wikipedia’s gender imbalance — As I asked in February: “Could it really be that just 13% of Wikipedia editors are women?” Well, nobody knows for sure, but this is the percentage of women who participated in the Wikimedia Foundation’s most recent editors survey, and in 2011 the issue attracted renewed attention. A story in the New York Times by the publication’s lead wiki-watcher, Noam Cohen, led to new internal discussion over the site’s gender balance, a renewed outreach effort by Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardener, and and a Wikipedia “fork” of the Change the Ratio campaign spearheaded by my friend Amy Senger. Has it worked? Well… who’s to say just yet? It seems unlikely that Wikipedia participation will reflect the actual gender balance of the wider world—and I would say it needn’t actually do that—but all parties would probably be happy to see a measurable uptick when the next survey rolls around.
3. Wikipedia occupies itself — In early October, the Italian-language Wikipedia edition turned off the lights temporarily in protest against a proposed law that would require websites to issue corrections, or face penalties. The protest received worldwide coverage; the proposed law has not become law. According to Google Insights, this was in fact the most-searched Wikipedia-related news story of the year, but I’m exercising my own editorial discretion here. Meanwhile on the (much more widely read) English-language Wikipedia, similar measures have been considered in response to the U.S. Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) however nothing has come of it (yet).
2. Falling editor retention — I begin with the caveat that this should probably be number one; this might seem a bit esoteric to the outsider, but in fact this is a proxy for questions about the long-term survivability of Wikipedia as a project, and is such a huge topic that I can’t properly wrap my head around it.
In August, I wrote a response to a Gawker post titled “Wikipedia is Slowly Dying”, arguing that Wikipedia had lost its mojo, and the “cognitive surplus” that helped build it had now moved on to places like Facebook and Twitter. This is wrong for reasons I only partly articulated at the time, but there’s no question that Wikipedia has fewer editors than it did last year, and the year before, and the year before.
The Wikimedia Foundation’s own research shows that new editors face longer articles offering fewer clear opportunities to get involved (which shouldn’t be a surprise, given the site’s impressive growth) and have a harder time making their edits stick.
The above chart, also prepared by the Wikimedia Foundation, shows it is clearly in flux: the explosive growth of participation crested several years ago, has been in slow decline since. No one really knows what’s going on with the direction of Wikipedia’s participation rate—regardless of gender—but it has been a major topic of discussion and will continue to be.
1. Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary — My choice for the top story last year was also about Wikipedia—the controversy over its ubiquitous fundraising banners—and so it is again. As much as Wikipedia strives to avoid self-referentiality in its own encyclopedia pages, the one thing Wikipedians have in common (and they often do not have much) is a fascination with Wikipedia. And this year was a big milestone: the 10th anniversary since Jimmy Wales (and, oh yeah, Larry Sanger) started up a “wiki” encyclopedia, very much as an afterthought.
To celebrate the milestone, Wikipedia held events around the world, and it happened to be a good time to be a Wikipedia commentator: I was interviewed for Ukrainian TV, and I collaborated with the creative agency JESS3 to produce a web video called “The State of Wikipedia”, narrated by Jimbo himself. As of this writing, it has more than 135,000 views on YouTube, making it one of the bigger things I did this year. Here’s looking forward to an interesting 2012.
The year 2010 will be over and out in another day’s time, which means there is no time like the present to look back on the year that was at Wikipedia. Instead of some kind of highfalutin’ think piece on what the past year, like, meant, let’s make this an easy-to-write, easier-to-read listicle outlining the biggest stories of the year involving Wikipedia—at least from an English-speaking, North American perspective. (For it is this perspective from which I am most qualified to write.)
For better or worse, here are the stories that defined Wikipedia, on-site and off, in 2010:
10. Wikipedia backups discovered — This occurred just in the past few weeks, and has not received a great deal of attention outside of Wikipedia circles, but to Wikipedia enthusiasts, it’s a big one. In mid-December, Wikimedia Foundation developer Tim Starling found several files dating back to Wikipedia’s first three months of existence. These had long been presumed to be gone for good, but now Wikipedia’s earliest days are much easier to reconstruct. Joseph Reagle of Harvard’s Berkman Center extracted the first 10,000 edits and has placed them on his own website for viewing, and in the future a more accessible reconstruction may be created, similar to the one at nostalgia.wikipedia.org.
9. Cuba’s Wikipedia copycat — EcuRed is the Castro regime’s attempt to emulate Wikipedia. At least, in terms of look and feel: EcuRed may well be built using wiki software, but content updates are strictly reserved for unknown pre-approved editors. The entry for Estados Unidos is amusing. Surprisingly, there is no entry for Capitalismo, only Imperialismo, fase superior del capitalismo. Translated from Spanish, the website’s front page proclaims it was “born from the desire to create and disseminate knowledge with everyone and for everyone from Cuba and the world.” It would probably more more correct to say that it was born of a desire to create and disseminate propaganda for Fidel and Raúl Castro and their cronies.
8. Mike Godwin vs. the FBI — This was just weird. During the summer, the FBI sent a cease-and-desist letter to Wikipedia demanding that they remove occurrences of the FBI seal from Wikipedia articles about the agency. According to the FBI, use of the logo conflicted with the law. According to Wikimedia Foundation general counsel Mike Godwin, the law cited was about preventing people from impersonating FBI officials. Godwin’s sardonic reply—”While we appreciate your desire to revise the statute to reflect your expansive vision of it, the fact is that we must work with the actual language of the statute, not the aspirational version”—amused many. Two months later, Godwin resigned his position at Wikimedia. Were the two incidents connected? That was the whisper, but neither Mike nor the Foundation have clarified the reasons for his departure. It’s entirely possible that the two are not connected, but the whispering hasn’t been refuted. The FBI seal’s presence on Wikipedia, and Mike Godwin’s famed wit elsewhere, live on.
7. Wikimedia expansion to India — Wikipedians are all too aware of the fact that most of their contributions come from the rich, Western nations in the Anglosphere and Western Europe, but they yearn for participation to grow much beyond. As in the global economy, much growth may be found in the BRICs. Among industrializing countries, interest in Wikipedia has been especially strong in India, which is being rewarded with the first non-U.S. office of the Wikimedia Foundation. (For what it’s worth, I myself attended a Wikipedia-oriented conference in Bangalore this past January.)
6. Wikipedia gets a new look — Bet you didn’t notice this until months after it happened, but in the first half of 2010, Wikipedia received its first major redesign in several years. Gone was the “Monobook” skin and in was the “Vector” look. Why change? Wikipedia is always looking for ways to make the site easier to read—and easier to edit—and there had been concern for some time that the site design was becoming outdated, even in some ways confusing. Perhaps the biggest change involved moving the search field from the lefthand sidebar to the top right corner, a placement more common among popular websites. And the result? The number of individuals contributing during the second half of 2010 has been mostly flat, and even down slightly. Whatever drives people to contribute to Wikipedia, or stay away, is a force more powerful than web design.
5. Flagged revisions, er, pending changes — For years, the German-language Wikipedia has maintained a unique system for improving the reliability of its pages: contributions by new and infrequent users are held for review by more trusted editors. The result has been an encyclopedia taken far more seriously by academics in that country, so Wikipedians on the larger (and looser) English Wikipedia decided to give it a try. First called “flagged revisions” and later changed to the arguably more intuitive “pending changes” (yes, there was a debate about this), a number of articles were protected in this manner. The result was inconclusive: while a clear majority of participants voted to continue employing some form of pending changes, there was no consensus on just how to do it. For now, the project lies dormant.
4. Wikipedia in education — This is not one story, and it’s not unique to the past calendar year: encyclopedias have been staples of term paper bibliographies for decades (at least) but the rise of Wikipedia has turned this on its head. Where teachers were once content to let students cite Britannica on any number of subjects, many (if not most) now ban students from using Wikipedia in assignments. But 2010 may be the year in which educators learned to stop worrying and accommodate (if not love) Wikipedia. Time and debate have allowed more professional educators to see that Wikipedia is a legitimate starting point for research, and Wikipedia’s own imperfections provide numerous teachable moments. ZDNet education writer Christopher Dawson’s well-argued “Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia” is a good example of the former, while classroom projects at UC Berkeley and the University of Rhode Island show there is great promise for the latter.
3. Larry Sanger reports Wikimedia to the FBI — The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Wikimedia Foundation sure got to know each other this year. In April, estranged Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger sent a missive to the FBI reporting the Wikimedia Foundation for hosting “child pornography” and other obscene images on Wikipedia sister site Wikimedia Commons. Among the contested images were nude artistic works depicting the underaged and sexually explicit images featuring adults. Wikipedia’s commitment to the free availability of information can be controversial; name a body part or disease and you are going to see a picture of it on that Wikipedia page. There is even a specific policy related to this question, called “Wikipedia is not censored“. But does this mean that anything goes? Even after Sanger clarified that he understood no actual prurient images photographs of child sexual molestation* were in the site’s collection, some images were deleted, and the FBI pursued no action in any case. Although resolved for now, you can bet the controversy over the line between “censorship” and “editorial policy” will come up again.
2. Wikileaks and Wikipedia confusion — You may protest that Wikileaks has nothing to do with Wikpedia. In fact, I wrote “Wikileaks: No Wiki, Just Leaks” over the summer, when the mysterious online outfit published its Afghan War Diary. But the mere presence of the word “wiki” in the the not-a-wiki site’s name has become a potential PR problem for Wikipedia. When Wikileaks re-entered the news with the publication of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables in the fall, Jimmy Wales openly criticized Wikileaks, telling Charlie Rose: “If I had some information, the last thing I would ever do with it is send it to Wiikileaks.” Even Larry Sanger published a critical commentary about Wikileaks on his own site; although Sanger only tangentially referenced Wikipedia in his comment, the press took up that angle regardless. As long as Wikileaks remains a well-known and much-criticized public entity, Wikipedia will have to keep repeating the message that the two organizations have nothing to do with one another. Which leads us to #1…
1. The face of Wikipedia fundraising — It was perhaps fortuitous that the latest round of Wikileaks debate occurred at the same time the Wikimedia Foundation was undertaking the most sustained and visible PR push in its history. Since late November, Wikimedia sites have featured large banners across the top, asking readers to donate money toward its goal of raising $16 million—the largest amount yet requested, though still not quite enough to cover 2011′s expected operating budget. Most banners featured Wales’ face prominently, asking readers to consider his “personal appeal” to contribute. While effective, they’ve also been a source of annoyance and subject of derision. The New York Observer headline, “Staring Contest with Jimmy Wales To Go On Indefinitely”, was among the politer expressions of this viewpoint. On the other hand, they are working: at the campaign’s outset, Wikimedia collected in one week what they took in over a month last year. As of this writing, the organization had just about a million dollars left to go. Not too shabby. And Henry Blodget will get a chance to recycle his call for Wikipedia to deploy advertising next year.
That was the year that was, at Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation. Next year will be another. If you think I’ve missed or messed up anything important, please share in the comments. See you in 2011!
Up front: I respect McCandless and like what he does, which includes some interesting and thoughtful work, especially his print of Left vs. Right (U.S. and Rest of the World editions) that is better than most professional political analysts could produce. Separately, I am collaborating with friends on a Wikipedia visualization project of our own, so call me an interested observer, but note also that I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing lately.
I have reproduced only the top section of “Articles of War” below, for the purposes of commentary (click through to see the full thing on McCandless’ site):
The first thing to know about “Articles of War” is that it was based on an essay to be found in the recesses of Wikipedia called “Lamest edit wars” that is specifically kept in the site’s intra-wiki space because, as it states at the top: “This page contains material that is kept because it is considered humorous.” McCandless & Co. do give credit where it is due, but that Wikipedia page surely does not and never did intend to be definitive — it’s just a series of cheekily-written paragraphs about various arguments occurring over time, so there is nothing like meaningful numbers to be gleaned from it.
Instead, McCandless and his researchers decided to generate data to visualize these edit wars by counting the total number of edits over each article’s lifetime, counting not just the edits specifically related to that particular dispute (a difficult and time-consuming thing to research, it goes without saying) but every single edit, ever, thereby giving a grossly distorted view of each article’s history. I’ll give them the fact that if one looks to the legend in the top lefthand corner, it indicates that the number listed (and I presume the size of each box) relates to the “Total no. of edits” but even if readers do notice that, it is at best confusing.
Likewise, the articles’ relative position on the chart accords to their creation, not when the described dispute took place. If you think 2,000+ edits were expended on a photograph in the Cow-tipping article in the middle of 2001, that’s too bad, but you were reasonably misled. Nor would would you know that the article did not include a photograph until several years later.
What you are left with is a decent visualization of how frequently edited some randomly selected articles — some popular, some timely, some but not all controversial — happen to be. Why not simply show that? Focusing on this alone we can see that the following articles have attracted tens of thousands of edits over the years:
That’s not linkbait enough for you? Then please do the research.
Meanwhile, the infographic is also a little too snarky for its own good, especially toward its chosen subject. Color-coding is used to categorize certain types of edit wars; one is labeled “American Cultural Superiority” and exists mainly to identify debates between U.S. and British spellings. Which I find a little… superior itself, but hey, I suppose it’s a misdemeanor violation. Worse is that edit wars involving Wikipedia and site co-founder Jimmy Wales are coded as “Religion.” Too cute. Or maybe just an oversight?
Another oversight concerns an on-wiki debate about whether the most famous Palin was, at the time of its occurrence, Monty Python’s Michael or Alaska’s former governor Sarah. (Since then, I believe the one with decades of contributions to comedy has been definitively usurped by the mavericky one’s more recent, er, contributions.) According to “Articles of War” this happened in 2003. But if you think about it, this makes no sense at all — of course this happened in 2008, when John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. And the Lamest edit wars essay itself mentions that this happened in 2008. Pure oversight to be sure, but I have to wonder what other mistakes the research team made.
To their partial credit, they have opened their Google Spreadsheets for public inspection, so it’s clear they at least intended to impart real information. And there you can see that they are indeed using the total number of edits over time and that their “Palin” error was made early on. That seems to put the responsibility on the researchers, rather than McCandless himself, but of course it’s a total package.
I hold McCandless to a standard that I don’t the jokers at Cracked* or Something Awful because their job is to make you laugh, while McCandless’ job, according to his website’s own tagline, is to take “issues, ideas, knowledge, data” — and make it easier to understand by visualizing it. There are certainly issues and ideas to be found in “Articles of War” — but knowledge and data, not so much. And though I am getting a little more rant-y than usual about this, I do aim to be constructive, so I would very much like to see this infographic re-done with some extra research. This blog post may serve as a guide if they so choose. I hope they do.
P.P.S. Am I being nitpicky to add that “Articles of War” appears to convey that Wikipedia’s articles about The Beatles and Jesus were created prior to 2001? That is to say before Wikipedia itself began? I don’t actually think so.
Starting in March, a longtime Wikipedian and co-host of the Wikipedia Weekly podcast, Liam Wyatt, began an unusual experiment: he has become, for a short while at least, a volunteer “Wikipedian in Residence” at the British Museum in London (which I visited in high school and where I touched the Rosetta Stone, when no one was looking, not that you care). It’s the first time such an institution has created such a position (voluntary though this arrangement is) and it points toward a future where organizations with significant cultural material (GLAMs, as this project calls them) may appoint or hire individuals to be representatives or ambassadors to Wikipedia.
Along the way, Wyatt and the British Museum are doing something very interesting: they are offering cash prizes for raising articles to Featured-level status on topics related to the British Museum. From the project page:
The British Museum is offering five prizes of £100 (≈$140USD/€120) at their shop/bookshop for new Featured Articles on topics related to the British Museum in any Wikipedia language edition. Ideally, the topics will be articles about collection items.
This is the first time an organisation in the UK has put out a prize that recognises the value of fine articles on Wikipedia. This is a recognition that Wikipedia work is not only good quality but is consistent with the outreach aspect of the Museum’s mission to engage the public.
It’s an inventive idea, even if some of the rules are a little unclear: it almost sounds like it requires the creation of a brand new article, though that doesn’t seem to be the case. Meanwhile, there are already a dozen or so articles on the English-language Wikipedia currently judged to be Good, B, or C-quality, according to Wikipedia’s internal rating system. Though the prize is pointedly offered in any language edition, most will surely be won in the English, German or French language versions, and at least a few of the aforementioned English articles will be the five ones improved by the winners.
And in keeping with Wikipedia’s “There is no deadline” ethos (related to the concept of “eventualism“), the competition runs until all prizes are claimed. I wouldn’t be surprised if they went fast, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that leads to another interesting situation: most quality articles have several major contributors, as was pointed out on a Wikipedia mailing list this week.
As Wyatt points out, getting an outside organization to care about “the value of good quality articles on Wikipedia in their own right” is a significant achievement, and the first of a kind. Now that the English-language Wikipedia has grown to include far more articles (3 million) than its veteran editors (a few thousand editing on a daily basis) can possibly handle, more ideas will be needed to generate new content for Wikipedia. Perhaps this represents the next step in the development of the human-powered “content management system” for Wikipedia. Wyatt hopes that other museums will follow in the British Museum’s lead; as someone who works with companies, associations and other organizations that are frequently concerned about how they are represented on Wikipedia, I think outposts for representatives to the Wikipedia community from many organizations can be a good idea, though sorting out the conflict of interest issues is likely to be different for each.
Here’s a fun passage from a forthcoming collection of essays, “Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays”, edited by David Hering and based on a conference for DFW scholars held in Liverpool last summer:
I want to suggest that modern conception of the encyclopedia, particularly Wikipedia, challenges earlier arboreal models. It is possible for the encyclopedia to no longer imply totalization and containment, but release and an enlargement of possibilities. Structurally, both Wikipedia and Infinite Jest are always threatening to overspill, to negate the purpose of their organizing principles, if indeed they ever really had any. At any moment, the encyclopedia may become the anti-encyclopedia, an infinite procession, similar, I would argue, to the “infinite”-ness of Infinite Jest. As always when one reaches the end of a novel of such magnitude, one asks, “Why did it stop exactly where it did?” and “Could it have continued for another thousand pages?”
Granted, it’s just a tiny snippet sent to me by my friend and fellow DFW enthusiast Matt Bucher, who is also working on the book, but there are a few points worth considering here.
Although perhaps a bit superficial, I like the comparison between Wikipedia and Infinite Jest, a book whose description usually includes terms such as “sprawling” and “doorstop” and often contains references to its 1,079 pages and 388 endnotes. Not for nothing has Infinite Jest been considered an “encyclopedicnovel“.
What’s more, the notion that “the encylopedia no longer impl[ies] totalization and containment” is mighty scary to those who grew up with (or work for) Britannica. It’s a paradigm shift which has already begat a philosophical divide frequently discussed here at The Wikipedian, although some nostalgists are changing their minds.
Infinite Jest surely could have kept on telling stories about the Incandenza family, the students at Enfield Tennis Academy, residents of the Ennett House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic] and geopolitical turmoil surrounding the Great Concavity for as long as Wallace liked. So too could many Wikipedia articles continue onward, except that their contributors decided they had said their piece. A casual connection to be sure, but a fun one to think about.
Wikipedia, billed as the “free encyclopedia,” is not really an encyclopedia at all but an online magazine written by volunteers who do not need to have any specialized knowledge on anything at all.
The Web site says the content is mainly based on anonymous contributions. Anyone who can access the Web site can make changes to articles. I find it odd that someone who has extensive knowledge of a subject wouldn’t want the world to know his or her name. Wikipedia specifically states, “Visitors do not need specialized qualifications to contribute.” Does this make anyone else leery? This means an 11-year-old, who thinks Super Mario Galaxy is based on real planets, could write or edit the entry on the solar system.
Yes, well. This is an excerpt from a student newspaper column at the University of Idaho, so perhaps it’s not fair to pick on this particular individual. It is, however, quite obvious that she is not terribly familiar with how Wikipedia works. If the author wishes to believe that information from Super Mario Galaxy would be allowed to stand on the Solar System article, I am not about to disabuse her of this notion.
The rest of the column a) professes that students should not cite Wikipedia articles in class papers, and b) students should take advantage of the university library. I agree with both points, as I am sure do her professors and the Wikimedia Foundation as well.
These deserve greater consideration because they are the work of individuals who have some academic knowledge of how Wikipedia works — not to mention the reach they enjoy. As time permits, I may get around to publishing them in this space. If you have any thoughts, drop me a line or leave a comment here.
Straw man arguments against Wikipedia are fairly commonplace — it’s difficult to generalize accurately about a website with nearly 3 million pages and 65 million visitors (last month). Here’s just one, from University of Washington professors Michael Eisenberg and Alison J. Head, published in the Seattle Times last week. It’s about the research habits of students, and although the op-ed summarizes a paper about more than Wikipedia, you can tell it was a focal point:
The large majority of students we interviewed said they begin with Wikipedia, the vast, online peer-to-peer encyclopedia — despite professors’ cautions about Wikipedia as an authoritative source. As one student put it, Wikipedia is ideal for “presearch,” or big-picture background “in good English” before moving on to more serious research. Most students also said they don’t tell their professors they use Wikipedia; they simply avoid citing it in their reports.
But we’re not here to debate Wikipedia. We want students learning how to select the right sources and use them aware of limitations. Wikipedia, for example, may be suitable for presearch, but not for definitive judgments. Learning these differences is essential in our digital world because so much of what’s out there is flawed or incomplete.
Actually, it sounds like you are here to debate Wikipedia, especially as it seems that students have already figured out what it is you aim to show them, namely that Wikipedia is not to be relied upon for “definitive judgments.” So where’s the problem? And why complain about something that’s not?
I decided to have a look at the actual research paper, also produced by Eisenberg and Head. It turns out that there is more information there about how students really do seem to get this:
In our sessions, students also discussed concerns over Wikipedia and accuracy. However, most participants believed that they, themselves, had the ability to discern the credibility of a Wikipedia source, based on their “gut level” interpretation of Wikipedia’s rating system (e.g., posted notes by editors such as, “This article needs additional citations for verification”).
I go to Wikipedia just so to get an understanding of a topic. Like, I did a paper on Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia and I went to Wikipedia first just to check it out. I looked at the history of Puerto Rico and then, Puerto Ricans in the United States. Just to get a basic understanding, so that, I could say to myself, okay, I know the beginning now, I know the current situation, I’m okay, and now I’ve got some citations and stuff, I’ve got a stepping stone to get deeper into the issue I’ve chosen.
I highly recommend “FIGURE 3: Why Do Students Use Wikipedia?”; I’d say it answers the question definitively. Among the reasons explained in the paper is that Wikipedia can provide students with access points into difficult topics:
Students who used scholarly databases after a Wikipedia search said that they avoided starting with scholarly databases first because it was “too much too soon.” Overall, students reported that scholarly articles had “too much technical jargoabout” and “were often not up to date as Wikipedia.”
All are great points. On the last one, Wikipedia is especially unique, and this really underscores the profound development Wikipedia represents. I am fairly certain I was not aware of Wikipedia by the time I graduated from college in early 2002, and I certainly didn’t use it in any research projects. But I know I’m far from alone from wishing I’d had it to consult when I was in school — far more than Facebook, to be sure.
If the professors have any complaint I agree with (from the paper, not the op-ed) it is this:
While some students mentioned the penalties for using Wikipedia for course-related research assignments (e.g., ranging from public humiliation in class to receiving a failing grade), we found the majority of students ignored the negatives and went to the site anyway. Most students depended on and used Wikipedia for information cited in papers, but just never included Wikipedia entries on their Works Cited page.
Interesting point. There should be a way to do this. I would certainly support a system, accepted by university professors, for students to acknowledge that Wikipedia helped shape their research. Wikipedia is no substitute, but it should be considered an aid at least on par with Cliffs Notes. Better still, if a professor challenged an assertion in a student’s work and the wrong bit came from Wikipedia, it would be a pedagogic bonus and true service to correct that error. And there are no better professors to start doing so than Michael Eisenberg and Alison J. Head.
Lih appears on the Wikipedia Weekly podcast and has been on Wikipedia since 2003 as the user Fuzheado, so he’s in a good position to be writing the first (to my knowledge) book-length history of Wikipedia. I’m only a couple chapters in as of yet, but I’ve already learned a few things I hadn’t known before, like the Spanish Fork and WP co-founder Larry Sanger’s Oregon connection. It also provides a useful overview of the encyclopedia market in the late 1990s around the time Jimmy Wales was running something called Bomis.com — which I distinctly remember having visited and not quite understood what was it was all about, a circumstance Lih more than explains to my satisfaction.
On the other hand, it does seem at times a bit self-congratulatory, especially the opening chapter, covering the Wikimania 2005 conference, and including narration of the Wikipedians present giving themselves a round of applause. This may not be the most inviting introduction for the Wikipedia newcomer, but it’s not a major distraction.
When I finish I’ll probably have something closer to a real book review, but for right now let me approvingly point out the very clever back cover: