Is Wikipedia Worth the Trouble?

by A.J. Rowley on October 13, 2010

Formally launched by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in 2001, Wikipedia — the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” — has become the first (and often only) stop in Internet fact-finding.

With well over ten million articles to date, Wikipedia has evaded overt corporate influence through a non-profit structure and currently ranks among the top ten most visited sites on all of the web.  Or so it would seem.

Of course, all of that sounds about right; but, since the above information is entirely derived from Wikipedia itself we can’t really be too sure, can we?

And even if these facts are true they could have been altered or deleted by the time you verify them for yourself. Such is the trouble with Wikipedia.  But is that reason enough to dismiss it entirely?  Critics like Andrew Keen certainly think so.

In his recent book, The Cult of the Amateur (2007), Keen describes Wikipedia’s “free, user generated content” as a “threat” to “professional institutions” — including both expert offices (like Nobel laureates) and expert resources (like Encyclopedia Britannica). Keen argues that “…few of us have special training, knowledge, or hands-on experience to generate any kind of real perspective” apart from basic, personal opinion.

Keen is hardly alone in this view. And while his argument may be a bit blunt — not to mention somewhat hostile to community-sourced projects like this site — it does contain some truth and is worth keeping in mind.

Still, others are less categorically dismissive of Wikipedia’s presence and popularity, electing, rather, to look beyond these obvious flaws to examine how the site is used.

In an essay from his non-fiction collection, Content (2008), Cory Doctorow observes:

What’s most fascinating about [Wikipedia] entries isn’t their “final” text as currently present on Wikipedia. It is the history page for each, blow-by-blow revision lists that make it utterly transparent where the bodies were buried on the way to arriving at whatever Truth has emerged.

Wikipedia is therefore not simply a replacement for more traditional resources but an entirely different sort of historical artefact altogether.

Consider, for example, James Bridle‘s recent experiment with printing a single Wikipedia article — “The Iraq War” (from December 2004 and November 2009) — into a twelve volume collection that includes: “…arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes ‘Saddam Hussein was a dickhead’.”

Seeing it in print makes Wikipedia feel a bit different, doesn’t it?

So why can’t we draw on both Wikipedia and more traditional resources — (at the same time) and use them to keep each other in balance?

If David Foster Wallace can establish a tense but sensible peace between the dictionary and usage guides in his maddening (but brilliant) essay, “Authority and American Usage” from Consider the Lobster (2006), then such a thing is not only possible but practical.

We should give Wikipedia a chance: it might be worth the trouble after all.

NOTES

Where Wikipedia has thus far evaded overt corporate influence, they have proven rather prone to targeted manipulation and influence. Consider, for example, a recent attempt to alter Wikipedia entries (related to aircraft purchases) from Canadian air force computers in Winnipeg. It won’t be the last scandal, either.

I have refrained from italicizing “Wikipedia” in this post due to the frequency with which it appears.

BOOKS MENTIONED

Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture (New York: Doubleday, 2007).

Cory Doctorow, Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future (San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2008).

David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006).

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Fred Bauder October 13, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Your post hits on a number of issues Wikipedia has to deal with. Conflict of interest is a definite problem. A $50 marketing campaign to promote Kraft Cheese Dinner is not likely to ignore Wikipedia articles on the topic, but it can be very hard while editing or evaluating the articles to determine if specific editors or edits pose a problem. And that is just one convenience food, not a political issue requiring a summary of knowledge adequate for public decision making.

Keeping a record of each edit made, “It is the history page for each, blow-by-blow revision lists that make it utterly transparent where the bodies were buried”, sounds good, but only the current version is shown to the casual reader. Seldom are the “buried bodies” discussed in a way that is accessible; it’s there but in the editing history, or the talk page archives. Only a few thousand people familiar with the inner workings of Wikipedia are skilled enough, should they have time, to dig out what was going on, the progress of the event, the information not included, or removed, and why.

Keen’s view of Wikipedia’s “free, user generated content” as a “threat” to “professional institutions” is Luddite. However, Wikipedia must be put into perspective as a general reference work with the rather modest aim of summarizing the canon of knowledge. For use in one’s own field, as opposed to matters of popular culture, even the best Wikipedia article can only be a brief summary of the generally accepted knowledge shared by that field and hardly more useful than consulting World Book.

Student research should probably include a stop at Wikipedia (and since it was looked at, its citation), but it is what it is, even if excellently done, a summary of generally accepted knowledge that a parrot could recite. Scholars can help by ensuring that it is at least that, but Wikipedia has no mission to be insightful. Profound insight is the cultural need which the work of serious scholars meets.

This is where Keen goes wrong, parroting generally accepted knowledge in a lecture, text, or syllabus is mechanical and reproducible, a niche Wikipedia, and similar compendiums are quite able to adequately fill. However, it must be ensured that they do fill it, and when they fail they should be strongly criticized.

A.J. Rowley October 13, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Insightful comment, Fred — thanks so much!

Hopefully more and more people will acquire the skills to probe Wikipedia’s “inner workings” — perhaps the site’s dismissal as anti-expert by Keen, et al. has discouraged people from doing so.

Jim Clifford October 13, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Good post A.J.

I’ve started talking to my students about how to use Wikipedia, and internet searches more generally, instead suggesting they should only use the library for web based resources. Many of the pages are good enough to use as a starting point to learn something about the topic to make their library research more effective. The better pages have a list of sources to follow up on. If they use it alongside text books and other general sources, it should be a useful tool. I then tell them that like a text book it should not be cited in footnotes. The whole point of a university education is to make our students into critical thinkers; banning them from using one of the most ubiquitous source of information on the web does not help them develop these skills.

Alastair Sweeny October 14, 2010 at 7:54 am

The main problem with Wikipedia is the fact that authors can go anonymous. This leads to cliques with a point of view who impose their prejudices and eliminate dissent. Overall, some of the material is brilliant (some very good Canadian Political Science authors), some garbage, mostly maddeningly incomplete.

The Mediawiki software however is excellent, and we are now using it exclusively for our History of Canada Online and other portals.

Alastair Sweeny

A.J. Rowley October 19, 2010 at 11:19 am

Thanks, Jim — that’s basically my experience with the site.

Well said, Alastair — maybe synching the larger brand-name project with smaller, better curated ones is something to look forward to.

Rick Prukop November 21, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

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