WikiWhat?

I have often argued that the perception of education we have in the Western world is very frustrating. We value institutionalized knowledge over traditional knowledge – which, in a certain sense, basically means education is largely a product of privilege. An individual with a degree is viewed as having been educated, where a tradesman or farmer, individuals who consume and utilize extremely useful knowledge, are not regarded in the same way as someone with a degree from a formal institution.

This is why Wiki works – because the idea is that it does not overemphasize the value of a degree, but lets the community, or any individual possessing knowledge, act as a contributing member of a knowledge producing population. I can understand the viewpoint that it has become an anarchy moderated by a “gang rule”, but the rules and conditions are necessary to maintain an information pool that stays neutral and informative rather than pushing agendas or perpetuating propaganda.

I love the idea of free knowledge so much – and the fact that anyone can contribute. In fact, I rarely have time to know all the information I want to know. It is extremely helpful that in the past 24 hours, there are already separate Wiki pages for the Panama Papers, the Panama Papers Leaks, and Individuals suspected in the Panama Papers.

While looking for the edit dates of the aforementioned pages, I got distracted and searched for other recent events. In an effort to understand why it was taking me 15 tries and multiple hours to complete an easy reading assignment, I also derailed long enough to read about mental fatigue.

As informative, neutral, and open as Wiki aims to be, and as much as I want to support the idea that everyone should contribute to knowledge, there are definite guidelines that need to be followed.

I was particularly struck by this quote in the article about Black Confederates:

The rapid spread of black Confederate soldier narratives is a function not only of proponents’ apparent desire to openly admire the Confederacy without appearing to favor a white supremacist society and government but also of the rise of inexpensive and easy-to-use digital tools.

I believe the issues of the Black Confederate narrative also serve to excuse the glorification of the confederacy because African-American soldiers “fought” for it. I can just hear someone saying “It wasn’t about slavery, black soldiers fought for the confederacy” in the exact same tone that people say “I’m not racist; I have black friends.”

Then history does become a product that must be filtered through review and a set of guidelines. How do we rectify using our training and education to produce correct and objective information with appropriate sources and context without regarding our education as more important or valuable than traditional knowledge?

I like this quote:

“I nor the other blogger claim no more authority than you. . . . You and yours have repeatedly shown that you do not have a grasp of the original source material that you present. However, the other blogger and I have history degrees which is not the be-all-to-end-all on the situation, but it does help us when we are working with source materials. . . . [W]e have a background understanding of how to work with those items.[24]

Perhaps in the end it’s not so much about the knowledge, but knowing how to handle it and how to care for it properly. As much as I want to acknowledge that all forms of knowledge are equal, I am most guilty of, after years of anthropological training, telling people with biased opinions that they are not experts on society just because they exist in it.

In fact I take it personally when people think they understand society, ethnic relations, and cultural dynamics better than I do just because they watch NBC Nightly News and have an opinion.

Where is this balance?

-Sarah

A Public Historian in the land of the public historians.

The creation of a public sphere for exchanging, analyzing and critiquing ideas has opened up the field of history to the general public. Leslie Madsen-Brooks writes ““public history” does not mean just projects, programs, and exhibits created by professional historians for the public but, rather, the very broad and complex intersection of “the public” with historical practice.” What does this mean for academics? I truly believe that as public historians, we have to step our game up even higher. The public is able to get ahold of documents, pictures, and information at a rate of never before. We cannot just throw something on a wall and expect that the public one, hasn’t seen it before and two, cares. We have to tell new stories, with new interpretations and in new ways. The Center for Civil and Human Rights does this well. Most know the story of the Civil Rights movement, but what the Center does is encompass the entire experience in a way that books and the internet never will be able to do. This should be our goal as public historians. This new digital age will force us to work harder, be more creative and do more with what we have. I like that. I like the challenge. I feel like it opens up this world of the never before. We can truly create, no longer are museums expected to just tell a story. We are expected to tell a story in a way not available anywhere else.

Wikipedia, a once contested source, now a source that is suggested for sourcing more material and even for fact finding. When did this even happen? “Truth and the World of the Wikipedia Gatekeepers,” describes some of the issues with Wikipedia being a good source. As historians, we are taught that we must use primary sources in everything we do. Wikipedia seems to not believe in primary sources. I can see where they are coming from. While primary sources as academics allows us to engage with the past and to analyze using secondary sources, for non-historians this may be harder. Not only harder to do, but harder to find these primary sources. Primary sources though are essential to history. They are history. They are what tells us the stories of the past from their own words. According to Messer-Kruse, Wikipedia works like democracy… it claims that the information posted on Wikipedia must be a majority opinion, but what does that mean to history if the majority opinion is wrong? While Wikipedia is a great source for secondary sources, as mentioned in the NPR podcast, it is still a contested land and should be used with a grain of salt. Especially considering that they are not wanting people to update based on primary sources.

Oh Wikihistory, Where Art Thou?

Wikipedia is an imperfect tool. On one hand, it is a vast repository of information, covering a wide array of topics. It is also edited in real-time, and thus able to update and add new entries very quickly. On the other hand, removing inaccurate information can be a slow, difficult process that often depends on the ego of a contributor. Its democratic ethos and emphasis on verifiability over accuracy can hamper expert contributors, and even drive them away. While it is superficially admirable that Wikipedia’s guidelines emphasize neutrality, the end effect is a model that is slow to embrace new research and treats all interpretations as equal. In short, it is of limited use to historians, who should borrow from Wikipedia’s strengths to create an alternative.

Wikipedia currently boasts more than five million articles in English, and includes entries in a total 291 languages. More than 130,000 editors regularly contribute to the English version of Wikipedia, as well. On one level, this aggregate makes Wikipedia very agile. For example, Wikipedia’s article on the Watergate Scandal revealed W. Mark Felt as “Deep Throat” hours before newspapers broke the story in 2005. The diligence and number of Wikipedia’s editors also ensures that it is relatively self-correcting. Roy Rosenzweig of the Center for History and New Media found that the articles he surveyed had fewer factual errors than Microsoft’s Encarta, though it lagged behind the highly specialized, generously funded American National Biography Online, which is only available through subscription.

Wikipedia does have its share of factual errors, though, and they can be difficult to correct. In 2010, a geologist from Montana found errors in an article about geologic formations in his home state. Every time he made a correction, the article’s original author removed it. After six tries and one month, the corrections finally stuck. The obstacle, though, was the original author’s ego. Quite simply, this particular editor did not want to be challenged. In theory, Wikipedia’s behavior guidelines tell experienced editors “don’t bite the newcomers” but Andrew Lih, author of The Wikipedia Revolution, concedes that such principles do not always translate into practice.

Wikipedia’s democratic ethos also has its benefits and drawbacks. Anyone is allowed to contribute, which enables the site to draw on a vast, diverse base of knowledge. Experts receive no special deference or status. While this makes sense on a certain level, it can indulge ill-informed viewpoints, as well as conspiracy theorists, and even lend to a hostility to formal academic training. William M. Connolley, a climate modeller from Cambridge, had his access restricted after a global warming denier filed a complaint against him. Larry Sanger, one of Wikipedia’s co-founders, left the site because he felt that too many users were, as the New Yorker describes, “fundamentally suspicious of experts and unjustly confident of their own opinions.”

As for Wikipedia’s history entries, the democratic ethos means that they tend to be factually accurate but lack the analysis and judgement of experienced scholars. The quest for neutrality at times replaces debate with colorful details, such as the fact that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin share a birthday. Wikipedia is also very slow to adapt to new scholarship. After Timothy Messer-Kruse published a book unearthing new evidence about Chicago’s Haymarket riot, the site’s editors refused to incorporate his changes on the grounds that he represented a “minority” viewpoint. This is especially curious, considering the accommodation given to a global warming denier. The end result is a watered-down version of history. Overall, Wikipedia’s version of history is not factually inaccurate. As Roy Rosenzweig observes, “the problem of Wikipedian history is not that it disregards the facts but that it elevates them above everything else and spends too much time and energy (in the manner of many collectors) on organizing those facts into categories and lists.”

Historians, then, need to step up and create their version of Wikihistory, one where experienced scholars give room to debates and incorporate new research. The collaborative model has a lot to offer, and Wikihistory need not be limited to formally trained scholars. Instead, it should function on a principle that good research is good research. More experienced scholars can write the guidelines, as is the norm with many communities, but anyone can contribute. At this moment, wikihistory.com brags that it holds “All the World’s History in One Place”, but all of its content links to Wikipedia. Maybe it’s time to replace it.

Wikipedia’s “Democracy”

In the three months between graduating high school and starting college, the status of Wikipedia as an acceptable source changed dramatically. My relationship to the site went from “never-use-it-don’t-bother” to “proceed with caution.” I could not tell you if it was because the summer months of 2011 spurred a change of heart among educators, or if the transition from secondary to post-secondary education indicates you have the judgment required to navigate Wikipedia, but either way it turned into an option when conducting (initial) research.

Because of this change in reception among my teachers, my perception of the site changed as well. Wikipedia was no longer the enemy of truth and all that is good, but was instead a sometimes helpful database chock full of potential source material. However, this week’s readings changed my attitude towards Wikipedia once again.

What makes Wikipedia great also makes it not-so-great. While it is described by several authors as democratic, accessible, collaborative, and decentralized, these qualities can also make it unreliable. Quality of content aside, some of the inner workings of Wikipedia’s functionality and politics made me question just how democratic the website really is.

I was shocked to discover that the intricacies of adding and editing content actually involves gatekeepers. In the cases described by NPR, an article could not be edited because the research was recent and original, making it inappropriate for Wikipedia because research first must be accepted by a larger community in a secondary forum. In another case from NPR, an article could not be added because the content was not considered “notable” enough.

In the first case of editing articles to add new, innovative content, the “rules” of Wikipedia play a major role. To a degree, the reliance on secondary rather than primary sources makes sense. Unwelcome opinions or interpretations of primary sources could prove problematic on the site. But is there not a gray area in this regard? Should Wikipedia remain outdated in the name of secondary sources? Based on Wikipedia’s reputation as constantly undergoing edits and updates, this case seemed particularly unfair.

Hypothetically, based on Wikipedia’s secondary source favoritism, someone could establish a Black Confederate Soldiers article and cite the various inaccurate blogs floating around the internet. This would add to the dearth of problematic, “historic” content in the web. In addition, someone could not edit this article with the actual evidence against it – the primary sources.

In the second case of adding entire articles, Wikipedia’s invisible gatekeepers decide what is and is not important. As an open-source encyclopedia, this seems entirely arbitrary and subjective. Users have a right to share and access information regardless of qualification. Who gets to decide what is “notable” and how do they measure that against the thousands of existing articles?

Ultimately, the intricacies of Wikipedia’s system make judgments about quality of research and content when they are entirely unqualified to do so. What I formerly regarded as a democratic forum for information sharing now seems controlled by forces that remain largely in the background of the site’s functioning.

Furthermore, a democratic system should not be run almost entirely by men. 91% of the knowledge shared through Wikipedia is provided by men, unintentionally slanting every article quite heavily. Of course, it seems unlikely that a specific effort to recruit women writers and editors would make any difference in the overall quality of the site. But the more I learned about Wikipedia this week, the less I believed in their democratic persona.

P.S.: I have and will continue to use Wikipedia.

– Lauren Ericson

WikiWrong

I want to start going back to the fall semester 2006, my last semester as an undergraduate. Besides taking three classes from the dark arts, the unspeakable/unmentionable department, I took Dr. Bob Carriker’s American West class, which focused on three explorations into the West. As we discussed the journey of Jedediah Smith, Bob walked into class on morning and pulled up the Wikipedia page and pointed to a passage and asked the class what was wrong. There was a serious error and Bob somewhat proudly said that he had placed that error on the page the evening before. He then went on to make additional edits to the site. The Wikipedia threat remained an issue for the rest of the semester, and thankfully he did not make true on his promise to make the final exam about writing a Wikipedia page with crazy details. Since then, I have had many a student plagiarize from Wikipedia, just a week ago a student decided to pull material related to the Communist Manifesto of the page. While Wikipedia is obviously still problem infested, which the readings nicely illustrate, the pictorial material is excellent for lecture purposes. I also have found that on some subjects regarding the history of other countries, the foreign language wikis provide much more depth than the English version of the site.

Having said all that, the debate in the various pieces regarding Wikipedia illustrates what is so wonderful about the internet, but also where the limitations are. As an open, public site, anybody can contribute to the information on Wikipedia. As the encyclopedia aims for more accuracy, the problem that is expressed well on the page is how editing is used to improve a users position within the wiki community. As a result, there is an incentive for small and frequent edits rather than sweeping revisions and rewriting. Similarly, the open nature leaves much to be desired regarding consistence of writing. At least in recent times there were attempts to provide more oversight and control over the editing process to prevent sugarcoating and providing of incorrect information.

I found especially the case on the Haymarket Incident interesting that the author of a recent book was prevented both with primary sources and his own study from providing essential correction to the narrative for not being the majority view. This especially struck me because the Wikipedia page on the relations between the United States and the Great Britain during the Civil War includes already an article published by myself in late 2014 with American Nineteenth Century History. In part, it is somewhat nice to see one’s own work prominently in the first paragraph of a Wikipedia page. At the same time, I am not under any illusion that the view I expressed in the work, which are counter to some major recent scholars are majority opinions even among my peer. It seems to depend a lot on who edits and what the interests are.

Turning to the interesting piece on the Black Confederates, this has gained much attention over the years, because a problematic Virginia textbook once include the myth and only used Sons of Confederate Veteran literature to make the argument. This is where the pitfall of history and the World Wide Web is. There is much information and disinformation. The Internet is an outlet both for serious scholars and nutjob conspiracy theorists. The Internet, which has a certainly level of the movie phenomena of truth attached to it (i.e. it is online, so it must be true), has allowed ideas to strife that only two decades ago were limited to a small cadre of diehard unreconciled neo-Confederates. The problem is obvious; the abundance of information allows people to pick the case that benefits them without making the effort to check, whether the provider has a special motivation to spout out disinformation or whether there is any credible evidence to support the claims. We had this subject before in class and I continued to think that while having the internet as a tool to combat those view, the problem will always be that those whose mind is set on the issue will even with a preponderance of evidence refuse to accept and we will engage in a heated, but useless debate that eventually leave both sides embittered and angry at the other, which accomplishes nothing. After all, even though we know the Bible is largely a mythological fiction story crafted decades, if not centuries, after what supposedly transpired, people still hold the book as true and Jesus as a real living person born to a virgin, without questioning or allowing for questioning. Deeply held views are tough, if not impossible to challenge. What has to happen is to address those who do not hold the view clearly and offer them more accurate information with search engine not putting the neo-Confederate garbage at the top but scholarly sites first.

Niels Eichhorn