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

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