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.

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