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 Should Wikipedia remain outdated in the name of secondary sources?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


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