Encyclopedias aren’t journals (and that’s OK)

By Evan Meehan

Wikipedia received a lot of hate constructive criticism in the readings this week.  Created by a guy whose background was running a pornographic web portal, its frankly remarkable that Wikipedia offers anything of intellectual merit to the world.  But, clearly Wikipedia is ill prepared to serve as a medium for the generation and proliferation of historical thought.  Wikipedia’s stance against using primary sources is antithetical to historical research.  Further, the emphasis on facts and lists fails to lend itself to good synthetic works of historical analysis.

And that’s OK.

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“Listen to me, I know more!” Screams Man from Tower

As the title suggests, I find the whole academia vs Wikipedia argument rather pretentious.  We have what is basically the classic esteemed scholar vs layman, with the scholars screaming “stay off my lawn” into the void of the internet (and being offended when the internet doesn’t just take their word for it).  Many of the arguments offered along these lines seem rather ridiculous when looked at in the light of what Wikipedia is meant to be.  Wikipedia is not meant to be an esteemed scholarly journal.  In fact, it isn’t even constructed with scholars in mind, something that seems to really irk the academic community.  It seems that many academic experts cannot handle being left out, as we heard about in the NPR reading for this week.

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Open Source History

History is written by the victors, though the terms of victory may be shifting from war and colonization to convincing a board of admins that you have the majority behind you. Wikipedia, in its efforts to be democratic, accepts all who want to contribute to its digital encyclopedia and demands a non-partisan viewpoint from its contributors. There is no denying that the entity is fraught with amateur language, trolls, errors and whitewashing, but as much can be said for the entire internet. What wikipedia offers is a jumping off point for the casually curious or serious researcher. The site is monitored by a dedicated group of admins who are doing their best to peer-review submissions and ensure that the collective internet is not misled. It is no understatement to say that these admins take their jobs very seriously. They are policing the corruption of knowledge and the spread of falsehoods for a large contingency of the internet. How do you go about determining what is true or false, when history, by nature, is composed of multiple  sides of a single story that are often at odds with one another?

First, you must establish a standard for what is good information. Wikipedia’s insistence on citing secondary sources draws some heat from Timothy Messer-Kruse, who attempted to edit a Wikipedia article to correct misinformation on which he was an expert. Having done his research using primary sources, his edits were rejected. Lucky for Messer-Kruse, he had a book coming out on the subject and so he waited until the book was published and submitted his edit again. This new secondary source was still not enough for the Wikipedia community because it had yet to be accepted as doctrine by the historical community. At first glance, this may seem a little ridiculous, but it is simply the Wikipedia community demanding peer review. You cannot expect all the admins to be experts about whatever you’re an expert on. Their job isn’t to read your book, but their job is to ensure that your fellow experts read your work and and agree with you.  It is a slow process that seems counter intuitive to Wikipedia’s ability to update itself instantly, but with the ease at which people can publish their own work, having a secondary source as your citation on a contested issue is simply not enough. It is wise of Wikipedia to recognize this. The collective internet doesn’t know how much of an “expert” you are, just because you say so – so while it may be frustrating, in the end everybody wins (assuming your work wasn’t bogus). This is the democracy of the system. You only become an expert when you have been vetted by everyone – including, but not exclusively your peers.

The democracy of Wikipedia’s system cannot help but cater to error and misinterpretation of history, but as scholars and historians it is our job to engage in the system and change it for the better, not to remove ourselves from it entirely because we are above it. This means more than trying to edit incorrect articles as we see them, but rather engaging with those who are writing them, such as those who have elevated the myth of the “black Confederate.” There will always be trolls and extremists whose viewpoints cannot be shifted, but if everyday historians are going to be taking part in research and writing history, it is our responsibility as professionals to set an example in practice as well as guide those who have missed the mark honestly. For those whose opinions we cannot change, we must put on our anthropologist hats and attempt to understand what makes them tick so we can best go about producing work to ensure their opinion remains on the fringe.



Wikipedia: a Congress of Know-it-alls

Each article this week critically reviewed Wikipedia. They considered the sites history, its evolution, its contributors, its rules, and its flaws. However, few of these sources considered Wikipedia’s user base. Obviously the site is a popular one, it would not still exist on the first page of google if it this wasn’t true. In my experience, people of all walks of life revert to Wikipedia for answers to the most mundane or complex queries. While many college students are encouraged to avoid Wikipedia, and other encyclopedias, they rarely comply. The site is an easy means by which to verify well known information. Obviously the site has its flaws. Due to the method of content gathering, there is a large potential for error. There is also little room for good writing. Because a single paragraph could be edited by multiple different contributors, it reads as choppy. Another flaw identified within the reading was a lack of diversity within the subject matter, specifically within the history related entries.

While historians and other scholars are trained meticulously to remember the source of every piece of information, many people remember only the information. This means that, outside of scholarly conversations, it is likely that many conversations are influenced by interpretations found on Wikipedia. While scholars debated the value of Wikipedia, it took over the everyday lives of people all over the world, possibly without them even realizing it.

For example, think about everything you know about coffee. Do this quickly, and WITHOUT conducting a quick google search to score extra points. How much of the information in your brain can be traced to a reputable source? How much of it can be traced to any source at all? Yet, I take the liberty to assume, when this blog post challenged you to conjure up your knowledge on coffee, you could likely have filled a page with the information you recalled. If this does not work for coffee, it likely works for something else. Perhaps the subject of Abraham Lincoln, Chance the Rapper, or the Voting Rights act are somehow linked to a database of answers to trivia questions. This is the sort of information people go to wikipedia to find, and this is the sort of information creators on Wikipedia supply to users. Though Wikipedia’s entries are potentially incorrect, heavily influenced by the perspective of an under qualified contributor, and absolutely not based on primary sources or original research, it is the source of the majority of information swirling around humanity’s collective knowledge base.

Basically, if all known information was collected and baked in a pie, the majority of that pie would probably taste like Wikipedia.

Given that Wikipedia is responsible for creating and circulating massive amounts of information, historians should consider how to improve it. Historian Timothy Messer-Kruse, author, professor, and one time guest of NPR’s Digital Life podcast tried to do just that. He used his own original research to correct a prevalent misconception surrounding the Haymarket Riot trials within a Wikipedia entry. Though Messer-Kruse contributed correct information, his contribution was “reverted” because of its basis in unverifiable original research. The rules against using original research to source a change are clearly outlined in the guides to Wikipedia, (and this rule makes sense when applied to the John Does of the internet). What is less clearly outlined are the rules governing the use of secondary sources. As Messer-Kruse soon discovered, Wikipedia editors/admins/etc dictate that Wikipedia text must represent the majority viewpoint. This style obviously hinders the shifts typically found in historical scholarship that are inherently based in original research. It also makes evident one specific example of the anti-expert culture described by Rosenzweig in “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past.” The initially anarchic system which granted equal access of power has recently evolved into a Grecian form of Democracy wherein the majority rules, despite their credentials or lack thereof.

The easiest way to fix Wikipedia may be to become Wikipedia. If more historians were involved in the governing structure of the site, they may be able to influence the content that gets approved. This could also solve the problem of Wikipedia’s lack of nuance, diversity, and its focus on hobby related information.

The influence of historians and other academics on the culture of Wikipedia’s background social structure could also be inherently beneficial online and in real life. The majority of Wikipedia’s contributors currently are significantly less qualified than the average historian, yet they are responsible for the majority of historical content read by your annoying niece/brother/cousin. The denizens of Wikipedia likely distrust experts in part because they are excluded from that title. They likely do not understand the hard work and dedication required to gain that recognition. If Wikipedia is nothing else, it is a gathering of nerdy know-it-alls who have little better to do than publicly and anonymously generate information as though edits were points in a computer game. If these same people interacted with actual experts in different fields, they may actually learn something.

Wikipedia’s Strengths & Shortcomings

In Schiff’s “Know It All” article, the origins of Wikipedia are presented, along with critique on the platforms strengths and weaknesses. Wikipedia desires to be a democratizing platform and claims to value “getting it right” over formal education. Its digital format allows it to not be constrained by size requirements and to be easily and frequently updated; both of which were of course not possible with print encyclopedias. Schiff describes one of the platform’s downsides as the community’s heavily male population, though there have been efforts to increase representation of females in entries, through programs targeting GLAM institutions and programs like Art+Feminism; this was also discussed in the “Truth and the World of Wikipedia Gatekeepers” episode of Talk of the Nation. Another weakness is the tendency for entries related to the present-day to have more detailed content than many historical entries. Other challenges mentioned are those that exist because of the nature of online platforms, and there are unfortunate users who just troll entries or who dictate the content on certain pages simply because they spend the most time on them. Perhaps the most interesting challenge discussed in this week’s readings is the overall subjectiveness of truth to many people, which can lead to never ending arguments among Wikipedia’s editors.

The editor’s note in Schiff’s article was especially interesting. If the platform is truly democratizing and does not value formal education over informal, why would one of its site administrators and frequent contributors (Essjay) feel the need to fabricate these credentials?

Compared with Rosenzweig’s “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past”, the idea of collaboration (especially at Wikipedia’s volume of users) seems at a distinct conflict with traditional historical research. When doing research, historians are taught not to rely too heavily on the words or ideas of others and to present analysis that is unique; Rosenzweig refers to this at part of what makes historical research and scholarship an individualistic approach. Rosenzweig describes the quality of writing as the key difference between Wikipedia and historical scholarship. Rosenzweig says that “good historical writing requires not just factual accuracy but also a command of the scholarly literature, persuasive analysis and interpretations, and clear and engaging prose” and he is clear that this is the biggest difference in the two informational realms.

Rosenzweig mentions recognition versus anonymity by authors as another difference in traditional scholarship and Wikipedia, while the Talk of the Nation episode includes examples of scholars and experts facing difficulties in editing and correcting entries. In the episode, it is said that Wikipedia is about “verifiability, not truth” and this puts recent scholarship that’s not considered to be a majority-held viewpoint at a disadvantage. The limitations also discussed Wikipedia’s reliance on secondary sources to verify information, which cuts out the strengths that scholarship can bring to the platform by not allowing the use of primary resources as verifiable evidence.

Rosenzweig makes the important point that teaching the limitations of *all* information sources and focusing on the analyses of both primary and secondary sources is critically important; students and information seekers need to know how to evaluate information.

Speakers and listeners: Cultural democracy vs. professionalism

The final week of Digital History, we focus on “Speakers and listeners: Cultural democracy vs. professionalism.”

Leslie Madsen-Brooks’ article “I Nevertheless Am a Historian:  Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers” raises a valid point about historical practice and public history. This issue arose while researching information for my digital blog on the past life of currently abandoned buildings, schools, homes, etc., in Atlanta. It was a bit frustrating yet fascinating to see so many blogs or social media accounts dedicated to abandoned structures in not only Atlanta but other large cities. The difference between their blogs and mine are the primary sources utilized to determine what past occurrences occur at the site of the now, defunct structure. Can these amateur bloggers consider themselves historians because of a brief blurb from ancestry.com? On one hand, digitalization of historical articles, photographs, etc., have made historical scholarship easier for historians, but on the other hand, it does blur the line between amateur historian and scholarly historian. Will we be replaced by amateur sleuths?

Though primary sources have become available online, not all sources are available in digitalized formatting (Sanborn Maps after 1922 Grrrrr!) and still required skilled sleuthing in archival repositories, an area that trained historians are quite skilled in.

Madsen-Brook’s mentions the arguments of proponents of the use of digital platforms and sources by using the suppressed history of the Civil War and black Confederate Soldiers on Southern Heritage sites. This example is a fairly excellent example of why one could be opposed to the digitalization of historical documents. Southern Heritage site users misinterpret the context of the historical articles or photographs without knowing the history behind the primary sources. In turn, they are spreading baseless information from in ignorant viewpoint. Historians, on the other hand, would approach those primary sources from the thought processes of a trained professional. Interpreting the primary sources based upon the era of which they are derived. So how do we control the incorrect interpretations on history online?

While there are several reasons to oppose the common use of primary sources through untrained users, one of the more positive aspects of digitalized primary sources is the opportunity to spread historical scholarship from repositories all over the globe without having to leave your home. Users can share information with others and offer opposing or supportive theories of historical events steeped in historical facts of course. Madsen-Brook’s article was thought provoking and applicable to any historian currently working on historical scholarship or simply enjoying historical primary sources.

The second article “Truth and the World of Wikipedia Gatekeepers) (NPR transcript) touches on the same issue but with Wikipedia being the main focus. We’ve all been warned by college Professors not to use Wikipedia as a primary source, and in some cases, refrain from secondary source usage as well. Wikipedia has a bad reputation of providing false information masquerading as facts mostly due to the fact that anyone can edit the Wikipedia pages. Many may wonder why Wikipedia allows false information to be shared and not designate a historian or “fact finder” to ensure that all information presented is factual? Well, this practice may take away from the whole premise of Wikipedia, which is to have a communal feel to it without the restrictions of designated editors and webmasters. Wikipedia began as a forum for editors who aren’t experts in their field, so to do a complete 180-degree change would significantly alter the structure of Wikipedia’s appeal.

Perhaps Wikipedia should put forth policies that require editors and contributors to have their article submissions peer-reviewed, which would drastically reduce the amount of historically inaccurate submissions. However, I am well aware that this may discourage people from contributing as well – which places Wikipedia in a Catch-22 situation all around.

The final two articles “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” by Roy Rosenzweig and “Know It All: Can Wikipedia Conquer Expertise?” by Stacy Schiff reads as the history of Wikipedia and its historical related documents. While Schiff’s article begins as a historical background of Wikipedia and it’s rise to the top, it also delves into the subject of control over historical data. Encyclopedia Britannica could be the culprit behind the bad rumors surrounding Wikipedia’s authenticity. Before the age of Wikipedia, scholars turned to the Encyclopedia of information, now that Wikipedia is around, perhaps they’re threatened by its success. Threatened that readers are relying on web-based materials rather than traditional methods of scholarship. Whatever the case, we shouldn’t discourage newer ways to present historical research methods to the public. The evolution of historical research keeps the practice alive and available for the next generation to enjoy and to continue improving upon.


Whose Truth?

 Through what began to seem an endless examination of Wikipedia, we rediscovered that on Wikipedia, historical truth can be what the author or editor or administrator thinks it is.  In his “Essays on History and New Media,” Roy Rosenzweig uses a well-worn tale to make his point, “As in the old tale of the blind men and the elephant, your assessment of Wikipedia as history depends a great deal on what part you touch. It also depends…on how you define ‘history.” Clearly, history as defined by Wikipedia contributors is not the laboriously peer reviewed work we graduate students are urged to seek out in academic journals and books.  However, Rosenzweig does outline a process of constant editing, reviewing and re-editing that is the method and ethic of Wikipedia.  He and Stacy Schiff also point to the research on accuracy of Wikipedia vs. Britannica the outcome of which was that Wikipedia had four inaccuracies for every three in Britannica.  That may not make Wikipedia the gold standard in historical accuracy, but it’s pretty good for a general resource that is authored by thousands of volunteers, most of whom seem to adhere to a set of principles and procedures that are fundamentally as voluntary as the unsigned hours of work they are doing.

Stacy Schiff takes a somewhat more critical view of Wikipedia.  Schiff’s article, “Know it all: Can Wikipedia conquer expertise,” discusses the same contributors’ bureaucratic hoops as Rosenzweig.  However, Schiff’s tone is more critical, “For all its protocol, Wikipedia’s bureaucracy doesn’t necessarily favor truth.”  Referencing a dispute about an article on global warming, written by a climate modeler at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, that went to a three-month arbitration after a protracted dispute with a climate skeptic, resulting in the climate modeler being humiliated, Schiff quotes Jim Wales (Wikipedia founder) as saying “in this case the system failed.”  Schiff goes on to say, “It can still seem as though the user who spends the most time on the site-or who yells the loudest-wins.”  Not particularly comforting words for a user hoping to find some useful information.

Unlike the unknown contributors to Wikipedia articles, there are few activities more personal for a researcher than to interview a person who is an important actor in the historical period/event you are researching.  While archival material is certainly subject to interpretation and other historians who are looking at that material may see it differently and challenge your view of it, the material itself has no agency.  The interview subject does.  Further, depending on the subject matter and the centrality of the person you are interviewing to the events you are studying, the interview can be an emotionally fraught experience for both parties no matter how deep your commitment to objectivity.

Clair Bon Potter takes us into her work on antipornography feminism, the deep disputes within the feminist movement about this advocacy work, and talks candidly about her experiences and about the risks associated with oral history and ethnography as methodologies.  Potter refers to Kristin Luker’s theory that as oral historians we should be less interested in the “veracity” of the interviews than in the “deep truth of them.”  She is telling us that absolute objective accuracy provided by the interviewee is not necessarily the point of this work.  It is actually impossible to obtain. Which of us remembers deeply experienced events with complete objective accuracy?  Still, given the opportunity of a safe space to reflect upon the events of our life, it is possible to confront the depth of the experience, the truth within ourselves about our role in the outcomes of our work, and to express those reflections honestly to another.

However, it is always well to remember that the space we interviewers are creating is not necessarily safe.  As historians, we will be evaluating that truth within the context of the time, the subsequent events, and with an understanding of the roles of the other actors in those events.  As Potter points out, not only does the interviewee have an intensely held opinion about the worth of their work, their role in that work, and how we use their words in our final product, they can also get the name and number of a lawyer.  Probably wise to reflect on the words of C. S. Lewis.

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”

C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew