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.




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