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.

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