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.

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