My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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situating Wikipedia

I continue to get painted as anti-Wikipedia which couldn’t be further from the truth. I want to clarify a few things and i think that the latest BoingBoing entry on Wikipedia helps.

It is presumed that the data contained in a dictionary is ‘true’ but *scholars* have pointed out that there are ‘inaccuracies.’ There are two issues at play here. First concerns the truth-value of any record – when is there truth and when is only interpretation possible? I’ll leave that one alone for now. The better question concerns who has the authority to say whether or not something is ‘true’ where truth refers to presumed collective knowledge. The article that BoingBoing cites tells us explicitly that it is ‘scholars’ that have such authority.

Herein lies my primary complaint with Wikipedia – the lack of known authorship. (Note: i have the same problem with encyclopedias and dictionaries too, but i don’t see the Wikipedia arguments as boiled down to paper references vs. digital references.) I want to know that what part of the Wikipedia entry the Jane Austen scholar wrote and what was edited out by others. I want to know that the Jane Austen scholar looked at the entry that a 14 year old wrote and thought it was perfect. I want to know the investment level of the authors. I don’t think i’m alone on this one.

Secondly, i may be a scaredy-cat but i’m not afraid of Wikipedia. Like Clay, i firmly believe that students should cite their sources; nothing is more gut-wrenching than throwing a line of someone’s paper into Google and finding it on the web. My concern with academic citation is metaphorically concerned with citing Cliffnotes. Don’t tell me what Wikipedia tells you about Benjamin’s essay – tell me what Benjamin says and tell me your critique. If you want to use a third party’s critique to contend with, great, but that’s rarely what students do. Wikipedia’s interpretation may or may not be accurate and if you haven’t read the primary source (which is often the problem), you don’t know. There is no doubt that this is a problem with a broader variety of sources but the efforts to legitimize Wikipedia as better than an encyclopedia wreaks havoc. This is not because i want students using the encyclopedia – they’re far more likely to read the 10 page essay than hike up the hill to the library to find an encyclopedia that may or may not give them a clue about what’s going on. Encyclopedia citations are rarely my problem but Wikipedia as Cliffnotes is. I want students to be critical thinkers, not just piece together the varying levels of supposed critical thought that they find on the web. And if the web is useful to them, it should be as an interlocutor for argument’s sake, not a source of authority.

In both of these cases, comparisons to other media can be made and the problems that manifest are not necessarily new. The problem that i’m having with the Wikipedia hype is the assumption that it is the panacea for it too has its problems and those problems must be acknowledged, addressed and situated. It certainly has great value, both as a tool for information and as a site of community. But there are limitations and i believe that the incessant hype is damaging to being able to situate it properly and to recognize its strengths and weaknesses.

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3 comments to situating Wikipedia

  • joe

    You know what would be neat? Being able to link to a particular version of a wikipedia entry based on the day (or version) of that wikipedia page (Further, to trust that it will still be the same when you come back to it).

    Has anyone ever done an analysis that tracked changes to certain wikipedia pages? That would neat too… because it would get at, in general, what you’re talking about, danah.

  •  

    Joe, you can link to a particular version now. Click the “history” link at the top of any article, and you will see a list of unchangable old revisions which you can link to. There isn’t currently a permanent link to the newest revision, but this should be solved with the next release of the software.

  • KT

    And math teachers hate calculators. The question is whether students are taught how to think algorithmically instead of being mere database lookeruppers. It’s one thing to know that “I can go to google to find any bit of knowledge” it’s another to have a thought about what that knowledge is, demonstrate understanding, and synthesize it into something resembling unique thought. And the more unique thoughts captured on Wiki, the harder to come up with something new.

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