Wikipedia, academia and Seigenthaler
For the last couple of weeks, i’ve been watching the Wikipedia bru-ha-ha. As folks probably know, i got really upset a while back when folks were talking about Wikipedia being the essential collection of knowledge, meant to replace school books and other refereed knowledge containers. I still strongly believe that Wikipedia will not be that. But Jimmy Wales reminded me that Wikipedia is meant to be an encyclopedia, not a library replacement. It should be the first source of information, not the last. It should be a site for information exploration, not the definitive source of facts. This convinced me and i developed a great deal of respect for the project and its intentions. Of course, i still get annoyed with Wikipedia obsessives who promote it as the panacea to all knowledge problems.
So, when i heard about Seigenthaler, i rolled my eyes. Welcome to being a public figure – people will say mean things about you on the web. None of it is guaranteed to be true – it’s the web. (Of course, my view probably stems from being a native web kid – no one likes the meannies but we’ve gotten used to it.) Wikipedia is better than most of the web because YOU CAN CHANGE IT. And if you inform them that someone is acting in a malicious way, Wikipedians will actually track it to keep it neutral. Can you even imagine Google doing that for every webpage out there? Ha ha ha ha ha. Try getting an article that is libelous removed from the Google index, like a mean-spirited blog entry. Not going to happen (unless you’re Scientology).
Seigenthaler had a very reasonable conversation with Wikipedia, telling them of the troubles. Wikipedia, in Wikipedia-form, acted immediately to remedy the situation, even volunteering to remove the history. I applauded them. And then Seigenthaler wrote a rather mean-spirited, anti-Wikipedia opinion piece in the USA Today. He went around calling for the end to Wikipedia. Uncool. I was outraged.
What pissed me off more was how the academic community pointed to this case and went “See! See! Wikipedia is terrible! We must protest it and stop it! It’s ruining our schools!” All of a sudden, i found myself defending Wikipedia to academics instead of reminding the pro-Wikipedians of its limitations in academia. I kept pointing out that they wouldn’t let students cite from encyclopedias either. I reminded folks that the answer is not to protest it, but to teach students how to read it and to understand its strengths and limitations. To actually TEACH students to interpret web material. I reminded academics that Wikipedia provides information to people who don’t have access to books and that mostly-good information is far better than none. Most importantly, i reminded academics that the vast majority of articles on Wikipedia are super solid and if they had a problem with them, they could fix them. Academics have a lot of knowledge, but all too often they forget that they are teachers and that there is great value in teaching the masses, not just the small number of students who will help their careers progress. Alas, public education has been devalued and information elitism is rampant in an age where we finally have the tools to make knowledge more accessible. Sad. (And one of the many things that is making me disillusioned with academia these days.) I found myself being the Wikipedia promoter because i found the extreme academic viewpoint to be just as egregious as the extreme Wikipedia viewpoint.
And then, as if i couldn’t be more cranky, i watched Internet Researchers take up the same anti-Wikipedia argument. I was floored. These aren’t just academics, they’re the academics who study the web. The academics who should know better. But they felt as though it was a problem that Wikipedia would allow for a man to be defamed. As the conversation progressed, someone pointed out that Wikipedia’s policies and platform supports Seigenthaler’s concern that “irresponsible vandals [can] write anything they want about anybody.” Much to my complete and utter joy, Jimmy Wales responded with a fantastic structural comparison that i felt should be surfaced from the mailing list and shared to the world at large:
Imagine that we are designing a restaurant. This restuarant will serve steak. Because we are going to be serving steak, we will have steak knives for the customers. Because the customers will have steak knives, they might stab each other. Therefore, we conclude, we need to put each table into separate metal cages, to prevent the possibility of people stabbing each other.
What would such an approach do to our civil society? What does it do to human kindness, benevolence, and a positive sense of community?
When we reject this design for restaurants, and then when, inevitably, someone does get stabbed in a restaurant (it does happen), do we write long editorials to the papers complaining that “The steakhouse is inviting it by not only allowing irresponsible vandals to stab anyone they please, but by also providing the weapons”?
No, instead we acknowledge that the verb “to allow” does not apply in such a situation. A restaurant is not _allowing_ something just because they haven’t taken measures to _forcibly prevent it_ a priori. It is surely against the rules of the restaurant, and of course against the laws of society. Just. Like. Libel. If someone starts doing bad things in a restuarant, they are forcibly kicked out and, if it’s particularly bad, the law can be called. Just. Like. Wikipedia.
I do not accept the spin that Wikipedia “allows anyone to write anything” just because we do not metaphysically prevent it by putting authors in cages.
All too often we blame the technology for problematic human behaviors. We fail to recognize that technology makes them more visible but the human behaviors are rooted in larger issues. In turn, we treat the symptoms rather than the disease. The solution is not to bandaid the problems by taking away or limiting the technologies, but to make the world a better place from the inside out.
I am worried about how academics are treating Wikipedia and i think that it comes from a point of naivety. Wikipedia should never be the sole source for information. It will never have the depth of original sources. It will also always contain bias because society is inherently biased, although its efforts towards neutrality are commendable. These are just realizations we must acknowledge and support. But what it does have is a huge repository of information that is the most accessible for most people. Most of the information is more accurate than found in a typical encyclopedia and yet, we value encyclopedias as a initial point of information gathering. It is also more updated, more inclusive and more in-depth. Plus, it’s searchable and in the hands of everyone with digital access (a much larger population than those with encyclopedias in their homes). It also exists in hundreds of languages and is available to populations who can’t even imagine what a library looks like. Yes, it is open. This means that people can contribute what they do know and that others who know something about that area will try to improve it. Over time, articles with a lot of attention begin to be inclusive and approximating neutral. The more people who contribute, the stronger and more valuable the resource. Boycotting Wikipedia doesn’t make it go away, but it doesn’t make it any better either.
I will be truly sad if academics don’t support the project, don’t contribute knowledge. I will be outraged if academics continue to talk about having Wikipedia eliminated as a tool for information dispersal. Sure, students shouldn’t be citing from Wikipedia instead of the primary texts they were supposed to have read. But Wikipedia is a stunning supplement to most texts and often provides pointers to other relevant material that one didn’t know existed. We should be teaching our students how to interpret the materials they get on the web, not banning them from it. We should be correcting inaccuracies that we find rather than protesting the system. We have the knowledge to be able to do this, but all too often, we’re acting like elitist children. In this way, i believe academics are more likely to lose credibility than Wikipedia.