Taming the Wiki

I admit to using Wikipedia quite frequently as an introduction to certain topics, and overall I think it’s pretty reliable as a background source.  I haven’t touched a traditional, paper encyclopedia in years.  And why should I?  Wikipedia provides far more articles on a wider range of specific topics than a print encyclopedia can ever dream of- and according to some studies, the accuracy of information in both mediums is almost the same.  Of course, I only use Wikipedia in the same fashion I had previously used printed encyclopedias- as a starting point.  Yet many students, as students do, like things easy and often depend too heavily on Wikipedia.

Patrick Leary briefly mentioned the fact that Wikipedia, and all internet sources allow for easy skimming of materials, and have changed how we read; although it also forms connections and allows for easy sharing of ideas.

Wikipedia may be making things easier, but as Stacy Shiff said, it’s still a work in progress, even if it might be mighty and high-minded, it still needs work.  Larry Sanger would like to paint a picture of a perfect Wikipedia allowing for a democracy of knowledge, yet sometimes it can appear as an anarchy of knowledge.  He may not like “elites” controlling what we know, but that doesn’t mean the knowledge of scholars and intellectuals should be diluted by the masses.

Roy Rosenzweig defined Wikipedia as the antithesis of professional history: “A historical work without owners and with multiple, anonymous authors…”   Yet, as public historians, we must accept the role of Wikipedia in society, and understand how to properly deal with it.  As I said, Wikipedia is a good background source, but too many people depend on it too much.  To counter this, we must either educate people on the problems of Wikipedia, so they become less dependent on it, or instead make better alternatives.

Educator Jeremy Boggs has come up with a novel idea of actually incorporating Wikipedia in the classroom.  He has his students write articles for the site, and follow changes to them; the hope is that students will learn how easy Wikipedia can be manipulated.  In addition, the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia is an example of a Wikipedia alternative, researched, written, and edited solely by Jefferson scholars.

The Jefferson idea, though, still has a long way to catch up.  A quick search shows that Monticello.org (the encyclopedia’s host site) ranks over 200,000th in visitors, while Wikipedia ranks 6th.  Jefferson’s Wikipedia page is also the first result yielding by Google when searching “Thomas Jefferson.”

 Roy Rosenzweig: http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=42

 Patrick Leary: http://victorianresearch.org/googling.pdf

 Stacy Shiff: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/07/31/060731fa_fact

 Larry Sanger: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/sanger07/sanger07_index.html

 Dan Cohen: http://www.dancohen.org/2005/12/20/the-wikipedia-story-thats-being-missed/

 Jeremy Boggs: http://clioweb.org/2009/04/05/assigning-wikipedia-in-a-us-history-survey/

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