Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The wicked Wikipedia

The wicked Wikipedia
By: Andrew Freeman
Issue date: 2/28/07

Last semester I wrote a brief paper on the subject of technological determinism for a science history class. As this concept was completely unfamiliar to me, I went to the free online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, for a definition. I was subsequently admonished by the TA and warned on the unreliability of that Web site. Such experiences are growing more common, contributing to debate over Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is the chief project of the non-profit Wikimedia foundation. This organization has the goal of "providing free knowledge to every person in the world," according to one of its documents. Much of its work is performed by volunteers, and it relies primarily on donations to operate, collecting $1.3 million last year alone. Other projects include a dictionary, library and curriculum materials, all freely available online.

Wikipedia allows users to write and edit articles on any subject. This has resulted in an amazing proliferation of information, far more diffuse than any print encyclopedia. However, the ease with which individuals can change entries creates the potential for abuse. Inaccurate information can be inserted into an article, turning it into a vehicle for misinformation or propaganda.

Recently, the history department of Middlebury College banned students from citing Wikipedia as a source in papers. This decision, reported in The New York Times, was prompted by a professor of Japanese history whose students wrote erroneously about the Shimabara Rebellion on an exam. They overstated the role of Jesuits in this incident, based on faulty information on Wikipedia.

The issue of historical accuracy on Wikipedia is particularly contentious, since history often plays an important role in modern political debates. Two years ago, one of my history professors introduced the subject of Wahhabism, an Islamic movement, by having us read the Wikipedia entry for it. Subsequent readings and lectures revealed that most of the article was incorrect - it misrepresented the beliefs espoused by Wahhabis. These errors are significant because Wahhabism is often incorrectly blamed for Islamic terrorism.

Wikipedia has methods of combating inaccuracy. Users can discuss changes to articles on the Web site's forums, report vandalism or abuse or correct errors themselves. Over a thousand entries are semi-protected, meaning that they cannot be edited except by registered users.

A system of rules, enforced by users and administrators, govern the site. The most important is that articles should been written from a neutral point of view, focusing upon facts for which there is consensus. Debates over an issue should be presented, but should not be the main focus of the entry. Moreover, articles should be based on sources, whether online or in print, allowing for verification of claims.

There is a conscious effort to improve Wikipedia. Some articles are tagged, requesting that an expert revise them, such as the entry for the Shimabara Rebellion. Considering the democratic nature of the Web site, the call for expert assistance is ironic.

Wikipedia represents the Internet's potential for the democratization of knowledge. Information, rather than being a restricted, proprietary commodity held by elites, becomes free and widely accessible. The whole notion of the "expert" falls into question, as anyone with a computer can cultivate specialized knowledge and disseminate it to millions. With thousands of contributors revising each others' work, the community can collectively perfect information, thereby advancing a more accurate understanding of the world.

In practice, this theory falls apart. The Internet is full of disinformation and propaganda, which infiltrates sites like Wikipedia. Moreover, many specialized concepts are not discussed or not analyzed in detail, while there is a profusion of pop culture and pornography. Information becomes a sprawling mass, and parsing the useful from the useless requires a hierarchy - it requires experts.

For this reason, the Internet does not yet pose an existential threat to academia. Academics are respected as sources and their works are cited in Wikipedia. They are even called on to contribute.

In fairness, one finds some of the same problems in a university as on Wikipedia. Vandals deface books or bathrooms here, just as they attack articles online. There can be disinformation in lectures and textbooks, and conspiracy theories abound. I received an email last week about professors who suspected the government was complicit in Sept. 11th.

No institution can credibly claim a monopoly on the truth, because truth is an ideal, one that can never be achieved in totality and one that people often deviate from. In the future, Wikipedia may become as reliable as academic journals, and it is certainly affecting our lives in the present. Technological determinism, by the way, is the belief that technology, on its own, can change society, and Wikipedia provides an excellent example of this.

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