Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Wikipedia: Finding Your Way in a Wiki World

Generically speaking, Wiki is a piece of software that allows general users to create and edit webpage content. That is, not only can someone come along and add a post or comment, but they can edit the original to correct it. I'm regularly finding new Wikis, like the the NativeWiki I discovered a few months ago while researching another blog post. But by far the most popular and ubiquitous Wiki is, of course, Wikipedia, which for many has come to replace those venerable multi-volumed encyclopedias of my youth as well as online versions like Britannica.

Wikipedia, as the About page explains, "is written collaboratively by volunteers..." It goes on to explain, "visitors do not need specialized qualifications to contribute, since their primary role is to write articles that cover existing knowledge."[emphasis added] I'm honestly not sure what that qualifier "existing" means, and why that makes Average Joe any more qualified to write about it.

In the past year or so Wikipedia has risen to the top of the search engines for just about any topic. Even Googling Britannica brings it up just under the entry for the actual website (including a page which purports to catalog "mistakes and omissions" from the encyclopedia). This top billing has the psychological effect of implied authority. In fact, top billing has absolutely nothing to do with authority and everything to do with SEO (Search Engine Optimization). As someone who once worked for a site attempting to outdo Wikipedia, I know there are a variety of ways, like repetition and linking, to make a site rise above the competition, and none of these has anything whatsoever to do with accuracy.

The idea of information by plebiscite is alluring, especially to a gal like myself who gained, through self-study, as much or more knowledge of US government relations with Native Americans past and present as any PhD. Why shouldn't I be qualified to write an encyclopedia entry on the topic?

The problem is, you as the reader don't know what I know. That is, my entry could be pure fact or pure dribble, and if my entry is the first you've read on the subject, you have no way of determining that. Now the idea behind Wikipedia is that someone will come along, see that my entry is pure dribble (or that they just don't like my slant?) and edit it. Lucky you, if you stop by after the correction, but what if you stop by before? Or what if my entry was correct and someone makes it wrong? It all supposedly comes out in the wash, but your problem is knowing whether you came in on the rinse or the spin cycle.

Encyclopedias certainly aren't the end all and be all of information. As the Wikipedia entry points out, Britannica can get some things wrong too. (Though from what I saw they were of minor significance like the birth date in an actor's bio and his actual birth date.) But encyclopedias weren't meant to be the sole authority. Somewhere after fifth grade we all learned they should provide no more than a jumping-off point, providing "just the facts, ma'am."

As best I can tell, Wikipedia wants to appear as more than that. For fun I looked up the entry for Crazy Horse, a historical figure I've read quite a bit about. In fact, I've read just about everything cited and more. For his early life, the entry pretty much lays out the same story every biographer tells based on the original by Mari Sandoz, but when I read the entry under "Family," I immediately thought it read like some movie version. Since even Crazy Horse's exact year of birth can't be pinpointed, I doubt anyone, even among the Lakota would claim to know the birth date of his mother, let alone who her parents and sister were. Sure enough, the citation is a DVD. This information is not preceded by "may have been" or "could have been" which is probably appropriate for most of what we know about Crazy Horse, but stated as fact.

So, I suppose what Wikipedia means by "existing knowledge" is repeating and citing other sources. Only even that doesn't qualify Average Joe, because he needs to know enough to discern which sources are reliable and which aren't. This takes time and a certain ability to evaluate sources not just in their current, but also in their historical context.

Which leads me to the point of all this. It's tempting in a Wiki world when doing quick research to click on the top link in the search engine. In the case of Wikipedia the shear amount of information looks like you hit pay dirt, but you didn't. You hit on a bunch of information that could be right or could be wrong. In fact, the more detailed the entry, the more likely that a good bit of that information could be disputed by reputable scholars. Use Wikipedia the way we used encyclopedia's in the old days, as a jumping-of point for dates and chronology. Then go to the original sources (lots are now available online). Otherwise you risk simply repeating inaccurate information, and citing Wikipedia won't get you off the hook with a good editor.

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