I sporadically teach courses for the University of Phoenix to keep my hand in the world of education and, well, because I love teaching, and while grading some disappointingly mediocre final assignments over the weekend, I came across citation after citation from embroiled site Wikipedia and began to ponder…
There’s been a lot of buzz about Wikipedia recently, mostly centered around juvenile publicity-seeking people editing Wikipedia articles to enhance their own reputations and others injecting their own conspiracy theories into articles about specific historical events. It’s contentious enough that media outlets as far away as The India Times and Al Jazeera are reporting the stories, though some of the best coverage is from BusinessWeek, as usual.
Indeed, there’s now even apparently a class action lawsuit against Wikipedia, though I’m highly skeptical of the organization sponsoring the supposed legal action.
But the wanton editing and dueling perspectives aren’t the real problem with Wikipedia, in my opinion…
It really hit me as I was editing the student papers and reading passages like this:
It seems like once a Web site gains a certain size or level of visibility in the public eye it automatically gains credibility and veracity. “It’s published on the Web, it must be true.”
This isn’t anything new, of course. We’ve all been talking about how hate sites and highly biased information sources are often impossible to distinguish from legitimate and factual sources, but what’s new is that we can, for perhaps the first time, see a highly credible, much lauded information source lose its credibility while we watch.
Can any of us ever trust anything that’s on a Wikipedia article any more?
I know this personally too because about a year ago I added a few paragraphs about myself on the “Dave Taylor” Wikipedia entry, leaving the other content intact. A few weeks ago when I went to look at the entry there are now six Dave Taylors on the page, but I’ve been erased by some zealous editor. Hmmm….
Oh, and the cited page in the paper? It’s clearly wrong or at least needs some specific calendar references because if you do the math you’ll see that the author is suggesting that commercial applications didn’t show up for the PC or Mac until about 5-10 years ago, which is complete nonsense. Worse, the four students collaborating on the paper never thought to question the information source – after all, it was Wikipedia! – and never caught the mistake.
I see a similarity with the debate about bloggers versus journalists, too. The underlying issue with the debate is who should be granted more credibility? I’ve talked about this topic before (see Journalists versus Bloggers: The Difference is Fact Checking, for example) but let’s ask it again: what makes a site legitimate, trustworthy, accurate and credible?
I don’t see how Wikipedia can recover from the spate of bad publicity surrounding the popped bubble of this Web darling, actually. Once you realize that it really isn’t the “citizen’s Encyclopedia Britannica” but instead an ongoing battleground of facts, fancies, cockeyed theories and crackpots, even the most benign and innocent page begins to seem questionable.
But then again, maybe I’m just being swayed by the tiny subset of Wikipedia I’ve seen, and maybe there are thousands of articles that are splendid, world-class information well worth reading and keeping around as reference material. If that’s the case, though, how do we differentiate without already having subject matter expertise?
A thorny question and one that’s going to prove important not just for the volunteer team at Wikipedia but for the Web at large. After all, what is credibility and how can we share it with each other?