Think you know Wikipedia? You might… or you might just think you do

Up until about two weeks ago, I was a Wikipedia snob. I thought that I knew what it was and how it worked. I had looked at the site, browsed through a few entries, and edited a couple of test pages anonymously to see how easy it was to screw with the entries. I had read a few articles & blog posts (including in ACRLog) that were skeptical about the site. I would say things like, “Sure, Wikipedia has its place. Just leave it at home.” In my opinion, Wikipedia was a project of the unwashed masses who had no idea what real information was.

I thought I could sum up the complex creature called Wikipedia in a few dismissive phrases, but I was wrong. I think differently now.

After sitting in on a workshop with an inspiring colleague — Glenda Phipps from the Miami Dade College Libraries — I find myself actually excited about Wikipedia. Better late than never, thank you Glenda. As she worked through her informative talk about the site, I surfed. I hit the “Random Article” link over and over again just to see what would come up. And after a while, dense as I am, it began to dawn on me: this thing is incredible. The energy and care and passion that have gone, and continue to go, into creating this open, free, public encyclopedia… wow. I mean, where else can you find so many people who are so passionate about knowledge? (A library, perhaps?)

True, it is not an authoritative resource. There will always be a debate about its reliability, and it is my prediction that no one will ever solve that problem with Wikipedia. So don’t think of it that way. Think of it as an ever-evolving massive collection of popular knowledge. And give it a chance.

It might help if I mention here a few things I have recently learned about Wikipedia that helped to change my opinion:

1. Anyone who creates an account can also create a “watch list” of entries that you have created or otherwise feel some ownership of. So if somebody makes a change to one of those entries, you’ll get an alert.

2. Those who have (like me and Alexander M.C. Halavais) tested the system by purposefully adding misinformation have found that our planted errors are corrected quickly.

3. It’s fun! Go ahead, try it. Search for an entry on something you care about. If it already exists, add your knowledge. If it doesn’t, create it. Then see what you think about Wikipedia.

4 thoughts on “Think you know Wikipedia? You might… or you might just think you do”

  1. I think Wikipedia is amazing! What an incredible social phenomena and what an excellent tool for helping students (and others) become exposed to how information is created and debated, a process that typically takes place out of sight and among a select few. It’s a great tool for discussing the concept of expertise, collective intelligence vs. the acknowledged expert, review by consensus vs. formal peer review, and even ‘what is a reference work?’ When you talk to most people about what they know about Wikipedia, they’ll say (1) it’s an online encyclopedia, (2) anyone can add to the content, and (3) sometimes the content is wrong. But they don’t know how the content even gets in there because they are approaching it as *consumers* of information rather than *creators* or *contributors*. Showing students things like the Discussion and History tabs — or even the Edit tab — opens up a whole new perspective on the multifaceted nature of the Wikipedia. They can get a clearer understanding about how people actually debate the content there (Discussion tab) and that the authors truly are anonymous (History tab). You can do so much with these concepts. Then you can leverage this new knowledge to compare and contrast other concepts you’re teaching.

    At NCSU a couple of colleagues and I are creating a multimedia module called Wikipedia: Beneath the Surface that is premised on the idea that if we help students scratch beneath the surface, they’ll have a richer and hopefully more mindful perspective on how Wikipedia fits into the information landscape. It’s designed so other libraries can use it since the content is conceptual rather than institution-specific. Let me know if you’d like more information about it.

  2. Hey, Librarians! Before you close this chapter on Wikipedia idolatry, make sure you read what Danny Wool (the Wikimedia Foundation’s second employee ever) has to say about the guy who co-founded the site and makes sure lots of money keeps pouring into the system:

    Definitely keep “scratching beneath the surface”. There’s more. Such as how the Foundation is responsible for just ONE tax form each year, and they botched it both in 2004 and in 2005, so that it would be obscured that 60% of their Board were co-stakeholders in Wikia, Inc.

    Feel free to contact me if you want to see examples of “planted errors” that do NOT get changed quickly.

  3. Kim,

    I recommend that academics, journalists, librarians — anyone who is concerned with public education and information and who wishes to promote both critical thinking and information literacy — please, please do more homework on the real character of Wikipedia before you send this dangerous cult any more hapless victims.

    One resource for your research would be The Wikipedia Review.

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