The Wikipedia Web

Bryan Alexander points to a Washington Post article on Wikipedia that treats the subject with “a breezy mixture of sneer and fear.” (Does fear encompass the evident ignorance?) He notes that “In educational settings, I’m still getting signals that the Wikipedia
is a sort of nexus for academic dislike of all things digital.”

I too sense that Wikipedia has become something of a synecdoche for open environments and loosely-structured practices. Though the reaction lately is less likely to be universally negative. What I find notable is that almost everyone is fairly familiar with Wikipedia. Maybe they don’t know how it works, but they’ve used it. It’s almost always a good use of workshop time to explain how entries are created, how they are corrected, how disputes are moderated — all these things work pretty explicitly in Wikipedia, and by most fair standards it’s astonishingly successful. A simple exercise is to urge participants to find and correct a Wikipedia error — it takes people longer and longer to find mistakes all the time.

So I too use Wikipedia as a nexus for discussing all manner of digital effects. Sure, you have to acknowledge some shortcomings, but I’ll stack the benefits against the liabilities any day. And when, as is almost inevitable, someone asks “what do you think of students citing Wikipedia in an academic essay?” I simply shout back “what do you think of someone citing Britannica? Huh? HUH?” and glare at them a bit. That usually shuts them up, and shutting people up is the hallmark of authoritative instruction.

BTW, Bryan’s blog Infocult has been exceptionally prolific, provocative, witty and often downright creepy of late.

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8 thoughts on “The Wikipedia Web

  1. For a “non-academic” source, I admire Wikipedia’s attention to citation detail. Gads, I wish I could, on any page on the web, click on a link that says “Cite this Article”, and have it provide me with the citation style in APA, MLA, MHRA… etc.

    If a student uses a wikipedia article, they can at least make sure its properly cited!

    Be nice to build that into any website…

  2. Hi Brian,

    Your description of your “Britannica” response is perfect — made me laugh.

    I think the focus on community process at wikipedia you describe is the key. I like your “find a mistake” workshop model and agree that the benefits do outweigh the liabilities in a constructivist space like wikipedia which encourages and embraces “common knowledge” in ways not possible for a single publisher.

    Thanks for the laugh 😉

    Regards

    Doug

  3. Initial skepticism at the idea was quickly dissipated in one visit to the site. Since then, I’ve found it to be an invaluable resource of generally well-written and informative entries on any subject matter I encounter. Google searches for arcane matter invariably turn up a (well-crafted) wikipedia entry. And in some ways, it hearkens back to the roots of referenceware – the original OED was a grassroots compilation of posts by thousands of volunteers.

  4. Michelle — good point about the citations, and a neat idea. My first thought to that proposal was some sort of Greasemonkey script to do that. I did a quick search and came up with Firefox Scholar (http://echo.gmu.edu/toolcenter-wiki/index.php?title=Firefox_Scholar_%28aka_SmartFox%29) from this rather cool list — http://www.libsuccess.org/index.php?title=Web_Browser_Extensions Firefox Scholar doesn’t do what you proposed, but looks kind of promising.

    Doug — nice to hear from you again. And as you suggest, the approach of Wikipedia is an excellent example of constructivist and “common knowledge” pedagogies as well as technoculture stuff.

    Elaine — It’s true, Wikipedia’s prominence in Google is a huge boon for the resource (and damn handy when you are looking for a quick fact). And thanks for the timely reminder on the roots of the OED!

    D’Arcy – I have to shut people up, lest they infringe on my valuable talking time. You know that all too well.

  5. Did I tell you about that presentation I did last year, where the audience suddenly split into hostile factions because of the Wikipedia? I was taking questions on wikis, and a brace of librarians were being pretty critical. At one point I asked (rhetorically, I thought) “Do you let your [selective college] students cite encyclopedias?”
    “Yes!” replied the librarians.
    “No!” came the faculty and dean (!).
    They looked at each other, and started talking. A good outcome, methinks.

    Thank you, Brian. Especially for the creepy part.

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