Embracing the Wiki

Increasingly people utilize sites such as Wikipedia.  If experts don’t take this medium seriously, countless hours will have to be spent to confront a misinformed public.

Most people in America today use sites such as Wikipedia as their first and only source.  And why not?  It’s quick, efficient, accessible, free, and typically accurate.  Of course, there are some people, I was one of them, who believe that Wikipedia is not a good source because of the possibility of any person to create content or edit published material on the site.  Although these concerns are legitimate, I believe that the benefits of wiki software greatly out weigh the detriments.

The controversy surrounding Wikipedia is its openness.  As Cohen discusses, Wikipedia creates the “Wild Wild West” of publishing.  This medium also offers an innovative way to collect, organize, and distribute knowledge.  Cohen is right that Wiki is the wild west of information, but similar to the American West, there is opportunity.  The opportunity in this case is to spread responsible information to educate the public.

Larry Sanger is known to bash Wikipedia for its dabblerism.  He says that dabblerism leads to amateurish results.  He is probably right.  There certainly is a need for experts to engage sites such as Wikipedia or Sangers newer creation Citizendium to ensure that the good information is available on a consistent basis.  It is important to pay attention to Wikipedia because our students—and most other people—do.

Why is this important to experts?  The answer is simple.  A misinformed public can lead to disastrous events.  How many people still actually believe that Iraq was responsible for 9/11?  I know from working with students in grades 7-12 that many young people do. And, I would bet that many of their parents think the same thing.  Is this their fault?  Yes and no.  Is it Wikipedia’s fault?  Probably not.  Whose responsibility is it to correct this problem and others stemming from misinformation?  Experts and educators.

There is, however, a bright side.  The issues that people have with open source sites like Wikipedia are addressable.  Experts and educators are able to contribute to informational sites like Wikipedia, Thomas Jefferson Wiki, and the AHA’s  Archive Wiki. Of course, this does not mean that the everyday person cannot and should not contribute.  They definitely should.  People add perspective.  The beauty of Wiki software is that all people are able to participate in the evolving nature of social consciousness.

Another way for historians to combat the prevalence of misinformation is to teach our students how to determine the credibility of a source.  This includes checking multiple primary and secondary sources for relevant information.  Too often people go to one place to get all of their information and are not able to determine between good and bad information.

Unfortunately, without a little guidance the public may become misconstrued by the megaphone effect of bad information.  An example of bad information is the presentist perspective that is prevalent on Wikipedia.  People without proper training in interpreting the past tend to hold past events up to present standards and judge them accordingly.

Fortunately, the technology is new and is always open for improvement.  Sites such as Citizendium, Thomas Jefferson Wiki, and Wikimapia attempt to use the wiki format to provide better information to the public.  Historians need to actively engage these sites ensuring that the common information is the correct information.  Or, do they fear the Wiki?

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