The at the website of the Atlantic Monthly is an article on Wikepedia, which is described there as “history’s biggest experiment in collaborative knowledge.” As the author mentions, “instead of relying on experts to write articles according to their expertise, Wikipedia lets anyone write about anything. You, I, and any wired-up fool can add entries, change entries, even propose that entries be deleted.” It is a long piece, but quite good, and can be accessed here.
Wikipedia has come under some fire of late, mainly due to its open format in that anyone can make changes to an entry, or provide factually incorrect information to the entries. As one critic has written, “The credentials of the people authoring grassroots Web journals and a committee-written encyclopedia called Wikipedia are often unclear. Nevertheless, some Internet users believe that such resources can collectively portray events more accurately than any single gatekeeper.” Or, somebody can write misleading things as well, such as in cases of political or religious controversies. For example, on the Wikepedia site, look up “Mormonism,” and one can see the problems involved in trying to be objective.
A number of months ago, stories splashed all over the web and in print about credibility questions concerning Wikipedia. See this article, for example. USA Today reports on a case of character assassination by somebody who placed a false article or entry at Wikipedia. It seems that someone wrote a biographical entry on a man, in which it stated that the subject was somehow involved in the assassinations of JFK & RFK. Since authorship is anonymous, there was no trail back to whomever penned these accusations. A related column on this well-reported issue is here. Luckily, a man in Nashville has admitted that, in trying to shock a colleague with a joke, he put false information into this Wikipedia entry. The New York Times concludes that “At its core, Wikipedia is not just a reference work but also an online community that has built itself a bureaucracy of sorts- one that, in response to well-publicized problems with some entries, has recently grown more elaborate. It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.” A summary of some of the criticisms is here as well.
The problem for historians who teach is that students love to use it when writing papers, since it pops up so easily. Just “Google” a historical figure or event and see how many Wikipedia entries pop up first, or close to the top. But it isn’t just that the site is easy to use–what opponents of its frequent use by students say is that the information can be, well, wrong! See “How Much do you trust Wikipedia,” an on-line piece here. It links many stories about this issue, so for further reading it is valuable. One quote from it:
The concept of “collective knowledge” is often lauded as the next step toward truth in online media. But recent scuffles over inaccuracies in Wikipedia entries call into question the reliability of the medium. Some scathing press and ongoing abuses of the site’s open format caused Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to limit the article submission process. But doubts about whether these changes will mean more accurate entries are still circulating.
Here is an example of the factual issues. I looked up “The Battle of Camden” within the site’s search box, and took the first entry, here. The text states: “Each army by a night march attempted to surprise the other, and fought a confused skirmish at Waxhaws. The next morning, both armies deployed face-to-face. Gates placed Baron de Kalb’s troops on his right flank and the militia on his left, and ordered De Kalb forward.” Guess what? There are two mistakes in this brief exerpt. The confused skirmish was not at the Waxhaws, and Gates did not order Kalb’s troops forward. Doesn’t that make you wonder how much else could be factually wrong at the site?