Wednesday, January 16, 2013

An Ode to Wikipedia

Posted By Caitlin Endyke


A few Sundays ago I was reading my weekend edition of the New York Times, when I came across an opinion article (which I, unfortunately, can’t find a link to now) about one man’s struggles with what I believe he referred to as “research fatigue”- a moment when he gets so caught up in the process of learning that an investigation into one topic quickly turns into a study cluttered with dusty library tomes on topics that strayed far from his original assignment.  Basically, it was a somewhat self-aggrandizing piece about the own author’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge and his ability to speed-read.  But, as a stereotypical millennial entrenched in the world of the internet, my first reaction to the article was, “this guy is essentially describing the modern day Wikipedia Spiral” (The “Wikipedia Spiral” starts innocently enough- you see an actor on a TV show that you recognize but can’t place, and a quick Google search leads you to his or her Wikipedia page.  A few paragraphs in, there’s a link to the page about his or her hometown.  And you’re clicking on that because now you’re wondering what the current population of that city is, which quickly leads you to the history of their baseball team and whether or not they’ve ever won the World Series.  Before you know it it’s been 45 minutes since that TV show ended and somehow you’ve ended up on a page about asparagus).

But as I thought about Wikipedia and the many hours that it has probably taken of my life, I thought about how it actually serves as a great example of the benefits of a commons-based approach.  Wikipedia is entirely run by volunteers- anyone with expertise in one specific slice of knowledge can create a page, and users who notice errors on others’ pages can edit them to correct the details.  While many assume that this level of crowd-sourcing leads to a lot of mis-information, the reality is that most pages of Wikipedia (especially those that are most-often visited) are just as, if not more, factually correct as the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Vandalism of pages (as Wikipedia users call purposeful additions or editing of content that is inaccurate or unrelated) are fixed quickly by page editors or other users.  All references used to create the page are listed at the bottom, so knowledge-seekers can get to the more in-depth sources quickly. While most librarians wouldn’t accept a Wikipedia source as an end note on an academic paper, a lot have come around to the idea that it provides a broad glimpse at topics that can be good jumping off points for more in depth research.  In terms of delivering knowledge to the public, it eliminates some academic gate-keeping that ensures only established experts are part of the discussion. 

Granted, I’m not championing Wikipedia as a bastion of academic study.  But I think it's interesting to look at the internet as a place where a commons-based approach is often carried out, and this is one large example of what that kind of approach has provided- a useful, self-sustaining resource that is free to access and democratically run. 

1 comment:

pastorpam said...

The book "Here Comes Everybody" has a fascinating chapter on Wikipedia and the commons-based approach that provides a startling amount of accuracy, if the topic is one that has a community of people who care about it. He argues that most of the time, inaccuracies and outright lies are corrected fairly quickly by the community that pays attention to that topic. Clay Shirky has a wonderful phrase for the resulting articles we see as "the last thing anyone declined to disagree about."