Summation of One: More thoughts on Wikipedia and Crowdsourced Knowledge


(one interpretation of the War of 1812)

I saw a lot of the blogs in my group complaining about not getting any comments to respond to, which is weird because I definitely posted comments to all of them; perhaps they didn’t realize I was a classmate! In any case, I really didn’t get any comments, so I just want to expand on my thoughts about Wikipedia some because I will be looking at it more later this week for my op-ed.

One of the more interesting parts of Richard Jensen’s article Military History on the Electronic Frontier: Wikipedia Fights the War of 1812 was his point about how Wikipedia’s military history articles are “old-fashioned, with an emphasis on tactics, battles, and technology, and are weak on social and cultural dimensions.” This is an example of how crowdsourced knowledge a lot of the time lacks the direction that more traditionally assembled information has; in history, the trend has been to move away from always top-down narratives of great men making big decisions to look at factors like how economics and cultures create conflict, or what effect a battle had on the society around it. Vetted sources, like encyclopedias and academic journals, move along with the wider academic conversation. Wikipedia’s editors are often using sources that have entered the common domain, like old encyclopedias, books they have read and interpreted without disciplined study, or even original, unverified research.

As Brown & Duguid noted, Wikipedia brings together many different social worlds to one document that must be shared between them, even though they each have their own interpretations; “for there to be a “right” way [to interpret], there must be a standard and a judge external to all of the competing community-based alternatives. But there is no external fulcrum to move these social worlds that is not itself merely the internal standard of another social world.” Obviously Britannica (for example) is not infallible and has internal divisions, but it is still in a more limited sense a “single” community with a common understanding of the purpose of the encyclopedia and what knowledge merits inclusion. Just as crucially, the encyclopedia editors are actual experts, and they are accountable for their work. If Britannica is massively wrong about something, they could lose their jobs. Wikipedia on the other hand can, at worst, ban an editor for a big mistake, and even that threat is easily circumvented with a new account.

Wikipedia may be “accurate” in broad strokes on the factual level, but that doesn’t take into account whether the right facts are presented, and how they are presented. It is unwise to put the task of experts into the hands of amateurs when there is the risk of further entrenching outdated belief systems and explanations.

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