Wiki Wiki Wiki

Wikipedia is great since it has millions of articles just a finger click away. On the other hand, one finger click leads to another, which leads to another which leads to another, and next thing you know hours of your life are gone. The brilliant webcomic XKCD perfectly encapsulated this:

A typical Wikipedia experience, plus or minus the mental image of William Howard Taft in a wet t-shirt contest.

But in all seriousness, I do love Wikipedia and use it daily, if not hourly. So I was really frustrated on January 18, 2012 when Wikipedia held a “blackout”  in protest against SOPA. For 24 hours, users couldn’t access English-language Wikipedia articles. Despite knowing about this blackout, I still tried accessing Wikipedia links dozens of times throughout the day just by habit. It was a reminder of how how ever-present the site is, and how much I rely on it to learn about the world.

Roy Rosenzweig analyzes the historical writing on Wikipedia in his 2006 essay “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past.” The article illuminates Wikipedia’s own history and its policies, though as expected from an eight-year old article, some of it could use updating. For example, since Rosenzweig wrote the article: Wikipedia has jumped from the 18th Alexa-ranked website, to sixth (#1 for non social media or search engine sites); 3 million articles overall, with 1 million in English, has exploded to 30 million and 4.5 million; and Wikipedia employees have grown from two to 200. Specific articles have changed too. Back then Woodrow Wilson‘s entry (3,200 words) was smaller than Isaac Asimov’s (3,500); now the former has 13,000 words and the latter 10,000.

Still, Rosenzweig’s main focus is on the historical writing of Wikipedia. He writes that thanks to Wikipedia’s  neutrality policy as well as use of “encyclopedia style” there is no real interpretation on the site. I agree with this assessment, but unlike Rosenzweig, I don’t think this diminishes Wikipedia. The point of the site is to provide information, not expound historical arguments that can be found in historical journals or scholarly monographs. That’s why I agree with him that historians should “Spend more time teaching about the limitations of all information sources, including Wikipedia, and emphasizing the skills of critical analysis of primary and secondary sources.”

I also very much agree with his question “Shouldn’t professional historians join in the massive democratization of access to knowledge reflected by Wikipedia and the Web in general?” His ideas like historians taking one day a year to edit articles of their expertise, or creating an open-sourced collaborative textbook based on Wikipedia (or at least similar to Wikipedia) would help develop historical consciousness and knowledge. After all, as Rosenzweig states  Wikipedia’s  “extraordinary freedom and cooperation make Wikipedia the most important application of the principles of the free and open-source software movement to the world of cultural, rather than software, production.”

Considering my addiction to clicking on Wikipedia links, I couldn’t agree more.

(I plan to review a documentary about Wikipedia later this month. Check for that blog post in about two weeks.)

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About Zach Klitzman

A History Grad student at American University

2 responses to “Wiki Wiki Wiki”

  1. drdankerr says :

    Nice image! I love that you assessed the strength of his arguments on Wikipedia today — it’s good to see that there has been some corrective measures to earlier imbalances. And the growth of Wikipedia continues to astound. My only gripe, as expressed in my comment on your documentary review, is that it would take more than a day a year for academics to make a minor dent in Wikipedia. And even then, our contributions may get heavily edited and deleted. I say, if you feel so moved, go at it. It should be for the amateur in all of us.

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