Give unto Wikipedia

Reading Roy Rosenzweig’s thoughtful appraisal of Wikipedia in the current Journal of American History (“Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past”), I was particularly struck by this passage:

If Wikipedia is becoming the family encyclopedia for the twenty-first century, historians probably have a professional obligation to make it as good as possible. And if every member of the Organization of American Historians devoted just one day to improving the entries in her or his areas of expertise, it would not only significantly raise the quality of Wikipedia, it would also enhance popular historical literacy.

Let’s step back and marvel at another indication of the power and sudden inexorability of Wikipedia — can you imagine a distinguished historian feeling that he owed it to the world to improve the Encyclopedia Britannica, and urging colleagues to do their part too? For no credit and no money?

If historians and other academic experts should really be raising the quality of Wikipedia, this begs the question of who their exertions would be for. An initial answer, I suspect, would be: not for each other, and not for their students. As Rosenzweig writes (in a peer-reviewed journal, of course, and not an encyclopedia),

Most readers of this journal have not relied heavily on encyclopedias since junior high school days. And most readers of this journal do not want their students to rely heavily on encyclopedias — digital or print, free or subscription, professionally written or amateur and collaborative — for research papers.

And so an obligation to Wikipedia seems outwardly directed, keyed to a general public’s understanding (that Cleaveresque ‘family’ using a family encyclopedia). This raises further questions. Are we seeing a technologically-enabled resurgence of the public intellectual? If so, what would it mean to take on this role in a communally edited space impervious to individual identity and, as Rosenzweig notes, suspicious of expertise?

Since an edifying or even identifiable relationship with Wikipedia users seems impossible, let’s posit that obligation to it is not primarily to a public, but really to a field of knowledge as it is represented in public. In other words, if the Wikipedia page on the American Revolution is becoming the de facto online summation of this event, and if historians don’t weigh in, their knowledge fails to apply where it’s most needed.

But I wonder about how good academics generally are at writing encyclopedia articles. In many cases, it’s not at all the kind of work they do when researching or teaching — it’s not what their intellectual life is about. In general encyclopedias have settled into tended repositories of knowledge, not the active sites of inquiry that universities strive to be.

As Rosenzweig says, “Wikipedia (like encyclopedias in general) summarizes and reports the conventional and accepted wisdom on a topic but does not break new ground.” To get a sense of the progressive quiescence of encyclopedias, you could look at Wikipedia’s entry on Diderot’s Encyclopédie:

The Encyclopédie played an important role in the intellectual ferment leading to the French Revolution. “No encyclopaedia perhaps has been of such political importance, or has occupied so conspicuous a place in the civil and literary history of its century. It sought not only to give information, but to guide opinion,” wrote the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

This reliance on a hundred year old hedged claim in another encyclopedia about the political impact of a 200+-year-old encyclopedia may seem abundantly timid, but it exists — at least today — in an Wikipedia article whose neutrality is nonetheless flagged as disputed. Wikipedia strives to resolve dispute, to traffic in the indisputable — while a university that lived by that principle would be a zombie campus, at best.

Whether or not you believe in the power of online collectivism, and whether or not you think that Wikipedia represents that collectivism, you have to hand it to it (them?): Wikipedia knows what it is and what it is not. It couldn’t be more explicit about its limitations: it accepts no original research, no original ideas. And it does not pretend to satisfy research; its founder, Jimbo Wales, reportedly offers this advice to students: “For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”

So, again, why might thoughtful and original academics pay particular attention to an environment that is in many ways alien to them — and even entertain notions of obligation to it? I have a few guesses, all of them broad, none of them substantiated:

Academic publishing is sluggish — Is there any write-up about Wikipedia that does not refer to its vast coverage, its low barrier of entry, and what Rosenzweig calls its “open-source mode of production and distribution”? Academics yearn to see their work actually get distributed in the world, and they are caught in increasingly sluggish and narrow channels of communication. Wikipedia actually publishes effort, instantly and in retrievable form, to an audience that can respond to it.

No doubt about it, academic publishing constricts the discourse it should support, but the invigoration of it in a digital environment will probably be quite different from the structure and dynamics of a wildly popular collaborative encyclopedia. Wikipedia may have the most to teach us through its stubborn emphasis of what it is not: are we listening? This is a world in which, as the entry on ‘expert’ tells us (today, at least), “an intellectual elite may or may not be correct about a particular issue in their field of expertise.” The “may or may not” ambivalence about expertise, the faith in correctness at all cost… not exactly the environment for nuance, originality, or intellectual leadership.

The academic star system is stifling — This is a corollary to the above point, because recognized stars get into print more often, or at least can lean on the rusty gears of publication. And stars are stars — let’s face it — they energize events, they get the grants, they make things happen. But I suspect many academics — even stars — are titillated by Wikipedia’s oft-noted indifference to expertise. By depersonalizing and flattening and opening the field of contribution, Wikipedia seductively suggests that truth will prevail on its own — no lollygagging on laurels here.

Whatever we think of laurels, it is indisputable that peer-review, the basic engine of academic appraisal, depends on identification and reputation. Escaping the burdens of apprenticeship, labor-validation, review, and professional development may seem liberating, but a specified affiliation and whatever responsibility (or lack thereof) that implies are enabling conditions of academic discourse. A university can’t function without overt hierarchies–campus rituals are almost entirely organized around the individual’s passage through sanctified levels. Anonymity may prove surprisingly difficult for those whose sense of work is so deeply rooted in acknowledged position.

Neutrality is only fair — Wikipedia’s sternly enforced Neutral Point of View policy seems to offer respite from a world riddled with clashing theoretical frameworks. Humanists and scientists alike may feel that it’s exhausting to interpret morning noon and night — all the while moving practically through the world, negotiating its incoherencies. Wikipedia’s banishment of originality lightens the burden of this reconciliation; it sings the siren song of the incontestably evident.

The ban on spin attempts to keep things calm and cordial, but to what end? Wikipedia’s NPOV might seem related to the disinterested analysis beloved of academicians, but, as Rosenzweig points out, Wikipedian neutrality leads to a great deal of waffling and prim skirting of controversy. When it comes to the pursuit of knowledge, a polite series of self-cancelling on-the-other-hands proves a poor substitute for interpretive power and conviction. Poor and censorious. For a surprising little totalitarian chill, I recommend Wikipedia’s page about NPOV disputes : “there is a strong inductive argument that, if a page is in an NPOV dispute, it very probably is not neutral.”

Facts are simple, fact are good — A corollary, again, to the above point. Wikipedia leads us into a world of passive construction, where things have been proven, have been shown, have been accepted. Once all that messy agency is wiped out, we are left with qualified data in its proper place. Enjoy a small chuckle that the “Fact” entry in Wikipedia is today double-flagged as containing “disputed factual accuracy” and “original or unverified claims” . The fact remains that in Wikipedia, things are either proven or not, accepted or not, controversial or not — it’s an organized and binary landscape.

The pursuit of just the facts ma’m orients Wikipedia towards what’s been commonly agreed, but it can also lull thought to sleep. As a historian, Rosenzweig knows very well that “good historical writing requires not just factual accuracy but also a command of the scholarly literature, persuasive analysis and interpretations, and clear and engaging prose.” Let’s go back to that “Fact” entry in Wikipedia and partake of its droning tautology: “A fact that was once a fact and hence becomes disproven may once again become a fact if the factual evidence supporting its validity become increasingly factual in light of new and, ultimately, factual evidence.” ‘Nuff said.

Data is (are) cool — Though Rosenzweig gives props to the factual accuracy of Wikipedia — finding it to clock in somewhere in-between the Encyclopedia Britannica and the prohibitively expensive American National Biography Online — you can sense in his article a purer enthusiasm for Wikipedia as object. Its open content can be exported for research — “downloaded, manipulated, and ‘data mined’… Wikipedia can therefore be used for other purposes.” One of these purposes might start to feel like research: measuring activity in a somewhat transparent online environment. As faddish tracking of Wikipedia contrails suggests, passage through it becomes an enticing reflection of its users — you can trace patterns and behaviors to your heart’s content.

But what is all this data telling you? Who do Wikipedia’s users represent? How much should we take Wikipedia’s ground rules as exemplary? Tautology looms: we’re studying Wikipedia to learn how Wikipedia works. Take a research paper like “Ambiguity and conflict in the Wikipedian knowledge production system” — here’s how its it resolves: “Wikipedia is a fascinating topic of study and requires careful examination of its underlying social and cultural processes…. One of the most urgent items on the research agenda is to describe and explain the concrete processes by which knowledge and truth is produced and adjudicated.” What’s behind this compulsion — the requirement of examination, the urgency of such a research agenda? Could it be mirroring of Wikipedia’s own faith in neutral truth-production?

Again this feeling of compulsion attending Wikipedia. Maybe you feel it too. If so, it’s probably too late to suggest that another wiki, another platform, another construct might better deliver your truth.

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