How I Read a Wiki article

When I come to the question how the site was created, I ask myself what the purpose of this site, who created this website, when, and how it developed into what I’m seeing now, and if I want to use the content of website, what are copyright issues. Wikipedia is a good place to find answers to my questions when I try to deconstruct the website:

Take the page “digital humanities” as an example. To find copyright issues and the basic information such as mission of the website, you can scroll down the page to the bottom. There are hyperlinks to: “Creative Commons Attribution-sharelike license”, “term of use” and “privacy policy””about wikipedia””developers””statistics” etc.

To find who created this webpage, go to “view history” on the top right of the page. Then you will see the history of this page such as who created this page, when, and who contributed to this page. The record goes from the creation of the page all the way to the most recent editing of the page. You can click the name of the contributor to see his/her information, but some users created their user pages and some don’t. If you want to communicate with this user, you can click “talk” besides the username and leave a message. You can also see his/her conversation records with other people who have left messages there. To see this user’s contribution, just click “contribs” beside the user name. To see the group discussion about the page rather than discuss with an individual user on his user page, click “talk” on the top left of the “digital humanities” page. There you can see people’s debate, suggestions, questions about the page. To view the history of content editing of the page, you can select any two entries and compare, or after getting into one entry, click “previous version”, “newer version” and “latest version” to see the difference.

The neutrality and accuracy of the content are two controversies of such crowdsourcing websites because the credentials of these contributors are unknown and human-beings have bias. To check their user pages, sometimes you can find some information of these users but sometimes you don’t. For example, in viewing the editing history of the page, I tried to get into the user pages of main contributors, here is what I find: Catsandthings holds graduate degrees in the humanities and is interested in Wikipedia and education. Sophia Chang is blocked by wikipedia. Elijahmeeks is the Digital Humanities Specialist at Stanford University and, once upon a time, he used to study Wikipedia and open-source culture. Simon Mahony is a Classicist by training and Director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, at the Department of Information Studies, University College London. ARK is Rudolf Ammann (@rkammann), a researcher at the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. Others just don’t have a user page. So, by reading these mini biographies and the missing of other biographies, you may question the authority of the content. It makes me think that you can use wiki as a starting point of your research, but your research can’t stop here because Wikipedia does not guarantee it is 100% accurate or neutral. Two other good examples for this alert are from Roy’s “Can History Be Open Source?”:

In the 25 biographies I read closely, I found clear-cut factual errors in only 4. Most were small and inconsequential. Frederick Law Olmsted is said to have managed the Mariposa mining estate after the Civil War, rather than in 1863. And some errors simply repeat widely held but inaccurate beliefs, such as that Haym Salomon personally loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to the American government during the Revolution and was never repaid. (In fact, the money merely passed through his bank accounts.) Both Encarta and the Encyclopedia Britannica offer up the same myth.31 The 10,000-word essay on Franklin Roosevelt was the only one with multiple errors. Again, some are small or widely accepted, such as the false claim (made by Roosevelt supporters during the 1932 election) that fdr wrote the Haitian constitution or that Roosevelt money was crucial to his first election to public office in 1910. But two are more significant—the suggestion that a switch by Al Smith’s (rather than John Nance Garner’s) delegates gave Roosevelt the 1932 nomination and the statement that the Supreme Court overruled the National Industrial Recovery Act (nira) in 1937, rather than 1935.

Wikipedia tries to solve the problems of accuracy and bias. For example, it requires users to register before creating articles. It allows users to view the history of the page. It evolved intricate rules by which participants could be temporarily or even permanently banned from Wikipedia for inappropriate behavior. It also set up an elaborate structure of “administrators,” “bureaucrats,” “stewards,” “developers,” and elected trustees to oversee the project and it has arbitration committee (Roy, Can History Be Open Source?). But sometimes it may cause overkill. “The website can be as ugly and bitter as 4chan and as mind-numbingly bureaucratic as a Kafka story.”(Auberbach, Encyclopedia Frown).

So, when I read a wiki article, I take it as a starting point of research rather than the end. It provides valuable information but also needs your own efforts to check the accuracy. There are ways to do it such as look at the sources, editing history, and use other tools such as books and search engines. Overall, wikipedia promotes the flow of information and provides new points of knowledge, and inspires more research. Readers just need to keep the accuracy and bias issues in mind when they read a wiki article.

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