Going into this, I have to tell you that I am not a Wikipedia fan whatsoever. As a college student, the reference I hear to Wikipedia most often is from professors: “No, Wikipedia does NOT count as an academic resource.” In fact, all of my high school teachers spouted the same catch phrase–an effort, I’m sure, to prepare us for hearing it from a professor later. If you say something enough times–or, in this case, hear it–it becomes true. Whether for better or worse (though I would argue for better), I have absorbed that mantra. I even took it one step further; I avoid Wikipedia at all costs. I’m not denying that it has purpose and use, but it’s something that I personally avoid whenever possible.
When I was in middle school, my friends and I discovered how easy it was to change the entries for things, and although the entries did not stick, I remain wary from that experience. A knowledge base that anyone can contribute to is not a place that I go for information, unless as a last resort. Just the other day, I saw that Buzzfeed had uploaded a picture to Instagram showing that Mariah Carrey’s birthday on her Wikipedia page remains unresolved. Thinking that this had to be photoshopped, I put on my investigator cap and headed on over to Wikipedia. Sure enough, her age is listed as 46 OR 47.
In the “age of information,” how is this even possible? I tried (kind of) to give Wikipedia the benefit of the doubt, but I remain determinedly steadfast in my belief that it’s not the site for me.
Tom Simonite said it best in his article “The Decline of Wikipedia”: “Authoritative entries remain elusive. Of the 1,000 articles that the project’s own volunteers have tagged as forming the core of a good encyclopedia, most don’t earn even Wikipedia’s own middle-ranking quality scores.” While I respect Wikipedia’s goal of creating a collaborative knowledge-base, I don’t think that a forum that technically allows anyone to try his or her hand at editing makes for a good resource. Maybe this is too traditional an approach, but I think we have experts for a reason…and we should use them! What message does it send to experts when anyone lacking similar qualifications can delete and edit information on a whim?
Quoting Justine Cassell, Sue Gardner writes on her blog: “To have one’s words listened to on Wikipedia, often one must have to debate, defend, and insist that one’s point of view is the only valid one.” I believe that debate and defense are of the utmost importance to reaching a democratic consensus about information; however, I don’t believe that Wikipedia is the right place for that activity to occur. In the academic community, people engage in this kind of debate and defense by way of scholarly essays and conferences with other people whose life work has been dedicated to a particular topic. The fact that anyone can assume a mask of authority on Wikipedia completely undermines all of the pain-staking work and education that experts commit themselves to.
I’m not in the business of criticizing for the sake of criticizing. I point out these flaws because I think we need to explore ways of reinventing the online encyclopedia so that it is less of a conglomeration of questionable contributions, and more of an easily accessible wealth of reliable information. Experts should be called upon to collaborate with one another to create pages related to their fields of study. This expert classification is not exclusive to Ph.D. holding, critically acclaimed, wonder man/woman types of people; I imagine this classification similar to TED talks and how they determine what makes someone “expert enough” to speak authoritatively on a subject.
I don’t make this suggestion, though, without considering the way that this displaces the community of volunteers; these volunteers should have easy access to an email or message feature in which they can question elements of the page or suggest edits directly to the experts. As it is, I don’t think that the constant editing wars and heated (but often not productive) debates that occur on Wikipedia serve its mission to the best of its ability. Something needs to change. Perhaps my suggestion is not the answer, but it’s important that we start thinking about what could be the answer. We need to work collaboratively to brainstorm how to save the online source of the world’s information from falling victim to its own failed collaborative endeavor.