Historicize

March 24, 2014

Engaging with the Wikipedia(ns)

At long last, I can say that I have actively engaged with Wikipedia. The opportunity came as part of a spring break assignment for my digital history methods course at UW-Milwaukee. While I am not entirely sure what has kept me from making contributions to the free, publicly crowd-sourced and edited online encyclopedia up to this point, my initial reluctance probably stemmed from the fact that, as Robert S. Wolff frames it, “on the web, professional historians are not the sole arbiters of what constitutes ‘history.'” As an academic historian in training, I am used to navigating through—by and large—private scholarly channels established and maintained by traditional historians who came up through the same gated system. Wikipedia can be frightening for academics because un-credentialed or amateur scholars might argue (in public no less!) that their contributions are “unverifiable” based on the weight of popular opinion or one’s use of primary sources as opposed to secondary sources as evidence. Then again, we as historians should be well equipped to defend our inclusion of particular books and articles as sources. Surely, we know how to construct an argument. As a public historian who predominantly operates in digital spaces, I am also highly intrigued by Wikipedia as a popular experiment in building collective knowledge and a more democratic interpretation of the past within an online space.

In all seriousness, I wonder if Wikipedia can ever represent “good” historical scholarship according to accepted disciplinary standards. As Roy Rosenzweig once pointed out, it all depends on “how you define ‘history.'” One issue for historians is that Wikipedia authors tend to be English-speaking and male. Clearly, this makes for problematic interpretations of key historical events and privileges certain voices over others. As Martha Saxton notes, there is little substantive material on the encyclopedia about women. Fortunately, she and other historians are answering Rosenzweig’s call for more active scholarly engagement with Wikipedia. As the world’s most popular encyclopedia, we have, according to Roy, “a professional obligation to make it as good as possible.”

Good writing is another issue. The collaborative nature of the project makes for uneven prose that ranges in quality. Nonetheless, many of Wikipedia’s “factualist” entries appear well-written and sourced and are surprisingly accurate when compared to other encyclopedias. Personally, I find the resource valuable as, according to Barbara Rockenbach, a “pre-search” tool. Frequently, I will find myself checking Wikipedia references to find secondary sources I may have missed and I would argue that individual entries make for good starting points when conducting new research. As Mills Kelly’s “Lying About the Past Course” and Shawn Graham’s “Wikiblitz” editing assignment demonstrate, Wikipedia can also serve as a highly useful pedagogical device. Nonetheless, I wonder about the extent to which Wikipedia is fashioning its own information silos via the editorial policing of “Editor Barnstars,” or individual users recognized for their salutary refinement of hundreds of Wikipedia entries. Ostensibly, (and I may be wrong here) these superusers play a powerful role in determining the existence of new Wikipedia contributions.

Perhaps my brief interaction with a veteran Barnstar will illustrate this point.

For my class assignment—essentially making a change to a history-related Wikipedia entry and monitoring what happens to it—I chose not to craft an entirely new entry or make any significant alterations to an existing piece. I simply added a line of text to one entry: “Neighborhoods of Milwaukee.” Fortunately, this minor act was enough to generate a brief, yet thought-provoking discussion with a veteran Wikipedia editor (and locally-known Milwaukee resident), Orange Mike. The entry must have existed on his “personal watchlist,” which notifies contributors when an article of interest to them has been modified. Actually, Mike’s claim to fame is a rather successful appearance on the Comedy Central game show Win Ben Stein’s Money. He was also a history major at UWM who graduated with honors. As Mike’s user profile suggests, he leans towards the “deletionist” end of the Deletionist/Inclusionist spectrum. Therefore, he believes a lot of Wikipedia entries,┬áin certain respects, violate the community’s guidelines. Consequently, he “holds articles…to higher standards of notability, verifiability, etc. than some other editors.”

Anyway, I noticed that the nine sentence paragraph on Sherman Park in the Neighborhoods of Milwaukee entry (first started in December 2008) included no information on one of my current research topics, the Sherman Park Community Association. Of course, I first checked if the association had its own entry and it did not. Since this neighborhood group made an impact—for better or worse—on that neighborhood and the city as a whole, I thought it deserved mentioning in an entry on Sherman park. Therefore, I added the line: “The area also features a vibrant community association that has worked to preserve Sherman Park’s cultural diversity, commercial viability, and quality housing stock since the early 1970s.” In all honesty, I was confident that my first Wikipedia contribution would meet the approval of this page’s most prominent editors.

However, Mike swiftly deleted my text within minutes. His reasoning: “Reverted very promotional language apparently taken from a book blurb.” A book blurb? I did use a book—the intellectual currency of a tertiary source like Wikipedia—to cite my contribution. The book is a local, celebratory history of the neighborhood. I get that. But why did he think it came from a “very promotional” “blurb”? Did he assume I worked for or represented this organization? I speculated that my use of the word “vibrant” and my emphasis on the group’s more positive contributions to the neighborhood probably signaled to Mike that this contribution did not use a Neutral Point of View (NPOV).

Uncertain about why Orange Mike believed I sourced my sentence with a “blurb” and unsure about how to communicate with him directly, I reinserted the text (As I now know after completing our class readings, I almost initiated an “editing war” by taking this action). Again, Mike deleted my text and provided a response in the entry’s history: “I’m sorry, MKE [part of my username], but that book fails our standards for reliable sources, and that language is shamelessly promotional.” This explanation helped, since I now knew that the book I was using to cite my contribution was a major part of the problem. In time, I figured out how the talk function worked and contacted Mike about this second deletion

I politely asked him, among other things, what made my contribution “shamelessly promotional” and what makes for a reliable source on Wikipedia? For example, I noticed that only one other sentence in this section, a line about Sherman Park’s growing Chasidic Orthodox Jewish population, was sourced. And, that source came from a local synagogue’s website. Mike must have recognized this was problematic as well? Fortunately, he did, although I am not sure why he and other editors have maintained that source, but deleted mine. He further explained: “Our basic stance is, better remove poorly sourced content if you can’t source it adequately. What we really expect are the same kinds of sources you’d use in a paper, except that we are not very big on primary sources, preferring a solid secondary or even tertiary.” Apparently, the publisher of the local history on Sherman Park I used was “notorious for the stuff they pay hungry writers to clobber together, with a mission of describing the subject in glowing prose to encourage people with emotional ties to the place to buy the book.” Luckily, I knew of another secondary source by a sociologist that takes up the SPCA and have since used that more credentialed text to cite a reworked, (hopefully) less promotional sentence that remains at the time of this writing: “Since 1970, the neighborhood has featured a community association focused on preserving Sherman Park’s cultural diversity, housing stock, and commercial viability.”

So what did I learn in this experiment with Wikipedia?

Ultimately, Orange Mike’s questioning of my source’s publisher was a valid editorial critique. Nonetheless, few books—only three that I know of—actually discuss the Sherman Park Community Association in any detail. Therefore, my options were limited and I went with, quite literally, the book that was next to me on my desk. I honestly did not expect its verifiability to be challenged, but understand why it was. When in doubt about sourcing a Wikipedia contribution, or any historical writing for that matter, it is probably best to use the most “verifiable” text possible. Of course, I would be more likely to cite a primary source in my own original writing, such as an archival record.

I also learned that Wikipedia editors are not always consistent. The fact that the synagogue website remains as an “objective” source in an entry with no other citations seems problematic. Naturally, the heading “This article needs additional citations for verification” appears at the top of the entry. Perhaps I should do as Rosenzweig suggests and make additional improvements, right?

Finally, I learned that the Wikipedia community, at least based on my brief experience with a seasoned editor, is predicated on thoughtful, argument-based interactivity. Orange Mike was willing to listen to what I had to say and he backed up his critique with evidence. It probably helps that he was a history undergraduate student and understands where I was coming from as a History PhD (I mentioned this on his “talk” page) who was new to Wikipedia. I felt welcomed by Mike to share my ideas and learn about the entry-writing process.

We shall see how long my latest contribution—a single line—lasts, but I do feel confident that I will make further historical additions to the encyclopedia in the near future.

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3 responses to “Engaging with the Wikipedia(ns)”

  1. Amanda Seligman says:

    I wonder if it wasn’t the combination of exuberant language and boosterish source that got his attention. What might have happened if you had included a more discursive footnote, discussing the dearth of sources on Sherman Park and explaining, this one is sociological, this one is nostalgic, etc.

  2. Leif Mogren says:

    I think Wikipedia is a fascinating beast. On the one hand, for many academics it is fraught with terrors, madness and poorly cited sources, the three banes of any good man of Earth. On it you can run into the type of problems you did, Will, wherein senior editors go to war over inclusion or rejection. I have heard that there are occasional surges by the masses of the internet, who edit some specific faulty fact or joke into an article time and time again. Sailing in the Wiki-sea is a perilous business for historians and their muse, which should always be reality.

    However, Wikipedia has become such a ubiquitous thing, such a well-known tool that we cannot ignore it. To turn our noses up at Wikipedia is to ignore one of the first places people go when they wonder who built the pyramids or which president was 23rd (Benjamin Harrison, and I found that out on Wikipedia). Instead, might we historians hoist colors of our own choosings and become Orange Mikes? On Wikipedia, power can come from seniority, from articles edited and articles made. Can we establish reputations for ourselves, and through that, make Wikipedia a little more scholarly? It wouldn’t be an easy challenge, but it is one possibility for something that simply cannot be ignored.

By Will Tchakirides | RSS | © 2012 under a CC BY 3.0 license

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