Part of my GLAM-Wiki internship involves creating a network of GLAM-Wiki volunteers and supporters around campus and on Wikipedia to support my activities.The first step in creating support is to show people how to engage in Wikipedia. Two Thursdays ago, I gave a talk at Kansas States’s Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art titled “Thinking about Wikipedia and Academia” (Here is the Prezi) In the presentation, I tried to address some of the concerns many academics have about Wikipedia, directing my audience towards a more multifaceted approach to thinking about Wikipedia and its community. There were about fifteen people in attendance from different parts of campus at the talk. And I would call the talk fairly successful, and expect to have several more discussions with the attendees in the coming months (one of the professors is already planning a Wikipedia editing assignment).
These types of outreach events really drive my interest in participating in the community. I have been editing Wikipedia intensely for about for five or six years now, and have accrued quite a few contributions to the various projects. However, when I think about my contributions to the Wikimedia/Wikipedia community, I most enjoy talking to people about Wikipedia. You would think Wikipedia is not a hard subject to talk about because almost everyone uses it. But that isn’t always the case: many people have concerns about Wikipedia and many of these concerns derive from misconceptions about Wikipedia’s function and format. When planning to present to groups like I did at the Beach, I try to address these misconceptions about Wikipedia, and I thought I would talk about a few here:
Ignoring Wikipedia’s Community
The first misconception, and one I always have to address, is that readers consider Wikipedia like a traditional print source, not seeing the dynamic change within Wikipedia created by it’s vibrant community. Changes happen every day, and the community has a lot of different functions and processes to do so. Generally, in my conversation, I try to show what the community does and how to see those community roles in order for my audience to see how radically different Wikipedia is then traditional print encylcopedias. In my presentation, I explain not only the complexity of the community (see the diagram on the right), but also how varied the different Wikimedia projects are, how to see the edits as they happen and the community review processes. Of course, examining talk pages and a history pages are important to understand the complex community interaction that occurs for every article. For this, I tend to point towards the article Stray Animals in Indian Airports, to demonstrate how principals of Verifiability create interesting content and how history pages allow readers to witness. I also, generally pull up the Featured article for the day, because they almost always have talk page comments. Both types of examples help explain community processes, and show the complex dynamics created by the software and values of Wikipedia.
Wikipedia and Authority
Treating Wikipedia like a traditional reference source also leads to the inevitable question “How reliable is Wikipedia?” This questions always comes up, because, up until a few years ago, almost all the press about Wikipedia used rhetoric that highlighted the project’s question-ability. This is even more important when talking about Academic relations with Wikipedia. I had several professors from around campus, and within Academia their authority is built on reliable information and authority created by peer review and a clear relationship to editorial oversight. However, Wikipedia is very different. Through it’s Verifiability principle, Wikipedia outsources to reliable sources the claim to authority. Instead when thinking about Wikipedia quality, it is more important to think about how it fulfills it’s core function as a Wikimedia project: creating free and open access educational materials. This is an important point to highlight, because it appeals to recent calls for academics to create public engagement with their research. Within this context, I also point out, that academics need to learn to ignore the need to be authoritative on Wikipedia, instead focusing on getting good enough information out to the public so that academia can create better public education. We should always approach Wikipedia as only having the opportunity to get better, rather then the more traditional model of knowledge publication which has a publishing date! I have a draft blog that will probably come out next week talking more about “Why Wikipedia matters for academia,” addressing some of the ways Wikipedia can enhance public academic impact.
The last misconception that I always try to confront about is the idea that Wikipedia is complete: any contributor, knowledge expert or anyone with a serious hobby, will find Wikipedia has huge gaps that seem overwhelming. As a byproduct of the very skewed demographics contributing to Wikimedia projects, topics like the sciences and popular culture have been covered extremely well on Wikipedia giving an impression of completeness, but many areas of academic concern, such as the humanities or women’s history, have massive gaps. WhenI like to demonstrate these gaps by showing the navbox for topics related to James Fenimore Cooper. Most of Cooper’s works don’t have Wikipedia articles, even though he probably is one of the most extensively studied American authors of the early/mid-19th century. Clearly, we need some experts, or people who care to come in and fill in these types of gaps. In most of my talks, this is where I ask academics to intervene, and share with them some of the ways they can. GLAM-Wiki and the Wikipedia Education Program have created a number of tools and approaches to facilitate fixing these gaps; all Wikipedia requires to be more complete is an interested academic daring enough to try. Though gaps can be very empowering as Cory Doctorow points out, Wikipedia is an “an infinite supply of gateway drugs to engagement” with knowledge, its distribution, and its construction” they also harm public awareness about topics academics care about.
What do you think?
I hope these approaches to talking about Wikipedia are useful to all of you readers. These are by no means all of the misconceptions you run into when talking about Wikipedia. What other ones have you found? What problems do you encounter when talking about Wikipedia?