Friday, December 11, 2009

Because if there weren't a citation, how would I *know* it gets soggy in milk

There seem to be two general schools of thought on Wikipedia--it is either the root of all evil, or the greatest thing since sliced Internet. I'm fairly confident that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I get asked pretty regularly--by both teachers and students--if I think Wikipedia is a good thing. After explaining that for a full answer we would need several hours, a few graphs, a flipchart, a laser pointer, and an elephant, I shorthand my answer by saying, simply, "yes and no."

I'm not going to go in to all the good and bad parts of Wikipedia--as I have neither several hours or an elephant handy--but I have been thinking and talking about Wikipedia this week, as we spent a day talking about it in the class I'm teaching. I think Wikipedia does a great job of encompassing a number of the Web 2.0-related issues I wanted to talk about--participatory media, trust, authority, etc. (etc., in this case, being an abbreviation for "I know there's other things I want to mention, but I am functionally brain dead and can't think of them).

The one point I do want to make about Wikipedia, which I don't see made nearly often enough, is that we send a really awful message to students when we say it's "untrustworthy" because, "anyone can edit it--even you."

Why not, instead, teach students that their voice is a valuable part of the conversation? Why not tell students that the work and research they're doing has some relevancy, and that instead of vandalizing Wikipedia they could contribute to the world's largest encyclopedia? But no, instead many teachers emphasize vandalism and denigrate their students' voices. By "teaching" Wikipedia in this way we basically tell students, "go ahead and vandalize Wikipedia, 'cause there's no way you could add something of value to it." No wonder many students think most school work is pointless, when we tell them that their voice has no place in the conversation.

Sure, Wikipedia has articles like this table of vampire traits, (and thank you, Joelle, for pointing it out) which is rather silly and, it could be argued, "pointless", and probably prone to vandalism and error. But check out Count Chocula's weaknesses. And then check out the citation for it. I dare you to find an academic source that takes citation nearly that seriously.


  1. Actually, Wikipedia is in fact the greatest thing since sliced internet (or at least the greatest community driven Internet project since GNU/Linux.)

    In addition to its obvious usefulness as a source of info, another thing I love about it is exactly what you hit on at the end of your post - they site their references! This makes the question of whether to trust Wikipedia moot: you don't need to (and probably shouldn't for any serious research).

    But not trusting it doesn't mean not using it. Start there; find some basic info, and check the references. Find ones that come from trustworthy sources and use those.

    Wikipedia's existence has reminded everyone that we shouldn't automatically believe what we're told, but should be asking some questions about where the information came from and what the motivations of the authors are. That Wikipedia has gotten people discussing this idea is one of the other reasons I love it; I just hope that people remember that this point is as valid for every other source of information as it is for Wikipedia.

  2. Your last point is one of the major points I tried to drive home with my students--when they said "you can't trust Wikipedia because you don't know who's writing it" (obviously echoing what teachers had told them) I would grab a book at random from the shelf and say, "Okay, tell me about [author] and why I should trust him." When they told me that you could trust it because editors and publishers had checked it out I started throwing around names likes Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and James Frey.

    I could tell their heads hurt by the end of it all, which is the goal of any good educator.