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« K5 Article on Wikipedia Anti-elitism | Main | Reagle on the Wikipedia »

January 4, 2005

Academia and Wikipedia

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Posted by danah boyd

[In direct response to various points in Clay’s K5 Article on Wikipedia Anti-elitism which responds to Larry Sanger’s Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism]

First, let me acknowledge that i have excessive privilege in this lifetime. That said, i’m not convinced that academia operates solely on an aggressive exertion of privilege nor am i convinced that any institution in the United States can be discussed without an assertion of privilege. But that’s another story.

I would argue that many librarians, teachers and academics fear Wikipedia (not dislike it) because it is not properly understood, not simply because it challenges their privilege, just as most new systems and media are feared by traditionalists of all sorts. Have we not had enough conversations about blog fear amongst journalists?

As a contributor to and user of Wikipedia, there is no doubt that i have a deep appreciation for it. All the same, i roll my eyes whenever students submit papers with Wikipedia as a citation. This is probably a source of much Wikipedia dislike amongst academics.

Wikipedia appears to be a legitimate authority on a vast array of topics for which only one individual has contributed material. This is not the utopian collection of mass intelligence that Clay values. For many non-controversial topics, there are only a limited authors and we have no idea what their level of expertise is. Hell, i submitted a bazillion anthropology entries while taking Anthro 1 based on my textbook and most of them remain untouched. My early attempts to distill anthropology should definitely not appear as legitimate authorities on the topics, yet many students take them as such.

On topics for which i feel as though i do have some authority, i’m often embarrassed by what appears at Wikipedia. Take the entry for social network: “A social network is when people help and protect each other in a close community. It is never larger than about 150 people.” You have got to be kidding me. Aside from being a patently wrong and naive misinterpretation of research, this definition reveals what happens when pop cultural understandings of concepts become authorities.

I have extreme respect for those who seek to define concepts such as those who craft the dictionary and encyclopedias. It is extremely challenging to define a term because you are trying very hard to capture and convey excessive amounts of information in an abbreviated fashion that cannot be misinterpreted. This takes talent, practice, precision and a great deal of research. Consider, for example, the difference between a good science writer and a bad one. Not everyone can convey large bodies of research in an easily accessible manner.

This does not mean that i dislike Wikipedia, just that i do not consider it to be equivalent to an encyclopedia. I believe that it lacks the necessary research and precision. The lack of talent and practice mostly comes from the fact that most entries have limited contributers. Wikipedia is often my first source, but never my last, particularly in contexts where i need to be certain of my facts. Wikipedia is exceptionally valuable to read about multiple sides to a story, particularly in historical contexts, but i don’t trust alternative histories any more than i trust privileged ones.

My concern - and that of many of my colleagues - is that students are often not media-savvy enough to recognize when to trust Wikipedia and when this is a dreadful idea. They quote from it as though it cannot be inaccurate. I certainly distrust many classic sources, but i don’t think that an “anti-elitist” (a.k.a. lacking traditional authority and expertise) alternative is automatically better. Such a move stinks of glorifying otherness simply out of disdain for hegemonic practices, a tactic that never gets us anywhere.

I don’t believe that the goal should be ‘acceptance’ so much as recognition of what Wikipedia is and what it is not. It will never be an encyclopedia, but it will contain extensive knowledge that is quite valuable for different purposes. If the fuss dies down, i’d be exceptionally worried because it would mean that we’ve lost the ability to discuss the quality of information.

Alternatively, i too would love to see a vetted version of Wikipedia, one that would provide a knowledge resource that is more accountable and authoritative.

Comments (13) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Andy Baio on January 4, 2005 10:29 AM writes...

A quick note: The "social network" page has only had one revision, so it's barely more than just a stub begging to be edited by someone who knows about the subject. Also, the Social Software page is marked for cleanup.

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2. Liz Lawley on January 4, 2005 10:32 AM writes...

Oh, brava! Well said. Will weigh in shortly with my own MLS-influenced perspective. :)

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3. oedipa on January 5, 2005 12:06 AM writes...

Wikipedia is competing with Google as much as it's competing with Britannica.

The main role of Wikipedia (for me at least) is not as the final answer, but as a rough-and-ready primer on some name or idea. Fifty years ago, that role was played by the family encyclopaedia. Now, in the absence of Wikipedia, it would be played by the internet as a whole, starting with Google. Most of the things people look up on Wikipedia are things that they'd otherwise be looking up on Google(*).

In all three cases: google, wikipedia, britannica, there is a trade-off between coverage and reliability (+). Google will give you five answers for everything, one of which will eventually turn out to be right. Wikipedia will give you one answer that is more or less serviceable. Britannica will give you either nothing or one answer that is gospel (*)

Now, which point do you want on the continuum of accuracy vs. coverage? If you were determined to choose one research option, i guess you'd be trying to find the point that maximises accuracy+coverage, or the point that matches the accuracy/coverage balance wanted by the most people. But trying to choose one tool is silly: we need to concentrate on working out which is best for which job, and spreading that knowledge among students, and other people who are using wikipedia inappropriately (**)

When you look at it this way, Wikipedia's inaccuracy, naivite and lack of perspective don't matter. You shouldn't use Wikipedia when you need 100% trustworthiness. You should use it when you want a quick overview, which is good enough 9 times out of 10. The tenth time is probably when you're putting something in a term-paper.

The other bonus is that we sidestep the silly questions of whether wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and whether it's a good encyclopedia. Wikipedia is one of a kind, and nobody really seems to have a handle on what an encyclopaedia should be at the moment. So let's forget that red herring, and try to work out what niche each tool fills, and how we can best use it, and help other people to use it.

+ yes, there are other aspects to it. But this is a comment, not an essay: fill in the gaps by yourselves!

* I take the point that it is the voice of the establishment, laying false claim to objectivity. But the facts will be right, if somewhat out-of-date.

** Or, for that matter, are using Britannica inappropriately.

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4. Eric Nehrlich on January 5, 2005 2:23 AM writes...

I think you touch on a really important point here. My feeling is that one of the most important skills we need to be teaching students these days is the ability to evaluate various information sources and decide how much credence to lend to each one. How can they be taught to recognize when a Wikipedia entry is credible? This means teaching them critical thinking skills, and getting them out of the habit of treating any information source as sacred and infallible.

While thinking about such issues recently, I decided that the appropriate analogy was being an "information carnivore". Like a meat-eater, it's much more efficient to use secondary sources of information like Wikipedia or Google than it is to trawl through primary sources oneself. But just as toxins get concentrated on their way up the food chain, biases and inaccuracies can get concentrated on their way up the information chain. And given the vast and growing number of information sources now available, learning how to evaluate which sources are non-toxic is a skill I think we must all learn.

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5. Tony on January 5, 2005 6:30 PM writes...

Screw frozen authoritative texticles. Most of the time, I'll settle for authoritative enough (AE). Especially if it's living, moving, breathing AE. Consensus is great for the status quo, if you're happy with the status quo. But how else to ring in the new without coloring outside the uberboxen? without welcoming some waltercrankitis? I don't see Wikipedia veering off into the swamp.

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6. soobrosa on January 6, 2005 4:32 AM writes...

Wikipedia is like bittorrent, if people are interested in a specific article, it get better. See Wikipedia as Participatory Journalism: Reliable Sources? Metrics []

Every Wikipedia page has some metadata-like attributes those are not shown, or not easily recognizable, but stored in the database. These are the following
- was the content of the page discussed ever, by anyone,
- when was the page started,
- how many people contributed to the page,
- how many edits were made to the page,
- were there any major flame or vandalism regarding the content of the page,
- how many other pages link here.
I propose that if every Wikipedia page should have a graphical representation of these data or they relation to each other, that would help the user to have an immediate opinion of how much should she/he should trust that page. (Font size, coloring, shading could be easily done even within HTML using CSS - no need for special graphic generation methods.)

If we continue this idea in a way that considering the user is an active contributor, we should show her/him, how "close" or "far" is a given article to her/him. We should interpret "closeness" based on an Erdos number-like model. Closeness means trustability. And here we also come back to the geographically-sensitive sticker board that really works when you know can trust or mistrust information based on "closeness".

Trust is handled in quite different ways in collaborative knowledge communities, I personally think that the most interesting experiences came from slashdot (see: Rutigliano, Lou: When the Audience is the Producer: The Art of the Collaborative Weblog - Even technically sophisticated users are lazy and all feedback mechanism should be formed according to this easy phenomenon. Giving away a number of "trust points" they are able to give to articles I propose three easy buttons: "I like it" (you give trust), "I don't like it" (you lower trust) and "Alert" (you see something strange). If you are using either "I like it" or "I don't like it" too much, the system have to make you argue why do you think so. In case of "Alert" you have to describe why do you think that you do not trust at all what you see.

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7. felixrayman on January 7, 2005 12:38 AM writes...

Suppose that the editors of a well-known and trusted encyclopedia had had a huge vicious war on which point of view would be reflected in the entry on a certain topic, and that one of those editors had won out.

How would you, as a reader of that encyclopedia know that?

With Wikipedia, you could. You could see exactly what the alternate views were, you could see which was accepted and why, and most importantly, you would know there was some controversy there.

Your comment that Wikipedia "is often my first source, but never my last" should apply to any single source of knowledge.

If that single source of knowledge can at least point you to where the disagreement and controversy lies on a given topic, it has done you a very valuable service.


There is no preview here? God, or entropy, help us all.

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8. Kartik Agaram on January 7, 2005 2:06 AM writes...

felixrayman's comment is among the best I've ever read.

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9. zephoria on January 8, 2005 5:57 PM writes...

Soobrosa - unfortunately interest->improvement doesn't always happen. Most students who use Wikipedia for academic stuff don't update it when they learn that what is on the site is limited. Or perhaps that's because their interest is limited. Still, they read far more than contribute, which is where the original concern for me lies.

I just posted more on reflexivity which is very much in connection with what you are saying.

Felix - it is my impression that encyclopedias do not work that way. The goal is to express all sides to a definition, not simply one or the other. I believe that reflexivity should be occurring always and that means explaining what biases are injected into a set of texts.

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10. phil jones on January 10, 2005 9:46 PM writes...

"My concern - and that of many of my colleagues - is that students are often not media-savvy enough to recognize when to trust Wikipedia and when this is a dreadful idea. "

I think this pretty much sums up "elitism", no? To believe that there is a class of people (in your example, students) who are not sufficiently "savvy" to recognise what's true and what isn't, and should therefore be protected from some misleading information. Even though, you, yourself, personally *are* able to recognise the truth and therefore benefit from the resource.

Not saying that you're wrong, but you are elitist. :-)

More to the point, how is it that you got to be in this fine state? Through reading the right material : the right books and encyclopedias and web-sites? How could you demonstrate or prove that you are more savvy or that your cannon is better than wikipedia?

"They quote from it as though it cannot be inaccurate."

I don't see these two ideas automatically go together. Quoting something *shouldn't* be taken as meaning you don't believe it couldn't be inaccurate. It just means that you think it is accurate. (That's something quite different.)

The point is, *everything* should come with implied "scare-quotes". But if it does, it's not clear why anyone should draw attention to the fact. Just as "the fish doesn't look at the water", perhaps we don't need to see the "but I may of course be wrong" invisibly appended to every statement we make.

It may be that exposure to wikipedia (or the internet in general) quickly teaches this kind of universal scepticism, so much so that habitues don't realize that there are discourses which make a lot more of a song and dance about the fact that they recognise all narratives are suspect.

That seems to me to be the real challenge to academia. And maybe the real problem of Wikipedia for the elites. It isn't that people might get misled. The bigger fear is that they might start asking "how do I know that those bastards at Britanica and Oxford University Press aren't lying to me? Who's checking them out?"

In short, it might *democratize scepticism*. Academic savvy is largely based on having read enough sources to realize that none can plausibly be authoritative. Whereas the layman has typically read only a couple of books on a subject and assumes that's the first and last word on the matter. Suddenly, with Wikipedia, the layman can hit the "history" button and see that there are dozens of competing viewpoints on any topic and will soon become as sceptical and savvy as the professor.

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11. zephoria on January 11, 2005 3:31 AM writes...

If it would democratize scepticism, i'd be all for it but unfortunately, most people take it at face value.

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12. Scribe on January 11, 2005 5:26 AM writes...

"My concern - and that of many of my colleagues - is that students are often not media-savvy enough to recognize when to trust Wikipedia and when this is a dreadful idea."

It sounds, then, as though the problem is not with Wikipedia but with the students - and even then I'm not sure it's so much of a "problem" as more of part of the learning experience. Youth and naivety tend to go hand-in-hand, and if Wikipedia weren't there, I'm sure students would be clamouring to refer to anything else that challenging the status quo, whether it be Indymedia, Foucault or the Teletubbies.

They'll learn :)

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13. phil jones on January 11, 2005 6:17 PM writes...

Yeah, I think Scribe might have a point. What's the difference between students parroting wikipedia and students parroting Ayn Rand / Noam Chomsky?

More importantly, I want to know what your criteria is for "accepting at face value". What tests are you applying to see if they're as gullable as you think? And do you apply the same tests to people you consider to be media savvy?

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