Wikipedia and Me

In December 2006 I was a panelist for the first (or maybe second) round of NEH Digital Start Up grants. Because this was a new program at the NEH, then NEH Chairman Bruce Cole sat in on our deliberations to see what issues the panelists thought were important or not. At the conclusion of the review process, Bruce then engaged us in an open discussion about what was happening in the digital humanities. At some point in that conversation, he asked us what we thought about this newish online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. I went first and said, “Well, I assign it as the textbook in my Western Civ survey.”

That was a show stopper.

At the time there was already a great deal of angst about the maleability of Wikipedia entries, the popularity of the encyclopedia among young people who didn’t seem to understand that (a) it was an encyclopedia, not a work of scholarship and (b) that as a crowd sourced document, it was constantly evolving and based on the wisdom of the crowd, not of experts. That I had junked my textbook in favor of such a resource earned me more than a few odd looks that day.

Why would I do that? And why was I already assigning my students the task of creating new entries or significantly upgrading existing entries as a standard assignment in all of my courses–an assignment I have included in every course I’ve taught (except one) for the past six years. In fact, a little research in this blog reminds me that my first foray into assigning Wikipedia editing was in the fall 2005 semester.

Since then, I’ve been a strong advocate for Wikipedia as a teaching tool, not only in this blog, but also in various talks I’ve given at colleges and universities around the country over the past half decade. I have also written several historical entries myself and edited a number of others.

Given that long record of support for Wikipedia, its mission, and its ethos, it’s more than a little ironic to me that I am now the bête noire of the Wikipedia community and Jimmy Wales in particular.

Let’s enumerate my crimes, sticking to the facts (given the rumors and innuendo that are so often part of this conversation). In the spring 2008 semester, students in my course Lying About the Past, created a false entry on a fictitious American pirate (Edward Owens) that they allowed to remain online for about two weeks, at which point they changed the entry to reflect the fact that it was a hoax. Despite the perceptions of many around the web, I did not require my students to create a false entry. This was their choice — one they made after a long discussion about the ethics of doing so — but I likewise did not tell them not to create the entry. Doing so was their choice, and I approved of that choice, with the proviso that they would out themselves on the last day of the semester.

My second crime was to teach this course again. This spring, students in my course created three Wikipedia entries in the service of their online historical hoaxes — all three of which were 100% factually accurate. Two of those entries were deleted for being insufficiently notable and because the students subverted Wikipedia’s new editorial process that requires a certain number of editorial reviews of a new entry before it is posted. The third entry remains and has already been improved by the crowd. As with the prior version of the course, students this spring were not required to create Wikipedia entries–they chose to do so. Further, they chose to create completely accurate entries after a long discussion of the ethics of their actions.

Reaction to my course, spurred largely by an article at by Yoni Appelbaum, was swift. In addition to being called names such as “pond scum,”  and, “a cancer on the ass of humanity,” I even received one death threat  (referred to law enforcement for investigation). Among Wikipedia administrators, the conversation drifted briefly toward an all institution blockade of George Mason IP addresses, but later settled down. What this discussion demonstrates, I think, is that robust conversation among interested parties is worth reading. The Wikipedia admin discussion aired both sides of the debate and arrived at a “no decision” decision…much like the way Wikipedia entries are edited, ending up in compromise between the interested parties.

On the personal Wikipedia back end page of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, several members of the Wikipedia community have weighed in as well. [NB: When I first wrote this entry, it was unclear to me that the personal talk pages were places for users to contact someone — I assumed that someone’s personal talk page was their page, i.e., the place where they conversed with others. See Ben’s comment below for more detail on that.] Given that Wales himself is guilty of editing Wikipedia entries (his own) to make the past seem different than it was, I wonder how those Wikipedians who are angry at me feel about the founder of their project also recreating the past?

So, where does this leave me with respect to Wikipedia? I’m in the same place I was seven years ago when I started requiring my students to add to and improve the encyclopedia. But I will also continue to teach Lying About the Past. Given the ubiquitous nature of Wikipedia in the information landscape, I think it’s fair to say that whenever I teach the course again, Wikipedia will be a part of it some way, some how.

12 thoughts on “Wikipedia and Me

  1. several boxes

    You link to Jimbo Wales’ talk page, but I don’t see there that he “weighed in” at all. Which of those comments are you saying is his?

    I only see signed comments from other users in that section.

  2. Mills Post author

    Hi. Thanks for the comment. So the content on his personal talk page is not generated by him? It seems a reasonable assumption that it is. Otherwise I could post unsigned comments there and readers could assume, as I did, that these comments are from Wales. Seems an odd system to me.

  3. several boxes

    As far as I can tell, that section was created by an anonymous user who’s only identified by IP (though that first comment is “signed” with that IP), and all the later comments there are from other logged-in users.

    To my knowledge, a user’s talk page is basically like any other: anybody can edit, and so they’re often used to talk to the page’s “owner.”

  4. Mills Post author

    Hi again:

    Thanks for that. I’ve updated the post to reflect what you write here. It does seem strange to me that a personal “talk” page is largely authored by anonymous strangers. But if that’s the case, then Wales is not or may not be the author. Difficult to say.

  5. Ryan Kaldari

    99% of the content on Jimmy Wales talk page is posted by other users. I doubt Wales even reads most of it. A User Talk page is basically a user’s “inbox” on Wikipedia.

    Regarding the criticism of your class, I have read the Atlantic article, and frankly I’m amazed you are still defending the actions of your class. Your students blatantly violated the goodwill of the Wikipedia community and committed a serious breach of ethics. This seems to be obvious to everyone on the internet except yourself. Do you not understand that your students are creating huge amounts of unnecessary work for people who are volunteering their time? It’s like going to a community garden and dumping garbage over all the plants as an “experiment” to prove that food from community gardens might be tainted with garbage. Do you really expect the community gardeners to not be upset?

    Why not issue an apology rather than all the defensive hand-waving? Whether you want to admit it or not, your class made a mistake by not adhering to basic standards of ethical research. No one is going to have faith in your future actions until you acknowledge that.

  6. Ryan Kaldari

    Also, I have to say that your attack on Jimmy Wales is astonishingly petty. Seven different people brought the unethical activities of your class to Wales’ attention, and he didn’t respond whatsoever. If I were you, I would be sending Wales a thank-you card rather than personally attacking him on your blog.

  7. Ben Brumfield

    Just as article talk pages are for discussion of the article, user talk pages are for discussion of/with the user. Pages in the User name-space are reserved for content by the user; those in User_talk are for discussions with the user, which are authored by anybody. It acts as a sort of mailbox, so whenever a new contribution is made to a user’s talk page, that user is notified the next time they log into the system.

    So an anonymous IP address posting on Wales’s page was really someone trying to tell on you to Jimbo.

  8. Kelly Kvello

    I have to ask a simple question here. After following your blog since I took your Eastern European Nationalism class the first time, and then the 1st Lying about History class who successfully posted on Wikipedia. Do you ever get tired of trying to explain to people the purpose of this class was not about “vandalizing” Wikipedia?
    Because honestly I get tired of people focusing on that instead of reading the articles about what was accomplished. For example Ryan Kaldari, goes on and on about what this class did to Wikipedia but I have to wonder did he or anyone else who seems so focused on this aspect of the stop, even for one second, to think about one thing. In today’s world where almost everything is online and so many students do research online and accept the information that is presented them from any and every website, including Wikipedia, as fact, without ever checking their sources. This class teaches the most important thing that any Historian can learn, CHECK YOUR FACTS and DO THOROUGH RESEARCH. Historians careers have been ruined time and time again because they spoke about something or believed something and reported it to be true without doing their research. How many historians lost their credibility when the Hitler Diaries were discovered? All because they didn’t do their research. How many students turn in papers with facts that are not true because they found something online and don’t check their facts. I wish for once someone out there would stop harping on the Wikipedia aspect of this whole thing and look at the fact, that creating history that is believable is something that takes exorbitant amounts of time and research and fact checking. Just as researching and discussing history does. For those out there who would like to know why we chose to add an article to Wikipedia, it wasn’t to “vandalize”, it wasn’t because we wanted to cause trouble or create extra work for the editors of Wikipedia. It was because so many people read the things that are put on Wikipedia and they believe it, they don’t bother to check the facts because “it’s on the internet it must be true, you can’t put false information online.” Because Wikipedia is constantly changing and anyone can update an article it is important to check the validity of what is being read there just as it is important to check the validity of what is being read anywhere. That is the reason that so many professors don’t allow Wikipedia as a source on papers, because students quote it as though it is the be all end all when it comes to facts and they never once stopped to think because it is a community of thought that it can be changed by anyone at anytime, and that it might have one fact or another incorrect.
    The many people who were fooled by the “Last American Pirate” Hoax admitted upon the unveiling of the hoax, that had they done their research, and had they checked their facts they never would have been fooled by the things that were posted, on our blog, in our youtube videos, or on Wikipedia. Which was the point of the whole class.
    Sorry to rant on your blog, I just wanted to give the point of view of someone who actually took the class. Someone who has sat through a class and heard people quote facts from online that I knew for a fact were incorrect. Someone who knows the actual point of this class and hopefully can get just a couple people to see past the Wikipedia articles and get them to look at the other half of the semester which is spent learning about the hoaxes that have been perpetrated on our society throughout time and through many different sources.

  9. Mills Post author

    Hi Kelly.
    Thanks for the note. No need to apologize for the rant. There has been plenty of ranting about this class, so it’s nice to hear one from the “in favor of” side of things.

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