Category Archives: Wikis

Reddit, Hoaxes, and Wikipedia

One of the students in my course “Lying About the Past” emailed me today to let me know that someone has created a Wikipedia entry about the class hoax that was debunked by reddit users on the serial killer sub-reddit. A Wikipedian with the username “lamnurki” created the entry on June 22, 2012 and it has been edited a few times since. The entry gives a clear and concise summary of the students’ hoax, of what happened when they tried to spread it via reddit, and the aftermath of the hoax.

It’s interesting to me that of the two class hoaxes this past semester, the serial killer/reddit hoax was the less successful one, but the one that got the greatest buzz.

Lying About the Past on the CBC

The Canadian Broadcast Corporation radio show Spark has included an interview with me about Lying About the Past. The podcast of the show is here and the full interview is here. It was a lot of fun speaking with host Nora Young and I like the lead in to the segment…using an urban legend story was a nice touch. Give it a listen when you have a chance.

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 theAtlantic.com 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.

No. That’s Not Your Name!

As someone whose research and teaching center on modern Eastern Europe, the most recent news from across the Atlantic is just more fodder for a great lecture. For the umpteenth time, the Greek government has vetoed Macedonia’s entry into a European structure–in this case NATO–because those pesky Macedonians persist in calling their country Macedonia. Can you believe the nerve of those guys?

If you have followed events in the Balkans since 1989 at all, you know that this particular comic opera is one of the few comedic moments since the wars in the former Yugoslavia began. If you haven’t been following Balkan events, read on to find out why the Macedonian ambassador to the United Nations has to site behind a nameplate that reads FYROM rather than Macedonia. That’s Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia for those not up on the abbreviations.

The root of the problem is a dispute about history, which is why this story makes a good lecture topic. Any Greek nationalist worth his or her stripes will tell you that the ancient kingdom of Macedon was a Greek state. And any Macedonian nationalist worth his or her stripes would shake his or her head and with great weariness remind you that, no, Macedon was a Macedonian kingdom and so when Alexander the Great conquered the rest of the Greek states, Greece became Macedonian, not the other way around.

For something like 2,000 years no one thought to argue about whether that territory north of what is now the Greek state was or wasn’t Macedonia. But in the late 19th century the new Balkan kingdoms of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece all cast their covetous eyes on the place. During the Balkan Wars that preceded World War I, some of the worst fighting was in and over Macedonia.

After World War II, though, the real trouble started, because Greek communist fighters operating out of Yugoslavia tried to topple the Greek government and many Greeks came to believe that Tito had named his country’s southernmost province Macedonia as a way of claiming sovereignty over northern Greece.

But so what? The communist insurgency failed and Yugoslavia behaved. The name of that southern Yugoslav province still rankled plenty of people in Greece, but in the end, what was there to do? I suppose there are people in Mexico who don’t like the fact that the United States has a state called New Mexico either.

The real trouble started after the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991. Can you believe it? The people who call themselves “Macedonians” and who speak a language called “Macedonian” decided to call their new country “Macedonia.”

No! No! No! The Greeks shouted. Posters, buttons, bumper stickers, even patriotic songs (in Greek) trumpeted the slogan “Macedonia is Greek!” And the Greek government used its leverage as a NATO, EC (later EU) and UN member to prevent the newly independent Macedonian state from calling itself Macedonia, hence the FYROM compromise.

When I was living in Slovakia in the mid-1990s I met a American human rights lawyer who was working in Macedonia. He had recently traveled to Greece for a conference and when he crossed the border into northern Greece, the border guards stamped “Invalidated” (in Greek) on his Macedonian visa and work permit. Not surprisingly, when he returned to Macedonia, the Macedonian border guards just shrugged and snickered at those silly Greek border guards.

As recently as this past February, the U.S. State Department proposed what we might call the “New Mexico” solution, trying to convince the Macedonians to call their state “New Macedonia” in their membership in various multilateral organizations like NATO and the UN. Wisely, the Macedonians declined.

During the height of the first phase of this controversy in the 1990s, a Bulgarian friend told me that Bulgaria’s foreign minister had proposed that the Macedonians try something similar. His suggestion was that they call their country “Not Macedonia”. That way, whenever the Greeks complained, they could say, “But it’s Not Macedonia.” I have no idea if this story is true or not, but if it is, I think it’s the best solution anyone has come up with.

I’ll conclude by pointing out that the Macedonians are definitely winning the naming dispute, all aggravations about NATO membership to the contrary. The Wikipedia entry for Macedonia calls the country the Republic of Macedonia or just Macedonia. And if Wikipedia says that’s your name, well, that’s your name…isn’t it?

[NB: After two weeks of energetic discussion by a number of readers (see the comments below), I have cut off comments on this post, in part because the discussion had ceased to be civil. TMK]