Really? Really, Really?

How many “reallys” does it take Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to describe how he feels about Edward Owens? Three. In an interview on a recent edition of the podcast Tech Therapy, Wales (who admitted up front he hadn’t heard of the work my students had done), said, “Things like that really, really, really annoy me.”

I know he’s a busy man and I’m sure he’s very tired of hearing about this or that false entry or false edit of an entry in Wikipedia, but Jimmy, if you are a reader, I’d suggest taking a look at both the discussion of the course on this blog (and elsewhere) and even more to the point the delete/save discussion on the Edward Owens entry itself. Both conversations expose the parameters of the conversation about the course, information literacy among young adults, and the nature of crowd sourced knowledge in general and quickly move away from the vandalism-is-annoying oversimplification.

In fact, I have to admit that I’ve become very, very, very bored with the entire conversation about whether or not Wikipedia (or any crowd sourced resource) is “valid” or not. Perhaps, instead it is time to simply accept crowd sourced information as a category of information with its own attributes and move on. For instance, we don’t seem to have the same level of discomfort with government reports that are the product of several, perhaps dozens or even hundreds of nameless government officials? If every author of the new health care law here in the States was listed, we’d probably have to add another pound or so of paper to each copy. I think it’s just time to move on to more interesting topics than whether we should accept crowd sourced information or not.

5 thoughts on “Really? Really, Really?

  1. Jimmy Wales

    Indeed, we might have a good discussion instead about the ethics of deliberately disrupting the work of people who are trying to do something useful for the world.

    Imagine if we heard about a community where, interestingly enough, the citizens all chip in to keep the streets clean, and decided to test the system by going in the middle of the night to dump trash around to see what they would do. I think we’d all agree that would be juvenile and counterproductive.

    Yet, an experimenter doing the same thing to Wikipedia manages to hide behind pseudo-intellectual pretense. Sorry, not impressed.

  2. Mills Post author

    Thanks Jimmy (assuming for a minute that you really are Jimmy) for the response to this. I think it’s worth noting here that the students in the class were not required (as some have implied) to do any particular thing to create their historical hoax. So it’s not the same as me telling them to go into a nice clean neighborhood and throw trash all around when no one was watching just to see what would happen. This was a decision they came to on their own, with several long conversations about the ethical issues involved–conversations much longer than students typically have the stomach for in their college courses. Only after they had discussed the matter from every angle they could think of, exposing all the significant ethical dilemmas, did they decide to go forward.

    Sorry if that sounds like a “pseudo-intellectual pretense,” but I would argue that the point of education is to teach students to live in the world adults have created for them–for good or ill–and to be productive members of the society we have made for them. So, for instance, if we were to simply tell students that pornography–one of the other big businesses on the web–was bad because it degrades both the actors and the audience and that under no circumstances should they (our students) view it, what are the odds that they will say, “Oh, right. I won’t look at pornography.”? Instead, education offers the opportunity to explore social phenomena like pornography in detail, exposing all the significant ethical, legal, and moral dilemmas the pornography industry poses. Then our students can make informed decisions based on knowledge rather than preaching from the lectern.

    If you like, I’ll be happy to send you a copy of a book chapter I just completed on the course and the issues it raised. Or I could send you something others have written about my work with students and Wikipedia, including teaching them to write and edit entries with historical merit. For example, one of my students in a freshman course wrote an entry ( that was the featured entry on Wikipedia’s home page shortly after she completed it.

    Thanks again for the response.

    NB: For readers who are not Wikipedians, see the most recent edition of the Wikipedia Signpost:

  3. Derek

    Jimmy Wales’ trash metaphor doesn’t quite work as he’s stated it. We would need to add that the people who dumped trash in the community in the middle of the night came back a day or two later, found the trash still there, cleaned it up, and then engaged in a discussion of the community’s trash collecting system. The “vandals” not only cleaned up after themselves, but they also learned something about social systems in the process.

    Furthermore, the community in question, as well as neighboring communities that don’t have the same trash-collecting system, found out about this incident, and members of those communities engaged in their own discussions of the trash-collecting system. Thus, the “vandals” created the potential for social good beyond themselves.

    I don’t think the behavior is as easy to categorize as “juvenile and counter-productive” when you let the metaphor play out a little. I’m open to other perspectives, however.

  4. Gbaor

    Greetings! It seems that the same story goes on and on all the time. Some time ago we had a *huge* discussion about the same topic over at Wikipedia’s sister project – Wikiversity. Maybe you are aware of the case.
    If you have a lot of time, you can go through it. Here we had everything you can imagine, including the “bank robbery example” with some small twist.

    Sort of outcome was a page called “Detecting hoaxes in wikis”, but it did not received much attention so far…

  5. Pingback: Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 16: in which my students self-evaluate and add to Wikipedia | Patrick C. Fleming

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