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.
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.
Back in 2007 I had the temerity to suggest that H-Net’s days might be numbered. That suggestion earned me, among other things, the title “renegade blogger.” Now, it seems, I’ve made the transition to “sociopathic pond scum.” As I told some teenagers last night, I suppose that means I’ve finally arrived on the Internet.
A few samples from the emails I’ve begun receiving in response to Yoni Appelbaum’s article on Atlantic.com about my course Lying About the Past are instructive of the level of “debate” going on in my inbox. I say “debate” because it really isn’t a conversation. Rather, what I’m getting is lots of bile from around the world.
Chris Sherlock of Sydney, Australia writes, “You are nothing more than a vandal, officially sanctioned by the university. This makes you an unmitigated bastard.”
Staton Richardson writes, “You seem a little sociopathic, according to the article. Fix history, don’t make it worse.”
A.S. writes, “Please, stop vandalizing Wikipedia for the sake of vandalizing. What’s the point?”
The lead comment on the Atlantic site reads: “This professor and his brood are pond scum. They are worse than parasites and deserve all the scorn society has at its disposal.”
And in a very wide-ranging discussion on MetaFilter, an unknown user writes, “Wow, I didn’t know you could major in douchebaggery.”
I’ve been reading these comments and it seems to me on first blush that the two nerves my students and I touched have to do with the general idea of falsifying history for educational purposes (good idea? bad idea?) and the sanctity of Wikipedia issue. Much of the anger directed my way is based on the supposition that my students vandalized Wikipedia this semester–a thing they didn’t do. Their entries, as I wrote yesterday, were 100% true and based entirely on actual historical sources.
Given Appelbaum’s take on the weak nature of Wikipedia’s community, I think it’s worth thinking for a minute about why anything that seems to have sullied the sanctity of Wikipedia would elicit such vitriol?
The other question I’ll be thinking about is the larger question of how the free speech space that is the Internet creates a venue for a relatively low level of discourse. Back in December 2011, Claire Potter wrote a very interesting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the dangers of being a feminist blogger. The issues that Potter grapples with and the level of trollery she faces are obviously much more important/much worse than what’s come across my screen today. But her take on what happens when one’s ideas–controversial ideas–find their way into the wilds of the Internet is, I think, well worth thinking about.
The comments I’ve received (not all were bad) also brought to mind a recent column by the Ombudsman for The Washington Post in which he discussed a new commenting policy at the washingtonpost.com website that will, it is hoped, reduce the trollery there.
Is it a bad idea to limit the speech of the haters? In general, I fall on the side of John Stuart Mill and argue for virtually unfettered freedom of speech. How else can controversial ideas be aired, debated, and refined? On this blog I’ve published a number of comments that have been very sharply worded attacks on me or my ideas. What I have not published are ad hominem attacks on others, leaving it to the haters to find other venues for those thoughts.
For now I’m going to order up some baseball hats that say “Sociopathic Pond Scum.”
Following the reveal of my students’ hoaxes from this semester, Yoni Appelbaum, a correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote a very interesting piece on the course itself and the lessons we can learn for why the 2008 hoax was more successful (seemingly) than the 2012 hoaxes.
Appelbaum’s piece focuses on the strength or weakness of various forms of Internet communities, arguing that Wikipedia’s community is relatively weak and opaque, while Reddit’s community is quite strong (at least at the sub-Reddit level) and very transparent. Further, Wikipedia’s community is extremely decentralized, while Reddit’s (again, at the sub-Reddit level) is quite centralized. Does that explain why the members of the serial killer sub-Reddit exposed my students’ hoax as a hoax in just 26 minutes? I think it’s an interesting idea and one worth exploring in more detail.
The other thing that I think is interesting is the comment thread on the article, largely because it’s been a while since I was called “pond scum.” A quick review of the 70+ comments just now indicates that about a half to a third of the commenters read the piece carefully and engaged with the issues Appelbaum raises. The other half to two-thirds were either just plain angry that my students created false histories and put them online for two weeks, or that my students had somehow vandalized Wikipedia. A more careful reading of the article indicates, as I wrote yesterday, that one of the ironies of this year’s class was that the Wikipedia entries my students created were 100% true. Two were deleted for lack of sufficient notability, but the third survives (as it should).
There is, to be sure, an important ethical issue to be considered with respect to this course. Were I willing to let my students leave their hoaxes up indefinitely, I believe that would be an ethical lapse. Further, were I willing to let them create hoaxes on any subject (medicine/health care, terrorism, living people were some of the off limits topics), then I think one could argue that we’d crossed the line. But a beer from 1812 or a man who died in the 1920s (and who shows up in no one’s family history on Ancestry.com)? I don’t think there were any real victims here.
I’m going to look forward to the further unrolling of this story over the next few days.