The focus of this blog posting is to determine the pros and cons of using crowdsourced knowledge. Many of us can still remember our parents purchasing encyclopedia sets. They became a valuable resource to complete our homework assignments and book reports. But even then we warned by teachers not to totally depend upon them as a sole resource. So it goes with Wikipedia. As defined in its logo, it is the “free” encyclopedia, and as we all know, you usually get what you pay for.
The concept behind Wikipedia is quite eloquent. Contributors and editors working online attempt to objectively crowdsource in realtime a scholarly article on a particular topic. Since the process is dynamic, knowledge becomes incremental and transformative. Centuries earlier, scholars “crowdsourced” by writing and sharing letters. While a much slower process, this effort did contribute to a period of “enlightenment”. However the problem facing us today, is the process may be too easy and quick. As a result, the veracity or truthfulness of the information may be diminished.
For my class assignment I had to review the Wikipedia site for Digital Humanities https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_humanities. The site started in 2006 and provides an interesting perspective as how the field of study has evolved. From my review of the site it took about ten years for the editors and contributors to finally settle on a framework to present their sourced information. During those years it appears there was a lot of back and forth in trying to better define DH and provide better reference material to aspiring students and researchers.
In reviewing the DH site it became obvious that one problem of Wikipedia has to do with the credibility of the contributors or authors. So in essence, a single source or contributor, may not be as credible as the totality of the crowd (multiple sources). On the one hand, Wikipedia is very democratic in permitting a multitude of scholarly viewpoints, but it provides a simple governance process in allowing everyone the ability to edit each other’s contributions. This hopefully keeps everyone on “honest” by making sure they back up their statements with viable scholarly sources. In essence the online equivalent of “prove it.”
Another problem with Wikipedia has to do with the online posturing or confrontations between contributors. While somewhat entertaining, it reflects a 21st century lack of civility driven by our culture’s dependency upon social media. The scholarly process does provide for an “iron striking iron” methodology to craft a final and strong product. But the relative anonymity of social media permits some contributors or editors to exhibit rude behaviors that prevent others from wanting to share information or participate in the exchange.
Finally, according to Roy Rosenzweig, in his article “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” (2006) its printed guidelines states that it’s primary goal is to “avoid bias.” Wikipedia encourages contributors to write their articles from a neutral point of view, factually and objectively. But even in it’s recommended policies, Wikipedia acknowledges that posting unbiased scholarly research is “difficult” since all articles are edited by people who are “inherently biased.”
So despite Wikipedia’s obvious challenges how should one approach the site and it’s posted articles? First, one should always start at the beginning at look at when the site was created. One of Wikipedia’s great features is that you can time travel and follow the knowledge so to speak. By tracking the posts, edits and contributions you can gain valuable insights as to what were some of the conflicts or controversies that were identified and eventually resolved.
Another guideline is to also evaluate who are making the most contributions. As with most scholarly debates, there are usually only a relatively few subject matter experts attentive to posting and editing. So it is worthwhile to check their biographies if possible. This will go a long way in determining their credibility as a source.
Wikipedia provides a lot of statistics, especially in regard to the volume and pace of editing. This is usually a good point of reference to track and review from a historical perspective. As with most new postings their usually is period of time where both contributors and editors make changes at a substantial volume then it slackens off. This lasts until a new posting somewhat stirs the pot and once again there is some agitation and changes made.
Finally, it is useful to track the “content” menu over time. This provides a valuable insight as to how the “crowd” wants to frame the “knowledge” and information being presented. In