Thursday, August 03, 2006

Wikipedia: The Good, the Bad, and the Opportunity

Encyclopedias in general are perfect springboards for further research by introducing issues and technical information that are covered in-depth in scholarly books and journals. They can familiarize you with a topic quickly as well as provide background, context, and bibliographies.

Wikipedia is now the most popular encyclopedia in the world. Ranked somewhere around 17th in global worldwide web traffic, its use is increasing exponentially—especially among students. Like it or not, it cannot be ignored.

The Good: Anyone can edit and add anything.
Monitors check regularly for accuracy. Wikipedia is a gigantic radical worldwide collaboration, a brilliant postmodern social experiment in community writing. It’s a great place to find information on popular culture and technology issues. To me it’s like Google Digest, collected and summarized in one place.

It’s a community where controversy and discussions can and do occur regularly, but where being kind to newbies is a core value. Run almost entirely by thousands of volunteers, it’s very high-minded and democratic. And, I love the slogan: Be Bold.

The Bad: Anyone can edit and add anything.
Vandalism occurs. Errors and omissions are routine. There are huge areas where coverage is lacking, most notably to me within all areas of fine arts. It is not necessarily or even usually authoritative. You likely don’t even know who wrote or edited an entry.

The Opportunity: Anyone can edit and add anything.
So if there’s very little about fine arts, and if most of the editors aren’t knowledgeable, and if it’s so popular, then why don’t we chip in? Sure, it’s a lot of work. Sure our contributions won’t get us any acclaim. But, in my case (as a librarian), I spend a great deal of time creating pathfinders and help sheets to direct students. How many Otis students actually use the sites I create? If I posted that same info on Wikipedia, how many students would I reach?

Under the heading of “If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em,” here a really radical idea. Students spend lots of time in art history classes researching and writing about artists. Why not ask them post their writing on Wikipedia. A major benefit could be what they would learn about information literacy by doing this, namely about authorship and authority of published web materials. It’s also possible that they would feel pleased at being able to contribute. After all, their generation is dependent on social software applications. And, they might be more careful in their writing if they knew it was for publication and review by the world. Remember, “Be Bold.”

Further Reading
"Can Wikipedia Conquer Expertise?" by Stacy Schiff from the July '06 New Yorker.