thoughts on wikipedia and its place as a repository of knowledge

todd presner wrote an excellent piece on his blog entitled, ‘the future of learning institutions in a digital age, or why this professor loves wikipedia,’ that everyone should read. as many of you know, i have been a limited advocate of wikipedia for some time now. of course, the full endorsement debate hinges on the balance between authority and open participation. credibility requires verifiable fact objectively tested by trusted authorities, which is certainly not the case with some of the claims on wikipedia. many users use wikipedia to foist minority opinions, conspiracy theories, or political, religious, or ideological points of view (p.o.v.) upon the public. (others just use it for vandalism.) often times, these povs are given undue weight, which skews the perceived or verified consensus among the public, scholars, or both.

authority is, therefore, the result of a consistent record of claims that have been tested and verified by other credible authorities. despite measures against skewed points of view, unverifiable claims, and original (unverified) research (wikipedia’s three core content policies), most users lack either the skill, time, or patience to persist in this at times grueling search for and vigilant defense of factual data leading to what most would call ‘truth,’ which i minimally define as a consensual, verifiable, and factually supported theory, or, in the case where no consensus exists, a survey of the leading supported theories coupled with the caveat that no consensus of ‘truth’ yet exists.

wikipedia’s strength lies in its ability to gather knowledge from a large pool of willing participants. it is the equivalent of allowing an unlimited number of researchers run the same experiments and pool and compare their results. as long as the researchers are credible, this is a powerful way to compile data and debate theories. thus, wikipedia’s ability to unleash the power of the common populace frightens the traditional and established knowledge brokers like universities and print media publishers. knowledge is indeed power, and few like to share power unless forced to do so. thus, traditional institutions of higher learning criticize the newer, ‘common’ manner of pooling crowd-powered knowledge by pointing to the fringe theories, sensationalist claims, unverifiable beliefs, political ideologies, and sheer nonsense that often pervades wikipedia’s pages (as if such claims did not also exist within universities). by highlighting the poor content (as opposed to the grand medium), traditional institutions of higher learning can cling to knowledge power and parry away the threats posed by common dilettantes.

that is, until now.

as institutions of higher learning begin to embrace formally new technologies like blogs and wiki-powered data collection vehicles, they lend credibility to them. thus, fears of new media are beginning to be allayed; universities are beginning to see the power of the new digital media available to them, and are embracing them to gather, process, and disseminate knowledge more efficiently. likewise, traditional purveyors of print media are learning to incorporate new digital technologies into their transformed business models, which are beginning to result in new marketing strategies for their core business: conveying stories and ideas.

thus, scholars should not shun wikipedia, for while the information conveyed may still be sub-par for intellectual elites, the vehicle for conveying this information is far superior to anything we’ve ever seen. and just as large brick and mortar corporations first downplayed the impact that the internet would have on the free market, and then gradually bought up warmed to waited out the groundbreaking companies that first employed the new technologies until the technologies were perfected, so too will universities begin to adopt these new digital vehicles and in doing so, bestow credibility upon them.

it is true that truth and fact are not determined by a popular vote. however, an informed and tested consensus is certainly still the best way to verify truth claims. as society and technology evolve together in an ever symbiotic relationship, the consensus-driven and tested approach that wikis offer will not only change the way we do research, but as google wave is about to prove, will change the way we communicate by incorporating email, instant messaging, blogging, picture, music, and file sharing, and collaboration into a single and very powerful communication tool. indeed, it is a good time to be in the digital humanities (that is, if we can keep the government from cutting educational technology budgets). -bc

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