tangling with critics of the democratization of knowledge

I had read a while back that some academics were hostile toward Wikipedia, but I had not encountered it myself till this weekend. I attended an academic retreat on worthy puzzles in the field of organizational studies, and in between formal sessions, had several conversations in which I suggested that Wikipedia was a fascinating example of self-organizing that was worthy of study. In response, I encountered derision from two faculty who advanced the first two on Wikipedia's list of criticisms of Wikipedia. I found myself motivated to become an evangelist for Wikipedia, countering their criticisms so that they would consider exploring the community from my point of view, as a potentially interesting phenomenon to study.

One professor was entirely disdainful of the notion that Wikipedia might be a useful introduction to the topic because he was aware of the ability to edit articles and asserted that there could be factual errors introduced. (In fact, he bragged about teaching his children to make malicious edits as a way of amusing themselves!) Eventually, we were able to convince him that Wikipedia is not meant to stand on its own as an authoritative source, but more as a valuable starting point for research. He conceded that he might have missed the notion which the younger participants in the workshop insisted was common knowledge: the idea that no online source (including Wikipedia) should be accepted as truthful without securing corroboration from other sources. I hope he goes on to read the article I suggested: Who writes Wikipedia. (At a minimum, I hope he stops his mischievous edits, or at least turns them into serious breaching experiments like the ones that were conducted in 2001 and 2002.)

The other professor objected to the notion that truth could be validated by democratic vote, and insisted on the need to sustain the traditional publishing process as a way of providing quality control on claims about truth. He was not familiar with Wikipedia at all, but expressed great skepticism at the notion of using the number of page hits in google as a way of measuring a scholar's impact. I share his skepticism about that, but I hold out hope that Wikipedia will make progress toward its goal of "making the Internet not suck". I kept explaining how Wikipedia works -- the vandal patrols, the featured article process, the articles for deletion process -- and eventually my persistence seemed to have convinced him that it was worth learning more about Wikipedia. (It helped that I put an entry on him into the Wikipedia while he was sleeping, and he didn't quite trust me not to share any secrets!) I doubt he'll stop contributing to the World Book almanac, but perhaps he will also begin contributing to Wikipedia.

So, that's the story of how I became a Wikipedia advocate. I have not used Wikipedia in my teaching yet, but I plan to incorporate it into my doctoral teaching when we begin to admit students to our Ph.D. program again next fall. Perhaps I can help the next generation of professors understand more of the nuances of knowledge validation in an internet environment. Certainly, the value of sharing knowledge without an expectation of compensation (at least some of the time) is one that I hope to pass on to my students.


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