Friday, September 10, 2010

Wikipedia and "Open-Source History"

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez's Tumblr tipped me off to a neat post by James Bridle at More accurately, to a post about a neat project that Bridle has undertaken: he has created a multivolume printed set that records the editing history, from 2004 to 2009, of the Wikipedia entry for the Iraq War.

We all know that what makes Wikipedia valuable, and also problematic, is that its entries can be edited at any time by any user. This makes it, on the whole, remarkably accurate--anyone who scorns Wikipedia as a mishmash of rumor and random errors should read about the study that found it stacked up pretty well against the Encyclopedia Britannica. But if it's terrific in the aggregate, for any given topic, at any given moment, Wikipedia is capable of delivering information that is factually wrong, politically skewed, or simply incoherent, depending on who was last on the "edit" page. Bridle's compilation of the Iraq War edits, I'm sure, will demonstrate this clearly.  As he observes,
It contains arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes “Saddam Hussein was a dickhead.”
If you land on this Wikipedia page at the wrong time, you might find unhelpful "information" like that. But most of the time you'd get a lot of useful facts, 95 percent of them or better probably accurate. And as James Bridle points out regarding the Iraq War, the constant changing of the article is itself a valuable fact--a record of our historical knowledge as it lurches forward--or sometimes back.
This is what culture actually looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification.
For anyone pondering the value of Wikipedia compared to "traditional" reference sources, an absolute must-read is an essay, now several years old, by the late Roy Rosenzweig, one of the pioneers of digital history, titled "Can History Be Open Source?" It's quite long and addressed principally to his fellow historians, but deeply thoughtful and open-minded. His overall assessment of Wikipedia is quite positive. He too compared Wikipedia to more established sources (Microsoft's Encarta and the American National Biography), using biographies as his sample, and concluded, 'Wikipedia is surprisingly accurate in reporting names, dates, and events in U.S. history."

Rosenzweig found that where the ANB was superior to Wikipedia was not so much in factual accuracy, but in the overall quality and richness of articles that draw on, instead of the wisdom of crowds, "the skill and confident judgment of a seasoned historian." Reading the Wikipedia entry on Abraham Lincoln next to the ANB article by James M. McPherson, he says
the difference lies in McPherson's richer contextualization [and] even more by his artful use of quotations to capture Lincoln's voice, by his evocative word portraits....and by his ability to convey a profound message in a handful of words. 
Admittedly, putting Wikipedians up against James McPherson on Lincoln is sort of like sending the people sitting in the bleachers up to bat against C.C. Sabathia. This is only to say that encyclopedia entries, like any other kind of writing, are better done by a single talented person than by a committee, but it doesn't mean the committee version doesn't have value. 

There is much more to Rosenzweig's article than this, and for anyone who's thinking about plunging into the nine volumes of The Iraq War, it would be a good place to start. 

(Photo from James Bridle's Flickr set, reproduced under Creative Commons license)


M Clement Hall said...

I have resented the way Wikipedia is disdained and often not considered a proper reference for serious articles. The 1911 Encyclopaedia Brittanica is fine, but the 2010 Wikipedia is not!

Peter Ginna said...

@M Clement Hall--
Much as I value Wikipedia, I would be uncomfortable using it as a reference for "serious articles," or at least as my only reference. The post above suggests why. Suppose you cited the Wikipedia article on "The Iraq War," and someone who wanted to read further went to that article found noting more than "Saddam Hussein was a dickhead." The 1911 Britannica may not be up to date--but your reference to it will direct all readers to he same information.