Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Wikipedia Dissent

There's been a lot of talk lately about the value of scholars participating in Wikipedia editing.

There were some declarations of victory from the digital humanities community when this obituary appeared, fronting the work of its late subject in editing tens of thousands of Wikipedia articles. To me, though, it didn't seem like a great victory for DH nor a great way for a scholar to be remembered.

I have to question the tact of declaring academic-disciplinary victory on the basis of an obituary, especially one of someone who died so young, but I might also be saying that out of a sense of my own discomfort about likewise using an obituary, especially one of someone who died so young, to make a point. I should just add that fundamentally, I'm critical of the priorities of the obituary and the positive response to it in the digital community, and not of the work of the scholar memorialized. I probably wouldn't even have written about this were it not for the proliferation of scholarly Wikipedia write-ins that have been happening this year, the next one I'm aware of being scheduled for Kalamazoo. Details are here.

I absolutely believe that as scholars we have a responsibility to disseminate our knowledge the general public but I don't think that Wikipedia editing is a worthwhile focus.  The inherent structure of wikipedia is such that this endeavor is, in effect, shifting sand from one pile to the other and hoping that it doesn't get moved back. One could spend four days or a career editing entries with no guarantee that one's work won't be overwritten or undone. It might be a striking metaphor for life and humanistic endeavor, and it might even be just a very extreme version of what all of us are doing, but the degree of difference seems important. Or, as my late mentor put it aphoristically: The only things that last are books and children. That's not to say that I believe only in books or that I do not believe in digital work; rather that Wikipedia editing is neither digital scholarship nor good public outreach.

And what's more, having scholars edit articles, either in an organized or disorganized fashion, in an order or at random, still does not make Wikipedia a scholarly resource. Wikipedia is still always going to be the thing that I tell my students they can't use. There's no reliable way to identify which articles have been fixed by scholars, whether the fixes haven't been edited by somebody else with a less-than-scholarly agenda, and I can't identify which scholars have written which articles. Add those to all the existing reasons — the obvious one about it being something that anyone can edit; the more existential one about what it means to call an article "scholarly" within a digital work that is itself not scholarly; and perhaps the one that should most bother all of us and especially the people spending their time on this: Wikipedia does not allow editing based on primary sources.

The account of one historian's attempt to edit the entry for his own subject matter is very instructive of all these problems.

Finally, the current iteration of Wikipedia writing-in requires the physical presence of medievalists at the big national conference in Kalamazoo, MI, a place that is difficult and expensive to get to for a meeting that medievalists who don't work in very traditional areas of scholarship often don't find to be useful. Several people have asked on the listserves whether they can participate remotely and have been told that no, they must be present in Kalamazoo to watch a demonstration. The preposterousness of requiring that Wiki editors be physically present at the edit-a-thon seems to cut at the heart of a digital enterprise and seriously talks down to medievalists as a group. There are people asking to volunteer at a distance; presumably those are the ones who are comfortable reading through documentation that, theoretically, anybody should be able to read through — after all, isn't that the point of Wikipedia? — and getting themselves started. What does it mean for a digital project to be catering, on the production end, to technophobes?

Briefest of updates, added 5/4/14, after the jump:

I posted the link to Twitter as was greeted with a false dichotomy topped with a heaping dose of condescension; I suspect that I"m on the losing end of the battle.

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