Harrison Middleton University

Understanding Wikipedia

Understanding Wikipedia

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


December 1, 2023

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

We’ve all done it. Looking for quick information on some random subject, we inevitably turn to Wikipedia. Created in 2001, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia open to edits, a collaborative effort. Merriam-Webster defines “wiki” as “a website that allows visitors to make changes, contributions, or corrections.” Merriam-Webster also claims that the first use of wiki is in 1995 (Wikipedia itself, however, gives the year as 1993). Wikipedia contains information on a large variety of subjects and is also multi-lingual. The idea of an encyclopedia that undergoes constant edits gives the impression of an up-to-date resource, something fresh, contemporary, and connected to the real world. The idea behind a wiki is that the collective voice comes closer to the truth than individual voices.

However, it’s important to weight the pros and cons of such a technology, especially due to its ubiquitous use. In some cases, wiki editors add incorrect or incomplete information. In other cases, they are driven by politics or emotions, turning data into edit wars. What has always been true is still true: the control of information is political and often causes disagreements that blur the truth. When these arise, Wikipedia has added measures to correct egregious mistakes. They also state up front the issues that others have noticed in an article. They ask for more eyes and more experts to weigh in. All of this has potentially positive effects. Regardless, some topics turn toxic almost immediately.

We are all aware of Wikipedia’s utility, but because of its unreliability and ever-changing nature, it is not a source that can be used on academic essays. This troubles students who see it as a valid resource. It is helpful to remind students, however, that the flexible nature of Wikipedia has its limits.

I was recently reading You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier who explains of some of those limitations. Clearly, he’s not a huge fan of Wikipedia, though he does compliment certain features of the website, such as the popular culture entries. I thought it worthwhile to excerpt a section of his discussion about Wikipedia which I find instructive and enlightening. Since many students today have never used a physical encyclopedia (and are not likely to begin anytime soon), I felt his warnings warranted sharing here. Not that a physical encyclopedia is infallible, but the editing staff functions slightly differently than a crowd-sourced collaboration.

In a section titled “You Don’t Know What You’re Missing,” Lanier writes,

“If Linux provides one model for the future of open culture and science, Wikipedia provides another.

“Many scientists, especially younger ones, hold Wikipedia in high regard. I don’t dispute many of the achievements claimed by proponents of Wikipedia. The problems I worry about are perhaps subtle, but I think they are important nonetheless.

“Wikipedia is a great example of the dilemma I face when I argue, ‘You don’t know what you’re missing.’ The collective encyclopedia is used by almost everyone at this point, so what’s the problem?

“There seems to be no limit to Wikipedia adoration. For example, a ghastly news story – such as one covering a terrorist event – might focus on how magically the corresponding Wikipedia entry came together as if that were the situation’s silver lining.*

“I am not strictly against any particular digital technology. There is nothing wrong with using Wikipedia – in moderation. I do myself. But I’d like to engage the reader in challenging the elevated position Wikipedia has been granted in the online environment.

“As a source of useful information, Wikipedia excels in two areas: pop culture and hard science. In the first category, truth is fiction anyway, so what the wiki says is by definition true; in the second there actually is a preferred truth, so it is more plausible to speak with a shared voice. ….

“It has been pointed out that Wikipedia entries about geeky pop culture are longer and more lovingly crafted than those regarding reality. A science fiction army from a movie or novel will typically be better described than an army from reality; a porn star will get a more detailed biography than a Nobel Prize winner.**

“This is not the aspect of Wikipedia that I dislike. It’s great that we now enjoy a cooperative pop culture concordance. This is where the Wikipedians take on true voices: they become human when they reveal themselves. However, one is constantly bombarded with declarations about how amazingly useful and powerful Wikipedia is with regard to nonfiction topics. These are not untrue statements, but they can be misleading.

“If you want to see how valuable something is, try living without it for awhile. Spend some time ignoring Wikipedia. When you look something up in a search engine, just keep flipping through results until you find the first one written by a particular person with a connection to the topic. If you do this, you’ll generally find that for most topics, the Wikipedia entry is the first URL returned by search engines but not necessarily the best URL available.

“It seems to me that if Wikipedia suddenly disappeared, similar information would still be available for the most part, but in more contextualized forms, with more visibility for the authors and with a greater sense of style and presence – though some might counter that the non-Wikipedia information is not organized in as consistent and convenient a way.

“The convenience factor is real, but part of the reason is that Wikipedia provides search engines with a way to be lazy. There really is no longer any technology behind the choice of the first result for a great many searches. Especially on mobile devices, text-entry boxes and software widgets that are devoted purely to Wikipedia are starting to appear, not even bothering to include the web at large. If Wikipedia is treated as the overarching, primary text of the human experience, then of course it will, as if by decree, become ‘more convenient’ than other texts.

“Another part of the convenience factor is the standardization of presentation. While I’ve run across quite a few incomprehensible, terribly written passages in Wikipedia articles, on the whole there’s a consistency of style. This can either be a benefit or a loss, depending on the topic and what you are after. Some topics need the human touch and a sense of context and personal voice more than others.

“* See Norm Cohen, “The Latest on Virginia Tech, from Wikipedia,” New York Times, April 23, 2007. In 2009, Twitter became the focus of similar stories because of its use by protesters of Iran’s disputed presidential election.

“** See Jamin Brophy-Warren, “Oh, That John Locke,” Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2007.”

Lanier laments the fact that Wikipedia is not actually that different from the actual encyclopedia. He argues that online spaces were created with the intention of being wildly inventive, and yet, we seem to repeat ourselves, like recreating an encyclopedia when one already exists. (HMU students do have access to the online Encyclopedia Britannica, for example.) In fact, his point is interesting. If all of the information is already online, do we need a site that merely collects it into one place? Is this redundancy necessary or useful? Further, open source editing creates real problems from an academic perspective. According to MLA citation style, you need to add the date that an online article was accessed. However, if the information has been updated, edited or adjusted, then no one else can find your resources. In other words, if relying on wiki-fed sources, your argument was either faulty to begin with, or is at the very least obsolete.

Ironically, Lanier’s book is from 2010, and so some of his criticisms and insights are also now obsolete. Such is the nature of the technological world that we find ourselves in. Yet, it is a worthwhile endeavor to give students an understanding of the web’s etymology, its roots and choices, so that they can better understand why information is presented the way that it is. Lanier has more to say about the pros and cons of Wikipedia, as well as other sites, though I have only chosen a short excerpt.

At the very heart of the issue is the fact that encyclopedias, of all types, have their limits. If students believe an entry wholeheartedly without adding actual research, actual context, then the encyclopedia entry is limiting or outdated at best, but also possibly misleading or incorrect. For these reasons, academics prefer to steer clear of Wikipedia.

I wonder, did Wikipedia just exacerbate already existing problems with encyclopedias? Or is the issue with wikis just an extension of the problems that plague the web in general, such as hive mentality? Regardless of the answers, it turns out that we find ourselves in a position in which we cannot blindly trust the web. Instead, students and teachers would be well advised to double-down on critical thinking skills and perhaps fight the inclination to join the hive.

Photo credit: McLittle Stock/Shutterstock

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