Wikipedia, the free online crowdsourced encyclopedia, has become one of the most visited sites on the worldwide web in the years since it was founded in 2001. With over 6 million articles in the English language version of the encyclopedia alone, Wikipedia has become the first stop for many internet users seeking information about topics of every kind. And given how widely the information from Wikipedia permeates throughout the web—a Wikipedia entry is often the top of the list of a basic google search—most web users will encounter its content in some form or another whether they intend to or not.
It’s especially important, then, that users understand how Wikipedia works, what its limitations are, and how its articles can be read most effectively. Perhaps most importantly, Roy Rosenzweig points out in his 2006 article about the site, users need to understand that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and that it is crowdsourced. As an encyclopedia, Wikipedia strives to be “objective” or neutral. It has a strict “NPOV,” or No Point of View policy, which means that its articles do not adopt an interpretive stance and often present multiple, and even competing perspectives, on contested topics. Wikipedia, Rosenzweig argues, is a great place to start when seeking information about a topic, but any informed understanding of a particular topic will require doing research that extends beyond Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is also crowdsourced; all of its entries are written by volunteers and just about anyone can add to and edit pages. Unlike most other encyclopedias, then, Wikipedia’s entries are not written or vetted by experts. That doesn’t mean most Wikipedia pages are inaccurate. On the contrary, a huge part of Wikipedia’s success stems from the ways in which having many people work on a particular project tends to lead to a high quality product. Wikipedia pages are constantly being updated; errors or acts of vandalism are usually corrected within hours; and most pages have a few administrators assigned to keep a tab on the content on a regular basis.
Wikipedia also provides its users with a variety of tools to help them read and understand a page more critically. Every Wikipedia entry has a History page. Clicking on “History” at the top of a Wikipedia page will bring up a list of every single change that has been made to the page and which user made the edit. Readers can look at every iteration of the page, from its first to its most current version. Within the History page, users can click on the tab for “Page Statistics,” where they will discover information about how many times the page has been edited, how many users have edited the page, when those edits have taken place, and which editors have been most active in editing and writing content for the page. Clicking on the name of any of the editors of the page will bring up their user page, where editors sometimes include biographical information about themselves, outline their interests, and list other pages they have contributed to or edited. Finally, each Wikipedia entry also includes a Talk page. Clicking on the Talk Page at the top of the entry will show the reader the behind-the-scenes discussion and debates that editors of the page have engaged in since the page was founded. Using these tools allows readers to better understand the information they find on a Wikipedia page and to better gauge its trustworthiness as a source of information.
Here are some steps you can take to get the most of any Wikipedia entry:
- Read through the original entry in its entirety. Is it coherent and consistent? What aspects of the topic get most attention? Pay attention to the sources listed at the bottom of the page. Are they recent or old? Are the sources listed reputable publications from recognized journals and publishers?
- Go to the “History Page” and look at the first iteration of the page. See when it was created, how it started, and look over the stages of change the page has undergone since it was created.
- Go to the “Statistics” section on the History page and find out how many people have worked on the page and how much it has been edited. Pages with many edits from a wide range of people tend to be better than those that have fewer edits and fewer editors.
- On the “Statistics” page, look at who the most common editors and contributors are. Click on their usernames to see their user page. What can you find out about the people who have done the most work on the page? Do they have a particular expertise or interest in the topic? What can you determine, if anything, about their motivation for working on the entry?
- Look at the “Talk” page for the entry. What issues have caused the most tension or controversy over the page’s history? Are there ongoing debates about what the page should include? What has been left out of the entry because it is deemed too controversial?
Following these steps ensures that readers will better understand the reliability of the information they find on any particular Wikipedia page. But digging deeper into Wikipedia also highlights the potential richness of Wikipedia itself as a historical source. The transparency of the site, the fact that it allows you to track changes over time in a page and to read the debates inspired by a specific topic, means that what might be most interesting to a historian is what’s happening behind the scenes rather than the entry itself.
Take, for example, the Wikipedia entry on the song, “Dixie,” which I explored using the tools that Wikipedia makes available.* I discovered that the entry for the song had been part of a general entry on the term, “Dixie,” until the song was given a its own page in 2005, and that since then, the page has been edited 1,146 times by 645 different editors.
The first iteration of the “Dixie” page contained basic factual information about the song, the lyrics to the song in contemporary speech (not the original exaggerated dialect), and an image of sheet music depicting a four-man minstrel group in blackface. From the start, every element of this page has been controversial. Users have debated whether the lyrics of the song should be presented in their entirety and whether they should be shown in the original dialect that composer Daniel Decatur Emmett used (“I wish I was in de land ob cotton, old times dar am not forgotten”) or in the contemporary form (“I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten”). They have worried that the sheet music cover, with its blackface characters, is racist and some have argued that it should be taken down. Critics of the inage have lost that argument—the sheet music cover is the one aspect of the page that has stayed constant since 2005. The “Talk” shows that even basic facts about the song have been contested—is it racist? Should it be considered “an anthem of the Confederacy,” “an unofficial anthem of the Confederacy,” or “a de facto anthem of the Confederacy?” All of these topics are the subject of vehement debate.
Roy Rosenzweig notes that in the case of politicized or divisive topics, Wikipedia pages sometimes contain contradictory information that represents opposite points of view. The current “Dixie” page offers an illustrative example. In one section of the page, a user describes “Dixie” as a pro-slavery song that makes the case that slaves belonged in bondage. Another section claims (on the basis of no evidence and with no citation) that the song was “originally written as a satirical critique of the institution of slavery in the South.” Similar debates rage behind the scenes and have since the page’s founding. Some users have complained that the page is anti-South and that it mischaracterizes “Dixie” as a racist song. Others insist that “Dixie,” is in fact racist and to ignore that would be to whitewash the past.
Digging into the background of the entry’s most active editors shows that there few experts have been involved in writing about “Dixie,” and that some of the users who have been most active have a clear political agenda. The user “DieforDixie,” who is among the top contributors, is in fact currently banned from Wikipedia. Most of the top editors are men, which is true for Wikipedia as whole, where approximately ninety percent of editors are men.
This behind the scenes investigation also shows that most of the intense work on the entry took place in 2006 and 2007 and that edits on the site have decreased dramatically since then. As is true of all of Wikipedia, the number of people who are doing the work of the site has declined dramatically since its heyday. It remains to be seen whether this crowdsourced encyclopedia will be able to maintain its coverage and general quality if the crowd willing to do the work is much smaller than it once was.
* I hope it’s ok that I used the entry on Dixie rather than the entry on Digital Humanities as my example; I wanted to explore a different entry!