[In direct response to various points in Clay’s K5 Article on Wikipedia Anti-elitism which responds to Larry Sanger’s Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism]

First, let me acknowledge that i have excessive privilege in this lifetime. That said, i’m not convinced that academia operates solely on an aggressive exertion of privilege nor am i convinced that any institution in the United States can be discussed without an assertion of privilege. But that’s another story.

I would argue that many librarians, teachers and academics fear Wikipedia (not dislike it) because it is not properly understood, not simply because it challenges their privilege, just as most new systems and media are feared by traditionalists of all sorts. Have we not had enough conversations about blog fear amongst journalists?

As a contributor to and user of Wikipedia, there is no doubt that i have a deep appreciation for it. All the same, i roll my eyes whenever students submit papers with Wikipedia as a citation. This is probably a source of much Wikipedia dislike amongst academics.

Wikipedia appears to be a legitimate authority on a vast array of topics for which only one individual has contributed material. This is not the utopian collection of mass intelligence that Clay values. For many non-controversial topics, there are only a limited authors and we have no idea what their level of expertise is. Hell, i submitted a bazillion anthropology entries while taking Anthro 1 based on my textbook and most of them remain untouched. My early attempts to distill anthropology should definitely not appear as legitimate authorities on the topics, yet many students take them as such.

On topics for which i feel as though i do have some authority, i’m often embarrassed by what appears at Wikipedia. Take the entry for social network: “A social network is when people help and protect each other in a close community. It is never larger than about 150 people.” You have got to be kidding me. Aside from being a patently wrong and naive misinterpretation of research, this definition reveals what happens when pop cultural understandings of concepts become authorities.

I have extreme respect for those who seek to define concepts such as those who craft the dictionary and encyclopedias. It is extremely challenging to define a term because you are trying very hard to capture and convey excessive amounts of information in an abbreviated fashion that cannot be misinterpreted. This takes talent, practice, precision and a great deal of research. Consider, for example, the difference between a good science writer and a bad one. Not everyone can convey large bodies of research in an easily accessible manner.

This does not mean that i dislike Wikipedia, just that i do not consider it to be equivalent to an encyclopedia. I believe that it lacks the necessary research and precision. The lack of talent and practice mostly comes from the fact that most entries have limited contributers. Wikipedia is often my first source, but never my last, particularly in contexts where i need to be certain of my facts. Wikipedia is exceptionally valuable to read about multiple sides to a story, particularly in historical contexts, but i don’t trust alternative histories any more than i trust privileged ones.

My concern – and that of many of my colleagues – is that students are often not media-savvy enough to recognize when to trust Wikipedia and when this is a dreadful idea. They quote from it as though it cannot be inaccurate. I certainly distrust many classic sources, but i don’t think that an “anti-elitist” (a.k.a. lacking traditional authority and expertise) alternative is automatically better. Such a move stinks of glorifying otherness simply out of disdain for hegemonic practices, a tactic that never gets us anywhere.

I don’t believe that the goal should be ‘acceptance’ so much as recognition of what Wikipedia is and what it is not. It will never be an encyclopedia, but it will contain extensive knowledge that is quite valuable for different purposes. If the fuss dies down, i’d be exceptionally worried because it would mean that we’ve lost the ability to discuss the quality of information.

Alternatively, i too would love to see a vetted version of Wikipedia, one that would provide a knowledge resource that is more accountable and authoritative.

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