My hate affair with Wikipedia
In all my first blog posts, I was confronted with the problem of wanting to link to people or to literary works which most of the people interested in the technical aspects of this blog would not have known. I remember reluctantly linking to the English wikipedia page on August Boeckh that perpetuates a century-long mistake on his first name. When I do so, I know I am linking to vague or even erroneous knowledge. But I still did it, and I have to admit I have done it less and less recently. Because if my readers want to get some additional, basic information, they might as well open their own wikipedia tab. And maybe (hopefully) they will open a google tab and get more search alternatives than just the wikipedia entry.
In class too, it is obvious that the students do all their research with wikipedia. And I know it, because I consult the same pages in the two hours that precede the class, to check on a date for instance. I tell myself it is OK if I do it, because I have enough background knowledge to sort out the relevant information and ignore what is irrelevant and wrong. But what I can organize into a hierarchy, my BA-students can’t, so they should not do it. Should there be an education level required to be authorized to consult wikipedia, I would be tempted to say it is the point when you would be able to make an appropriate contribution to wikipedia yourself.
Now define “appropriate” – this is still a problem to me and the reason why I overreacted to Christof Schöch’s tweet of this morning that went:
Ch. Schöch: Warum beteiligen sich Wissenschaftl. nicht an Wikipedia, obwohl diese Humboldts “Kosmos”-Projekt realisiert? http://www.academics.de/wissenschaft/wikipedia_und_die_wissenschaft_51533.html
(translation: Why don’t scholars participate in wikipedia although it realizes Alexander von Humboldt’s Kosmos project of a total and universal science?)
Without even taking the time to read the article, I answered:
AnneBaillot: weil immer hinterher jemand “überprüft” und fehler wieder einfügt!
followed by a somewhat more elaborate (english) answer not even an hour (and having read the paper) later:
AnneBaillot: seriously: I really think it has to do with authority (Autorisierung und Autorschaft). did you ever write articles in wikipedia?
I had started wondering why I was being so defensive about wikipedia when Christof’s answer came, and I was not the only one he had to justify himself against. Obviously, there are other people around here with metaphysical issues about wikipedia.
I re-wrote the Solger article in the German wikipedia a few years ago because I was giving a class on Solger and wanted my students to at least not think he was “the romantic philosopher who theorized irony” (or the similar sentence that was there before). I managed to put a more accurate formulation. But they had to change the “Berlin University” I am sure I wrote into “Friedrich-Wilhelm-University”, which is absurd and irrelevant, since the University only carried this name long after Solger was dead, and has stopped carrying it after world war 2. But I gave up correcting that, which is pretty much the standard reason the paper quoted by Christof considered responsible for scholars not to pursue contributions to Wikipedia: at some point, you don’t have enough energy to get involved in the details of the article production process.
The problem with Solger is the following: there are 5 Solger experts in the world and I am one of them, so I can’t admit that what I write about him could be re-written without even asking the other 4 people (who, although they are philosophers, know about the University denomination thing) or myself. I am the authority on that subject. What was wrong from me was in fact to assume that the way I would write the text would make my authority point obvious and would prevent anyone from daring touch my holy text.
This does not have to do only with the fact that you have to write anonymously or in a participatory way (done it too, was not a problem!). The problem for me is (I guess) the idea that the procedure is, in fact, hierarchical, that there is a web controller patrolling somewhere, correcting me in the face of the world (and of my students). So maybe, in fact, you should not write wikipedia papers on what you know best, but on things you don’t mind being corrected on. And maybe you should only read wikipedia papers you don’t actually need. Maybe you should just consult the links in wikipedia.
Anyway: sorry, Christof – and I promise to read what you link to before answering the next time.