The “Truth” of Wikipedia

Timothy Messer-Kruse’s wrote an excellent Chronicle column on Wikipedia last week. (Word to the wise: The comments section has devolved into nonsense at times, so read at your own peril.)

It reminded me of the discussion that I had with my Jacksonian class last week about my own brief foray into Wikipedia editing. In 2007, I decided to tackle Andrew Jackson Donelson’s Wikipedia page, which needed some corrections. As Messer-Kruse discovered, Wikipedia editing isn’t that simple. One contributor/editor made it his mission to reverse my edits on several occasions. While I’ve made a handful of minor changes to other Jacksonian-related pages since then, my experience with Wikipedia convinced me that it wasn’t worth my time to contribute.

That’s unfortunate, because Wikipedia can be a useful resource. Oftentimes, the “References” and “External Links” sections provide helpful leads to primary and secondary sources.*  Kudos to those of you who find success editing the pages, especially those who find a way to incorporate Wikipedia editing into history courses. Keep fighting the good fight!

* The caveat, of course, is that it can be a good starting point for student research.

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3 Replies to “The “Truth” of Wikipedia”

  1. I read the Messer-Kruse article and thought about the problem from Wikipedia’s side. The editors can’t know any subject as well as the people who write and edit the articles. Yet the editors must steer through different interpretations, not knowing whether the views expressed represent sound scholarship or are the lone opinions of a fanatic.

    One way to handle it might be to make room for dissident views throughout the article. Messer-Kruse could have posted a link on the paragraph in question, then stated his views and sources on a page linked to it.

    The problem of the Wiki editors is the same for a lot of undergrads taking a history course. They don’t have an independent frame of reference with which to critique historiographical arguments. It’s like reading literary criticism of War and Peace without having first read War and Peace.

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