Wikipedia, we want the truth?

On: September 21, 2009
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About Marta Colpani
I was born in Piacenza, a little city in the North of Italy. I grew up with five brothers and sisters and various adopted and hosted children who temporary lived with my family. In 2005 I moved on my own to Pisa to study Film, Music and Theater and later (2006) I moved to Haarlem to study Information Science in Amsterdam. I graduated in August 2009 and then started the post-graduated program New Media, at the same university (UvA). Simultaneously I'm studying fine arts at the Rietveld Academy and running a stage at Technische Unie in the Product information & eBusiness department.


books vs internetI am a student of the new millennium. That means that I rarely go to a library building, I hardly use books made out of paper and the reference lists on the bottom of my school papers  look very much blue, full of hyper-links to web-pages. I am actually really happy about it because even if I study in Amsterdam I don’t need to be in Amsterdam to look for literature. And I don’t need to own an encyclopedia that is bigger than my kitchen table to find out what a word means. I have an Internet connection, a laptop and Google and Wikipedia. So, here I am, wondering what would I like to deepen about Wikipedia.

Because Wikipedia is the result of the work of a very general public with no credentials and articles are not peer-reviewed, some teachers and scholars look down on Wikipedia as information source for study papers. I defend the argument that Wikipedia is a very useful and to an extent reliable tool for let’s say a student writing a paper “[…]when the reader’s general knowledge of the subject matter will assist understanding of the argument, but the underlying details aren’t dispositive of the argument’s merit.” (Gratz, 2006). For understanding general notions, learn about an historical movement or knowing what a word means or where it comes from, Wikipedia seems to be enough. So, why shouldn’t we use it? I think that there is a big misunderstanding about the function of Wikipedia and how it is used. Many expect Wikipedia to teach, while it is only an on-line tool where one can find standard information about facts and definitions. Wikipedia is not taking the place of our educational institutions, Wikipedia is no professor. Rather, it is a tool student could use to clarify the meaning of words, and in some case to question what the professor says as one could use a dictionary.

Back then, before Wikipedia we trusted a small and very selective group of scientists or experts for defining and mapping our knowledge. Nowadays anyone can potentially put his knowledge on-line and collaborate in a coordinated way to the creation of an on-line encyclopedia. It looks like a very good idea to me. In fact, when Larry Sanger – co-founder of Wikipedia, tried to create a “new Wikipedia” that would be more controlled, his project ended in a complete failure. Citizendium, his wiki project where a restricted number of gatekeepers selected the published content has stopped growing a very short time after his birth. It was probably not very attractive to see your brilliant contribution rejected because you have used an acronym or things like that.

Of course, I understand the criticism that there is no warranty that the information on Wikipedia is correct.Some tests have been done, though, and they revealed that there is no great difference in reliability between the English Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica (1). This supports the argument that self-organized collaboration by “the crowd” can work at least as good as a little group of experts. Furthermore there are a number of issues I would question concerning the democracy and openness of Wikipedia, as of any other source of information. In this case I would address my concerns to what is called digital divide, that keeps a great portion of the world population away from participating to Wikipedia. Digital divide arouse the question whether or not our knowledge should be defined by our culture and to which extent it is possible to create neutral knowledge. One should then take into account a number of issues concerning power relations between different cultures and countries. On the other hand, Wikipedia can be a useful tool for cultural environments that are prominently oral and wish to fix their knowledge and easily share it with others.

Although, there is one thing that need to be deepened first, it is the purpose we use Wikipedia for and the way we use information from Wikipedia. Wikipedia offers information, it is up to each of us to transform this information into knowledge. This process took place also when we still used the dictionary or the encyclopedia to find what we needed. I would research how students and other categories of users use Wikipedia, how they select information and how do they apply that to their own life/ work? If we know more about this process, we can speculate on the functions and influences of Wikipedia with more awareness of what really happens when Wikipedia is used. By researching Wikipedia use I don’t mean ONLY analyzing user logs but primarily conducting a qualitative research: talking to people, interviewing them and trying to understand what we look for on Wikipedia. Do we really want to find the truth? Do we ever expect to find the truth in any kind of book or website? Or we are just gathering pieces of general information that will be used and questioned in a broader context? Once we answer this question, we will be better in state of defining the function of Wikipedia nowadays.

See also: My first Wikipedia entry, help?


1. Giles, J. Special Report: Internet Encyclopedias Go Head to Head. Nature, Volume 438, Issue 7070, pp. 900-901 (2005)

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