Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. In this post, also posted on Baron’s personal blog The Web of Language, he looks at Wikipedia.
Admit it, we all use Wikipedia. The collaborative online encyclopedia is often the first place we go when we want to know a fact, a date, a name, an event. We don’t even have to seek out Wikipedia: in many cases it’s the top site returned when we google that fact, date, name, or event. But as much as we’ve come to rely on it, Wikipedia is also the online source whose reliability we most often question or ridicule.
Wikipedia is the ultimate populist text, a massive database of more than 3.2 million English-language entries and 6-million-plus entries in other languages. Anyone can write a Wikipedia article, no experience necessary. Neither is knowing anything about the subject, since Wikipedians — you can be one too — can simply copy information from somewhere else on the internet and post it to Wikipedia. It doesn’t matter if the uploaded material is wrong: that can be fixed some other time. Wikipedia’s philosophy comes right out of the electronic frontier’s rough justice: write first, ask questions later.
When it comes to asking those questions, doing the fact-checking, Wikipedia depends on the kindness of strangers. Once an article on any topic is uploaded, anyone can read it, and any Wikipedian can revise or edit it. And then another Wikipedian can come along and revise or edit that revision, ad infinitum. Of course not every error is apparent, and not every Wikipedian will bother to correct an error even if they notice one. Wikipedians can even delete entries, if they find fault with them, but then other Wikipedians can decide to reinstate them.
Such sketchy reliability is why many teachers warn students not to use Wikipedia in their research. This despite the fact that a 2005 Nature study showed that, so far as a selection of biology articles was concerned, Wikipedia’s reliability was on a par with that of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But teachers don’t want their students using the Britannica either. Wikipedia actually offers an article about its own reliability, though the accuracy of that article remains to be determined.
A study by researchers at the University of Washington finds that most students use Wikipedia, even though their instructors warn them not to. Not only that, but students in architecture, science, and engineering are the most likely to use Wikipedia. Apparently those students, whose disciplines depend on accurate measurements and verifiable evidence, don’t expect accuracy from their works cited. According to the study, students in the social sciences and humanities, subjects emphasizing argumentation and critical reading, are less-frequent users of Wikipedia. Unfortunately, the Washington researchers didn’t ask these students how much they rely on Spark Notes.
It turns out that students also distrust Wikipedia, though not with the same intensity their teachers do. Only 16% of students find Wikipedia articles credible. To verify the information they find on Wikipedia, these skeptics use other sources, ranging from academic journals which they find online (that should please their instructors) to YouTube videos (that might not). And students also know when not to cite their sources. In many cases, even when they use it, students don’t list Wikipedia in their bibliographies, because that could lower their grade.
For students, and increasingly for the rest of us as well, it seems that reliable sources are less important than finding information in nanoseconds. We go to Wikipedia not because it’s accurate, but because it’s both fast and ubiquitous (if you search for ubiquitous on Wikipedia, you’ll be redirected to the entry for omnipresence).
Wikipedia, with its lack of credibility, is only one example of the increasingly common internet practice of publishing first, polishing afterwards. Computers can make an exact copy of a text — something that proved difficult in the age of manuscripts and even in the age of print: there are no clones among the many Chaucer manuscripts, or among the many copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio. But it turns out that, while digitized text is easily duplicated, it’s also inherently unstable: like Wikipedia, everything on the internet is subject to change without notice.
Even the Web of Language, your go-to source for language in the news, is guilty: because I tinker with the text obsessively for several days after uploading it, the post you’re reading now may be slightly different, or even greatly different, from what you or someone else read yesterday, or even moments ago. And tomorrow I might change it again. At least Wikipedia is upfront about its instability and lets readers track the different iterations of each post; most online sites do not.
Students may rely on Wikipedia when they write their papers, but what they don’t do is write or edit Wikipedia articles themselves. Wikipedia may be a veritable eBay for facts. And most students go to Wikipedia before consulting anything else. But they’re not contributing to Wikipedia’s massive growth. (The same thing is true of students’ use of YouTube: they watch videos by the hour, but relatively few students upload their own videos to the site.)
Perhaps students don’t write for Wikipedia because they’ve already got too much to write for school. Or maybe they don’t feel like it. Just because anyone can be a Wikipedian doesn’t mean that everybody wants to. But they are comfortable with the write first, ask questions later bias of digital text: that’s how they Facebook and text.
In contrast, most school writing still uses the old analog approach: draft, revise, and edit first, publish later, if at all. That may lead to a more thoughtful or a more accurate text. But not a more stable one: any postmodernist will tell you, that’s just a Luddite myth. As for me, I much prefer being able to revisit what I write and change it.
Remember the old slogan of the clothing store, the Limited, “No sale is ever final”? For me, no text is ever final: it’s never right, never finished. But I do think it gets a little better with each post-publication revision. I’m no big fan of Wikipedia. To me its coverage is spotty and there are lots of mistakes that haven’t been cleaned up. On the other hand, I think there’s nothing wrong with write first, ask questions later, so long as you keep on asking those questions. But hey, as they also say on the internet, your mileage may vary.