With the Wikipedia class, we’re going to delve into the world of what Stephen Colbert calls “Truthiness.”
As your first journey into Truthiness and the challenges of the web, take a look at the documentary “Loose Change,” which was put together online to highlight the U.S. government’s role in the 9/11 attacks. On YouTube, hundreds of thousands of people have been able to view “Loose Change”—and, if you take the time to watch it, it makes a pretty convincing case that we don’t know the full truth about the 9/11 attacks. All told, across its various postings and versions, more than ten million people have watched the video. The challenge, of course, is that at best the documentary aspires to “truthiness,” that is it’s hard for a lay viewer to judge its actual level of factual interaction. Places like Popular Mechanics have tried to debunk the theories. One student last semested pointed out to me in class a parody of “Loose Change” called “Unfastened Coins.”
It’s easy to dismiss endeavors like “Loose Change” (or is it?), but the journey into Wikipedia is much more complicated. Here’s some background reading and viewing on Wikipedia, the world’s largest encyclopedia. Its founder, Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales, has turned into one of the web’s big celebs. He’s a big proponent of collaboration and “crowd-sourcing.” The project, though, despite becoming the default research tool for most college students and lazy journalists/researchers is very controversial for its “truthiness.” It’s very hard to know what exactly you can and can’t trust on Wikipedia. Newsman John Seigenthaler got very burned by a libelous write-up, and not surprisingly Encyclopedia Britannica thinks the project is the devil incarnate. On the other hand, a Nature study found that the two are about equal in accuracy. Of course, the beauty/challenge of Wikipedia is that anyone can edit it, as Colbert likes to demonstrate by raising the subject of “Wikiality” on subjects like elephants.
If you want a few other examples of wikis and how they’re used, check out the DisInfopedia and these useful resources on what wikis are and how to use them to collaborate. The articles also include some useful tips on how you might apply wikis to the work that you’re doing.
This is the week that I want you to be most wary of what we’re learning. Ask hard questions about wikis and Wikipedia—we’re going to talk in class about your mini-project, which will include contributing to a Wikipedia entry and preparing a research report on using a program that allows you to track who’s been editing a particular entry. Your blog entry should focus on the following two questions: Should we trust Wikipedia or an expert-led encyclopedia more? How could Wikipedia be better set-up to better provide accuracy? Should it be open to everyone or just verified “experts”?
In class, I’ll walk you through some Wikipedia pages, help you set up accounts, and explain WikiScanner.
For your reading for the week, tackle the following in “Here Comes Everybody”: Pages 1 – 54, 109 – 304. It’s a good book and a fast read so I hope you enjoy it.
REMINDER: Make sure next week to check my Twitter feed for a note that I’ll make it back to Washington in time for class.