The rapid success of Wikipedia has demanded the attention of both writers and users of history. There is still much debate over whether Wikipedia has had a negative effect on the Historian’s Craft. To understand why many writers and users of history are divided on this topic, we must first understand the different objectives and concerns that shape their perspectives. Understanding these differences will also reveal why in the face of all its criticisms, Wikipedia, “In a few short years, has become perhaps the largest work of online historical writing, the most widely read work of digital history, and the most important free historical resource available on the World Wide Web.”1
Despite its success, some writers of history have voiced their criticism of Wikipedia. Much of the criticism stems from the belief that works authored by single authors is the standard and good professional practice requires attributing ideas and words to specific historians. Wikipedia on the other hand, is a historical work without owners and with multiple, anonymous authors, which is not in line with the culture of history professionals, and is characterized by protected individualism. Many professionals are not willing to abandon individual credit and individual ownership of intellectual property rights as do Wikipedia authors because of potential credit issues and interpretive disputes. This is especially true for collaborative works. Some history professional regard Wikipedia as more informal and more casual than one would expect in a professional setting. Entries are often choppy, resulting from combining sentences, paragraphs and complete works written by different people, which means that Wikipedia sometimes gets things wrong in one place and right in another. Users of Wikipedia have also found that it has a considerable amount ill-informed and amateurish work, (anyone can use it). And what happens when one person’s interpretation clashed with the collective narrative? These cases increase the potential for unverified, incorrect and even vandalized work to be propagated to millions of potential readers.
In defiance of all these criticisms, Wikipedia has been described as “one of the most fascinating developments of the Digital Age; an incredible example of open source Intellectual collaboration.”2 Amazingly it’s widely read and cited information has grown to “3 million articles (1 million of them in English). History is probably the category encompassing the largest number of articles.”3 And, “More than a million people a day visit the Wikipedia site.”4 According to the Alexa traffic ranking, Wikipedia ranks well above The New York Times, the Library of Congress, and the Encyclopedia Britannica. So to what does Wikipedia owe this success? Wikipedians seem to agree that three key advantages are the instruments of its success. First of all it’s free to be used by anyone who has internet access. And this capability on the common cell phone contributes to Wikipedia being considered the most accessible sources of historical data. Its vast collections of historical information are readily available at the tip of your finger for free, which is in contrast to most academic scholarship which lies on library shelves or behind electronic subscription paywalls. Another key advantage of Wikipedia is the freedom and ease of its use. As the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) states: “You may copy and distribute the Document in any medium, either commercially or non-commercially, provided … you add no other conditions whatsoever to those of this License.”5 One further implication of Wikipedia’s implementation of free and open-source software principles, Roy Rosenzweig argues, is that “its content is available to be downloaded, manipulated, and “data mined”–something not possible even with many resources (newspapers, for example) that can be read free online.”6 Showing up at the top of Google rankings reinforces students’ tendency to use the most recognizable source they encounter first, rather than searching multiple unfamiliar sources of information. Wikipedia’s ease of revision is also considered by history writers to be an advantage because they have the ability update or revise their work instantly and easily. This enables them to quickly remedy defects or provide alternative perspectives to critiques of their work , which is considered to be an advantage, because its contents tend to be more current than a traditional encyclopedias. Some historians also believe that Wikipedia’s ease of use and accessibility to the common man has the capability to enhance history by linking historians with anyone who may have some memory of an historical event. Rosenzweig writes “If the essence of history is the memory of things said and done, then it is obvious that every normal person, Mr. Everyman, knows some history.”7
So, it appears that the key to Wikipedia’s success is not necessarily that it is a better source of historical material, but because its free and it satisfies the preferences of our “Microwave Society,” The mindset of wanting everything “Quick and Simple”. Even the name Wikimedia is derived from the Hawaiian word wikiwiki, meaning “quick” or “informal.” Technology has made gathering and providing information extremely quick and relatively simple, and we’ve begun to think that everything in life should be available instantly and on demand to the point that “Quick and Simple” is becoming a core value of our society, outweighing some traditional and institutional values. Quick meals…microwave, quick information…Internet, quick mail… Email, quick music ITunes, quick friends…Facebook, quick relationships…Online dating, quick history…Wikipedia, and the list goes on. As Daniel J. Cohen has argued, “resources such as Wikipedia that are free to use in any way, even if they are imperfect, are more valuable than those that are gated or use-restricted, even if those resources are qualitatively better.”8 Access to these “Quick and Simple” services are not is bad things at all, but for many it has created a false sense of what it takes to be successful in different areas of our lives. The quest for “Quick and Simple” everything is making us more dependent on providers of “Quick and Simple” services. This is OK as long as we don’t stop there and forget where and how to get what we need on our own. So, what are the dangers (if any) of relying too heavily on the service of quick history that Wikipedia provides? Does this service “strip history of the truly fun parts: curiosity, detective work, and discovery?”9
- Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source: Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Journal of American History 93 (June 2006), 119.
- Shawn Graham, Guy Massie, and Nadine Feuerherm, “The HeritageCrowd Project: A Case Study in Crowdsourcing Public History,” in Dougherty and Nawrotzki, http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/.
- Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source: Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Journal of American History 93 (June 2006), 112.
- Rebecca Onion, Snapshots of History, Slate, February 5, 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/history/2014/02/_historyinpics_historicalpics_history_pics_why_the_wildly_popular_twitter.html.