Wikipedia: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As Bonnie’s post below adroitly demonstrates, Wikipedia is a site with a deeply-ingrained ethos and traditions that might not be familiar to the casual user, a tribal society that debates the content of pages hidden behind talk pages that regular users rarely see, and end up producing articles that are more dependent on consensus than on expertise.  Sometimes, the pages that result are admirable, written in clear English and with a large number of citations at the end for further scholarly pursuit.  Often, these are prominent subjects with quality articles in many of Wikipedia’s innumerable language versions (including the admirable but somewhat bizarre “Simple English” Wikipedia, which tries to present topics like quantum mechanics at a sixth grade reading level).  Since this practicum called on me to analyze three pages on Wikipedia, I decided to present them in a classic format: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I found one article on Wikipedia I found especially praiseworthy, one that was stunningly poor, and a talk page that was, to put it mildly, ugly.  Without further hesitation or preamble, let us examine Wikipedia.

How can you tell what the best articles on Wikipedia are?  Wikipedia itself has a handy answer: they have a “Featured Articles” category that lists what the site considers the best articles on the site.  There are currently over 3,100 featured articles, and they add roughly one a day.  These articles are Wikipedia’s self-proclaimed cream of the cream, the roughly .1% of its over three and a half million articles that it’s willing to say it stands by.  Indeed, the Featured Article I have chosen is an admirable encyclopedia article.  Slavery in Ancient Greece has sections analyzing every aspect of slavery, from a detailed examination of the various terms the Greeks used for slavery and their different connotations to an examination at the origins of Greek slavery from the Mycenaean age through the Homeric period, tracing references of slaves in pre-Classical Greece all the way down through Draco and Solon.  The article struggles to quantify the number of slaves in Classical Greece, arguing that though the wide-scale slavery of the Romans in terms of number of slaves per master was unknown, there was a widespread usage of slaves in most classes, and a rich man could have up to fifty slaves.  It argues that intentional slave breeding was a rare, if not unknown, phenomenon, and that the “slave/citizen” line was far blurrier than the strict separation of the antebellum American South.  It goes on to detail classical views of slavery and then, amazingly, gives a short modern historiography of the subject and even poses discussion questions.  This admirable article is followed by a lengthy list of twenty-nine sources, 170 endnotes, and fifteen books for further reading.  This article’s ending list of sources would be ideal for an undergraduate writing a paper on Ancient Greek slavery and needing academic sources: an amazing amount of historiography is present in the works listed (though, admittedly, 1/3rd of the books mentioned are in French).  All in all, this article is a great example of what a Wikipedia page can offer scholars.

At the other end of the spectrum, we find Wikipedia’s article on the 19th century Taiping general Loyal Prince Lee, or, as he’s known on Wikipedia, Li Xiucheng. I will admit that this is the third occasion on which I have cited this page as an example of Wikipedia’s defects, and it has changed every time, except no matter how much it changes, it remains unacceptable, year after year.  Wikipedia put up a disclaimer, almost apologetically, saying that “This article is a rough translation from Chinese. It may have been generated by a computer or by a translator without dual proficiency. Please help to enhance the translation.”   Now, read that quote back over.  The translation was generated by a computer or a translator without dual proficiency.  It’s no wonder the article is a shambles, an incomprehensible mishmash.   The level of incomprehensibility is best demonstrated by the section labeled “Write:” “In Zhong Prince Li Xiucheng Describes Himself (《忠王李秀成自述》), the autobiographical account of a prince of the Heavenly Kingdom written shortly before his execution(Pseudohistory saying Li was suicide admitted by Zeng Guofan gave Li a sword because Zeng respected Li, even Li Hongzhang had been read this describes and praised Li Xiucheng was a hero on a letter to Zeng).”  Is this at all comprehensible to anyone?  The faults are further demonstrated in the final section which gives the name of a professor at the University of London as “柯文南.”  One must be skeptical that that is, in fact, how he prefers his name to be rendered in English.  In a final confusing move, under children it lists a son, “Li Ronfar Battle of Shanghai (1861).”  Did he die in the Battle of Shanghai?  Was he born in the battle of Shanghai?  What does this mean?  The Loyal Prince Lee article demonstrates a major shortcoming of Wikipedia: articles featuring figures that are mainly of interest to speakers of non-English tongues can be extraordinarily poor, even if their article on the Wikipedia of the native language is fine or even exceptional.

Most of Wikipedia’s deliberations happen behind the scenes, on its talk pages.  Talk pages are attached to every article, yet are rarely seen by most casual users (many do not even notice them), leading to talk page conversations usually dominated by hard-core Wikipedians or cranks (and the two categories often overlap).   Many articles are subject to perennial flame wars: whether Wikipedia’s trickster sister Encyclopedia Dramatica deserves an article (warning: the author of this post strongly encourages you not to visit Encyclopedia Dramatica), whether a formerly-German, now-Polish city on the Baltic should have its name rendered “Danzig” or “Gdansk” and whether its most famous inhabitant, Nicolaus Copernicus, should be a “Pole” or a “German” (a distinction Copernicus would not have understood).  Yet many of the most contentious flame wars are on subjects that one would not expect: race in antiquity.  See the talk page of the Ancient Egyptian Race Controversy page.  For over a century, there has been vigorous academic debate on the subject, and the popular debate on Wikipedia makes that academic debate look positively civilized by comparison.  The page comes with an astounding twenty-three archives of discussion and warnings telling you that the Arbitration Committee has placed the article under probation, that the subject is controversial and in dispute, that the article had been Wikipedia peer reviewed (such a thing does, in fact, exist), that the page survived a vote on deletion, and, amusingly enough, a little dove image telling the user to remember etiquette.  The article’s first archive alone is enough to give one a major headache, and the implication that there are twenty-two more spanning half a decade of running argument boggles the mind.  That this much discussion hides in the shadow of a relatively modest article shows both how much work goes into Wikipedia and how much controversy the past can create even after a gap of two and a half millennia.

Wikipedia shows that history is alive and well on the Internet, still arousing passions and still leading to ferocious debates.  It does, however, demonstrate that not all articles are created equally, and that one should not presume that your average Wikipedia article is of equal caliber to the ones with that tell-tale star, and that maybe, just maybe, one should look at the talk page before accepting the article’s contents as truth.

3 Replies to “Wikipedia: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

  1. I agree with you that the talk pages on Wikipedia articles are one of the most important features the site uses to discuss the material of its articles. The active discussion on controversial issues and debate over the accuracy of the article’s material show that casual browsers of the site shouldn’t take the information at face value, and that these discussions help bring new perspective and information that may challenge the article’s subject.

    The difference in the quality of the information between the articles on Slavery in Ancient Greece and Li Xiucheng illustrates how interest in the subject matter of the article can affect the quality of the information displayed. Perhaps Rosenzweig’s challenge for historians to review and improve articles such as Li Xiucheng’s can help this disparity in quality.

    This also reminds me of stub articles on Wikipedia, where there is little to no information on the article’s subject. Some of the subject matter is so obscure or specific it becomes difficult to verify the article’s content, although some articles seem simple enough to expand upon (ex. the Wikipedia article on Historic site). Can Rosenzweig’s proposal help these stub articles?

  2. To be honest, I had no idea what went on "behind the scenes" on Wikipedia. I don't really look at it too often, anyway, but the talk pages you discuss are fascinating. I wonder how many people even know they exist. Should Wikipedia place a disclaimer of some kind with a link to the talk page on the top of the main article's page so more people can be more aware of the "controversies" behind any of the pages they view?

    Also, since Wikipedia chooses to be subjective in their promotion of "featured articles," how does this affect the democratic function of the Internet? It's one thing for search engines to control the web through their own algorithmic functions, but what does this say for the power of any "corporation" that claims to be open source in influencing the direction of web browsers? Is the Internet doomed to being controlled by a select few in power, even under the guise of "a free and open society"?

  3. Great Post! Rosenzweig’s challenge is an interesting one and one that should be taken up. Too often historians shake their heads disparagingly at the very mention of Wikipedia for many of the problems you noted above. But, if historians took an active participatory role, contributed to articles, and corrected inaccuracies perhaps Wikipedia could become a viable encyclopedic resource.

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