Wikipedia, Neutral Point of View, and the American Revolution

In addition to being a topic that fascinates historians, the American Revolution has captured the interests and attention of countless Americans outside the history profession. For many Americans the Revolution has become a highly romanticized time period. Great men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are still regarded by many to be the paradigms Americans should base their beliefs and values upon. What exactly these men represented is interpreted in many different ways by Americans. The Wikipedia page for the American Revolution reflects some of this debate in its talk page, as people ask questions even as fundamental as whether it is appropriate to call the American Revolution a Revolution. The paper proposed here intends on examining how the Wikipedia tenet of “Neutral point of view” holds up when applied to such a widely interpreted topic. To achieve this, the paper will examine what kind of things are debated on the Wikipedia talk page; do Wikipedia editors discuss questions over evidence and validity of interpretations? How do they resolve differences in visions of what the founding fathers represented? These questions have the potential to not only reveal what standards frequent Wikipedia users hold evidence too, but also what their political culture is like and how they resolve ideological conflicts. With this in mind the proposed paper will compare the debates that take place on Wikipedia with the debates professional historians have. In this age of the rise of the internet and the increased ability of public participation in creating historical memory it is important to understand the similarities and differences between the historical profession and this new brand of Wikipedia historians.

To properly examine and understand what is taking place in the talk pages of Wikipedia I will immerse myself in the talk pages of both the Wikipedia page for the American Revolution, and also several other Wikipedia pages. If possible I will also attempt to acquire any available data that would provide my paper with an idea of what demographic primarily edits Wikipedia. Some demographic information can be found on Wikipedia itself, but these statistics are limited. To further increase my understanding of how Wikipedia works I will utilize the Rosenzweig article and any other articles about Wikipedia and the idea of “Neutral point of view.” I will also draw upon several important pieces of the historiography of the American Revolution, such as Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, and Woody Holton’s Forced Founders. Other works will be drawn upon if seen to be applicable.

In an age where the relatively unknown and un-vetted Wikipedia editor has the potential to define how Americans understand the past, it is critical that historians adapt and find ways to inject their voices into the debate and re-imagine their role. For decades the work of most historians have remained out of public view, but the new era brought about by the internet has given historians the chance to change that.

2 Replies to “Wikipedia, Neutral Point of View, and the American Revolution”

  1. Great project idea. Once you surface the arguments form the talk pages I would also suggest that you think about how the arguments work. That is, do the Wikipedians argue like historians? How do they work from different kinds of evidence and source material? How do they deal with conflicting accounts and perspectives? Further, there is going to be an evolutionary story of the page and the talk page, it would be interesting to know if there is some change over time in these discussions. For example, as Wikipedia as grown has the discussion and debate in the talk pages matured to more nuanced argumentation? On the historiography point, it would be fascinating to know how controversies in the history of the American Revolution are handled and resolved. Ex, things like http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072879130/student_view0/chapter5/where_historians_disagree.html

  2. It’s really great to see the ideas about the Wikipedia community & the history field coming together in this way and I really look forward to seeing what conclusions come of this research! I think you’re on a good, specific track regarding the American Revolution topic, but will warn you that the topics of Wikipedia community norms, demographics, and other stats can be a bit of a rabbit hole – so try to remain laser-focused. Much of this research can be found elsewhere so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but you can apply it to what you’re analyzing here. Save yourself a little bit of time and check out my Zotero library: https://www.zotero.org/loribyrdphillips/items/collectionKey/BFJGDBDE , the listing of scholarly studies on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Academic_studies_of_Wikipedia , and the resources section of the Wikimedia Research Index: http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Research:Index

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