Wikipedia: love it or hate it, it’s here to stay. In theory, the website shouldn’t be so successful. A platform where anyone, living anywhere, can change anything on the website should lead to disaster. While Wikipedia is far from perfect the community built around crowdsourcing has led to a relatively stable environment that shares a large portion of the historical knowledge people look for when browsing online.
For my print project proposal, I would like to look at the American Civil War Wikipedia page and analyze two particular sections; the talk page and the sources. I chose this topic because it is, and has been, an event that is hotly contested. How does Wikipedia handle difficult subject matter? How has crowdsourcing allowed neutral, unbiased content to exist on a topic that is often contested?
The reason I am so interested in analyzing the talk page is to fully understand the discourse behind the decisions made for the article. This is where you find contested information and page lock-down information. Considering that Wikipedia relies heavily on crowdsourcing, I am interested in seeing how many users are engaged on the talk page, and if it’s mostly different individuals or is it the same few users each time? How often was the article put on lock down, and for what reason? What current events were happening during the time that spurred this influx of edits or changes? How did people respond, and what was the outcome of these contentions?
The sources used on Wikipedia usually have to follow strict guidelines, but in the past few years it has opened up to include more materials other than primary sources. I would like to categorize these sources and to find out more about where people are getting source materials. I am interested in seeing how easy it would be to access the cited materials. Do you need access to academic journals or library databases? Are the sources purely academic, or do they include materials from popular culture? How are the different sources used and cited within the text of the article?
Hopefully by looking at these aspects of the Wikipedia article and not just the content or edit history I can gain a better understanding of the subtleties this website has that allows for such a successful crowdsourcing project. While it’s true that many classically trained historians may not need to worry about the information on Wikipedia, it’s the job of the public historian to help disseminate knowledge effectively and efficiently. Wikipedia can be an invaluable tool for that.