A generation of American schoolkids has grown up hearing the refrain, “Wikipedia is not a reliable source.” The Wikipedia of today, however, is a different beast than the Wikipedia of the early aughts. What was once a poorly-maintained, amateur website is now an encyclopedic juggernaut with strict editing rules and constantly updated articles.
While Wikipedia is no longer the unreliable source that our school librarians warned us about, viewers should still be careful to vet each article before trusting its information. There is a long history of hoax articles and vandalism on Wikipedia, and you should never trust its articles at face value. There are several ways to go about checking for accuracy and controversy, most notably the “Talk” page and the “View History” page.
As most students know, the first step when vetting a Wikipedia article is to scroll down to the References section, where you can often find links to historical monographs and primary sources. Lesser known, however, is the “Talk” page. Talk pages list Wikipedia’s ratings of each article’s importance and accuracy and serve as a forum for community members to discuss ways of improving the article.
The talk page for the article on Robert E. Lee, for example, describes it as a level-4 vital article, meaning Wikipedia editors voted on it being an “essential” topic worthy of an especially high-quality entry. It is also classified as a B-Class article, meaning that it could benefit from more editing and expert knowledge. The talk page for Harriet Tubman’s article, on the other hand, also identifies the page as a level-4 vital article, but rates it as a Featured Article (FA-Class). Whereas Wikipedia editors have identified both Robert E. Lee and Harriet Tubman as important, the quality of the Harriet Tubman article is within the top .1% of all articles on the English-language Wikipedia.
On the other hand, the article on “Black Dispatches,” or Civil War espionage provided by Black Americans, is classified as a Start-Class article, only one step above the lowest accepted rating, “Stub.” This article is also ranked as “Low-importance” in a couple different categories, meaning that Wikipedia editors have determined that its information is not particularly vital to those topics. While future scholarship might highlight the importance of Black Dispatches, the current consensus is that they are incidental to the histories of the United States and espionage. For now, viewers interested in Black espionage during the Civil War will have to read up on individual spies like Harriet Tubman to get more complete information.
The quality of discussion on talk pages can vary wildly. On the Robert E. Lee talk page, for instance, one can see respectful debates on how to interpret his views on race and how soon to mention his culpability in defending the institution of slavery. On the Harriet Tubman page, however, some comments are less respectful.
While the talk pages can contain inflammatory rhetoric, Wikipedia’s strict standards and constant revision generally stops this sort of bias from making it into the article itself. To view the edits that have actually made the cut, viewers can check the “View History” tab.
“View History” Pages
In the “View History” tab, viewers can see a log of all edits made to the article.
Along with this log, one of the handiest tools is the “Page Statistics” external link. Here, viewers can see everything from page views to word counts to connections with other Wikipedia articles. Most importantly for scholars is information on authorship: tables and pie charts showing who contributed the most to each article.
The page statistics for Black Dispatches, for instance, shows that user Tfine80 contributed 82.4% of authorship. Examining Tfine80’s user page shows that they are an avid contributor to Wikipedia, often translating German-language articles to English. While there is little information about Tfine80’s credentials, user pages can give a general “vibe check” for viewers who want to know more about an article’s authors. One might trust Tfine80, for example, more than they trust ScottishFinnishRadish.
As an open source, freely accessible encyclopedia, Wikipedia is unmatched. It still, however, suffers from biased authorship as most contributors to English Wikipedia are white, Western men. As you can see from the inflammatory rhetoric on the Harriet Tubman talk page and the underdeveloped Black Dispatches article, the site is still plagued by both overt and subtle racial bias. Wikipedia itself has acknowledged that it has a problem with race as well as sex and gender . Tools like the Talk and View History pages can help you identify biases and better understand why Wikipedia looks the way it does.
I’m interested to know if anyone in this class has contributed to Wikipedia. If so, what was your experience like? Did you engage with other editors on the Talk pages? Let us know in the comments!