With the news that Encyclopedia Britannica will bring its print edition to a close, we can, I think, officially announce that Wikipedia has become the default knowledge repository for the vast majority of Internet users. It’s likely been that way for some time, but when you see the old standard bearers give way, the time comes to replant the flag.
And yet, Wikipedia’s status at the top of the knowledge-storage food chain does not mean it enjoys its position without difficulty. As the quantity of individual contributors declines over time, and as the calls for donations rise over that same period, concerns have begun to emerge as to how long Wikipedia can sustain itself. In addition, a recent controversy over a rather obscure entry dealing with the Haymarket riot and trial of 1886 has called attention to supposed deficiencies in the Wikipedia editing policies. The event isn’t particularly obscure if you’re a well-read fan of American Labor history, but for most everyone else, the Haymarket riot doesn’t exactly come up during everyday conversation.
The controversy involves, in a nutshell, the manner in which expertise is situated within the Wikipedia knowledge ecosystem, specifically the expertise of Timothy Messer-Kruse, who has, over the last decade or so, been studying the Haymarket riots and the subsequent trial.
Messer-Kruse believes that a thorough investigation of the primary evidence reveals that history has gotten the details wrong, particularly about the amount and nature of the evidence presented during the trial. When Messer-Kruse went to edit the Wikipedia entry on the riot, and to delete the claim that “no evidence” was presented linking the defendants to the bombs themselves, the change was quickly reversed by a Wikipedia editor. The disagreement stemmed from several Wikipedia gatekeeping practices, particularly the “undue weight” policy and the notion that secondary sources, particularly books, enjoy status as “reliable” sources over and above actual primary sources.
Messer-Kruse found both practices baffling:
‘Explain to me, then, how a ‘minority’ source with facts on its side would ever appear against a wrong ‘majority’ one?’ I asked the Wiki-gatekeeper. He responded, “You’re more than welcome to discuss reliable sources here, that’s what the talk page is for. However, you might want to have a quick look at Wikipedia’s civility policy.
Messer-Kruse did not take the unnamed editor up on their suggestions, choosing instead to attempt another page edit, which was reversed, and then another, which was then reversed for reasons of page vandalism in addition to the previous concerns.
On the one hand, we can understand Messer-Kruse’s frustration. Here we have a scholar doing ground-breaking research, examining primary documents that have never really been addressed in the historical writings on the Haymarket bombings and trial, and they prove, conclusively, that the dominant textbook view falls short of historical truth. He had at the time already published a peer-reviewed academic article, which he cited in justifying his attempted page edits. He was well on his way toward writing a book on the subject, which he finished two years later, whereupon he again attempted to edit the Wikipedia entry. He had been told that books were considered more reliable secondary sources than individual articles, and so we can imagine his surprise when:
My improvement lasted five minutes before a Wiki-cop scolded me, “I hope you will familiarize yourself with some of Wikipedia’s policies, such as verifiability and undue weight. If all historians save one say that the sky was green in 1888, our policies require that we write ‘Most historians write that the sky was green, but one says the sky was blue.’ … As individual editors, we’re not in the business of weighting claims, just reporting what reliable sources write.
On the other hand, we should marvel at Messer-Kruse’s inattention to the policies and social practices of Wikipedia as an organization. Despite enjoying (ostensibly) the authority of truth, he found himself denied the authority to write that truth within Wikipedia’s pages, and reacted with a combination of incredulity and petulance. The dismissive label of “Wiki-cop,” the portrayal of an editorial decision as a type of scolding, the choice to attempt edit after edit after edit, instead of an attempt to understand the civility (or civics) of Wikipedia—none of these help promote comity between himself and the editorial team.
At work within Messer-Kruse’s discontent with Wikipedia is a misunderstanding about what Wikipedia – or any encyclopedia – is. Encyclopedias are not endless warehouses of factual reality; they are instead warehouses of what is collectively believed to be that factual reality, which is to say that while the Venn circles might theoretically overlap, there is no real requirement that they do so. As one Wikipedia editor explained to Messer-Kruse:
Wikipedia is not ‘truth,’ Wikipedia is ‘verifiability’ of reliable sources. Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that.
Andrew Lih, author of The Wikipedia Revolution noted in an NPR panel devoted to the debate, “Therein lies the problem:”
What we’re seeing with the new evidence published by Messer-Kruse in August 2011, is that there is a lag time before scholarship is generally accepted… That is, this book is the first revelation of these new findings, and they haven’t been taken as a consensus view, at least not yet. In time, if the facts hold up, and there is every reason to believe they will, the rest of Haymarket affair scholarship will reflect the new research, and Wikipedia will reflect that.
In this age of quick and speedy information, where we can access information from anywhere, in negligible increments of time, it can be difficult to remember that the composition of information itself takes time. But it can also be difficult to remember that the speed and degree of accessibility are not a panacea, either for publishing and distributing information, or for consuming that information. What we believe we know to be true reflects, as Thomas Kuhn demonstrated decisively, a “paradigm” that structures the interpretation and acceptability of certain facts. These paradigms often lag behind the discovery of new data.
Wikipedia has been roundly condemned by various keyboard champions of truth for its rather abrupt dismissal of the Haymarket trial revisions, but the policies that so vexed Messer-Kruse are in place for reasons that should be clear upon reflection. Wikipedia has no way to determine with certainty the distinction between a qualified, academically-credentialed expert with a decade of painstaking original research on the one hand from a disgruntled nutjob with an ax to grind against the millstone of history on the other. From climate change deniers to neo-Nazis, from Randian objectivists to radical Marxists, there are a host of reasons why one particular subgroup or counter-public may wish to promote one particularly idiosyncratic view of history or science over another. By limiting the “undue weight” of minority voices, and by requiring consensus demonstrated through reliable secondary sources, Wikipedia effectively curtails the injection of dissenting views into any particular entry, and thus avoids the fragmentation of information that would result. The editors at Wikipedia have neither the ability nor the time to assess the validity of a supposedly previously undiscovered primary source, and so they rely on peer scholarship to do it for them. This slows down the long march of encyclopedic knowledge, even in Wiki form, but it does so to keep the march moving onward to its destination: a reflection and summary of the current scope of human knowledge.
The case of the Haymarket edits should also remind us that one of the many differences between knowledge and information is that knowledge is primarily socially constituted, which is to say that knowledge never exists without a correlate set of ritual and institutional grounds. Information, in the old rallying cry of the cyber-utopians, might yearn to be free, but knowledge remains tethered to a more complex set of social and cultural processes – for reasons that are essential, unfortunate, and beneficial all at once.
We would do well to remember this distinction as we begin to explore ways of hacking and re-conceptualizing higher education next month. Whatever its faults and its inflexibilities – and there are many, though less than some might think – the University in its current form inherits a vast array of rituals and socio-cultural practices that help credential knowledge and knowledge acquisition. These processes are pedagogical, institutional, and technological, and any changes we make to the distribution of educational materials, to funding, to the relationship between the professor and the student, or to the space between the “tower and the square”, will involve some collocation and alteration of those inheritances. It benefits us all to be explicit, nuanced, and thorough in imagining that future, and what it all means for the fate of higher education.