How to Read Wikipedia

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Wikipedia is no longer simply a open sourced encyclopedic reference. It is no longer just a website or a “thing,” it has also become a verb. If a person has a question or wants to know something, they are likely to “wikipedia it.”  When Wikipedia first emerged on the world (-wide-web) stage, educators and academics alike condemned it as non-academic and unreliable. However, today even these groups have, in part, reconciled with the notion of Wikipedia as a source of knowledge, reference, and a valuable tool for basic research.

At the same time it is more important than ever for teachers and students alike to understand the edit and content process and development of Wikipedia from behind the curtain. If users rely on Wikipedia as the first stop for information then essential questions should follow for responsible users: Who is creating the entry? Who is editing? What changes are being made, and why?

To answer these questions, users should go to the “History” tab to see a timeline of edits made and check the user profiles of those doing major edits. In addition links to page view statistics and revision history statistics (see media at top of blog post) can give a broader visual breakdown of edits and editors. This information can help the user to view editor profiles, assess their bias and credentials, the frequency of edits, and the general historiographical development of the entry. (I struggled with how best to use the “talk” tab.)

For example, with the Wikipedia entry for “Digital Humanities” reveals several interesting and important factors about its creation and development. The page began in 2006 as a definition with separate sections to explain DH objectives, lens, themes, and references. In 2007 and 2008 editors clearly believed DH to be focused on the computing aspect of DH project, with an entirely new section on Humanities Computing Projects (with three addition subsections). By 2012 the section headings seemed more settled, though expanded:

1 Objectives
2 Environments and tools
3 History
4 Organizations and Institutions
5 Criticism
6 See also
7 References
8 Bibliography
9 External links

The definition of DH also continued to shift, expand, contract–with many slight word changes that seemed to focus on the digital process and learning rather than the machine itself and programming. From 2014-2016 the open source, web-based nature of DH is clear and the discussion about DH as interdisciplinary and a transformative pedagogical development seems to be settled. The definition, application, and scope of DH continues to evolve. The basic organization of the page has remained although sections have been renamed, eliminated, split, and images have also been added.

Contributors and editors come from a wide range of persons connected to the Digital Humanities: librarians, professors, but also persons with no profile or title, like John Unsworth and Matilda Marie. There also appear to be institutional oversight and monitoring. In particular, there are several professors associated with the University of London such as Simon Mahoney and Gabriel Bodard, both of whom have profile and biographies attached.

Nearly 15% of all major edits are being made by digital humanists who have content specialization in the classics. There were also people more focused on computer science early on rather than academics focused on the humanities. The definition of “Digital Humanities” and particular phrases certainly generated the most controversy. That and the fact that the word “controversy” was actually added to one of the subheadings. It shows that DH and those who use it still struggle with defining its uses as well as the study of DH. What should a digital humanist be able to do, know, and to what end? These questions seem to drive issues that stir controversy.

This Wikipedia page reflects DH developments as a new area of intellectual inquiry, expression, and dissemination. But as a part of the larger theoretical exercise, analyzing this Wikipedia entry from the back end proved to be immensely eye opening. Not simply from the standpoint of understanding the “what” (its process and content evolution) but also deciphering the “who” behind Wikipedia. As author and software engineer David Auerbach states, “Wikipedia is a paradox and a miracle. . . . But beneath its reasonably serene surface, the website can be as ugly and bitter as 4chan and as mind-numbingly bureaucratic as a Kafka story. And it can be particularly unwelcoming to women.” As of 2013, women made up less than 10% of Wikipedia editors. As Ben Wright noted, “This disparity requires comment.” I would add that as digital humanists and educators, our awareness of this issue (and others such as the dominant Western-centric lens of Wikipedia) can be the first step in addressing these problems. We can also commit our efforts to being part of the solution.

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