Something Wiki This Way Comes
At school I received an email with a link to an article from the New Yorker, “How a Raccoon becomes an Aardvark,” which is an interesting read about the reproduction of errors on Wikipedia. This frustrates most people, but, in the case of one young man who changed a species from a raccoon relative into an aardvark, it was a chance for adventure. Who knew it would stick around and people would believe it?
The tag on the email, however, was that it was a terrifying prospect. To that, I must reply. Yes, and…
…it’s one that’s been a part of academia. It’s not new, but it’s more transparent now. We have handy digital records. It’s all fast and quick. This is a lesson that applies to the printed word as much as the digitally typed. The “Brazilian Aardvark” is a case of testing the system because the system today is fortunately so transparent and open-access on the digital front, where misrule can be a greater motivation. Greater, but not new.
Misrule of various sorts has always been around, from the early 1700’s when a blonde European masqueraded as a native of Formosa (Taiwan) for four years on the Continental circuit, to the 1970’s when Manuel Elizalde convinced a rural community of Filipinos to live as a lost group of stone age people, ostensibly to get them governmental attention and aid, but the truth of their prior existence, due to the media frenzy afterwards, can never be known for certain, nor his own need for attention.
On the other hand there are those who prove points: quite recently in 2012 a philosopher named Dr. Boudry (spelling? sorry!) had abstracts accepted at two conferences that were composed of meaningless word salad and in 1996, Alan Sokal submitted an article to the journal Social Test to test its submission process and academic rigor that had no real content – and was indeed published. The literary world has it’s hoaxes, such as I, Libertine, Naked Came the Stranger, and the Ern Malley Affair for poetry. The fine arts have also had their share of critics-of-critics. Tricksters will play their roles to poke at the vulnerabilities of our systems, and perhaps that is lesson number one, here: we have a tendency to be deceived. We like to deceive others in our wit, and so, that can fall back on us in turn. Loki would be so proud!
Wikiality and Wiki Wars (editing wars, or arguments about facts and sources) are fortunately tempered by what is actually a large underlying structure of transparency in the editing process, something that had been unheard of in encyclopedias. You can always View History and see who changed something, and the Talk pages can be immense. This is one factor that has kept Wikipedia’s overall reliability comparable to venerable encyclopedias like Britannica (much to their annoyance). This was kicked off by a head-to-head study done by Nature in 2005, and the abstract and theCitation for Article that found the differences fairly negligible: Wikipedia averaged four errors per page; Britannica, three. Wikipedia was more likely to include a falsehood whereas Britannica was more likely to commit the sin of omission.
Which is better? Which is worse?
Similar positive compatibility results have been found over the years, such as one in 2006 from on errors and perceived credibility by experts/academics when you remove the source (i.e., you don’t say where you got this short article on, x topic). The downside is that an editor or expert may fall for the preponderance of a statement as a fact over using primary sources, and new articles often don’t have that many secondary sources written yet. There was a good NPR interview about this phenomenon that you can read or listen to here.
Meanwhile, peer reviewed tests on vandalism have shown that most errors are repaired with due process and immediacy. A “fib data” supplemental from that study’s own test, for the curious, can be found here.
In other words, the digital media is of comparable accuracy to print, and it’s accessibility helps self-police would be misrule. If something doesn’t sit right, it should be questioned no matter the form of the source material. So, if one teaches media literacy, one can test out the boundaries, and create something new, like the Wikiality of the “Brazilian aardvark” or Naked Comes the Stranger, or learn as well that preponderance doesn’t necessarily equate to a primary or secondary source; when your primary source is the editor themselves, you should question it, and ask if they are credible.
It isn’t the goal of being jaded, of having to say, “don’t believe everything that’s on the internet,” but that’s true of all media. It would be true to say that you can’t trust anything. It’s much more positive to ask, “is that credible?” because you might get a yes, or, pretty decent, okay. When asked who the author was of Naked Came the Stranger, one would find a false name, and a room full of Newsday columnists.
So, this isn’t new to academia or the arts, it just feels more pressing because, I think, you know you should be able to change it as part of the greater editing community when its on Wikipedia. And this editing war has plagued some fields particularly because there’s been more than just misrule as scholars have tried to mold their facts to suit their theories over the ages, which has molded thought. Early archaeology, for example, is riddled with it; everything was a religious item, royalty, or worthless. Now valuable potsherds were once thrown away. In history, narratives are written, and were often done to weave a moral tale, so there has been a quite a bit of fuzzy data about the world – a far different intent than the aardvark – that are misleading or go off of preponderance or popular opinion rather than a primary or secondary source.
Some of which, like human sacrifice in Ancient Minoan Crete, I’ve seen develop into Wiki Wars, spilling out into the digital realm now that we begin to rethink and revise or go “post-” many previously held concepts. (This was an interesting archaeological saga, glad to share, but another story!)
But at least those discussions are saved on the digital record; there’s a nice saved page of arguments discussing data and archaeological findings that may support human sacrifice, and evidence and arguments that may refute it. The page reflects compromise and is worded as such. The original sidebars and discussions the early archaeologists and historians may have had on the Minoans have been lost to time, but their ideas on Minoans as an idyllic peaceful people perpetuate in the literature and the preponderance of these ideas is harder to sort through if you aren’t in-the-know already because of time and medium.
You can’t edit or flag points or passages in books the way you can an online encyclopedia either. (Unless your author has a very active digital presence.) If only I could challenge a book the way I could a Wikipedia article! If I want something better or fixed, I have to wait for a new book to be written, usually by someone other than myself (let’s face it). If I send a letter to the newspaper to refute their glowing praise of a book, it may not be published. My recourse, without doubt, is well written but low-star review on Amazon!
For example: 34 out of 37 people have found my previously posted 1 star review of Cleopatra: A Life, by Pulitzer winner Stacy Schiff helpful. 15% gave it 1 star, 14% 2 stars. I am not alone here in my opinion. (I feel some validation!) But I digress.
In that way, there’s always a place for both the encyclopedia (digital and not) and the peer-reviewed literature review article, as a way to engage back with a text. That’s a huge benefit, interactivity, but it is not the same as discovering and interpreting a primary source for yourself. Discovering the primary source – or secondary if that’s all we’ve got – and then returning to the literature or the encyclopedia is where some magic could happen. That’s a moment for positive Wikiality.
What would positive Wikiality really look like? You can interact back with the text. Encyclopedias are vast resources written for the common man, a good source for basic understanding of a topic. The online expert is the interpreter between the researcher expert and the user, so they have to be persuasive; their word becomes truth. When you learn, you can be, even if briefly for one little tidbit, that expert. There are movements in the sciences (at least) to publish digitally with open-access, and that could play a great role in positive Wikiality. The online expert could point out little known things, and push for clarity, revision, or caution – essentially what editors do now – but they have to be believed. And they have to actually be right. Or at least honest. That’s the difference. Our experts have to be truthful, or else we will believe a pack of lies about aardvarks.
Though, as some of the callers to NPR pointed out, it may require much patience and time as well as sources. And perhaps some persuasive keystrokes in the Talk.
Now, to turn it into a class project.