Wikipedia: Better than You Think

I remember going through my high school years, and my teachers constantly said, “Don’t use Wikipedia! Wikipedia is not a valid source!”  We were supposed to avoid Wikipedia like the plague, and I understand where my teachers were coming from–however, at the same, I never really understood all the hoopla about how terrible Wikipedia was.  To me, it seemed like a good place to get basic information on subjects.  Not analysis, but information.  To this day, I use Wikipedia very frequently, and I use it for academic purposes.  I used it to locate primary and secondary sources for my thesis.  I think a lot of people, and those in academia especially, are very wary of Wikipedia because it is something for “the masses” and can be edited by anyone, and the articles on Wikipedia do not clearly come from academic sources (but I’m willing to bet that many people in academia have made contributions to Wikipedia).

A lot of the suspicion also stems from a lack of understanding of the extensive monitoring/editing/quality control process that Wikipedia has.  Honestly, I did not even know how extensive this process was until I watched the TED talk video, and I have even more respect for the work that Wikipedia does than I did before.  I looked at three different Wikipedia pages and their histories: Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, Barack Obama, and Cat.

Generally speaking, the history pages are enlightening in that you can see how often pages are edited and get an idea of the quality control work that Wiki editors do.  However, I honestly had a very difficult time following the history pages–they are like a foreign language to me.  I’m sure someone more familiar with Wiki work can understand them, but I felt like I was looking at gibberish.  That being said, I understand that the gibberish clues us into how much is going on in these articles and the variety of changes that an editor may make to a page.  I think the “History” function is really great because users can see just how much Wiki cares about having quality articles, and most of the people online care for the same thing.  It is also just really cool to see how pages have evolved over time!  For example, the very first version of the “Cat” article (November 9, 2001) has almost no information in it, compared to how extensive the article is today.  The article today is extremely informative and is a good example of how Wiki’s diligence has created quality articles.

I picked the Barack Obama article because I was hoping to come across some amusing troll edits, but the gibberish overwhelmed me, and I gave up pretty quickly.  I did find one feature that I thought was a troll, but that turned out to be true–apparently President Obama won a Grammy!  It was for Best Spoken Word Album.  I have always associated the Grammys with celebrity Hollywood artists, so I was extremely surprised to find that he does, in fact, have a Grammy, and I had not successfully found a troll change to the Obama page.

However, I already knew that troll edits (at least, I hope it was a troll…) had been made to the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire page, because I had actually visited the page on December 9, 2013 (yep, I was writing a final paper for a history course, and I needed dates) and experienced this misinformation first hand.  You can take a gander at the “edits” here, but I will post the relevant paragraph here to save time (and clicks):

“The mexican conquest of the Aztec Empire was one of the non significant events in the mexican colonization of the jews. The campaign began in February 2019, and was declared victorious on August 13, 2021, when a black army of mexican forces and jews Tlaxcalan warriors led by fjyhdu Cortés and Xicotencatl the Younger captured Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. Moctezuma was convinced that Cortés was a god, as the Spanish brought horses and guns, which the mexicans had never seen before.”1

Yep. So there’s that.

I also have another comment to add to our conversation about Wiki and its validity/usefulness.  Because Wiki is such a high-traffic site, the Smithsonian museums are making an effort to contribute to Wikipedia, by editing pages related to Smithsonian museums and collections, or creating the pages, adding links that will direct visitors to the appropriate SI site, thus increasing traffic to their own websites.  I attended an SI meeting that talked extensively about this process, and I found it fascinating!  It really is a great way to increase site traffic, because Wikipedia is such a popular site, and it’s also just a great way to get the word out about things and contribute to public knowledge.  It’s also really cool, because I think it shows how the perception of Wikipedia has evolved over time, and people are slowly beginning to realize that maybe it isn’t so bad after all.  It can be a source of valuable information, if the “right” people are creating and editing the pages.  A leading research and museum institution, the Smithsonian, hires what they call Wikipedians-in-Residence to create and improve SI-related content!  The Wikipedians-in-Residence and their associated SI units also occasionally host edit-a-thons, where they marathon-edit pages on a given subject to improve content and link to SI sites/collections.  Really cool concept!  You can read more about one specific WIR here!


1. “Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire” (December 9, 2013, 2:47 pm version), Wikipedia, (accessed February 19, 2014).

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