Wonderful, Wicked Wikipedia

“Isn’t this supposed to be easy? Isn’t the point that anybody is supposed to be able to do this?”

My poor, unassuming summer housemate stared blankly at me and the mess I’d made of our kitchen sitting area. (Some people have a dining set; we had an overstuffed chair and small couch on either side of a low table, where we kept a deck of cards and a stack of outdated issues of Esquire and Rolling Stone.) At that point, I’d thrown the magazines aside. I had my legs propped on the table, my laptop balanced precariously on my knees, and most of the contents from a three-inch binder strewn around me. I also had some awfully strong coffee in what could only accurately be referred to as a vat.

It was my first day of trying to edit Wikipedia, and I was, for lack of a more articulate phrase, freaking out.

As part of my summer internship with Emory’s Marketing and Communications Department, I was tasked with revising as much of the university’s Wikipedia page as I could in eight weeks. My cubicle came with a locker full of Emory history books and admissions statistics that I was to use to bring the information on the page up-to-date and expand upon what was already there. At that point, the page was College of Arts and Sciences-centric. Even though the Emory community knows all of the University’s schools are important, there was hardly any information about them on Wikipedia. That needed to be fixed—because as any college student will tell you: If it’s not on Wikipedia, it’s probably not worth knowing.

When I tried explaining my internship to some older family members, more than one asked me, “What is Wikipedia?” My answer usually started with about thirty seconds of me looking at them like a goldfish—mouth opening and closing, eyes bugging out of my face—and progressed to me stammering a slightly more legitimate explanation. It’s an online encyclopedia, I’d say. It’s free. It’s convenient. It includes information about anything you could imagine. It’s simultaneously the best and worst place to turn when you want to educate yourself about something, because even though it’s rife with content, that content can be updated and edited by anyone on the planet.

“Oh,” the family member would say. “I guess I get it.”

But I would always feel frustrated because I knew I hadn’t explained it just right. I hadn’t managed to capture how important the website is to students who use “Wikipedia” as a noun and a verb (e.g. “I Wikipediaed Karl Marx and turns out I totally didn’t understand The Communist Manifesto when I read it for class, dude”). I hadn’t made it clear that even though we have all been told since high school that Wikipedia is not—repeat, is not, under any circumstances—to be used as an official academic source, that probably about 85 percent of all undergraduates start term-paper research on the site. At the very least, we hope that one of the citations on the bottom of the page will lead us to something that could be considered a legitimate academic source. Friendly debates—Did Ohio produce any good presidents? Are you sure that actor didn’t die?—are settled with Wikipedia. We all know it’s not the most trustworthy source of information in the world (or even online), but we tend to treat it as if it is.

I like to think that Wikipedia has made me smarter, although I know that it really has just given me the illusion of being smarter. I’ve lost track of how many phone, instant-messaging, or e-mail conversations I’ve been in when someone has made a reference that escaped me. For about half a second, I panic and try to rack my brain and attach significance to the political, historical, or pop cultural figure that was just name-dropped. But then I turn to Wikipedia to get me up-to-date and the conversation continues seamlessly.

The bottom line is that Wikipedia is important. If you believe the “Wikipedia” entry on Wikipedia, the site has 365 million readers—and that’s why I was such a disheveled mess on my kitchen couch that summer morning. First, I was about to put something on the Internet that would probably be read by more people than anything else I would ever write. Second, a lot of those people (including plenty of prospective Emory students) were going to base the bulk of their knowledge about the University on what I put on its Wikipedia page.

I had already overcome one hurdle by having written some content. Editors at Wikipedia look for a few things: straightforward sentences, citations, and a neutral point-of-view. Break any of these rules and your edits could be rejected. Worse, your article could be flagged as not having proper citations (which even the most diehard Wikipedia user takes to mean it isn’t trustworthy) or as an advertisement in need of rewriting. The writing wasn’t difficult, but it seemed like I faced some strange new challenge every time I tried to post it.

That first day, my main issue was figuring out formatting basics and trying to get rid of a nagging voice in my head: “What if instead of italicizing those words, you accidentally delete the whole article?” Then there was the day that I wrote an entire section three times—including citations, which were always a pain to get right—before it stuck. Each time, I was given a warning that there was an editing conflict, which was supposed to indicate that someone else was editing that part of the page at the same time. However, I never saw that another user changed the section after me or even made a comment about it on the “Discussion” page for Emory’s entry. One day, a user commented on my edits because he thought my use of “the team came in first” rather than “won” would confuse readers. Another day, I accidentally clicked “Save” before properly citing every sentence. Within thirty seconds, I had received a warning message from Wikipedia. I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder for Big Brother.

What surprised me about each of these instances was that it seemed like there were people out there who were actually dedicated to making sure everything on the page was perfect, whether they were debating my word choice or scolding me for my lack of citations. I began to think that maybe all the warnings about not trusting Wikipedia weren’t true. Wikipedia itself, in an entry called “Reliability of Wikipedia,” cites studies that found the practice of anonymous and collaborative editing to produce surprisingly accurate information—evidenced by how quickly misinformation is usually corrected or deleted. The site can be both more and less accurate than a printed encyclopedia, depending on the moment and the topic.

However, as I was writing this article, a friend from my graduating class instant-messaged me: “Have you read Emory’s Wikipedia page lately?” He pasted a couple of sentences into the box and pointed out its numerous inaccuracies. It wasn’t anything I’d added over the summer, and I didn’t remember it from the last time I’d read the page. There were citations, but they didn’t actually lead to a reliable source. We found it strange, but the conversation moved on quickly.

That brief interaction essentially sums up the college student’s relationship with Wikipedia. It’s perfectly normal to surf to the page for something that interests you and read it in hopes of learning something, and even to share that information with a friend. You’ll assume that whatever it says has to be mostly, if not completely, true, and you’ll trust that Wikipedia editors really only want to educate you. There will always be a feeling that what you’re reading may not be 100 percent accurate—even if you’ve authored half the entry—but you’ll always hope it is and keep returning to it, time and again.  

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