This page considers use of wiki content.
It covers -
use - what are people using wiki content for?
- academic responses to Wikipedia
and hubris - falsification and wikis as a form of vanity
Preceding pages of this profile have noted the problematical
nature of much wiki content, with hype about "the
wisdom of the crowd", rapid correction of errors
through "crowdsourcing" and "user generated
being used to justify material that is of an unknown quality.
Put simply, wiki content may be superb or may be trash:
a user cannot assume that there has been meaningful quality
control. More so than for information in a major traditional
reference work, the user should treat claimed facts and
analysis in a wiki with caution.
That has meant some institutions discourage students from
relying on Wikipedia and other wikis, most directly by
prohibiting citation of Wikipedia in K12 or university
assignments. It has been reflected in a range of hoaxes,
with anonymous authors creating spoof wiki content or
editing existing content. Criticism of such subversion
is likely to strengthen Wikipedia's drift towards an increasingly
hierarchical editing system disguised by rhetoric about
What are people using wikis, in particular wikipedia,
The answer, unsurprisingly, is that there is considerable
uncertainty about what wiki content is read, why it is
read and what use is made of the information.
Commercial metrics services for example essentially highlight
Wikipedia as a major destination, rather than dissecting
visitations to specific pages or interest in particular
subjects. Much academic research regarding Wikipedia has
centred on authoring rather than use of content and has
often been a battlefield in the 'wiki wars' noted earlier
in this profile. There has been little published quantitative
research on what students, journalists and other people
are actually doing with Wikipedia and similar UGC
One indication of 'top of the pops' destinations on wikipedia
A small-scale survey of Australian university students
and public servants in 2007 indicated that around 68%
of interviewees reported using Wikipedia several times
a month, whether directly or via entries found in a Google
Most used the resource for orientation, with reliance
on 'facts' such as dates but wariness about the analysis
or interpretation provided in a particular entry.
Some commented that it is useful as an indication of 'common
knowledge'; others said it is of problematical value but
useful as a "starting point for real research"
or as entertainment ("must have for trivia questions").
Academic responses to use have reflected differing perceptions.
Some criticisms of wiki, in particular prohibitions on
citing Wikipedia, are based on perceptions that students
are simply lifting online text - as previous generations
lifted text from Funk & Wagnalls or the Britannica
- in preparing homework.
Other teachers have argued that an underlying concern
is lack of appraisal and critical thinking: students should
develop their own ideas and learn to evaluate the authority
and sources of texts, whether online or off. The anonymous
and volatile nature of wiki content means that such appraisal
may be beyond the skills of most readers.
Such critics have noted that readers often tend to discern
'spin' in entries but are more accepting of what is presented
as fact, whether information such as a date (particularly
a date that is not immediately verifiable online by a
non-specialist) or the supposed historicity of an individual,
institution or event.
Other teachers have "drunk the kool-ade", embracing
some of the sillier populist rhetoric about wiki as necessarily
empowering and self-correcting, in contrast to "authoritarian"
resources such as traditional encyclopaedias.
Studies include 'How today's college students use Wikipedia
for course–related research', an article
by Alison Head & Michael Eisenberg in 15(3) First
hoaxes and hubris
UGC, more than content subject to investment in reputation
and formal editing processes, has inevitably spawned hoaxes.
Some of that subversion is benign, for amusement. Some
is malicious and even directly defamatory.
Connoisseurs of Wikipedia are thus noting nonsense such
as the entry on the Funerary Violin (supposedly a musical
genre "almost wiped out by the Great Funerary Purges
of the 1830s"), the battle of Blenau
(a fictitious 1652 French naval victory), Henryk Batuta
(a supposed Polish revolutionary and associate of Ernest
Hemingway, whose entry was online for a mere 15 months)
and Brian T**by (supposed leader of a League of Nigerian
Liberation or Organization for African Democracy).
- discussed elsewhere
on this site - apparently created his own Wikipedia entry,
presumably less taxing than awarding himself sundry military
Joshua Adam Gardner
received media attention when he misrepresented himself
to the students and staff of a Minnesota high school as
a fictional fifth Duke of Cleveland.
More famously, a malign hoaxer created a page on US political
figure John Seigenthaler Sr falsely suggesting that he
was involved in the assassinations of John F Kennedy and
brother Robert. The defamatory content was undetected
for months; Seigenthaler experienced major difficulty
gaining a correction of that identity
pollution from "the crowd".
He commented that
have no idea whose sick mind conceived the false, malicious
"biography" that appeared under my name for
132 days on Wikipedia, the popular, online, free encyclopedia
whose authors are unknown and virtually untraceable.
... Wales, in a recent C-Span interview with Brian Lamb,
insisted that his website is accountable and that his
community of thousands of volunteer editors (he said
he has only one paid employee) corrects mistakes within
My experience refutes that. My "biography"
was posted May 26. On May 29, one of Wales' volunteers
"edited" it only by correcting the misspelling
of the word "early." For four months, Wikipedia
depicted me as a suspected assassin before Wales erased
it from his website's history Oct. 5. The falsehoods
remained on Answers.com and Reference.com for three
In the C-Span interview, Wales said Wikipedia has "millions"
of daily global visitors and is one of the world's busiest
websites. His volunteer community runs the Wikipedia
operation, he said. He funds his website through a non-profit
foundation and estimated a 2006 budget of "about
a million dollars."
And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal
opportunities for worldwide communications and research
- but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen
intellects. Congress has enabled them and protects them.
When I was a child, my mother lectured me on the evils
of "gossip." She held a feather pillow and
said, "If I tear this open, the feathers will fly
to the four winds, and I could never get them back in
the pillow. That's how it is when you spread mean things
For me, that pillow is a metaphor for Wikipedia.
Lore Sjöberg offered
a faux FAQ
person who was accused of murdering Kennedy didn't realize
that it's his job to monitor his own Wikipedia entry
at all times and fix mistakes. By not doing so, by allowing
his entry to contain libelous information, he was in
essence accusing himself of murdering Kennedy. The Wikipedia
board of directors is hoping that the courts will accept
this as a confession and convict him of assassination.
At that point, his Wikipedia entry will be 100 percent
true, proving that the system works.
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