Every now and then I find a mistake in Wikipedia. Often, I note the mistake on one of my blogs or, more often, on my facebook page. Usually, somebody fixes it. But also, usually somebody tells me that I should just go and fix it because I can easily do that because Wikipedia is the people’s encyclopedia and everybody can fix it.
I don’t do that, and here’s why. There are actually three reasons. The first and least important reason is that making a change in Wikipedia is part of a community process in which the change I make may be unmade by someone else, or challenged. There’s nothing wrong with that … that process is how Wikipedia manages to get to a point where the articles (depending on the article) are reasonably accurate and useful. The problem is, I can’t tell in advance what that process is going to entail. I may make a change and it gets revised to be better. That’s good. But I also might make a change and find myself in the middle of a pre-existing fight (or a fight that emerges simply because I made the change) that I wasn’t planning on getting involved in, and once I’ve gotten involved in it … especially in the case where my change caused the fight … I’d have the responsibility to continue engagement. There would be a risk that a change I’d make would lead ultimately to a change I would be very much against if I don’t maintain my involvement. I don’t want to do that because I’m already engaged in more fights than I want to be engaged in.
Second, as a writer I like to write my own tuff. Other people can certainly critique or comment on the things I write (especially if it is on a blog where they can comment) but it is still my writing. I am perfectly happy with collaborative writing, and I’ve done plenty of that, but I don’t consider any involvement I’d have in Wikipedia collaborative unless I more fully engaged in it and became part of some sub-community maintaining certain pages. Again, I chose to not expend my energy in that particular area.
Third, although it seems to be easy to get involved in Wikipedia page writing, editing, and maintenance, I don’t think it is all that easy. The people who do it make it look easy, and I very much appreciate their efforts. But for me to assume that I can engage in this activity without learning to become effective, and backing up my inputs with a longer term commitment, is hubris. I’d be very happy to help any Wikipedia contributor working in an area where I have some expertise or knowledge by providing information I have at my fingertips. But, I think engagement in Wikipedia is a responsibility that involves some skill and knowledge and a longer term commitment which I’m not interested in doing at this time.
There is a fourth and less specific and less well articulated reason that I should mention. I think Wikipedia is great, but it also has the potential for messing up the information that is available on a certain topic. Since it is collaborative and often does not include the perspective of experienced experts on a topic, it can become too homogeneous and even in its treatment of sources. Here’s an example. If you try to find out in Wikipedia what the proper divisions of the geography of Africa are (what countries should be included in terms like “West Africa”, “Central Africa”, “East Africa” etc.) you’ll find, I think, something that you’ll never or only rarely see in an actual course, or module in a course, on the divisions of the continent, or in a standard textbook. This is, I think, because there are multiple government agencies or NGO’s, such as the US CIA, various units of the UN, and so on, that have taken the more traditional ways of dividing the continent and revised them significantly for their own purposes. These particularistic paradigms of division address institute-specific issues like which languages are spoken, where an agency has resources, or other large scale economic, political, or cultural issues that are useful for those specific organizations but that conflict with other requirements. The best overall geographical divisions are probably those that include a large number of factors and have a strong link to historical background, and also, that are relatively stable. In other words, there really is probably only ONE way to divide up a continent like Africa, and this way will have problems for every single division (should Rwananda be part of Central or East Africa?) but by having one single method, terms like East Africa, North Africa, etc. will have general utility. Last time I checked Wikipedia on this there was no single best method proposed, and none of the methods discussed were the classic method that I learned in school and that the vast majority of my colleagues in Anthropology and Geography actually use.
Thank you to all the people who actively engage in making Wikipedia so useful. But I’ll need to continue to use my current method: Suggesting changes or pointing out problems now and then, and hoping others with the skills and experience that I don’t have consider addressing those issues.