A lot of people have argued that the Wikipedia suffers from credibility problems, will never be taken as seriously as a closed encyclopedia, and so on and so forth. As an enthusiastic participant with 107 pages on my watchlist I’ve always considered this sort of talk based either on ignorance or envy, but recently I’ve noticed a trend on wikipedia’s anthropology-related pages which indicates that the Wikipedia does face a challenge to its legitimacy — albeit not the ones that the critics might imagine.
One of the many pages that I watch is the entry on “Julian Steward”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Steward — in fact, I wrote most of the current entry. Recently someone left this comment on the “talk page”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Julian_Steward for the entry:
According to what can only be called as the authoritative biography of Steward by Virginia Kerns (2003 University of Illinois Press), much of the information in this entry is incorrect. Please remove it until a new one can be added. It does no service to anyone to promote incorrect information. For example, beginning with the first sentence, Steward was not born into a family of devote Christian Scientists. His mother converted to Christian Science when Steward was 9 years old. This event seemed to precipitate his parents’ divorce and motivated much of his work against religion (Kerns 2003: 19-26). Kerns’ book corrects many inconsistencies, errors, and impossibilities in Shimkin (1964), Manners (1973), and Murphy (1977, 1981).
I’ve known for some time Kerns’s biography of Steward (I mentioned it “here”:/2005/05/26/evolutionary-biographies/) but I haven’t read it because there isn’t a copy on O’ahu, its too expensive for me to buy, and I haven’t gotten around to ILLing it yet. Sp I do agree with the anonymous commentor — if Kerns says I’m wrong, then I’m wrong. The problem is that this person complained about the content of this article as if it wasn’t in their power to change the contents of the wikipedia. It is one thing to bitch and moan about the low quality of the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s articles (compare Sol Tax’s entry on Boas in the EB to the “wikipedia version”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Boas) — you can’t do anything about what’s in that book. But not the Wikipedia — if you don’t like what you read, you should edit the page yourself!
This isn’t an isolated incident. At one point I attempted to make the entry on the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapir-Whorf_hypothesis be less suck. This involved doing some historical background on the way Boas’s research paradigm emerged out of a Neokantian background. The result was the following anonymous note in the talk page:
“Sensuous intuition” is not noumenal reality. The very fact that pure sensation constitutes intuitions indicates for Kant that for reality even to be perceived, it must be filtered through the pure intutions of space and time. Whatever “reality is in flux” means, if anything, intuition is not entirely in flux because it’s already been converted into empirical intuition by the mind. The application of the categories is not the first instance of synthesis. Second, the categories are universal to anything possessing reason. The application of space, time, and the categories to raw sense data does not make a subjective experience but an objective one, with patterns that can be recognized by anyone. Someone needs to read his Kant.
Now, in my defense the entry tried to summarize important aspects of Neokantianism in a few sentences intended to be intelligible to people interested in Sapir and Whorf, and this comment seems to miss this fact. However, it is clear that whoever wrote this is more familiar with Kant then I am, and I wish that they had actually edited the entry. Instead, they merely complained on the talk page and didn’t change a word.
People with expertise, in other words, are reading the wikipedia but are not contributing to it. Why? It’s hard to say — after all, how far can you get with a sample size of 2? However, there is another (completely anecdotal) trend that I’ve noticed as well. Have you checked out the talk pages for “anthropology”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Anthropology or “culture”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture? The discussions stretch on about the legitimacy of anthropology as a discipline, the coherence of the culture concept, and include lots of reuqests for information. What they rarely result in is any actual change to the article — indeed, a lot of the time the topic isn’t even about how the page might be improved.
While this is all very anecdotal, I’ll take a completely unsubstantiated stab at predicting what it might augur for the Wikipedia’s future: these two things suggest to me that Wikipedia is facing a challenge that results not from its lack of legitimacy, but from the fact that it is being taken too seriously. More and more people read and rely on the wikipedia, and the flip side of this growing authoritativeness is that people do not feel they can mess with it themselves. It seems to me that talk pages are beginning to become places where virtual communities are sprining up to discuss the article, not to help write it.
The solution? Why not head on over to the Wikipedia today and search for your favorite anthropologist — write a quick entry about them, or improve the entry that already exists. The best way to keep them from taking punk rock away from the kids is to keep on playing it, loud.