Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Is Wikipedia Dying? (With Parenthetical Annotations)

I hear teachers telling classes this all the time.  I, myself have told students the same thing.  Wikipedia, the online “free encyclopedia” is not a good source for research writing and should never appear in any self-respecting researcher’s bibliography.  The site is good for a quick overview or to cannibalize the entry’s references list to look up sources, but woe to the student who dares to identify information taken from the site and placed in a paper, or worse, one who plagiarizes from the text of an article without attribution.

(The latter is like murdering someone and then punching the corpse in the nose in the eyes of most educators.)

Now all that may be changing.  Wikipedia has managed to get itself a whiff of legitimacy.  But it may be too late.  According to Andrew Lih in a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, Wikipedia may be facing an uncertain future.

The site students know as Wikipedia began life in 2001.  Today, it boasts more than 70,000 volunteer editors and is published in 100 languages.  Lih calls it the “world’s most popular reference site.”

(Hyperbole, not.)

So why is it suffering what Lih fears might be “a long, slow decline in participation, accuracy, and usefulness…?”

Wikipedia is being undone by the rise of the smartphone.  Lih cites a recent Pew Research study that found that “39 of the top 50 news sites received more traffic from mobile devices than from desktop and laptop computers, sales of which have declined for years.”  But one can access Wikipedia on a smartphone just as easily as he or she once did on the that dinosaur laptop.

(I’m still marveling that I can carry my laptop around with me and jump on the old Wi-Fi network with the greatest of ease.  Now you tell me I need to put my machine into a museum somewhere as an example of how the old-timers used to do it?)

The problem is not with accessing information; the problem involves editing.  Right now, contributors to the site need keyboards and a “special markup code” to compile, edit and search articles.  This, it seems, cannot be done on tiny little screens and keyboards.

(Hell, my fat fingers cannot even text accurately on my smartphone.  In addition, my unit feels it needs to know where I am all the time and with whom I am interacting.  Even more creepy, it reminds me periodically that I really need no other remote control or telephonic device in my apartment.  With the greatest of ease, it can run my entire life.  All I have to do is breathe, although the update to handle that, too, is in the works.  Samsung and Apple will battle to replace God one day.)

In Lih’s research, (undoubtedly, some of it done on Wikipedia itself to research, you know, Wikipedia), 2005 was the peak year for the site.  It has been all downhill since—if by downhill, one means having “a budget of roughly $60 million.”  But the foundation behind the site, called, predictably, Wikimedia Foundation, suffers from tensions and in-fighting among board of trustee members and has had a number of exits of key people who have been pushed out by upstarts like the new executive director, Lila Tretikov, who, according to Lih, “has been hiring developers from the world of open-source technology” and who has a “lack of experience with Wikipedia content.”

(What does that mean?  She is the only one on earth who hasn’t looked up something on Wikipedia?)

Lih argues that the site may go the way of other once innovative online opportunities like electronic bulletin boards and, (gulp!), blogging, an activity once “celebrated a decade ago as pioneering an exciting new form of personal writing” which “has decreased significantly in the social-media age.”

(I’m only two posts away from my 400th; I hope I can get there before Blogspot pulls the plug!)

For those who hold out hope that Wikipedia will rise again, or for those students who are too lazy to go beyond Googling a subject and taking the first result that pops up, (Wikipedia!), there was other startling but positive news for the newly crowned Grey Lady known as Wikipedia:

“For the last few years,” Lih writes, “the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, and other world-class institutions, libraries and museums have collaborated with Wikipedia’s volunteers to improve accuracy, quality of references and depth of multimedia on article pages.  This movement dates from 2010, when the British Museum saw that Wikipedia’s visitor traffic to articles about its artifacts was five times greater than that of the museum’s own website.”

(Something is wrong with that picture.  They need a better website.)

Lih says that the museum realized “the power of Wikipedia to amplify its reach,” so they “invited a Wikipedia editor to work with its curatorial staff.  Since then, similar parternships [sic] have been set up with groups like the Cochrane Collaboration, a nonprofit organization that focuses on evidence-based health care, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

(Of course, I’m familiar with the CDC, but the Cochrane Collaboration sounds like a ‘70s all-star rock band and the only evidence-based health care I’ve heard of is the one where you must show evidence of health insurance before getting treatment at ye old ER.)

Lih also says Wikipedia has a gender problem:  “in 2011, less than 15 percent” of editors were women.  He argues that this could actually be a good opportunity for the site to “tap external expertise and enlarge its base of editors,” some of whom, no doubt, would be women.  Then, he concludes (with a little more hyperbole):  “No effort in history has gotten so much information at so little cost into the hands of so many…”

(Most of those “hands” were attached to students looking to finish that history paper at three in the morning only hours before it is due.  I would also argue that pornography has done a pretty good job of getting its message, and “informative” articles, into “hands” relatively cheaply.)

All joking (and parenthesis) aside, it would be nice if some of our last repositories of culture stayed around longer than fourteen years.

Probably the most startling thing about this topic came out of my conversation with my summer writing workshop.  “How long has Wikipedia been around?” I asked them.

“Forever!” they said in near unison.

Considering most of them were born in 1996 or 97, it has been around forever, at least for them.  To me, Wikipedia only just arrived as a source for those in need of quick info to write a paper, impress friends and seem intelligent on first dates.

(It turns out, my students and the allegedly dying Wikipedia are young; only I am old.)

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