Why I Gave Money To Wikipedia

One Educator’s Defense of the Free Encyclopedia

 

“If everyone reading this gave $3, we could keep Wikipedia thriving for years to come.”

Most of us recognize this appeal from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales—and I really do mean most of us. Wikipedia sees millions of unique visitors every day and dominates the page rankings in Google search results. Yet as numerous as its faithful users are its heavy critics, especially among educators. Some blatantly disallow it in the classroom while others treat it like greasy fast food. “There’s nothing wrong with it, kids, as long as you don’t mind a life of morbid obesity and early heart failure. But go ahead, feel free to use Wikipedia instead of your own honest research.”

Even in Wikipedia’s own article about academic use, students are cautioned that “Wikipedia is not a replacement for a reading assignment by your professor.” Any critique of Wikipedia will eventually include the word unreliable, but out of context, that word creates a serious misconception. Asking “Is Wikipedia reliable?” oversimplifies how we ought to evaluate source credibility. In this age of the internet, a very small percentage of web content receives any degree of fact-checking before going public. Rote assignment of “good” and “bad” web domains doesn’t teach someone to critically examine the content itself, and that’s the skill students need.

In a 2005 TEDGlobal talk, Wales claimed that Wikipedia began “with a very radical idea…for all of us to imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” While all human knowledge sounds nice, it’s the idea of all humans contributing to that knowledge that makes people uncomfortable. In its defense, Wikipedia does work to mitigate the risks of dynamic entries:

  • Certain popular and controversial pages are protected so only long-time users in good standing and administrators can make edits.
  • Wikipedia clearly flags articles with factual disputes, subjective or self-promotional tones, contradictions, or no citations. While the page remains available, readers receive fair warnings.
  • Revision histories and references are all publically visible.

In fact, it’s these very features that should make educators love this website. Wikipedia provides the perfect platform to teach about bias, audience, and the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Students can clearly see what citations look like and appreciate their importance. Wikipedia offers translations and a “simple English mode;” its page layout helps students gain a basic understanding of a subject and locate initial resources for further study.

On the flipside, banning Wikipedia from the classroom leads students to the false assumption that anything “not Wikipedia” is reliable. I’ve seen some pretty suspect quote websites (see my article) with accuracy ratings far worse than Wikipedia. Just because something ends in .edu or .org doesn’t mean it’s been updated recently or that it’s written clearly. Consider, a science book from 2002 would still call Pluto a planet. Textbooks can have typos; scientific articles can be retracted. Wikipedia articles are constantly monitored and reviewed. Saying Wikipedia’s not reliable is like saying it’s not safe to leave the house. Sure, some dangers exist, but that doesn’t mean we ought to lower the shades and lock the doors.

Good research should compare multiple academic sources anyway, but there’s nothing wrong with using Wikipedia as a starting point. Here’s the bottom line: Wikipedia isn’t 100% reliable, but I’ve yet to see a webpage—or textbook—that is 100% reliable on the literally millions of topics Wikipedia provides. We shouldn’t aim to find an impeccably accurate source; we should teach students to make their own judgments on a source’s credibility. Do I think a website I use almost every day with the mission to spread knowledge to people all over the world is worth $3? I’ve certainly given more money to lesser causes. Yes, Wikipedia. I read your plea, and I want to keep you thriving.

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Social Media Marketing

Truth, Lies, and What it Means to Win

As a novelist, the two questions I’m asked the most are “What is your book about?” and “How many books have you sold?”

I love answering the first one. Writing was my passion before it was ever my job, and when someone asks with sincere curiosity about something I’ve created, I’m thrilled to share. Yet the second question feels a lot riskier. Part of me wonders what weird rules of society even cause people to ask this—do they also ask restaurant owners how many customers they’ve served?—but I can only assume good intentions. Either they’re excited for me and want to celebrate, they don’t know many novelists and are genuinely interested in the business side of it, or they’re considering a publication of their own and are wondering how lucrative it might be in six months’ time. Maybe a few people simply want to ridicule my low numbers and so-called artistic endeavor, but I suspect most of those are only in my head. Hopefully.

So here it goes: truth, lies, and what it means to win. On second thought, I’ll put the bad news first.

LIES

  • Marketing on social media is easy.
  • I am more interesting than 99.9% of the internet and its users.
  • Tweeting about a book will generate instant sales and dedicated fans.
  • The whole world will immediately know about my book because (a) it’s published and (b) it appears prominently on a Facebook author page.
  • Bloggers make thousands of dollars sitting at home in their pajamas.
  • Any sentence ever uttered that describes a book as “passive income.”

Basically, it boils down to the myth that writers can type a few words, click a few buttons, and watch the money roll in. Sorry, but there is no magic formula.

TRUTH

  • Effective marketing strategies have short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals. Visibility is only part of the equation. Especially on social media, promotion has to be meaningful, targeted, and interactive.
  • I am one interesting voice among millions (billions, maybe, that sounds more depressing). Rising above the noise is necessary, but it’s not just about being louder than everyone else. Social media marketing is about reciprocity and collaboration. People care about people who care about people.
  • In real life, I don’t say hi to a stranger in the grocery store and then suddenly have a lifelong friend. Just because people follow me on Twitter or like my Facebook page, it doesn’t mean they trust me. Building a following is about engagement and consistency over time, not a sudden spike in numbers.
  • We are inundated with people’s online fundraisers and multi-level marketing scams. It takes some repeated efforts for anyone to actually recognize my book in a crowd, but experts will agree that social media users don’t just want a sales pitch. They want quality, enriching content. People need to buy into what I’m offering for free before I ask them to buy what I’m selling.
  • I sometimes wear pajamas when I blog.
  • Behind every “passive income” royalty check are untold hours of writing, revising, editing, and marketing. People who do make decent incomes on YouTube or Amazon Kindle didn’t just wake up one morning and find themselves there. It’s hard work, not magic.

So is writing just a bleak, meaningless wasteland? Absolutely not. While perhaps any art can be defined as “beautiful but impractical,” there are real, useful connections that have come from my social media efforts. Laying the groundwork takes time, and most rewards are not monetary. Yes, I sell books, and I want to keep selling. But winning is realizing that there’s a whole lot of giving that must come before getting.

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Silent Killer, Mr. Anonymous

The Fake Quote Pandemic
and How to Fight Back

Anonymous.

No, I’m not talking about a computer hacker with a Guy Fawkes mask trying to steal your identity. I’m talking about the single most widely quoted person of our time.

If a quote’s any good, share it on the internet.            -Anonymous

Yes, the word anonymous has long been a convenient place holder to avoid the effort of tracking down an original source or to add some air of credibility to an inspiring text overlay. Yet this seemingly harmless act of attributing quotes to Mr. Anonymous has wide-reaching implications for the way we process information on the web. In the age of Fake News, internet users may be more gullible than they realize, and the problem starts off small.

Inspirational quotes remain one of the most ubiquitous categories of social media posting, garnering likes and shares no matter how many times viewers have heard the line before. Many marketing websites actually recommend sharing quote images as the number one way to engage with new followers, and the practice is not inherently bad—anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I do it too. Yet here’s where Mr. Anonymous makes his entrance. Sometimes anonymous gets slapped on to a popular saying or maxim that doesn’t require any citation. (At least people are making an effort to list some kind of source, even if it’s a meaningless one.) But the ease of anonymous presents a real danger, and that’s a lack of basic fact checking or common sense. While researching for this article, I stumbled upon this gem:

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How is this anonymous? It’s a Bible verse. Matthew 6:34 is in the quote! Unless maybe this person is making a statement here by doubting the authenticity of Matthew’s gospel, but then I’m struggling to reconcile any subversive attack on religion with the clear reference in the background image to the God’s-Carrying-You-Footprints-in-the-Sand poem. Either this is just ridiculous, or it’s part of some Matthew/Footprints conspiracy—we’ll probably never know for sure. (As an aside, “Footprints” has its own raging authorship debate with various claimants to the throne. Check out an article from the Gospel Coalition to see the full controversy.)

The problem, however, gets more serious when people leave out Mr. Anonymous and valiantly look for a real human being to whom they can attribute the quote. Not all wise people are equal, and a quote belonging to the likes of Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, or Abraham Lincoln will see far more shares on social media than those from less notable public figures. In fact, most people trust these names so much that they’ll accept a wise or inspiring quote with one of their names on it, no questions asked.

Consider these quotes, all of which I’ve found published on the internet.

“A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
-Albert Einstein

So the great frizzy-haired physicist was really into boats? Although it’s a clever saying, this line predates Mr. Einstein.

“Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt / -Marilyn Monroe

Misbehaving in different ways, I suppose. Sadly, the saying gained popularity several decades after these two women.

“A house divided cannot stand.” -Abraham Lincoln

To be fair on this one, he did give a famous speech in which he quoted this Bible passage. So maybe we could write it like this:

“A house divided cannot stand.” -The Bible -Abraham Lincoln

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Too much of Mr. Anonymous teaches people that they either (1) won’t find a source or (2) shouldn’t bother looking, and these are horrible habits to develop online. It often takes less than a minute to double check a source, whether it’s for a simple quote, a news story, or a compelling infographic. Don’t stop there, either. Comment on posts with misinformation, and respond when people unknowingly share hoaxes or fake stories online. I’ve posted three of my favorite fact-checking sites below, and feel free to join the conversation and comment with more. Before sharing anything on social media, unmask Mr. Anonymous and demand that the source provides its real name.

Some of my favorite resources:

Quote Investigator – Great site for uncovering quote origins
Snopes – investigating rumors in online stories
Politifact – fact checking politics
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17 Reasons I Hate List Posts

Number 13 Will Shock You!

It’s borderline epidemic. I’ll be at my desk, minding my own business while minding everyone else’s business on Facebook, when BAM! It grabs me.

The list.

10 Disney Movies Your Kids Should Avoid
22 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Were Vegan
99 Ways to Make $1,000,000 While Sitting on Your Couch

The ever-present clickbait soon drags me down into that dark rabbit hole of internet time-sucking. I admit it: Many a list has trapped me with its claws. So what’s my issue with the increasingly popular article format? Hold on—I’ve got a few.

1. I feel swindled.

Hoodwinked. Double-crossed. Downright duped. I’m halfway through “101 of Our All-Time Favorite Cat Memes” when I realize that my productive workday has transformed into a gallery of indignant felines. What happened? How’d I get here?

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2. Lists encourage my indecision.

Why can’t we have just one Best New Restaurant to Try This Summer? Too many lists and pretty soon I only drink beer in sample flights and want to know if extra cheese can go on a quarter of my pizza instead of the full half.

3. They insult my reading ability.

I can skim for relevant keywords without your bold title text, thank you very much.

4. The burdens are unnecessary.

Why do I need to worry about “where they are now” for all 25 women of The Bachelor Season 1? I didn’t want to know where they were then.

5. Actual burdens seem unnecessary.

My brain automatically categorizes “12 Ways Global Climate Change Will Affect Your Children” alongside “15 Foods You Didn’t Know You Could Microwave.” Oops.

6. The organization never makes sense.

This probably should have been my first point.

7. Random advertisements pop up in the middle.

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8. It’s hard to be original.

As Solomon said, there are no new life hacks under the sun.

9. They’re rarely controversial.

I prefer highly charged, one-sided political rants that I can post to Facebook without actually reading them. Really, nobody ever leaves amped-up five-paragraph responses to list posts. “9 Reasons You Should Start a Protest” just doesn’t fan the flames.

10. Talented authors sell themselves out.

Dear list writer: We both know you could create Pulitzer-worthy journalistic exposés, but we also both know your freelance blogging career is better launched through “23 Superfoods That Won’t Break Your Budget.” Fine literature, I grieve for thee.

11. I’m ashamed of how much Netflix I watch.

You want the truth? I clicked on “50 Shows To Binge This Weekend” because I wanted to. Because I can’t sleep without it. Because nothing in my life has been the same since Sherlock. Now go away.

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12. Those photo galleries where I have to hit the next arrow each time instead of just scrolling down and then a whole new window opens just because I clicked on something.

I can’t even.

14. I don’t trust lists.

“4 Fantasy Quarterbacks to Start This Week and 3 You Should Sit” all but guarantees I’ll start the wrong guy. But if I don’t click on it now, I’ll always wonder…

15. I like the idea more than the thing itself.

A post like “15 Ways To Improve Your Concentration” sounds good until I realize that I actually have to do stuff. Breathing exercises? I think I’ll just move on to “35 Workout Routines to Finally Burn That Belly Fat.”

16. They’re always way too long.

When I’m saying tl;dr to a list post, you know I’ve got attention-span problems. By the time I get to the bottom, I don’t even have the energy to troll the comments.

17. I still have hope for our world.

Stand up, dear reader! Raise your voice! We are more than just sponges to absorb whatever random bullet points these internet marketers decide to drop in front of us. Am I wrong to yearn for quality over quantity, knowledge over gossip, and cultivated discourse over mere stimulus injection? We must fight for meaningful content!

By the way, any good documentaries on Netflix?

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