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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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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