Wikipedia & the Democratization of Knowledge

When Timothy Messer-Kruse, a labor historian, found a factual glitch in a Wikipedia article on the Haymarket riot, he dutifully posted a correction—backed up by substantial primary evidence to support his case. His correction was quickly rescinded. Since his data were the result of a decade of scholarly research he tried again, convinced he could “win simply through sheer tenacity.” And again, his scholarship was rejected, accompanied by a stern warning from the Wikipedia gatekeepers.

So what gives? How can one ever expect to correct an error in a Wikipedia entry, if the veracity of the article is predicated on the “majority” view as represented by accepted secondary sources (Wikipedia’s stated policy)? On first blush, this sounds like a Catch 22 enigma enforced by the heavy-handed intervention of an undereducated, overzealous—and anonymous—volunteer Wikipedia editor. One wields great power when shielded by the anonymity of the internet.

But that blade cuts both ways. In the Wild Wild West that is the World Wide Web, it is difficult to ascertain a poster’s bona fides; in the virtual world, perverted middle-aged men pose as nasty little girls and pencil-necked geeks become uber-warriors. Perhaps the gatekeeper in question didn’t know who Timothy Messer-Kruse was—an esteemed academician. Or someone in cyberspace posing as that person.

Messer-Kruse complained about the situation in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog, noting that the Wikipedia folks advised him that he was welcome to pursue his discourse on the “talk” page associated with the article—that’s what it’s provided for. But that didn’t mollify the professor, and after he had published his own book on the subject two years later, he tried again—and again was rebuffed. This time, the “Wiki-cop” (his term) responded, “I hope you will familiarize yourself with some of Wikipedia’s policies, such as verifiability and undue weight. If all historians save one say that the sky was green in 1888, our policies require that we write ‘Most historians write that the sky was green, but one says the sky was blue.’ … As individual editors, we’re not in the business of weighing claims, just reporting what reliable sources write.”

Actually, that sounds perfectly reasonable to me. There can be no doubt that specious history should be challenged, but that conversation should result in an open discourse that yields fresh interpretations. Citing primary documentation is not the end-all; over the course of four decades of studying Civil War history, I have seen many examples of such primary citations being taken out of context by highly-regarded academic historians to bolster their pet thesis. And historians are not without bias. Indeed, a female labor historian on my thesis committee took me to task for not including any references to female saddlers in pre-industrial America. I’ll grant you, that’s an area of research that has been sorely neglected. It had no legitimate place in my thesis, but it had everything to do with her personal bias, and she was a tenured professor whom I had to satisfy to secure my degree. If any of you are old enough to remember Elliott Gould in the 1970 film, Getting Straight, you’ll know what I mean…

Since the promo blurb on the dust jacket of Messer-Kruse’s The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age calls the work “controversial” and suggests that the author “rewrites the history” of the Haymarket affair, it seems only reasonable that his interpretations should withstand some critical assessment before being taken at face value. You can’t have it both ways, professor. The dust-up managed to land Messer-Kruse a spot on National Public Radio today—that ought to sell some books.

If Messer-Kruse feels that Wikipedia’s policies and methodology are flawed, he is free not to consult that source. His tantrum only serves to illuminate his inability to adapt to the changes we are all faced with. Wikipedia isn’t infallible; it is by definition a work in progress—an ongoing conversation rather than a proclamation. The “wiki” movement is an amazing example of the democratization of knowledge, and that can only be a good thing.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.


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