Point of View

Byron at proletblog has always been a fan of wikipedia, an enthusiasm I don’t really share. I’ve written a bit about this before. But since he’s started writing about wikipedia and history:

As of yesterday I’m back at university, had my first lecture of the new semester yesterday which includes all the basics, what text book to buy, what times the tutorials are, and of course, a stern warning on the evils of Wikipedia, according my history lecturer Wikipedia is not to be trusted, in fact she was adament that if any of us cite Wikipedia we would fail the course.

I have no objection to that policy – although partly for the mundane reason that once you get to university you shouldn’t be citing any encyclopedia.

There’s the common argument against Wikipedia, which is it’s unreliability. In the article on the miner’s strike:

Folk singer Billy Bragg wrote several songs dealing with the strike as a current event, namely “Which Side Are You On?”

That’s not an error that anyone who had a background in unions, let alone labour history, could make. The error was pointed out on the talk page in 2006, and still hasn’t been fixed. Obviously errors aren’t limited to Wikipedia – everytime I read a general history of New Zealand I go looking for errors in my area of research – but that sort of error shows that the author(s) do not have any depth of knowledge, or context in the subject they’re writing about.

But my objection to Wikipedia as a font of historical knowledge is much more fundamental than that. As the article Byron linked to said:

. Despite Wikipedia’s unconventionality in the production and distribution of knowledge, its epistemological approach—exemplified by the npov policy—is highly conventional, even old-fashioned.

I would go further, and say it was conservative, and privileged the knowledge and experiences of the powerful over the knowledge and experiences of those without power.

Here’s an example from the Talk page about the miner’s strike. Someone asks:

people who were not there who work for a news paper take credence over people who were there, but didnt work in the media? I can provide quotes to living people,NUM activists,strikers,miners for quotes, but this would not be allowed?

Someone else responded

No, this is precisely the sort of thing which will not do – please read the verifiability policy and the reliable sources guidelines. Reporting something which someone said to you is not good enough – that’s original research, which is forbidden.

Radical historians have fought hard to expand historical record beyond what people have written down. You cannot do radical history when you privilege what’s written in newspapers about a strike over the experiences of people who participate.

If we’re looking at open source history we need to dream bigger than a better version of Microsoft’s Encarta. Wikipedia’s policies against original research, its priviledging of published sources, and its belief in objectivity, means that it will always be limited, and reflect the history of the powerful. We need to move beyond that, we need to do original research, write about people’s experience, and most importantly, we need to have a point of view.

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10 Responses to Point of View

  1. 1
    Andrew R. says:


    There are plenty of people in all kinds of disciplines whose names end in “Studies” researching the sort of cultural history you’d like to see. Once their work appears in a verifiable source (peer-reviewed journal, monograph, etc.), then any Wikipedian is more than free to cite it. The problem with Original Research in a venue like Wikipedia is that it’s a platform for any crank with an ethernet cable an an axe to grind to peddle his/her ideas. Even communists and/or Butlerites needs some sort of methodological guideposts. Of all of Wikipedia’s weaknesses, NPOV is not one of them.

    Wikipedia’s weakness is again the problem that (as I just mentioned) it’s wide open to anyone with an ethernet cable and an axe to grind. So, for example, the last time I checked the article on the Pit Bull, I read all about a lovable completely safe animal that is unfairly maligned in the media. The article on Cannabis talks about all of the wonderful qualities of THC. There are other examples, but those are the two that I have come across fairly recently.

  2. 2
    joe says:

    How would you balance your complaint with a need for verification? What’s to stop someone that disagrees with you from fabricating a quote to refute your real quote?

    There’s nothing stopping you from gathering the quotes, writing the history out and attempting to publish it. You may have to self publish. But the internet has made that much less costly than it used to be.

  3. Yes, they have to draw the line somewhere. And as has been pointed out, publishing today has gotten cheap and easy – anyone can publish anything online, for instance, where the world can see it.

    If they just let unverified oral claims come on, it’d be far less reliable than it already is.

  4. 4
    Robert says:

    The type of encyclopedia you envision would indeed be useful as a provider of a point of view. By the same token, it would then be less useful as a tool for people of varying points of view to share ideas and information. Undoubtedly, any “neutral” point of view is going to serve some set of social interests, as would a site with an avowed non-neutral position. Neutrality is essentially shorthand for “please keep your partisan life separate from your Wikipedia life, at least in theory”, and means that people of widely varying perspectives can all participate meaningfully. It’s one of the most democratic platforms for organizing knowledge out there.

    The beauty of its democracy is that not only are you free to copy the ideas and structures for WikiLeftyPedia, but they’ll even fork their content and give you all their code. And if a significant fraction of the “open source history” community decides that your approach is superior, or even that it is of value in its own unique way, they’ll participate and make the project a success.

    I suspect, though, that most of those people, even (or perhaps especially) in the definitely liberal-leaning Wiki crowd, find more stimulation in the crosstalk and debate of the marketplace of ideas than they would in an echo chamber, which any ideologically specific site would seem inevitably fated to become.

  5. 5
    Doug S. says:

    The error was pointed out on the talk page in 2006, and still hasn’t been fixed.

    Well, somebody finally did fix it.


  6. 6
    Kevin says:

    Whoever pointed out the error should have simply fixed it him- or herself — it’s a Wikipedia policy that anyone who notices clearly incorrect information should change it. For that matter, you yourself could have done so when you noticed it.

    As for providing quotes from living people, the interviews would simply need to be documented elsewhere on the Internet in order to avoid being considered original research. That isn’t particularly difficult to do — all you’d need would be a microphone.

  7. 7
    Doug S. says:

    The really amazing thing about Wikipedia is that you can look up almost anything.

    For example:


    Wikipedia’s wide range can sometimes make it the only readily available source on obscure topics, even if it has problems with accuracy at times. Are you likely to find a more authoritative source on the history of sprite comics than Wikipedia?

  8. 8
    t says:

    I would argue that NPOV on its own is not a policy that emphasizes privilege, because on its own it aims to represent all views fairly and dispassionately; but I do agree with you, that in tandem with other policies, as you argue, the aim of NPOV gets tainted in that any other view that is not verified is not permitted.

  9. 9
    The Countess says:

    My first real exposure to Wikipedia was when I edited the fathers’ rights page. The problem was that the page was controversial, and one fathers’ rights supporter in particular was turning the page into a soapbox supportive of the movement rather than an NPOV description of it. I didn’t have endless hours per day to keep editing the page, so I gave up. At least my criticisms and cites stayed up, providing some balance. The experience was eye-opening. I’m glad I don’t do that stuff anymore.

    When I write articles, I’ve been told by my editors to not use Wikipedia as a source. I sometimes use Wiki when I need to find citations all in one place, but I know that Wiki has some serious problems. I use it to find other resources, but I don’t use it as a source itself.

  10. 10
    Meep says:

    I personally think that more people *should* edit Wikipedia. I’ve been slowly working on making contributions to it’s unbelievably bad anthropology section.

    Remember – a lot of people who do edit Wikipedia know a lot about computers and obscure pop culture references, including myself, so unless other people come in and edit, it’s going to be skewed. That’s the great thing – you don’t like it? Edit it!