Tuesday, January 8, 2013

What's Really Up With Wikipedia?

I'm eating a bit of crow today.  Yesterday I went on a mini rant to my SAT Prep students, explaining that Wikipedia is hardly the evil site it's made out to be.

Background:  When I worked in PR and social media, it was actually considered a smart move to link to Wikipedia when blogging. You know, because of that whole "social" component inherent to the site.  If one is already doing something social (blogging,) then it makes sense to link to resources with a social orientation. 

My experiences with Wikipedia in those days were all very positive: I actually tested the site's integrity several times, and was impressed with the results.  I'd make small edits to a page, and then watch how rapidly the edits were deleted. 

In one instance an edit to my high school's page - where I claimed to be the toughest student to ever attend - resulted in an immediate correction, and my being banned (all edits from my IP address were blocked) instantly. 

So back to yesterday: I was going on about how this site is so very closely monitored ... just go ahead and try and edit a page, I dared my students.  They couldn't - our school's IP address (and thus every computer in our school) has been banned due to editing violations. 

See?  Wikipedia is a great place to start any project - just never use it as a source, I explained.  

Then I went home, and ran another quick test: I went (randomly) to the French Bulldog page, and made a very small, inconspicuous first edit. A sentence read, "Bulldogs were very popular in the past."  

I changed it to, "Bulldogs were very popular in the past, especially in Western Europe."  I have no idea if that's true, but it sounds true. 

The change wasn't quickly deleted, like in previous experiences I've had with the site. So feeling emboldened, I made a second tweak: "The judge in question at the dog show, a Mr. Sven Feltsten, only chose winners with rose ears."

I added this fictional judge's name. 

I was certain that someone, somewhere, was now alerted to this page being altered and abused.  So I sat on the couch and kept refreshing the page ... waiting for my vandalism to be removed.  It wasn't.  

So now I added a third entry - really pushing the envelope as I did so: I ended the French Bulldog page (a section on Frenchies in pop culture) with this: 

"And just prior to this year's New Year's Eve festivities, a pack of small, possibly rabid French Bulldogs reportedly broke into a Mr. Scenzio Del Forno's Deli and Sandwich Shoppe on 144th Street, New York, stealing several pounds of salted and cured meats. The story was at first deemed an Internet hoax, until none other than Vice President Al Gore came forward and confirmed the story's validity, says the New York Times."

Ridiculous, right?  This addition was deleted, after a day and a half.  

So anyone hitting this page prior to the deletion was left with the impression that packs of these meaty, miniature dogs are running the streets of New York.

Yes, the edit was deleted ... but my first two tweaks are still standing.  SAT Prep students, I owe you an apology. 

I still maintain Wikipedia is a great first place to go, in order to get a general idea about a topic ... before starting the real research.  But, I no longer believe the site to be as airtight as it once seemed to me.  

Final recommendation for students: Use infrequently, realize that prominent topics are more likely to be heavily watched and correctly edited (like World War I), and of course, never use it as a source.  Judge Sven Feltsten would not approve! 

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