Wikipedia: Knowledge and Volunteerism

There are two aspects of wikipedia I want to talk about in this post. The first is the idea of wikipedia being a source for knowledge and the second is the structure of wikipedia – how it is made by volunteers. I think wikipedia is a website which may be useful for exploring the way in which the internet may embody or take on neoliberalism.

via weheartit

Anyone who has been to university recently would have been told by now, perhaps many times that WIKIPEDIA IS NOT AN ACADEMIC SOURCE!!! It’s academic suicide to use it and perhaps it might be good enough for mass produced books to refer readers to wikipedia, it is certainly not suitable in the academic world. Wikipedia has been well and truly denounced.

However, in response to this, I’ve noticed that students often counter this by saying things like ‘if something on there is untrue, it is more likely to be removed than something that is true.’ Additionally, a great number of people clearly use wikipedia anyway. Indeed, whenever I come across an unfamiliar term or hell, even if I just want to know how many grandchildren Solomon Burke has, it’s a safe bet that I’ll look for the answer first on wikipedia. Wikipedia is so ubiquitous that in my circle of friends, ‘wiki’ has even become a verb. ‘Who hosts that show?’ ‘I dunno, wiki it.’

But what types of knowledge are found on wikipedia? We’ve been warned that it doesn’t meet the stringent requirements of academia, but does it in fact bias us towards certain ideologies? This is what ‘Conservapedia‘ (yes, it exists) has to say under the category of ‘Examples of Bias in Wikipedia‘:

# Wikipedia omits an entry on Biblical scientific foreknowledge, and instead ignores the foreknowledge with a pathetically abbreviated section entitled “History and advocacy” under “Scientific foreknowledge in sacred texts.”
# Wikipedia’s entry on the starlight problem is a typically atheistic distortion, omitting that light appears to older than the age of the universe under atheistic models as well as biblical explanations, and that the expansion of the universe can explain this anomaly under either theory.
# A Wikipedia editor going under the pseudonym Jagged85 made 67,000 edits between 2007 and 2010 until it was demonstrated that he was systematically misrepresenting Islamic science, technology, and philosophy.
# A Wikipedia editor named “Pensacolian” inserted false information about Judge Roger Vinson, claiming he was a bear hunter who mounted several of his trophy bear heads above his courtroom door. Rush Limbaugh repeated the claims on his radio show, compelling the Judge to issue a statement denying the falsehoods.
# Wikipedia includes the margin of victory for a liberal politician, but omits or downplays the margin of defeat for the same politician. For example, Alan Mollohan lost in his own primary by 56-44% after voting for Obamacare, but Wikipedia’s entry about him includes only his margins of victory in prior elections. The margin of defeat for liberal Gordon Brown is obscured in his Wikipedia entry also.

And it goes on like this. The list has some 167 items. Right-winged extremists aren’t the only ones who say that wikipedia is biased in certain ways. Left-winged extremists have something to say as well:

More than 50% Wikipedia users come from the United States, hence naturally there is a systematic pro-America bias in Wikipedia. Most of them are neoliberals, thus Wikipedia actually is a neoliberal propaganda website. Anyone who is left-leaning and who comes from a country which is negative towards the US foreign policy faces regular harassment in Wikipedia. Any article which is negative towards the United States comes under instant attack by pro-America propagandists, see Neocolonialism.

Nicholas Carr writes in “The Ignorance of Crowds” that:

for all its breadth and popularity, Wikipedia is a deeply flawed product. Individual articles are often poorly written and badly organized, and the encyclopedia as a whole is unbalanced, skewed toward popular culture and fads. It’s hardly elitist to point out that something’s wrong with an encyclopedia when its entry on the Flintstones is twice as long as its entry on Homer… Wikipedia’s administrators represent a broader mix of contributors. They’re often chosen on the basis of how much they’ve contributed or how long they’ve contributed rather than on the quality of their contributions or their editorial skill. It seems fair to say that although the bazaar should be defined by diversity, the cathedral should be defined by talent. When you move from the bazaar to the cathedral, it’s best to leave your democratic ideals behind.

Wikipedia is most likely biased. Although it seems crass to argue alongside individuals from either far side of the political spectrum, the fact that most contributors are Americans probably says something about the kinds of bias we might expect from it. Namely, it is more likely to be a neoliberal project than not.

via weheartit

The other part of wikipedia I would like to look at is that it’s essentially a volunteer project. Nobody gets paid for their contributions, they do it out of the kindness of their own hearts, our of a quest for knowledge and of delivering that knowledge to others. Volunteer culture is an often uncriticised aspect of neoliberalism – as the government plays a smaller role in the workings of the state, the now non-existent social welfare and diminished levels of education, health and other services need to be supplemented with donations and the help of volunteers. As Hyatt writes in “‘Service Learning’, applied anthropology and the production of neoliberal citizens” (vol. 8 Anthropology in Action):

part of their obligation as a ‘good’ citizens is to participate vigorously in the volunteer sector organisations and activities that constitute the domain generally known as ‘civil society’.

She further talks about how, in the US, there was a large media campaign, including figures such as Oprah Winfrey, encouraging volunteerism. This would make up for the lack of state intervention in the economy and would also create model citizens who no longer rely of governmental resources.

Wikipedia can be seen as a manifestation of neoliberalism online in that it relies on volunteerism in order to create an encyclopaedia that allows anyone to find the knowledge they seek. Wikipedia can cover a gap in services in that anyone can go there to find information that they may not find in school or elsewhere. Looking critically at the kinds of knowledge featured on wikipedia, those volunteering for the website are acting as model citizens in order to bring about a world view that may reinforce their own. While I think ‘propaganda’ is far too loaded a term to use in relation to wikipedia, those volunteers, simply by being who they are and thinking the way they do, are doing the job of spreading bias for the governments they are subjects of.

This is how it is possible for Wikipedia to embody neoliberalism.

One Response

  1. […] on facebook is similarly limited as the information available to you in terms of markets. Even wikipedia, a website based on the idea of many contributors making unbiased ‘knowledge’ available […]

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