In "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism," Jaron Lanier recently wrote that "Reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure." Among other things, Lanier was arguing against the idea of the collective as "all-wise," something that Wikipedia's many other detractors have also tended to concentrate on. What most of these discussions miss is a feature of Wikipedia and other wikis that is, to my mind at least, what makes them so interesting: wikis automatically generate and maintain an extensive philological apparatus that is always available to the user.
It's fitting that Lanier should refer to close reading of the bible. After all, generations of textual scholars honed their critical skills on religious and classical texts, using exactly such 'faint traces' to determine the origin and authorship of sources, relate variants to one another and repair corruption. Such criticism, sometimes known as 'external' or 'lower' criticism was prelude to 'internal' or 'higher' criticism which "render[ed] a verdict ... on the source's significance as historical evidence" [Ritter, Dictionary of Concepts in History, s.v. "Criticism"; see also Greetham's excellent Textual Scholarship.]
Wiki software automatically tracks every single change made to a given page and lists the edits on a corresponding history page. For contested encyclopedia articles where there may be thousands of edits, it is possible to use sophisticated visualization tools like History Flow to study insertions, deletions, rearrangements, authorship, edit wars, and so on. Furthermore, every wiki page is also accompanied by a discussion page where authors and readers can annotate the texts. Both of these features are very valuable for close reading; neither is available in any of the more traditional encyclopedias that I'm familiar with.
Far too much emphasis has been placed on the content of Wikipedia, and not nearly enough on the practices of reading that it supports. Our students should be using wikis to learn the philological underpinnings of their craft, not told to avoid them because they are a 'bad' source.
Tags: history flow | philology | reading | Wikipedia