So, let’s be honest. In this day and age, when you hear a reference to an unfamiliar topic, you are in the earliest stages of a research project, or you’re having a friendly argument about something, chances are you turn to Google or Bing to find your answer. More than likely, one of the first responses is a Wikipedia page. This now ubiquitous online, community-edited encyclopedia has gained quite a reputation. Due to the easy-to-edit nature of this site, some people question its validity. At the same time, others point out that changes are traceable and the fact that Wikipedia encourages the use of sources allows users to check most claims that are made. In this post, I’m going to look at three Wikipedia articles and explain how these articles show the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia.

Article 1: “Native Americans in the United States”

Let’s start with a simple topic: Native Americans. I am, of course, being sarcastic. Although it is not alway recognized in current political discourse.  The indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, composed of a multitude of different groups, each of which has had a complex history, and these groups continue to have diverse experiences across the continent. Indeed, the term “Native American” is even a point of disagreement, as some in this group prefer American Indian, Indigenous, or simply identification by their tribal or group identity (a fact which the Wikipedia article does indeed recognize). On the face of it, this article actually does a fairly good job of explaining this diversity and complex history. It is organized in such a way as to give an introduction, background, and a “brief” history (in a Word document, this section would be several pages long) that is itself part of a larger “history of Native Americans in the United States.” Additionally, there are sections on Native American demographics, legal status, contemporary legal issues, contemporary cultures, and racial identity. There is also an extensive “further reading” section and a plethora of cited sources.

The true complexity of such an article, however, is raised in the “talk” section. Should a “trauma” section be included, and if so should it be part of “contemporary issues,” or its own section? There are also continued debates about terminology, the intentional use of disease, and the term “Redskin.” Most recently, a user points out that some of the wording throughout the article oversimplifies the topic. This article shows that one of the strengths of Wikipedia is that it can allow for complexity of a subject and continual improvement. At the same time, it is also easy for contributors to generalize, or (intentionally or unintentionally) insert their own biases.

See for yourself: Native Americans in the United States

Article 2: “Christopher Columbus”

Ok, perhaps you saw that coming. I chose this article because it’s also a topic where there might just be a bit of debate. Although certainly not as complex as an article on an entire group of people, Columbus has had a range of interpretations throughout the centuries. This article also has an introduction, which lays out some of the topics the article discusses. Other sections about Columbus include his early life, his quest for Asia, each of his voyages, his actions in the Americas, and his death. Not surprisingly, there is also a lengthy section on Columbus’ legacy. While this article does have an extensive list of resources, its further reading section is much shorter than that of the “Native Americans” article.

Debates in this talk section center around translations of quotes and definitions of words. One contributor suggests a certain translation as being more accurate than the original. That contributor asks for his/her translation to be given preference over the original. It was decided to not change the body of the text, but rather to add both versions of the quote to the footnote. Another contributor uses an analogy to explain the what he or she sees as the misuse of the term “discover.” Personally, I think that one could make an argument for including a section on the term “discover” in the Christopher Columbus article. This debate over translations and terminology shows one of the weaknesses of Wikipedia. Human beings that understand the world subjectively are trying to create an objective explanation of a controversial figure.

See for yourself: Christopher Columbus

Article 2: “Monty Python”

… And now for something completely different! Since the one article was on a complex topic, and the other one was on a controversial topic, I wanted something a little bit more humorous for the last one. As with the first two articles, this one starts with a brief introduction. The subsections in this article include: Before Flying CircusMonty Python’s Flying Circus, Life after Flying Circus, Python members, cultural influence, and media. The article has a surprisingly long “further reading” section, but not quite as extensive of a reference list as the other two articles.

It may come as little surprise that there is less in the Talk section than the other two articles. Contributors mainly suggest or modify external links, rather than debate over the intricacies. Still, there is a question whether to include certain comedy groups in the cultural influence category and a suggestion for a discussion of Python Music. Perhaps this is where Wikipedia shines, since it is most likely edited by those who have an interest in Monty Python and are motivated to get it right. At the same time, I’m sure on certain popular culture articles this could lead fans towards extensive debates.

See for yourself: Monty Python

What do you think? Is Wikipedia a reliable source for historical information? How can the platform be improved? Does it need to be improved? Did you expect the Spanish Inquisition?


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