Wikipedia and democracy
March 31, 2021

Whither Wikipedia, Whither Democracy?

The Workshop dives into the complex universe of Wikipedia in order to grapple with important lessons about democracy.
by Corrie Martin

An average of 152 million unique devices access Wikipedia every day, making it one of the most relevant websites ever created (warning: I am now about to use a phrase I routinely tell my students is utterly verboten) in the history of humankind. Its unprecedented scale and scope has also earned it the distinction of becoming “the most important laboratory for social scientific and computing research in history,” inspiring so many diverse scholarly publications and research projects every year to make it “one of the most heavily studied organizations of any kind.”

Since debuting on the internet on January 15, 2001 as “the free encyclopedia anyone can edit,” Wikipedia is both hailed as “the last best place on the internet” and held up for criticism for its pervasive problems: systemic racial, gender and other forms of bias, vulnerability to factual unreliability, and tendency towards toxic social stratification (whereby a tiny number of super active mostly white male editors seem to have outsized control over the vast majority of content).

Our students today cannot imagine a world—or an educational experience—in which information about everything and anything is not instantly available by typing into a search box. However, accessibility does not guarantee reliability. Sascha Evans ‘21, a student in The Workshop, Andover’s immersive and interdisciplinary term-long program for seniors, offers this reflection: “Analyzing whether information on Wikipedia is reliable promotes critical thinking and digital literacy, so the fact that Wikipedia can be seen as ‘a social network of shared information,’ does not impede, but instead forwards learning.”

Diving into the messy world of Wikipedia seemed like an ideal way to grapple with “Democracy and Dissent,” our theme for this spring’s Workshop. In this program, we seek to go beyond nurturing what the News Literacy Project describes as “the abilities needed to be smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy.” These goals, while worthy, are incomplete. It is not enough for our students to become discerning consumers. Meaningful engagement in civic life requires a far broader set of identities: our students must also become storytellers, citizen scientists, knowledge producers, and reflective, ethical participants in our ongoing democratic experiment.

Students are encouraged to examine what meaningful engagement in civic life means to them.

Our immersion in the world of Wikipedia allows us to lift up the hood of every form of media and question how news, information, data, scholarship, are created and made public. Who creates our knowledge? To what ends? Who gets to decide what knowledge merits inclusion on this website? Angie Collado ‘21, a student in the Workshop, notes, “sure, the critiques of Wikipedia are valid but they also should make us more critical and careful: not only about Wikipedia as a resource, but about the racial, gender, and other forms of bias in everything. And they inspire me to want to get in there and help to make it better!”

The critiques of Wikipedia are valid but they also inspire me to want to get in there and help to make it better!

Angie Collado ‘21 Workshop student

The real power of using Wikipedia for debating, learning, and thinking about democracy and dissent comes from Wikipedia’s radically democratic potential as a living, breathing community actively engaged in collective struggles over producing and accessing meaning, truth, facts, and knowledge. Wikipedia invites us to join in as collaborators and co-producers of knowledge and to understand knowledge in a new way as a messy, incomplete, ever expanding domain much like that of democracy itself.

By embracing Wikipedia as an academic resource and as an experience and craft, we seek to change students’ self-conception: from potentially passive consumers of a fixed, closed field of authoritative knowledge to active, critical contributors who edit and produce knowledge. Evans concludes, “Wikipedia is a vast, powerful, and verifiable site. Though Wikipedia might fall short in promising 100% of the truth, it allows for collaboration which is necessary for learning--and democracy.” Ultimately, Wikipedia is both “the last best place on the internet”and a reflection and product of our society’s lowest and most persistent prejudices, biases, and inequities. Like democracy itself, we get the Wikipedia we fight for.

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