The academic, the wikipedian, the vandal [Full version, updated 05.11.2012]

The French translation of this essay is available on OWNI (part 1 and part 2), as installments of my column Addicted To Bad Ideas.

With the new academic year kicking in, my colleagues and I have decided to add a little wiki twist to a couple of courses we teach at Telecom ParisTech. I started a Wikispace for my digital culture class, and with Isabelle Garron and Valérie Beaudouin we’ve made compulsory for first year students to try and edit and discuss at least one Wikipedia page, as part of their initiation to online writing.

Sure, Wikipedia has been used as teaching tool in academia for some years now, to say nothing about its increasing popularity as a research topic. But the main rationale for using it in the classroom is that it has become the one-stop-shop for bibliographical research and fact-checking.

Challenging the Academic Mindframe

Think about your own online information habits. What do you do when you don’t know the first thing about a given topic? You probably google it, and the first occurrence is most likely a page from Jimbo Wales’s brainchild. You do it, we do it, our students do it. So we have to incorporate Wikipedia in our academic activity, not because it’s a cool gadget, but because otherwise it will create a dangerous blind spot.

[Don’t panic… Ok, panic]

And yet, admitting to this without panicking is not simple. At least here in continental Europe, ill informed judgments about the allegedly poor quality of Wikipedia articles are still commonplace in higher education. Some – like the French high-school teacher Loys Bonod, who had his 15 minutes of fame earlier this year – go as far as to add false and misleading information to Wikipedia, just to demonstrate to their students that it… contains false and misleading information.

Such paradoxical reactions are a case in point. Wikipedia is just as accurate and insightful as its contributions. Hence, the need to encourage its users to relinquish their passive stance and participate, by writing about and discussing relevant topics. Of course, one might say, when it comes to Wikipedia the Internet iron law of 90–9–1 participation applies: for 90 simple readers of any article, there will be only 9 who will make the effort to click on the “modify” tab to actually write something in it, and maybe just 1 motivated enough to click on the “discussion” tab and start a dialogue with other wikipedians.

Social scientists can come up with many explanations for this situation. The claims about the dawn of online participatory culture might have been largely exaggerated. Or maybe the encyclopaedic form tends to recreate cultural dynamics that are more coherent with an “author vs. reader” dichotomy than with many-to-many communication. Or maybe Wikipedia editors tend to intimidate other users in an effort to increase their own social status by implementing specific barriers to entry.

Try starting a new article. In all probability, its relevance will be challenged by some editor. Try starting the biography of a living public figure. Chances are that a discussion will ensue, focussing not on the public figure in question, but on the private qualities of the biographer. Is the author just an IP-based anonymous, or a legit logged-in user with a recognized contribution track record?