American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
June-August 2018
Volume 
46
Issue 
3

Wikipedia as Public Sociology: It’s Not What You Think

Bradley Zopf, Carthage College; Michael Ramirez, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi; and Sine Anahita, University of Alaska-Fairbanks

Coming to the pilot program for Wiki Education's Wikipedia Fellows, it's safe to say that we three sociologists did not have a particularly high regard for Wikipedia. We believed that Wikipedia is anything but scholarly and contains unreliable and often inaccurate information. We often prohibit students from citing Wikipedia as a source in their course work. In department meetings and among other sociologists at conferences, we have been known to snicker and scoff about Wikipedia.

That changed when we became engaged with the Wikipedia Fellows program. We discovered that Wikipedia is a social process. Our assumptions were not an accurate reflection of Wikipedia as a source of information. There are rules, norms, and culture Wikipedians follow. We were advised to "be bold," to make edits, and to interact with other Wikipedians who may challenge our contributions. We learned that it takes a community of writers, editors, scholars, and even passionate readers to make Wikipedia accurate.

The Wiki Education staff guided our cohort through the learning process, providing us with excellent professional development. We learned how to use Wikipedia's editing tools, how to interact with others in this digital environment, and how to understand the community code and practices of contributing to Wikipedia. For example, a key component for some in our cohort was learning to negotiate content edits with (usually) anonymous others to convince them of the sociological value of our edits. As part of the community code guiding Wikipedia contributions, Wikipedians seek verifiable information from a variety of sources. Secondary sources, e.g. textbooks, are preferred. Though not necessarily reflecting the latest disciplinary findings, Wikipedia seeks to be the world's largest, best, and most inclusive encyclopedia in part because anyone can contribute and edit its pages.

Myth #1: Wikipedia is a Free-For-All of Unreliable Material

Through the Wikipedia Fellows pilot program, we witnessed first-hand how a community code guides Wikipedians, as well as how the Wikipedia community of editors, writers, scholars, and readers work toward providing reliable and verifiable information. Not only are various disclaimers provided by Wikipedia for articles containing unverified, poorly cited, or otherwise questionable material, but also fellow Wikipedians adamantly combat "vandalism" within the articles they actively edit.

For us, becoming a Wikipedian meant learning and adopting the community code, writing style, and various formal and informal processes that guide contributors. This is similar to the ways we as sociologists had to learn the formal mechanisms for writing within our discipline, the processes for publishing in journals, and the general practice of creating scholarship.

Anahita described our evolving understanding: "Wikipedia now feels like a community of scholars to me. I feel as though I am a member of a vast network of people who appreciate interactive learning, collaboration, and scholarly discussion." We were pleasantly surprised at the extent to which the Wikipedian community is largely a supportive collective whose interest lay in making good, reliable knowledge accessible. While our edits to Wikipedia were made independently, we did at times interact with the larger community of Wikipedians who were invested in ensuring the content included in articles was rigorous, reliable, and accessible.

Myth #2: Wikipedia Contains Mostly Inaccurate Information

We readily admit that articles on Wikipedia need improvement. Some articles contain factual inaccuracies, dubious statements, and potentially inflammatory content. As scholars, we are familiar with the practice of verifying and citing appropriate sources; our contributions require appropriate source material on Wikipedia as well. Wikipedia has an easy-to-use Visual Editor that allows Wikipedians to link to source material and we found that many of the articles we edited were already heavily cited using a range of sources from scholarly articles, full-length monographs, newspapers, government webpages, nonprofit organization reports, and many other sources that would have been difficult for us to find on our own. We now feel that this is a strength of Wikipedia, rather than a detriment. As scholars, and now Wikipedians, we can explore those sources, removing those that are not verifiable, inaccurate, or are out-of-date.

Improving Wikipedia as Scholars

During our time in the pilot, our previous skepticism about Wikipedia shifted into a respect for the site and an acknowledgement that the material on Wikipedia is only as good as the work its contributors put into it.

The three of us agree that Wikipedia offers unparalleled opportunities to practice public sociology. We see writing for Wikipedia as a form of public sociology, filling a drive for community engagement. Ramirez spent most of his time in the pilot working on Wikipedia's Masculinity article, with well over 900 people accessing the piece each day. Zopf's contributions to the Race and Ethnicity article averaged 4,800 readers per day.

We had no idea that hundreds, let alone thousands, of people investigated these concepts each day. This shouldn't have come as a surprise to us. People are lifelong learners. Sometimes learning is as simple—and as accessible—as looking up an article on Wikipedia. We are now more compelled to see it as sociologists' duty to put our knowledge out for the public and indeed for the largest audience possible.

Wikipedia's Alignment with the ASA Mission

Finally, we see contributing to Wikipedia as work that is embedded in the ASA mission. Wikipedia is a tool we can, and perhaps should, use to advance sociology as a science and profession. It is also a means by which we can promote the contributions and use of sociology to serve the public good. At a time when the media is dominated by allegations of "fake news," it is imperative to present the rigorous, sound, and sometimes complex research of social scientists in publicly accessible sites where people seek information, most notably Wikipedia. It can be good practice for sociologists to write for an audience we may, at times, unfortunately ignore—the general public.

As academics, we are the "experts," and, as such, we should use our expertise for the greater good. Admittedly, we are not always our best advocates for moving our knowledge into the public domain. Wikipedia is a simple, yet powerful, opportunity to do so.

To apply to be an ASA Wikipedia Fellow, visit fellows.wikiedu.org.