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Humanist Archives: Jan. 16, 2019, 6:36 a.m. Humanist 32.339 - thoughts on Wikipedia

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 339.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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        Date: 2019-01-15 20:55:38+00:00
        From: Bill Benzon 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.309: thoughts on Wikipedia?

I've got three core comments on Wikipedia: 1) I've been using it happily for
years and am, for the most part, satisfied. 2) I think it's important to note
that it covers a much wider range of topics than traditional encyclopedias. 3)
If I were teaching, I would probably have graduate students, and perhaps
advanced undergraduates as well, involved in editing Wikipedia.

On the first point, Wikipedia is my default reference work on a wide range or
topics (though not philosophy, where I first go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy). This seems to be the case for many people. Depending on what  I'm
interested in at the moment I may consult other sources as well, some referenced
in a Wikipedia article, other from a general search. I have seen Wikipedia used
a  source in scholarly publications that have been peer reviewed though I
don't know, off hand, whether or not I've done so in any of my publications
in the academic literature. But I certainly reference Wikipedia in my blog posts
and in the working papers derived from them.

Depending on this and that I may consult the 'Tal' page for an article
and/or its edit history as well, the former more likely than the latter. For
example, I have a particular interest in computational linguistics. Wikipedia
has an entry for computational linguistics, but also one for natural language
processing (NLP). The last time I checked (several months ago) the 'Tal'
pages for both articles raised the issue of the relationship between the two
articles. Should they in fact be consolidated into one article or is it best to
leave them as two? How do we handle the historical relationship between the two?
I have no particular opinion on that issue, but I can see that it's an
important issue. Sophisticated users of Wikipedia need to know that such issues
exist. Such issues also exist in ore traditional reference works, but there's
no way to know about there as there is no way to 'look under the hood', so
to speak, to see how the article came about.

I've written one Wikipedia article from scratch, the entry for David G. Hays,
the computational linguist. I hesitated about writing the article as I'm a
student of his and so can hardly claim to be an unbiased source. But, he was an
important figure in the development of the discipline and there was no article
about him. So I wrote one. I did that several years ago and so far no one has
questioned the article (I haven't checked it in a month or three). Now maybe
that's an indication that I did a good job, but I figure it's just as likely
an indication that few people are interested in the biography of a dead founder
of a rapidly changing technical subject.

I also helped the late Tim Perper on some articles about manga and anime --
pervasive in Japanese popular culture and important in the wider world as well.
In particular, I'm thinking about the main entry for manga. Tim was an expert
on manga, the sort of person you'd want to write the main article. Manga,
however, is the kind of topic that attractions legions of enthusiastic fans and,
alas, enthusiasm is not an adequate substitute for intellectual sophistication
and wide-ranging knowledge and experience. So I got to see a bit of what's
sometimes called 'edit wars' in Wikipedia. In this case it was more like
edit skirmishes. But it was annoying.

After all, anyone can become an editor at Wikipedia; there's not a prior test
of knowledge. You just create an account and go to work on entries that interest
you. An enthusiastic fan can question and countermand the judgement of an expert
(like Tim Perper). If editing disputes become bad enough there are mechanisms
for adjudicating them, though I don't know how good they are. For all I know
the current entries for, say, Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are
current battle grounds. Maybe they're on lockdown because the fighting over
the entries had been so intense. Or maybe everyone with a strong interest in
those entries is in agreement. (Ha!)

On second issue, breadth of coverage, would a traditional encyclopedia have an
entry for manga? At this point, mostly likely yes (I don't really know as I
don't consult traditional reference works any more, except for the Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). But not
only does Wikipedia have an entry for manga, but it has entries for various
genres of manga, important creators, and important titles. The same for anime.
And film. And TV.

At the moment I'm watching 'Battlestar Galactica' (the new millennium
remake) and 'Friday Night Lights', two very different TV series that are
available for streaming. 'Galactica' has a large fan base and en extensive
set of Wikipedia articles which includes a substantial entry for each episode in
the four-year run as well as entries for the series as a whole, an entry that
covers the characters, and one that covers the space craft. There may be more
entries as well. Judging from Wikipedia entires, the fan base for 'Friday
Night Lights', the fan base is not so large. There is an entry for each season
(of four), but not entries for individual episodes. But, just as the entry for
the newer version of 'Battlestar Galactica' links back to the original
series (from the previous millennium), so the entry for 'Friday Night
Lights' links back to the movie and to the book on which the movie is based.

Beyond this, I note that I watch A LOT of streaming video, both movies and TV.
And I frequently consult Wikipedia and other online resources. One observation I
have is that plot summaries vary from very good to not very reliable. Writing
good plot summaries is not easy. It may not require original thinking, but
still, it's not easy. This is particularly true when you're dealing with an
episode in an ongoing series that follows two or three strands of action. When
you write the summary, do you summarize each strand of action in a single
‘lump' or do you interleave the strands in the say they are presented in the
episode? Off hand I'd prefer to see the latter, but I don't know what I'd
think if I actually got that -- nor have I  kept notes on just how it's done
in case after case after case (I've followed 10s of them in the past decade or

Which brings me to the third point, if I were still teaching I'd involve
students in editing Wikipedia. I know that others have done this, I'm thinking
in particular of feminists who are concerned about entries for women, though,
alas, I can offer no citations. Still, I'm thinking that writing plot
summaries for this that or the other would be a useful thing to do, and
something within the capacities of graduate students and advanced
undergraduates. Not only could they do it, but doing it would be a good way of
teaching them to focus on just what happens in a story. But how would you do it?

For example, I'd like to see plot summaries for each episode of 'Friday
Night Lights'. What kind of course would provide a rationale for doing that?
Obviously a course devoted to the series. Would I want to teach such a course? I
don't know. At the moment I've finished watching the first of four seasons;
that's 22 episodes. I find it hard to justify teaching a course, at whatever
level, devoted entirely to that series, though I have no trouble imagining a
detailed discussion of each episode. But how do you discuss some 80 or 90
episodes of one TV series in a course with, say, 12 to 30 sessions? Does that
make any kind of sense at all? And you can repeat the question for any number of
TV series, anime series, whatever?

What about the Harry Potter novels, or Stephen King? Of course, one can dismiss
these materials as mere popular culture. I'm not sure that is wise.

There's some kind of opportunity here, but I'm not at all sure of what it
is, in detail.



Bill Benzon





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