Last week (15th of January), Wikipedia celebrated its 20th anniversary. Those who watch some of our streams know that Wikipedia holds a special place in these play sessions, as we often need to look things up in the online encyclopedia (Wiki-crutch). Because of all that it’s done for us and you, here’s an ode to Wikipedia!

Okay, I might have overhyped the ‘ode’ part of this introduction, but it must be said that in these 20 years, Wikipedia has come to occupy an important part in many of our lives (Guardian). We use it during our streams, but I think almost everyone must admit they have used Wikipedia at least once.

During my High School years I was always told to never use Wikipedia (as a source, that makes sense), and I think many of you have heard similar statements as well. It was a great shock when the teacher of my Introduction to History course (who I held, and still hold, in high regard) told us that even he sometimes used Wikipedia for a quick search on a topic. You should have seen the faces of all the first year students who had seen their whole world crumble before their eyes (an image which would repeat itself many more times during the first year).

However, this newfound love for the internet encyclopedia wasn’t to last. It became apparent that even though many of our teachers used Wikipedia for a quick search, it’s contents and it’s workings were often frowned upon. That is some peak-Ivory Tower stuff, isn’t it?

What sets Wikipedia apart from any other encyclopedia is that it’s contents are not made by experts, but by the ‘people’. Anyone can, in principle, edit pieces of the encyclopedia. This means that any layman can edit the Wiki-page on the Roman Empire, which most experts would argue doesn’t really help the ‘correctness’ of the entry.

Image: screenshot of the editing history of the Roman Empire entry.

This seems like a problem, but it is also where many critics of Wikipedia go wrong. The fact that more people can edit a certain entry is one of Wikipedia’s strengths: it is no longer one vision on a topic but a discussion about this topic. When I took a course on Public History in the Digital World (link is in Dutch), a large part of it was focussed around Wikipedia. Employees of Wikimedia NL came to tell us all about the inner workings of Wikipedia, and what the parent company’s stance was on the ‘everyonce can edit’-discussion.

In this course it became apparent for me that many of the editors weren’t ‘laymen’, but people deeply interested in certain topics, using knowledge from open access sources. Yes, for us academics in the ivory tower these people were ‘laymen’, but for the public historians these were the people to work with. Their passion and available time for writing history (or other subjects) can be bigger than our own, and that makes for some very interesting entries on Wikipedia. These interested and passionate people often knew every little detail of a certain subject, and were also vocal in discussions about contents.

This public historian swing to Wikipedia doesn’t mean that it is free of problems. One of the major issues is the gender and age of the average editor of the encyclopedia. You might already have guessed it, but more often than not the editors are old(er) white men. This reverbs into the contents. Not only in what is written and what isn’t written (e.g. lots of wars and great men, little about women in history), but also in how items are written. Because Wikipedia also has a guidline of writing pieces with a ‘neutral point of view’, the opinions of these white men often clash with other editors. When I wrote about Johanna Westerdijk (the first female professor in the Netherlands) during the course, I often had to battle these men as they claimed my piece on Westerdijk’s efforts to have more women in academia wasn’t neutral.

Image: screenshot of the entry about Johanna Westerdijk I wrote

However, this is an issue well known to Wikimedia (at least here in the Netherlands). The Wikimedia organization would often organise ‘writing-days’, where they’d invite people to come to an archive or museum and write about topics which were underrepresented on Wikipedia, such as women in history, non-western cultures, and colonial history from the perspective of the colonized (instead of the usual VOC/East India Company story). Even though the image exists of Wikipedia being a guideless forum, there’s some direction by it’s parent company in trying to close certain gaps in knowlegde and interests.

This shows the strength of Wikipedia. It is able to adapt, either through some nudging by the parent company, or by people writing on the website itself. Wikipedia was one of the first large outlets in the Netherlands to call the Indonesian War of Independence as such (the periode had often been called ‘Politionele Acties’ in the Netherlands, suggesting it was a police action and not a full blown war of Independence), quite some time before this was done by schoolbooks or news outlets.

Let us hope that in the coming 20 years, Wikipedia will continue to evolve to become a place where not only all of us look for information, but also more of us discuss this information. Even though it might need some action from the parent company, it seems that more and more people are incentivised to write about stuff which isn’t in the encyclopedia yet. For the future, we can see a lot more entries about non-male and non-western topics and peole, as well as more and more discussion about which histories should be written on Wikipedia. In the mean time, we’ll be wiki-crutching as much as we can!