These days, few would disagree that Wikipedia is a useful resource. But what does the site do best? What can be accomplished with Wikipedia that we don’t see in other publications, that makes a tangible difference in the world we live in?
In this blog post, I’ll tell the story of a short article I wrote a few years ago, and why I think it’s important.
A proposal for a 60 acre off-reservation casino in the Columbia River Gorge (the first designated U.S. National Scenic Area) came up in the late 1990s, and quietly dominated regional politics for over a decade. It impacted the 2002 Oregon gubernatorial election, and drove the heaviest campaign contributions (from Indian tribes on both sides of the issue) of the 2006 election. Elections across the river in Washington were affected as well; even a former Idaho governor weighed in.
But as a citizen, even if you followed the news closely, you’d hardly hear about this vitally important issue. Sure, big campaign contributions would get a mention, and the local press would document major decisions by local and federal entities. But if you wanted a bird’s eye view of how the deliberations were progressing, so you could put the current news item in context? Forget it.
In fact, from reading what occasional news stories did appear, you might come away with the impression that even the reporters covering the issue — whose names would change from one story to the next, and from one year to the next — didn’t have the clearest high-level understanding of the evolving issue, either.
Since I was interested in this major issue affecting my state, I researched old news stories (which, in many cases, required a library card — a simple Google search often won’t get you far with paywalled local news sources). But as a Wikipedian, I didn’t want to keep the knowledge I accumulated to myself — I wanted to smooth the way for others who might be interested, too. So I summarized and cited my findings in a Wikipedia article.
The article isn’t anything fancy, by Wikipedia standards — fellow editor Aboutmovies assessed it as “start class,” the site’s second-lowest quality rating, rightly noting that it doesn’t do much to explain the motivations of the various interested parties. But even so, the article filled a vital gap: I’m confident it was the only publication, online or offline, that collected the facts of the decade-plus saga in one place. (The Friends of the Gorge published a similar page, from a less neutral point of view, over two years later.)
A couple of typical things happened, which I would contend speak to the general value of Wikipedia:
- The new article debuted near the top of Google search results. (Curious why this happens? See this illuminating discussion thread.)
- Various Wikipedians emerged over the years to add little updates as the story continued to unfold.
But in April 2010, two years after I started the article, there was a much more satisfying endorsement of the article: Jeff Mapes, a longtime and highly respected reporter at the Oregonian, prominently linked to the article in a blog post about the proposal, with the implicit suggestion that it provided a solid overview of the subject.
And at last fall’s WikiSym conference, social media researcher Ed Chi of Google made a point that finally tied it all together for me in his keynote address. He described a study that found that Wikipedia is commonly used for “scaffolding” — a term in educational psychology that refers to building a conceptual framework in the early stages of developing an understanding of a topic.
This is one of the things that intelligent, interested readers need in a world full of disconnected nuggets of information: resources that help them gain an initial understanding of a topic, and establish context. This is what Wikipedia is good at. This is an activity that is well suited to a broadly distributed project with many participants: when many people drop in a relevant link or point, it’s not hard to put together a basic timeline that supports a shared understanding of the facts. An article like this might only attract a couple hundred views a month, but if some of those viewers are reporters or bloggers putting the pieces together before writing an article, many more benefit indirectly.
So there you have it: a well respected reporter and a well respected media researcher seeing the same value in Wikipedia that Wikipedians see. It’s like our our shared notebook for making sense of, and keeping track of, the rapidly evolving world around us.