Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Looking for the Stories behind Wikipedia Entries

Last Thursday, my Blackberry's message light began blinking as I was waiting to pick up my sister. A news alert had arrived to tell me that Michael Jackson had died.

Ten or twenty years ago, I would have turned to the television and newspapers to find out what was happening in the world. Today, I first read breaking news on my Blackberry, in status updates on Facebook and Twitter, and during discussion in IMs and chat rooms.

Once I've heard first details, I usually hop over to Google News and search for details instead of waiting for special reports and news updates on television or the radio. The news articles usually lead to more questions, so I often jump over to Wikipedia next to find answers.

I'm not alone in this process. Last Thursday, so many people went to Wikipedia for more information about Jackson's death that Wikipedia set a new traffic record:

In the 7 p.m. hour alone Thursday, shortly after Mr. Jackson’s death was confirmed, there were nearly one million visitors to that article. (In fact, for that hour more than 250,000 visitors went to the misspelled entry “Micheal Jackson.” Even his brother Randy Jackson had 25,000 visits that hour.) [Source: The New York Times]

While millions of people were reading the Jackson page, hundreds were editing the Jackson entry to add details about the pop singer's death as they were released and to increase the overall information in the entry.

The constant editing and public control of sites like Wikipedia challenges teachers to find new ways to talk about historical documents and research. Wikipedia entries are like any other historical document students might read. They may seem like absolute truth, but there are many different versions of the stories that they tell. Our job is to teach students that they must always look for the stories behind documents.

Try these ideas to teach students the importance of looking for the stories behind Wikipedia entries:

  1. Explore sample entries with students, and make sure that they understand how Wikipedia entries are written. Share articles like the Telegraph's "Michael Jackson’s death sparks Wikipedia editing war" to spark discussion of how the collaborative authorship of the articles shapes the "truthfulness" of the information.
  2. Read the New York Times article"Keeping News of Kidnapping Off Wikipedia"and Fast Company article "Wikipedia and 'The New York Times' Suppress Facts to Save Kidnapped Journo" together, and ask students to discuss how truth and trust are affected when stories are omitted and details are changed.
  3. Review CNET's "Debate: Can the Internet handle big breaking news?" and ask students to take up the debate themselves.
  4. Check out the third bullet point in the Young Adult Library Services Association Blog entry "Critically Thinking About Teens and Technology" for some additional ways to discuss and explore online resources related to Jackson's death.
  5. Ask students to predict how Wikipedia entries can evolve after reading the CNET article "Why video can transform the Wikipedia experience."


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