February 18, 2014

ELIOT | In Defense of Wikipedia’s Credibility

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If you are reading this, then you already know — you’re literate. Congratulations. Literacy is a pretty cool thing because it makes it a lot easier to watch foreign films and to read Captain Underpants novels. That is not to say, however, that literacy comes without a few drawbacks. For example, being literate made the excuse, “I didn’t know that sign said ‘No Trespassing’” a lot less legitimate when I was caught by law enforcement coming out of the gorges in August when it was warm (remember those days?). It also means that every now and then, a professor (read: an editor) will unfairly demand that I prove I am capable of reading and writing by asking me to compose an essay (read: an opinion column).

When he was asked about the work of contemporary author Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote dismissed his work, saying, “That’s not writing, it’s typing.” If you ask me — which you might as well, given this column is supposed to be my opinion — Capote delivered a tremendously accurate and pithy burn. Perhaps offending many a courtroom stenographers, Capote suggested that typing is a talentless craft and should be viewed separate from writing. If you have ever had a blinking cursor on a blank page mock you, then you probably understand what he means. Sitting down and typing a bunch of words on a page (what I do every other week) is easy. Determining something substantive to say, and how to say it well (what I pretend to do every other week), is something else entirely.

Fortunately, technology and the Internet make it a lot easier to do both. If you have access to a computer then you can contribute poignant prose, or better yet, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories to the World Wide Web for all to see. People take the time to write and update narratives on their blog or Twitter accounts, and while it may be true that most of what is put on the Internet is trash (and the rest is porn), it has given us a fantastic venue to showcase what creativity we may have.

Rather than displaying my creative finesse through traditional outlets like a blog or Twitter account (though that too does exist: @CommodoreEliot — see you there) I prefer to hone my craft on Wikipedia. When asked to compose an essay, the most challenging part is usually the research and synthesis of information into an argument, right? I decide to circumvent that challenge by creating the information myself and putting it on “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” It makes fact-finding a lot easier. The challenge, however, is to create fiction that is believable enough for it to slip through the cracks and last a few weeks on the site. You could also pick pages that do not see a ton of traffic and therefore are probably not moderated as well. That is to say, a contribution to President Barack Obama’s page is going to have a much shorter lifespan than a similar edit on boogie-woogie pianist, Meade Lux Lewis’s, page. You can thank people like me for professors not accepting Wikipedia as a credible source.

Some people may think that I compromise the legitimacy of Wikipedia. Maybe that’s true. But it may also be true that my high school is the birthplace of Jesus Christ and has the distinction of being the only school in Colorado that actually hovers three feet off the ground. At least, that’s what I read on Wikipedia.

Am I suggesting that everyone go onto the Internet and add bogus information to Wikipedia pages? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I am an engineer, so I don’t really have to write essays, and made up stuff is often a lot more interesting than reality. But beyond that, contributing to Wikipedia is just that: contributing. Moreover, fabricating information to put on the web promote thinking creatively. My opinion is that everyone stands to gain with more creative thinking and more people contributing.

At Cornell in particular, it is all too easy to fall into the rut of grinding out a semester of work with the proverbial blinders on. It is important to remember that your college experience, and life beyond, is not just a finish line. Research has shown that most people will die at some point in their lives. Perhaps the journey getting there can be made a little bit better with some creativity — I mean, it gave us the Furby — and a more communal contributive spirit. It would also help if Wikipedia was an acceptable source to cite.