Citizen Scholars

21 01 2011

Long ago, in a land far away, I was Editor of my college’s newspaper. While I was not technically a Journalism major (my father the accountant had long before dissuaded me from such endeavors), I had the experience and desire to see well-crafted news, sports and feature articles appear in print for the student body. Plus, I had taken several electives in the field.

OK, so I wasn’t in danger of knocking Woodward and Bernstein off their respective pedestals, but I at least knew what I was doing. I knew how to write, how to typeset, how to interview, and how to coin snappy headlines.

But much has changed in recent years. No longer must one be a legitimate journalist to be qualified to work in the media. The citizen journalist movement of the last decade has wrought significant changes on the way information is disseminated. Blogs by the millions. YouTube videos. Tumblr pages. Even Facebook and Twitter feeds. Thanks to cheap technology and abundant server space, anyone with a smartphone and a keyboard is now an ace reporter, photog and videographer. Who needs a degree anyway?

Move over, New York Times. This news may not be fit to print, but it’s going online anyway.

This same change has affected the encyclopedia business. Once upon a time, the Encyclopedia Britannica ruled this domain. Its well-written and thoroughly researched articles were the gold standard. Students in my era used these books as the definitive and final word on any subject.

Microsoft’s Encarta changed that in the mid-90s with a much cheaper (and more accessible) version. But it was not until 15th January 2001 with the introduction of Wikipedia that the encyclopedia become a public commons. Not only was (and is) Wikipedia free, it is written by the people, and for the people.

So let’s all pause for a moment and wish Wikipedia and its founder, Jimmy Wales, a Happy Birthday. How does it feel to be ten years old?

Wikipedia is an anomaly among web communities in that it is not driven by advertising. Supported solely by donations (both monetary and content), Wikipedia is the 5th most popular site in the world, and has over 400 million visitors each month. Try Googling any topic. I dare you to find results in which a Wikipedia page is not in the top 10 results. Even top five.

Of course, for academics, Wikipedia is the bane of our existence. Students often like to use Wikipedia as if it were on par with scholarly journals and books, or even the now old-school Britannica. I will only allow Wikipedia to be used as a starting point, but never a finishing point. In other words, students had better do far more research than just hand in a paper with Wikipedia articles as their only source(s).

Still, I stand in amazement at the model (or is it monster?) Wales has created. The paint never dries on a Wikipedia article. Every word is subject to correction and revision by other readers, the assumption being that, sooner or later, folks will get things right, and the Truth will prevail.

That’s a nice assumption, but it isn’t always true. All too often I read Wikipedia articles that look and read as if they were written by a bunch of people who really do not know how to speak a cogent sentence, much less write one.

But other times I am thoroughly impressed with the quality. Take, for example, fan pages for movie stars and rock bands. These pages tend to be written by their most passionate fans, people who somehow know every last detail of a star’s life. Every album ever released. Every movie in which they have appeared. I leave those pages feeling like the writers may very well know the artist better than the artist does him/herself.

The big task for Wales, though, is not just trying to foster some semblance of quality reportage. No, it’s how to keep this ship floating in black ink, not red. Donations always take a hit during economic hard times. And while Wales has thus far been adamant about not allowing ads, he concedes in a recent Time Magazine interview that if they needed to, they would begin by allowing scattered ads in “obscure parts of the site.”

That’s not going to fly. Advertisers never want to be in “obscure parts.” They want to be prominent.

Still, I applaud what Wales for what he has created, and the countless thousands of content contributors who make it what it is. It’s not perfect. And the business training in this one-time college journalist fully understands the implications of the free market. Never sit back on your laurels and think you will be protected from new competitors.

Which probably explains why I am writing blogs these days, and not working for the New York Times.

Dr “Put That In 72 Point Helvetica Bold” Gerlich

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