Truthiness

I hope you enjoyed last night’s class; we didn’t end up really talking about next week’s election, so for one of your Twitter links this week, try to find something election-related that’s worth sharing.

With next Wednesday’s Wikipedia class, we’re going to delve into the world of what Stephen Colbert calls “Truthiness.”

As your first journey into Truthiness and the challenges of the web, take a look at the documentary “Loose Change,” which was put together online to highlight the U.S. government’s role in the 9/11 attacks. On YouTube, hundreds of thousands of people have been able to view “Loose Change”—and, if you take the time to watch it, it makes a pretty convincing case that we don’t know the full truth about the 9/11 attacks. All told, across its various postings and versions, more than ten million people have watched the video. The challenge, of course, is that at best the documentary aspires to “truthiness,” that is it’s hard for a lay viewer to judge its actual level of factual interaction. Places like Popular Mechanics have tried to debunk the theories. One student in a previous semester pointed out to me in class a parody of “Loose Change” called “Unfastened Coins.” This is a great example of what we spoke about in last week’s class—the dangers to society of people using the internet badly. How do we ensure that people have the internet search skills necessary to avoid bad, misleading, untrue, or downright dangerously inaccurate information online?

It’s easy to dismiss endeavors like “Loose Change” (or is it?), but the journey into Wikipedia is much more complicated. Here’s some background reading and viewing on Wikipedia, the world’s largest encyclopedia. Its founderJimmy “Jimbo” Wales, has turned into one of the web’s big celebs (although there’s even some controversy over his Wikipedia entry). His project, though, despite becoming the default research tool for most college students and lazy journalists/researchers is very controversial for its “truthiness.” It’s very hard to know what exactly you can and can’t trust on Wikipedia.

Newsman John Seigenthaler got very burned by a libelous write-up, and not surprisingly Encyclopedia Britannica thinks the project is the devil incarnate. On the other hand, a Nature study found that the two are about equal in accuracy. But it still attracts lots of criticism. It’s killing a lot of other products, though, regardless. Of course, the beauty/challenge of Wikipedia is that anyone can edit it, as Colbert likes to demonstrate by raising the subject of “Wikiality” on subjects like elephants. But what about things that shouldn’t be in there at all?

This is the week that I want you to be most wary of what we’re learning. Ask hard questions about wikis and Wikipedia—we’re going to talk in class about your mini-project—contributing to a Wikipedia entry. Think about whether we should trust Wikipedia or an expert-led encyclopedia more? How could Wikipedia be better set-up to better provide accuracy? Should it be open to everyone or just verified “experts”?

On the subject of wikis, have you all been following the Wikileaks controversy of this week? Its founder is a character and one worth reading about. (And here’s what Jimmy Wales thinks of it).

In class, we’ll walk you through some Wikipedia pages, help you set up accounts, and explain WikiScanner.

UPDATE: Your blog topic for the week: Which should be considered more trustworthy: A published encyclopedia or Wikipedia?

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