Academics Continue Flirting With a Former Foe: Wikipedia

Google “straight turkey,” and you will find references to the Dardanelles (a Turkish strait), Wild Turkey brand whiskey, and a recent soccer match between the United States and, you guessed it, Turkey.

You will not encounter the defunct Los Angeles-based art magazine by the same name—at least not yet.

Next weekend East of Borneo, an art magazine founded and funded by the California Institute of the Arts, will host the fourth in a series of Wikipedia edit-a-thons intended to enhance Los Angeles’s art history by gathering local art enthusiasts and teaching them how to create and edit Wikipedia articles. In the past three sessions, volunteers have produced 38 new Wikipedia entries related to the local arts scene.

The CalArts edit-a-thons are just the latest example of academe’s warming attitude toward the world’s sixth-most-popular website.

East of Borneo’s executive editor, Stacey Allan, says the articles added during the magazine’s edit-a-thons will help preserve publications, galleries, and even artists who otherwise would be lost to time.

“You kind of got the sense that the material would drift away, but by putting it online, it would still be able to circulate and wouldn’t just exist in these academic realms,” she says. For publications like Straight Turkey, an existence confined to the academic realm can feel like a kind of digital death. “There’s a sense that if someone isn’t Google-able, they don’t exist,” she says.

Dariusz Jemielniak, who recently published an ethnography of Wikipedia, agrees. “Wikipedia is the prime resource for free knowledge,” he says. “If you’re not in Wikipedia, you’re not in the public consciousness.”

Mr. Jemielniak says the website’s widening scope and influence have changed its relationship to academe. Where there once was skepticism, even outright hostility, there is now a tacit embrace of Wikipedia’s power to amplify ideas.

Scholars in medicine, sociology, and psychology have all begun organized efforts to increase and refine Wikipedia entries about their respective fields. Other professors have assigned students to create articles for class credit. One ambitious dean even paid a public-relations firm to devise a Wikipedia page about him.

“Ten years ago we would warn students, as a matter of course, not to use Wikipedia—that it was partial, incomplete, open to misrepresentation,” says Tom Lawson, dean of the School of Arts at CalArts. “But over time it’s become much more reliable and much more ubiquitous.”

Last year Brown University organized an edit-a-thon aimed at promoting women in science. In February universities around the globe held edit-a-thons examining feminism and art. This past semester Andrew Lih, an associate professor at American University’s School of Communications and author of The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia, held five edit-a-thons that matched his students with archivists at the Smithsonian.

Mr. Lih was one of the first professors to encourage Wikipedia use in his classroom. That was in 2003. Now many professors rave to him about Wikipedia’s utility—an extension, he says, of changing attitudes toward technology in higher education. “The tide has definitely turned,” Mr. Lih says.

Beyond the classroom, colleges and universities may even have an institutional interest in Wikipedia’s power to popularize. Mr. Lawson, for example, says CalArts has always struggled against the “narrow streams” of contemporary art history that “tended to flow through the canyons of New York.”

Southern California’s art history, he says, was relatively unseen and unexplored, diminishing it in the eyes of potential applicants. “It would make things a lot easier for us in terms of recruitment and admission,” he says, “if it were a little less invisible.”

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