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Week 2: Credibility and Combatting Internet Idiots

4

January 20, 2015 by acoleman34

In the readings for this week, whether in History in the Digital Age or in some of the online material, various topics are discussed and some underlying themes are detected. Issues of credibility and tradition reoccurred and each challenges historians to adapt (or not in some cases) to the ever-evolving world of digital resources.

Credibility in writing is paramount, and this is particularly true in the world of historical writing. Finding credible sources was once a task of sifting through archival materials and denoting pieces of information that offer a new or different perspective on historical topics. The advent of the digital age has changed that routine drastically. Many would claim that now, with information at our fingertips, it is much more efficient and easy to gain access to reliable information by simply typing in keyword searches into a digitized archive. Although this assessment is true, it would behoove historians not to be wary of open source, well, sources. As we have heard in many instances, encyclopedia sites like Wikipedia are hardly credible resources for historians. In fact, much of the reading touches on the use of these wiki-style resources as lacking a neutral point of view and it is difficult to disagree. As Crone and Halsey allude to, the allowance of free editing creates an opening for bias and raises the question of whether it is the job of the creator or the researcher to establish the veracity of a source. For the former more citation is needed and for the latter more corroboration. For our sake, Wikipedia and similar sites should only be used as a jumping-off point for research. Amanda Seligman writes, “When we seek out an encyclopedia article on a topic, we are (theoretically) looking for a basic introduction to the topic, an introduction that is balanced. We are not looking for the cutting edge of a scholarly debate.” In essence, these sources should be used for what they are and nothing more—A forum of ideas and basic knowledge. Credible (in the sense that we as historians need it to be), maybe not, but useable, sure.

So, how do we adapt? The prime example from the reading was to create a similar site that combines a traditional approach toward data and editing with progressive accessibility. The UK RED project does this by placing a high importance on verifying the sources of each entry and by weeding out any duplicate information. This method creates efficiency and consistency. As Turkel, Kee and Roberts suggest, historians need to remain attentive to conventional methodologies and sites like UK RED allow for that. This brand of digital history offers an interactive aspect as well. Through sites like UK RED, creators and editors work together to provide high quality information that researchers can trust to a certain extent. Like Susan expressed so eloquently in our last class, “Any idiot with a computer can put something on the internet.” It is comforting to know that some researcher friendly sites (hopefully more to come) are developing processes that minimize that idiocy.


4 comments »

  1. kdaly3 says:

    The difficulty of finding credible sources seems to be the key piece of these readings. As we have read, Wikipedia does try to sift out any terrible misinformation, but misinformation proliferates faster than can be revised. Wikipedia can be a good jumping off point, and it justifies itself as just that by having notes and references at the bottom, so people can corroborate their information. I think digital resources are more of a help than hindrance, but it can be difficult to sift through these resources. I think you make a good point about the explosion of information in the digital age; it is difficult to ascertain credibility when it comes to digital information and resources, as well as the questionable nature of the credibility of the producer.

  2. Susan Prillaman says:

    I agree, Austin. It’s about using the right tool for the job, and understanding the advantages and disadvantages of each. In my experience, research is art more than science; an endeavor where one can move from scarcity to abundance by modifying one character in a Boolean search. Given multiple avenues to investigate, the researcher must analyze the evidence and its source, then go further and compare its veracity against other known evidence and its sources—a painstaking and reiterative process. In this regard, using Wikipedia as a research tool is no different. Yes, “any idiot with a computer” can contribute and many contributions may not rise to the level of true scholarship. Academic snobbery (on my part) aside, Wikipedia provides a quick reference point to a very wide range of subject matter. I don’t visit Wikipedia to read history so the absence of a NPV is not an issue. I visit Wikipedia to survey a topic for its “what,” “when,” “where,” “who” and “how.” The answer to some of those questions helps determine my next research stop and maybe even my direction.

  3. Adina Langer says:

    Austin, I think you get to the crux of concern for many in doing historical research in the digital age: credibility and veracity. In the first part of your analysis, you point to the ways in which researchers have traditionally approached primary research: “Finding credible sources was once a task of sifting through archival materials and denoting pieces of information that offer a new or different perspective on historical topics. The advent of the digital age has changed that routine drastically. Many would claim that now, with information at our fingertips, it is much more efficient and easy to gain access to reliable information by simply typing in keyword searches into a digitized archive.” Yet, the problems encountered with Wikipedia and other internet sources are largely problems of secondary and tertiary research. You bring up Crone and Halsey’s recipes for superior research in the digital age: citation and corroboration. How would you recommend going about internet-based research to best achieve these ends?

  4. jeldredge1 says:

    We have to remember though, that no work of historic scholarship is completely neutral. Any writer brings to the table a way of viewing the world and evidence that always makes at least some impact on their analysis. What is important when first learning about history is the existence of the different ‘lenses’ that we all see our discipline through, and how we can try to mitigate these lenses without turning history into the dreaded list of bare one facts. What is also integral is educating laypersons about these viewpoints and how they can be recognized and parsed for the ‘slant’ (for lack of a better word) that they may impart on a piece of historic scholarship. The processes that professional historians use to create their scholarship needs to be opened up more to the public and I think that digital history tools can be a start to this.

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