Editing Wikipedia: Not as Easy as One May Think

As a spring break assignment in my digital history class, I was tasked with editing a Wikipedia entry and tracking, if any, changes that others made to my edits. What I discovered was that it was probably harder for me to determine what to change than for anyone to edit it.

Initially, I wanted to edit the encyclopedic entries on either the Black Death or King Henry VIII, topics I am very familiar with. What I discovered is that it would not be so easy to make such edits. Something I did not know is that a lot of well-known and probably controversial articles contain varying levels of security which hinder or prevent the editing of some articles. Both articles, for instance, were semi-protected, meaning that you had to be an autoconfirmed or confirmed editor. Autoconfirmation occurs when you make ten or more edits and your account has been active for more than four days. This lessens the probability that some average Joe will vandalize the article.

Because of this, I could not edit the articles I originally had intended to edit. So, I edited two different pages, one on the mistresses of King Henry (I supplied the following sentence: “It appears that his lust for mistresses did not abate as he reached middle age. During his marriage to Catherine Parr, his sixth wife, it was speculated that he would divorce her and look for a seventh wife.”) and one on the discovery of gold in the Klondike in 1896. This paragraph read:

“To add even more confusion to the question of who deserved credit for the discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek, Robert Henderson and many of his contemporaries threw his name into the ring. Recent historiography discusses the efforts of Henderson to obtain compensation for his missed opportunity. Despite the fact Henderson made disparaging remarks about Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, there were many proponents in favor of a Canadian (i.e. Henderson) receiving credit for the strike instead of the American Carmack. [19]”

For those who are unfamiliar with the topic, the discovery of gold at this creek in Canada launched one of the most important gold rushes of the nineteenth century. Robert Henderson was the one who tipped off those who actually dug up the gold.

In any case, these were not controversial edits. But, each entry had been recently updated so I was curious to see if anyone read these closely. Thus far, no one has edited my content or made any comments to me about it not being incorrect. I did not intentionally falsify any information because I did not feel it was an ethical choice.

Beyond that, I was amazed that some articles do have a level of protection from virtual vandalism. Given that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, I am glad to know that they take some security measures to ensure the protection of popular information. Despite this, I would not use Wikipedia for actual research, only a gateway for additional information if and only if there were valuable or reputable sources. Sometimes it has treated me well, sometimes not. But, I feel I am savvy enough of a historian that I can tell the difference between good sources and bad.

What are your experiences with Wikipedia from an editing or research standpoint?

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