Wiki Torah

There is a lot of disagreement about the usefulness of wiki pages as references. In my experience, there is great attention to making sure that a variety of sources and perspectives are cited, and the communal editing process does take care of most egregiously biased postings over time. There are a lot of Jews contributing their time, effort and expertise to create some amazingly helpful pages on Wikipedia, for example. And there are many good-willed people of many backgrounds contributing to the LOLcatBible, to take another example.

Evaluating Content

My rule of thumb in relying on communally edited pages — and citing them throughout A Song Every Day — is to trust the wiki process. This means, for example:

1) if a page has been contested, take seriously the objections to it.

2) a page marked with a warning about lack of citations should be read with greater attention to the information’s possible source(s).

3) if a page does have sources, check out a few of them before deciding how much credence to give the material.

Now one tricky aspect of communal editing is that it is is based on community participation. To make a vastly sweeping generalization, it seems to me that people adding material to the Judaism pages tend toward more traditional sources. It is wiki philosophy to site “accepted” authorities or encyclopedic sources, rather than one’s individual congregation or teacher. This serves to control wiki content in some valuable ways. However, there does seem to be a bit of a bias toward accepting orthodox or Conservative scholars as legitimate “outside sources,” while more contemporary or alternative teachers are treated with more caution.

Of course this no doubt has something to do with the fact that there are extensive, well-researched, long-established sites from Orthodox perspectives and the Chabad movement. But there are other extensive, well-researched and firmly-established sites which assume a more egalitarian view of Judaism. The more traditional leaning may reflect a knee-jerk tendency, by many Jews of all backgrounds, to assume that an Orthodox source is most “authentic” or it may be a result of the backgrounds of Jews who regularly contribute to the Wikipedia’s pages….

…this means: Wikipedia needs more contributors who are familiar with non-Orthodox sources and will take the time to include them. This is not to suggest that Orthodox sources shouldn’t be included! But there are plenty of wiki-editors out there adding those. In my humble estimation, what is needed is more variety.

Becoming a Contributor

I recently decided that the Judaism Portal’s weekly Torah page needed more balance in its external links. I logged on and created an account, read over the guidelines and then posted a link to My Jewish Learning, which offers dvrei Torah and other information from a variety of perspectives. No one has (after about two weeks) challenged the link, and the page is, therefore, in my opinion, more balanced

…and all it took was a few minutes and a willingness to share a different perspective.

In my own case, necessity was the mother of wiki-editing: my first foray into the process came when I found some material that I thought was offensive on the LOLcatBible site. I didn’t want to stop referencing the site — which I think is very interesting — but i did not want to give the impression that I was endorsing hateful speech. When I expressed my concern, I was told, not unkindly, that the wiki way is to get involved yourself and deal with it. A reader can establish an account and start a “discussion” on-line or make an edit, noting the reason.

Had someone been committed to the changed language and still involved in editing, there might have been a ruckus. As it was, though, I made changes I thought important, noted the reason (which other editors but not casual readers can see), and the LOLcatBible has been better for it ever since, in my opinion. (And apparently, at least tacitly, in the opinion of others, because the changes — removing the use of “ghey” as a random pejorative — were never challenged.)

As a relatively recent convert to the whole wiki thing, I can tell you: It’s really, really easy to get an account. It’s a little harder to figure out what are acceptable changes — which I think is great! Once you log in as an editor, you can read all about what is considered a suitable outside source and see that there are arguments when someone links to their favorite Yeshiva instead of choosing something by an “established scholar” and/or encyclopedic offerings — again, all part of the wiki process.

Finally, those who are able might consider financially supporting non-profits like Wikipedia. Here is more information about Jewish views of intellectual property.

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