Knowledge panels, and Wikipedia as a force for good

In my information literacy classes I frequently blow students’ minds (and faculty even more so) by praising Wikipedia. I’m a librarian, aren’t I supposed to be telling them that Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source? I don’t. I tell them truthfully that I love Wikipedia, which is a community of people who agree with Jimmy Wales, the site’s co-founder, that all humans should have access to all human knowledge. It is a great example, like citizen science project Galaxy Zoo, of the power of crowd-sourcing.

And now I’ve read that Wikipedia and many of its dedicated collaborators are working to help local newspapers be better represented on its site, which is the source of many “knowledge panels” on Google and Facebook, through a project called Newspapers on Wikipedia (NOW). In a terrifically interesting article on Medium, Eni Mustafaraj explains why this project and knowledge boxes matter.

If you’re thinking you don’t know what the heck a knowledge panel is, you do. Here’s one:

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It’s that little box that appears in the upper right part of your screen, or at the top of your results list, in Google. Mustafaraj and colleagues looked into how knowledge boxes can unduly influence publics’ understanding of news sites’ credibility. Some sites’ knowledge boxes seem to be watered-down or spiced up to make them seem more reliable or inoffensive.

Mustafaraj notes that a benefit of the NOW project is that many smaller community papers will be better represented not only on Wikipedia but also with knowledge panels, which come mainly from Wikipedia entries. So once again Wikipedia is a force for good in the struggle for information literate. There I go again, equating Wikipedia and information literacy. Yes. It’s a great place for students to learn to decide for themselves how thoroughly an article has been written, cited, and edited. It’s a place where knowledge professionals and subject matter experts converge to share what they create with all humanity. It’s a place that is democratizing access to a wider variety of news sources than most Americans are routinely exposed to.

But, as Mustafaraj explains, knowledge panels aren’t necessarily providing people with accurate information, and they may not even address a source’s reliability or accuracy. Some of the examples she provides are quite eye opening — Google and Facebook are claiming publicly to fight fake news and even have a tool —  knowledge panels — to help publics find out about sources, but these powerful companies are not always using those tools to inform. Here’s the link to Mustafaraj‘s article again in case you are too discouraged to scroll up.

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Books as social glue

Last week I attended a dinner and left with two book recommendations from the guest seated across from me. Today I had a physical; the nurse practitioner and I chatted about our teens and their reading habits. Yesterday my son told us about reading essay responses to his freshman class’s community read. He was amazed that professors at his new college disliked the book, as he did, and one of them swore.

Earlier in the summer at two different parties I discussed my disinterest in reading Fifty Shades of Grey (too many good books in my “to-read” piles to spend time on a fad). During summer shifts at my local indie bookstore, Gibson’s, I talk about books with everyone I meet. At my local library today I checked out The Art of Racing In the Rain and got into a discussion with two of the staff about books with dog narrators. Last weekend when we FaceTimed with our nieces and nephew, they told me what books they’d checked out at their library.

After church, in line at the grocery store, on a walk in my neighborhood, in doctors’ office waiting rooms, really anywhere, reading is easy to discuss. Books break the ice with someone you don’t know well, connect you with friends you haven’t seen in awhile, and work as conversation starters that transcend age, gender, experience, or other differences we humans use to define each other.

So if you, like me, find Facebook and Twitter interesting but not as much fun as talking to people, try the original social media: conversation. And for starters, bring up a good book.