Wikipedia is without a doubt one of my favorite websites. Even though I have only ever made one or two contributions to Wikipedia, I find the site invaluable for research. The vast amount of information immediately available is hard to overlook for research of any sort (there are 848,598 English language articles as of this post). If you have a question about something, you can probably find the answer at Wikipedia.
Called “the self-organizing, self-repairing, hyperaddictive library of the future” by Wired Magazine in March of 2005, Wikipedia has enjoyed much success. The Wired article is just one of many mainstream media articles praising the site, and there are many thousands if not millions of bloggers and others who use and recommend Wikipedia each and every day. The New York Times offers some numbers describing Wikipedia’s success:
The whole nonprofit enterprise began in January 2001, the brainchild of Jimmy Wales, 39, a former futures and options trader who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla. He said he had hoped to advance the promise of the Internet as a place for sharing information.
It has, by most measures, been a spectacular success. Wikipedia is now the biggest encyclopedia in the history of the world. As of Friday, it was receiving 2.5 billion page views a month, and offering at least 1,000 articles in 82 languages. The number of articles, already close to two million, is growing by 7 percent a month. And Mr. Wales said that traffic doubles every four months.
Lately though, despite all of the success and impressive usage numbers, cracks have started to appear. Two questions, both of which have been asked before, have once again been brought into the spotlight – just how reliable is the information found on Wikipedia, and where is the accountability?
Consider what happened to John Seigenthaler Sr.:
ACCORDING to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, John Seigenthaler Sr. is 78 years old and the former editor of The Tennessean in Nashville. But is that information, or anything else in Mr. Seigenthaler’s biography, true?
The question arises because Mr. Seigenthaler recently read about himself on Wikipedia and was shocked to learn that he “was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother Bobby.”
If any assassination was going on, Mr. Seigenthaler (who is 78 and did edit The Tennessean) wrote last week in an op-ed article in USA Today, it was of his character.
Whoever added that false information to the article did so anonymously, so beyond publicly stating the truth, Mr. Seigenthaler really had no recourse. So there’s the issue of false information, and how to stop people from entering it. Wikipedia works on the premise that mistakes are caught by later contributors, and regular users who monitor changes. Clearly, that doesn’t always work.
If reliability and accountability weren’t enough, how about ethics? Should you edit the entry for something you were involved in? The question was raised earlier this week when Adam Curry attempted to make some changes to the entry for Podcasting. Dave Winer explains:
Now after reading about the Seigenthaler affair, and revelations about Adam Curry’s rewriting of the podcasting history — the bigger problem is that Wikipedia is so often considered authoritative. That must stop now, surely. Every fact in there must be considered partisan, written by someone with a confict of interest. Further, we need to determine what authority means in the age of Internet scholarship. And we need to take a step back and ask if we really want the participants in history to write and rewrite the history. Isn’t there a place in this century for historians, non-participants who observe and report on the events?
Dave makes some very good points. Upon first reading his entry, I though the question of historians and third-party observers was very obvious and a simple way to resolve these kinds of issues. The more I thought about it though, the less sure I felt. Requiring historians and non-participants to write the entries simply because that’s the way we’ve always done it may not be the best way to move forward. Thanks to Wikipedia and the web in general, we have the ability to turn the conventional wisdom “the winners write the history books” completely upside down. By editing websites like Wikipedia as events are taking place (such as the creation of podcasting) do we not have a better chance of capturing a more realistic view of history? If all sides of an issue can enter their views, do we not have a more accurate and complete entry? Of course, we unfortunately need to deal with flame wars in many of these cases, but maybe that will change as the process matures.
The issues I mentioned above are currently getting a lot of attention, and are pretty natural in the evolution of a system like Wikipedia. I don’t think anyone should be surprised that questions of reliability, accountability and ethics are being asked. And if you really stop and think, you’ll probably realize that the solution to all of these problems has been around for a very long time. As with all websites on the Internet, it is up to the reader to use his or her best judgement in evaluating the accuracy and relevancy of the informaton on a web page. Searching the information available at Wikipedia should be no different than searching the information available in Google – reader/searcher/user beware.