Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
December 11th, 2005


Truth through trust

The mainstream media is now in a tizzy over Wikipedia. John Seigenthaler Sr., a former editor at the USA Today, recently wrote an editorial about a blatantly libellous “biography” about him that an anonymous user added to Wikipedia. The article has since been rewritten for accuracy, but his piece prompted every newspaper and its dog to publish scathing articles about the project they once exalted as a revolution and a life-saver. Robert McHenry, of public restroom fame (last paragraph), would be proud.

The FUD being tossed around is really tragic, because people are – please excuse the imagery – writing out of their rear ends, as college students like to put it. Before, volumes of newspaper and magazine articles praised Wikipedia, lauding its strengths: the impressive number of articles, the seemingly impossible breadth of information, and that really tempting “Edit this page” button that “democratizes information.”

Overnight, that same button has somehow magically transformed into a “security hole” of sorts, the various periodicals condemning the project as a fad and uncontrollable disaster. This blunt about-face is only possible because the articles are written by journalists who have not the slightest idea of what Wikipedia is, except that it’s a self-proclaimed encyclopedia with a funny-sounding name. And that’s what they always describe it as.

At least they got the “funny-sounding name” part right. If Wikipedia were merely an encyclopedia, it could be held up to the expectations we place on the traditional encyclopedia-publishing industry. It would also have the same restrictions that the print or CD encyclopedias are limited by. Wikipedia would restricted to less than a couple dozen print volumes or to the 700 MB on a CD-ROM. It would only be available in only a few languages at most.

But it’s not. Wikipedia calls itself an encyclopedia because it serves the same goals as any conventional encyclopedia, but it isn’t written like one, nor will it ever be. People keep proposing that Wikipedia implement stricter controls on article authorship, accepting contributions from only reputable, degree-priveleged individuals. But if the project weren’t open for all to edit, it would have no purpose. The very fact that it is so open has eclipsed every other characteristic of Wikipedia, and for good reason: Wikipedia’s purpose is to fill the void that the conventional encyclopedias create.

That void is non-professional knowledge – or rather, knowledge by non-professionals. As risky and as unreliable as this knowledge can be at times, the fact is that every conventional encyclopedia omits it. That’s a lot of knowledge to be missed: just compare the Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite’s 101,000-some encyclopedia articles to the English Wikipedia’s 859,304 (at the time of writing). But more importantly, just visit a random page on Wikipedia: witness the wealth of world prospectives that the project provides, in contrast to the “localized” editions of Encarta that distort the truth in different ways, depending on where you bought the product.

There’s certainly nothing inherently unprofessional about a high school student from Loveland, Ohio writing about Loveland, Ohio. In fact, I started doing just that my junior year in high school. While the article has at times included mistakes (mostly my fault) and vandalism, well-intentioned folks including me have made sure to clean it up. That’s how it’s supposed to work. And for the most part it does.

Wikipedia relies on volunteers to find or stumble upon mistakes and correct them. And you may be tempted to jump to the conclusion that this approach just doesn’t scale. Well, it doesn’t seem like it should, does it. But take it from a super-administrator (bureaucrat) at the Vietnamese Wikipedia, where both our administrator-to-normal-user and administrator-to-anonymous-user ratios are well below those of the English edition: we’re doing just fine. There are times when the task is daunting, but Wikipedia is doing a good thing by trusting everyday people to do the Right Thing™. If you want to be so cynical as to unconditionally discount the potential of such a system of trust, then it’s your loss. Knowledge is not some sacred right to be sealed away in an archive, to be analyzed and questioned only by those with the proper piece of paper.

Wikipedia’s strength is in its technology. Not only has its MediaWiki software enabled the site to take off, by allowing every visitor to contribute; it has also put the Internet’s various features to good use. The original, libellous article on Mr. Seigenthaler likely contained links to a number of other articles; otherwise regular contributors would have grown suspicious early on and would have noticed the blatant lies in the article. Any responsible user of Wikipedia – especially the naïve students that the newspaper articles always cite as being misled by the project’s articles – would do well to follow these links and ensure that all the articles corroborate. The issue of how students should research and how they actually do is a topic for another day, but the gist is that, if the facts in a Wikipedia article like the Seigenthaler one don’t corroborate with other articles, perhaps it’s time to look at a different source.

Like, perhaps, a newspaper of record. On Wednesday, New York Times editor Larry Ingrassia reportedly sent out a memo advising his colleagues at the paper that they “shouldn’t be using it to check any information that goes into the newspaper.” (Via) Because, of course, the Times has to get it right. Many, like McHenry, would tell you that an encyclopedia is only as good as its most shotty article. Then I suggest that he cancel his subscription to the Times. Because if you’ll recall, the newspaper had a scandal of its own a couple years ago when Jayson Blair was found to have plagiarized and even falsified a number of stories much less obscure than the Seigenthaler article, leading to the resignation of two Times editors.

As with any standard, you have to apply the credibility test to every source of information, not just the one you want to rail against this week. The Seigenthaler story is only notable because it was a case of libel against a somewhat well-known figure, and because Wikipedia is different enough that you can easily criticize the project without getting all too much backlash. It highlighted a fundamental problem with Wikipedia only as much as the Blair scandal highlighted fundamental problems within the newsroom. Has anyone told us to stop reading newspapers altogether, and somehow be the better for it?

Academia and the press would do well to stop acting the role of armchair critic and actually help us refine both the project’s content and its means of production. Otherwise, these institutions risk becoming the pre-Reformation Church of this century.

Throughout its history, the Wikipedia project has instituted countless policies and processes reminiscent of the academic setting, in which concensus and freedom of thought are strongly emphasized, and of the newsmedia, in which impartiality and objectivity are key. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, as the well-worn saying goes, and these institutions will be remiss not to take advantage of the aspiring project and help turn it into something that does meet the high standards that the newspapers are citing today.

Outside my dorm room this evening, a couple of people were talking, and one of them asked what Wikipedia is. The reply: “oh, Wikipedia… that’s like, the Facebook, right?”


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  1. The few of you who have me as a friend on LiveJournal will notice that my blog there has been updated for the first time in almost a year, with a verbatim copy of my last post here.

  2. Wikipedia may have some issues of trustworthiness, but don’t think the newspapers that constantly “uncover” Wikipedia’s issues are spotless.

  3. After OpenStreetMap gets vandalized, the lesson is to focus on chasing away bad people and building good content.