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ATPM 12.01
January 2006


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The Candy Apple

by Ellyn Ritterskamp,

Wikipedia Is Not the Lovefest We Thought

It is not all fuzzy bears and bubblegum over at Wikipedia, the online open-editing encyclopedia project. We already knew that the “anyone can edit” approach made it possible to distribute false information, but now it sounds like there are some folks who have very personal issues with the site. The bloom is off the rose.

Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, has decided to tighten up on the “anyone can edit” arrangement due to two attention-getters of late. One man says he was wrongfully accused of a conspiracy to assassinate Robert F. Kennedy. In the second dust-up, an MTV VJ may have anonymously edited out references to his podcasting competitors. The new policy would prevent only the first problem, as anonymous users may no longer create new articles. Since they can still edit existing articles, the second problem would not be prevented. Wales claims that careful review of changes will keep such changes at bay.

Wikipedia’s history page describes how we got here from there, explaining how the project grew from a for-profit enterprise into its current format. I read it on December 19 and saw a link to a Web site critical of Wikipedia. The next day, that link was gone, but near the end of the article was an explanation of the Seigenthaler problem (he was the man accused of assassination conspiracy). I read much of the critical Web site and was astounded at the ill feeling held by a former Wikipedia staff member. I have no way to know how much of it is accurate, but if even some of it is true, there is some mud under those welcome mats at Wikipedia. I used Wikipedia’s Recent Changes feature to track down the link. It is fascinating to watch the logs, and see how often users, administrators, and Jimmy Wales himself, are editing each other’s articles.

These personal attacks make me not want to use the site at all anymore. I had already decided not to count on it for hard facts but only for overviews of a subject. It is still useful for that, as long as you verify your information before proceeding. But no way would I trust any article there about a specific person. There are too many people writing about themselves, and writing lies about each other, for any of it to be trustworthy.

Daniel Brandt has an interesting line of argument: he reminds us that the danger of erroneous information on Wikipedia is not just that Wikipedia users will see it. The bigger problem is that several sites mirror Wikipedia, and Google picks up all that stuff. Be sure to check out Brandt’s Page 2, linked at the bottom of the first page.

I am not endorsing Brandt, nor the piece, nor Wikipedia’s staff. It is far too messy for someone new to the game to guess at who has done what wrongs to whom. But it does smell funny. It is too bad, when people get a whiff of power, that they don’t always use it only for good.

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Reader Comments (6)

John Fechner · January 3, 2006 - 10:04 EST #1
FYI, the British journal, Nature, recently compared science articles in Wikipedia to Encyclopaedia Britannic.

Here's a link

Wikipedia did pretty well and Nature seemed to be very positive on the concept and urged scientists to be active in contributing to it. Although I personally have used wikipedia very little, the science articles are generally right on and very defendable.
Lir · January 4, 2006 - 02:08 EST #2
Science articles aren't that hard to write accurately. And accuracy isn't everything, style counts too.
Ralph · January 4, 2006 - 10:38 EST #3
It is indeed easier to be more accurate, and more objective when writing about science (bearing in mind that even science can get bogged down in subjective interpretations of specific data, which can and does - in turn - become personal).

But clearly, things relating to political and personal histories almost require a personal analysis and subsequent drawing of conclusions, and therefore lend themselves, almost naturally, to a myriad different interpretations.
Man de Hu · January 4, 2006 - 12:56 EST #4
I have tried to read the

Being by now an old man and having lived through the Soviet era I admit to being put off by the Leftist ideology that has succeeded the Communist one. Clearly, the above site has that bias and frankly it makes me nauseated.

Are we going to live through all that again? Have recently read again Orwell's Animal Farm and Koestler's Darkness At Noon, not to mention Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago; it still makes me cringe to see all that people seem to have forgotten (or never knew about?)
Lir · January 9, 2006 - 05:51 EST #5
Orwell was a Leftist...
Steve Norduist · January 14, 2006 - 03:30 EST #6
At worst, Wikipedia is accused of a primitive Revision Control System (RCS.) Is it bad (or even one bit leftist, mind you) to have a period in which game theory and the RCS are in dynamic tension?

Let Google throw its worst comprehension engines at it and strong conflicts of interest be illuminated for their worth; it won't make a worse catalogue of ideas.