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Knowledge Is Everywhere

An online encyclopedia written and edited by the masses: a recipe for factual disaster, or a potentially more collaborative, up-to-the-minute and valuable tool than its mainstream competitors? By Miriam Axel-Lute

Wikipedia has been big news lately. An ambitious collective online encyclopedia written and edited by its users (a wiki is a Web page that any visitor can edit), Wikipedia has no top-down hierarchy of gatekeepers or editors. It has also become a widely used resource: According to the Web-usage ranking site Alexa, since early 2005, use of Wikipedia has dramatically outstripped all other Web reference sites—including Britannica.com, about.com and reference.com—and it is also ahead of most search engines (other than Google, MSN and Yahoo!). And it’s growing rapidly. The more popular it gets, the louder the debates over it have become.

Retired journalist John Siegenthaler has come out strongly against Wikipedia after material that falsely linked him to the assassinations of JFK and RFK lasted on the reference site for about four months. John Yarmuth, Congressional candidate and founder of the alternative newsweekly LEO (Louisville Eccentric Observer) in Louisville, Ky., also has joined the disgruntled ranks when someone, falsely, linked him to Chandra Levy’s disappearances. (But then, someone Yarmuth doesn’t know removed the reference in days and noted that it was a “blatant smear.”)

Wikipedia is a new beast. It is uncharted territory. But many Wikipedia critics seem to assume that the one and only question to be asked of Wikipedia is “Is it ever wrong?” (I dare you to name a source that isn’t.) Here’s just a handful of the more interesting questions that can and should be asked about Wikipedia: How accurate is it on average? How accurate is it compared to [x] other research tool? How useful is it? What is it useful for? How is it best used? What should it not be used for? How accountable is it? How transparent is it? How can its failings be improved? I don’t have answers to most of these, but the discussions are happening, and they are far more interesting than the general hysteria about letting the unwashed masses take a crack at knowledge production.

No one can really answer how accurate Wikipedia is on average. It can easily be proven that there are articles that contain falsehoods. Let no one say that is not the case. And, frankly, no one does. Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder, has been careful to tell people not to cite it as authoritative (nor to cite encyclopedias in general for that matter), and to always check other sources.

When compared to other sources, things get interesting. The journal Nature published a widely cited study last December in which articles on scientific topics from Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica were sent blind to knowledgeable peer reviewers for comparison. The study found that the two sources were tied in the number of gross errors (four each), and Wikipedia had on average four smaller errors per entry to Britannica’s three. Apparently having expected Wikipedia to fall drastically short, Nature itself, and virtually all the media coverage thereafter, exaggerated the results as “Wikipedia as good as Britannica.” Wikipedia itself, on the other hand, presented the study in a scrupulously neutral and accurate light.

As with any tool, users have to know what Wikipedia is good for. Ethan Zuckerman, a cofounder of Geekcorps and fellow with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, notes that on broad topics of general interest, say “Ghana” or “Alexander Hamilton,” Wikipedia’s articles are often poorly written, scattered, inaccurate. But on a vastly larger pool of specialized topics, Wikipedia excels, with articles generally written and hashed out and watched over by experts and enthusiasts. Technical and obscure information and information that needs frequent updating are the Wikipedia gold mines—not just tech stuff, but also things from the nitty-gritty details of the characteristics of minor Hindu deities to current advances in contraception and social movements too edgy or new for the establishment to deign to research them. Wikipedia’s breadth outpaces EB’s dramatically.

And yet it has more humility about what it doesn’t cover. I looked up several specialized topics on both Wikipedia and EB online. When Wikipedia didn’t have an entry, it told me so and invited me to create an entry. EB, however, returned a list of search results that were utterly unrelated to what I had searched for. For “menstrual cup,” for example (go to Wikipedia if you want to know; EB has nothing), it gave me a list of trophies ending in cup: “World Cup,” “Stanley Cup,” etc.

The kicker? Google’s ad words on its results page included links to exactly what I was looking for.

Coming from a different perspective, author and Internet commentator Cory Doctorow wrote a fascinating account on BoingBoing.net comparing Wikipedia to the mainstream media—not on the basis of accuracy, but on the basis of which one it is better to be smeared in.

Doctorow comes down heavily in Wikipedia’s favor. It took him months to get a correction out of a newspaper, and when the correction was finally made it was done with no acknowledgement to him and no trace online that any falsehoods had ever appeared. When he was smeared on Wikipedia, he was able to change the factual errors immediately, and then hash out a version that was acceptable to everyone with the original poster on the entry’s discussion page. The history of the changes and the full discussion page is available for any reader who wants the background, as with every Wikipedia entry. (Can you imagine having access to the internal debates that led to the final version of a Britannica article on a controversial topic like Israel and Palestine? Wow.)

Even the furor caused by the revelation that Congressional staffers were editing the Wikipedia entries for their bosses and bosses’ foes was seen by many as a triumph of transparency. After all, they’ve been feeding such lies to the mainstream media and other information sources with impunity from time immemorial. But on Wikipedia people could, and did, trace all the offending IP addresses, detail their sins, and have a public discussion of whether to ban the entire range of IP addresses belonging to Congress from editing the site. For me, such a public expose of the absence of ethics at the federal level seems worth some short-lived (and they were) mistakes in someone’s bio.

So use Wikipedia with the caution with which you ought to treat every reference source, but use it. And correct it. And argue about it. It’s a collaborative new world out there.

maxel-lute@metroland.net


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