The end of Wikipedia? (w/audio)

When he writes a paper, my 16-year-old brother Luke keeps a Wikipedia window open on his computer.

The open-source online encyclopedia has changed the way many of us get -- and give -- information and for the most part it's worked far more smoothly than its critics expected.

At least as important as the resource itself, however, is the whole concept of interactive, bottom-up media, for which Wikipedia has become one of the more prominent standard-bearers (note: it still gets the "this isn't a word" red squiggly from Microsoft's latest spellcheck software).

Briefly, for those unfamiliar with Wikipedia and/or the concept of "open source": Wikipedia is an encyclopedia whose entries, until recently, anyone could edit or create. All you needed was a login and password and you were ready to go.

The theory was that a large enough and invested enough community would fix errors and vandalism quickly, as their participation would foster a sense of ownership and responsibility. There's also a small editorial staff on hand to handle complaints. This project is attached to the larger concept that a group of "ordinary" or "untrained" citizens is intelligent, dedicated and, perhaps most important, good-willed enough to fuel and monitor a project.

It's not overstating the case to say that it's putting your money where your mouth is when it comes to believing in the goodness of humanity.

Ahem.

Recently, however, some sand was found in the utopian vaseline. Former journalist (and, ironically, founder of a First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt U.) John Seigenthaler found a factually incorrect entry on himself posted by some anonymous ne'er-do-well:


"John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven."
Only the first sentence is true.

The entry remained on Wikipedia for 132 days and was picked up by Answers.com, Reference.com and others who receive feeds from Wikipedia. A problem to be sure.

Once the complaint was lodged, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales removed the post but was, to Seigenthaler's consternation, unable to provide the joker's information.

And it was this lack of accountability that got Seigenthaler's -- and others' -- hackles up. The culprit was tracked down and eventually apologized; Seigenthaler, not wanting to "extract a pound of flesh" won't prosecute.

But questions remain; as the Times put it, Wikipedia "suffer[ed] a blow to its credibility." In response, Wales has, as an experiment, changed the rules so that anonymous users are no longer allowed to create new entries (where, he says, most of vandalism takes place).

But here's what may be the most important piece in the puzzle. After implementing this change, a change that effects not only the process, but the philosophy of Wikipedia, Wales, "then quickly logged onto the IRC channel... and discussed the issue with various Wikipedians for several hours."

Every step of the way Wikipedia and its founder are taking steps to keep the process and the conversation open. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS News and the rest should take note.

You can listen to Wales discuss the matter [HERE -- scroll down to "Download wiki_siegenthaler_responsibility.mp3"]. In the interview he discusses the necessity for striking the right balance between oversight and freedom, the generation gap as it relates to funny login names, and fixes -- like live feeds to other sites (so corrections will be made to all other sites who receive info from Wikipedia).

A couple of other interesting points. Many of Wikipedia's critics note the "agenda" with which editors come equipped. Is this not also true for the Encyclopedia Britannica (which, by the way, Wikipedia stands up to rather well in the few comparisons made thus far)? See [HERE] and [HERE] for comparisons.

Again, the real issue for many critics, and believe me I'm not belittling this fear, is that "just anyone" can contribute. But is it really a stretch to believe that until we shed this "riff raff" view of the "general public" we'll never reach the full promise of Democracy?

I say: sink your fortunes into the hoi polloi.

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