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Wikipedia does fail sometimes. The most famous controversy over its accuracy boiled over when John Seigenthaler Sr., a former assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, wrote about his own Wikipedia entry in a November 2005 USA Today op-ed. The entry on Seigenthaler included a claim that he had been involved in both Kennedy assassinations. "We live in a universe of new media," wrote Seigenthaler, "with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research-but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects."
The false claim had been added to the entry as a prank in May 2005. When Seigenthaler contacted Wikipedia about the error in October, Wales personally took the unusual step of removing the false allegations from the editing history on the page, wiping out the publicly accessible records of the error. After the USA Today story ran, dozens of the site's contributors (who call themselves "Wikipedians") visited the page, vastly improving the short blurb that had been put in place after the prank entry was removed. As in a market, when a failure was detected, people rushed in to take advantage of the gap and, in doing so, made things better than they were before. Print outlets couldn't hope to compete with Wikipedians' speed in correcting, expanding, and footnoting the new Seigenthaler entry. At best, a traditional encyclopedia would have pasted a correction into a little-consulted annual, mailed out to some users many months after the fact. And even then, it would have been little more than a correction blurb, not a dramatic rethinking and rewriting of the whole entry.
But well-intentioned Wikipedians weren't the only ones attracted
to Seigenthaler's Wikipedia entry. Since the article appeared,
Seigenthaler says, he has been a constant target for vandals-people
whose only goal is to deface an entry. He has been struck by the
"vulgarity and meanspiritedness of the attacks," which included
replacing his picture with photos of Hitler, Himmler, and "an
unattractive cross dresser in a big red wig and a short skirt,"
tells me. "I don't care what the hell they put up. When you're 80 years old, there's not much they can say that hasn't been said before. But my, they've been creative over the last months."
Seigenthaler's primary concern these days is about the history page that accompanies each Wikipedia article. Even though various allegations against Seigenthaler have been removed promptly from the main encyclopedia entry, a record of each change and reversion is stored on the site. Many of the comments, says Seigenthaler, are things he would not want his 9-year-old grandson to see.
Seigenthaler says he never intended to sue (surprisingly, the site has never been sued), but he worries that Wales will eventually find himself in legal trouble unless he takes more action to control what appears on the site: "I said to Jimmy Wales, ‘You're going to offend enough members of Congress that you're going to get more regulation.' I don't want more regulation of the media, but once the Congress starts regulating they never stop." Coverage of the scandal was largely anti-Wikipedia, focusing on the system's lack of ethical editorial oversight. Sample headline: "There's No Wikipedia Entry for ‘Moral Responsibility.' "
Wikipedia's flexibility allows anyone who stumbles on an error to correct it quickly. But that's not enough for some detractors. "There is little evidence to suggest that simply having a lot of people freely editing encyclopedia articles produces more balanced coverage," the editor-in-chief of Encyclopedia Britannica said last year in an online debate hosted by The Wall Street Journal. "On the contrary, it opens the gates to propaganda and seesaw fights between writers." Another Britannica editor dissed Wikipedia by comparing it to a toilet seat (you don't know who used it last). A host of academics charge Wikipedia with having too casual a relationship with authority and objectivity. Michael Gorman, former president of the American Library Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006, "The problem with an online encyclopedia created by anybody is that you have no idea whether you are reading an established person in the field or someone with an ax to grind." Last summer at Wikimania 2006, a gathering of Wikipedians and various hangers-on at the Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, university professors expressed concern that their students were treating Wikipedia as an authoritative source. In January the history faculty at Vermont's Middlebury College voted to ban the use of Wikipedia in bibliographies. Wales has issued statements telling kids to use Wikipedia as a starting point, but not to include it in their bibliographies as a final source. Good Wikipedia articles have links to authoritative sources, he explains; students should take advantage of them.
Referring to the Seigenthaler controversy during his opening remarks at Wikimania 2006, Wales got one of the biggest laughs of the weekend when he said: "Apparently there was an error in Wikipedia. Who knew?" Wales and the hundreds of Wikipedians could afford a giggle or two because the entry had long since been corrected. This wasn't a traumatic incident to Wikipedians because they admit error hundreds of times a day. There is no pretense of infallibility at Wikipedia, an attitude that sets it apart from traditional reference works, or even The New York Times; when an error is found it doesn't undermine the project. Readers who know better than the people who made the error just fix it and move on.
Wikipedia's other major scandal hasn't been quite as easy for Wales to laugh off, because he was the culprit. In 2005 he was caught with his hand on the edit button, taking advantage of Wikipedia's open editing policy to remove Larry Sanger from the encyclopedia's official history of itself. There has been an ongoing controversy about Wales' attempts to edit his own Wikipedia entry, which is permitted but considered extremely bad form. After a round of negative publicity when the edits were discovered, Wales stopped editing his own profile. But in the site's discussion pages, using the handle "Jimbo Wales," he can be found trying to persuade others to make changes on this and other topics. If he wanted to, Wales could make these and other changes by fiat, then lock out other editors. But he doesn't. If the individuals that people Wales' experiment in free association choose to ignore his pleas, as they occasionally do, he takes a deep breath and lets it happen.
Wales isn't the only one who has tried to use Wikipedia to rewrite history. In January 2006, all edits originating with the House of Representatives were briefly blocked after staffers for Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) were caught systematically replacing unflattering facts in his entry with campaign material; among other things, they removed a reference to his broken promise not to serve more than four terms. In the fall of 2006, officials from the National Institute on Drug Abuse dramatically edited their own entry to remove criticism of the agency. In both cases, the editors got more than they bargained for: Not only was the original material quickly restored, but a section describing the editing scandal was tacked on to each entry.
Then there are edits that are less ideological but still
troublesome. Wales has adopted Hayek's view that change is handled
more smoothly by an interlocking network of diverse individuals
than by a central planning authority. One test of the rapid
response to change in Wikipedia is how the site deals with
vandalism. Fairly often, says Wales, someone comes along and
replaces an entry on, say, George W. Bush with a "giant picture of
a penis." Such vandalism tends to be corrected in less than five
minutes, and a 2002 study by IBM found that even subtler vandalism
rarely lasts more than a few hours. This, Wales argues, is only
possible because responsibility
for the content of Wikipedia is so widely distributed. Even hundreds of professional editors would struggle to keep six million articles clean day in and day out, but Wikipedia manages it fairly easily by relying on its thousands of volunteer contributors.
The delicate compromise wording of the entry about abortion is an example of how collaborative editing can succeed. One passage reads: "Most often those in favor of legal prohibition of abortion describe themselves as pro-life while those against legal restrictions on abortion describe themselves as pro-choice." Imagine the fighting that went into producing these simple words. But the article, as it stands, is not disputed. Discussants have found a middle ground. "It's fabulous," says Wales, citing another example, "that our article about Taiwan was written by Mainlanders and Taiwanese who don't agree." That said, other entries-such as the page on the Iraq War-host ongoing battles that have not reached equilibrium.
Skeptics of Wikipedia's model emphasize that the writers have no authority; there is no way to verify credentials on the site. But Wikipedia seems to be doing OK without letters after its name. In 2005 the journal Nature compared the accuracy of scientific articles in Wikipedia with that of Encyclopedia Britannica. Articles were sent to panels of experts in the appropriate field for review. Reviewers found an average of four errors in Wikipedia entries, only slightly higher than Britannica's average of three errors per entry.
One way to understand what makes Wikipedia unique is its reaction to the threat of blackout by the Chinese government. When government censors in China blocked the Chinese-language Wikipedia page and demanded that the content be heavily censored before it was unblocked, the site's Chinese contributors chose to lie low and wait. Wales agreed to let them handle it. Eventually the site was unblocked, although its status is always precarious.
Wikipedia's decision not to censor its content selectively in order to meet the demands of the Chinese government was easy, since it would be almost impossible to do anyway. The "encyclopedia that anyone can edit" would have to employ a full-time staff just to remove objectionable content, which could be added back moments later by anyone, anywhere. The diffuse responsibility for the content of Wikipedia protects it from censorship.
By leaving such a big decision to the community of Chinese Wikipedia users, Wales made good on his boast that he's "a big supporter of federalism," not just in politics but in the governance of Wikipedia. Wales tries to let communities of users make their own decisions in every possible case. "It's not healthy for us if there are certain decisions that are simply removed from the democratic realm and are just ‘the Supreme Court says so,' " he argues. "I would even say this about abortion, although I'm a big pro-choice guy. It's not clear to me that it's such a great thing to have removed it completely from politics."