Who’s Afraid Of Wikipedia?

Arguments about Wikipedia‘s value and authority will rage for quite a while, but it’s interesting to see where the lines are being drawn.

On the one had we’ve got a 12 year-old pointing out errors in Encyclopaedia Britannica (via Many2Many) and now on the other side we’ve got John Seigenthaler, a former editorial page editor at USA Today, piping mad about some libelous content in his Wikipedia biography page.

Now, I have to agree with Seigenthaler in as much as I would never want anybody to make such claims against me, and I’d probably consider my legal options in such a matter, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets a chuckle over the matter. I mean Seigenthaler is the founder of The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, after all.

It all sounds the same as the Attack of the Blogs story in November issue of Forbes Magazine. That story began ominously:

Web logs are the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective. Their potent allies in this pursuit include Google and Yahoo.

But Forbes and Seigenthaler both conveniently ignore the fact that lies, libel and invective are common in other, older media. And Seigenthaler should know well the limitations of editorial authority over the millions of words published by hundreds of writers in a newspaper every day. Mistakes are made, and yes, counterfactual material is often slipped in. (Sadly, it’s also worth noting that real lynch mobs of the post-reconstruction South often enjoyed the support of their local newspapers.)

And unlike those old media, corrections are easy and quick, and in context with the original information. Take a look at how the Wikipedia entry addresses Seigenthaler’s complaints as an example.

Yes, the decision structure around these social applications is different from old media, but that doesn’t make it any more wrong or bad or dangerous. It is, perhaps, a comment on the obscurity of Seigenthaler’s biography that it went uncorrected for four months, but it’s also a comment on how responsive the system is that accommodated Seig’s corrections so quickly. Now, imagine how much Seigenthaler could contribute to Wikipedia. Imagine how much richer our online community could be with his participation?

And that’s what Seigenthaler and the Forbes article miss: the blogosphere and Wikipedia are built by those show up to the game. People and companies who ignore it do so at the peril, but there are many examples of success for those who participate.

wikipedia, wiki, social, social software, community, communities, moderation, editor, editorial control, Seigenthaler , John Seigenthaler, usa today, editorial, opinion, slander, libel, blog, blogs, bloggers, forbes, fear, findability, google economy

7 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid Of Wikipedia?

  1. well, i only half agree there. the analogy between wikipedia and blogs isn’t a 1=1 equation. the huge difference is that wikipedia aims to be treated as a reliable source of information, suitable for research, while blogs are more on the op-ed side of things. As a teacher I’ve never seen anyone try to use a blog as a source, but I have seen wikipedia. And out of the four or so cases there has been at least one piece of bad info. I think my brother put it best– when I told him about wikipedia he looked at it and searched “ninjas.” The first part of the entry is basically one long set of contradictions to which he responded, “I’ve never been so confused about ninjas in all my life.” My point is that right now I would not let a student use wikipedia for anything more than background info (which must be cross-referenced). maybe one day wikipedia will be something folks can go to, but right now it is dangerous to treat things as fact when there status largely unverified. wikipedia is a house built on built on sand, maybe the sand will settle and it will become strong, but it also might get swept into the sea. While the idea that other sources can also be wrong is compelling, I think that speaks more to the need for those sources to increase editorial supervision. It certainly shouldn’t be used to excuse someone else’s bad information.

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  5. Up to 9 months ago we financially contributed funds to Wikipedia but no more, for we thought that it was a good idea and where its thinking was in unison with our own at that time – using knowledge for the good of humankind. When we as novices tried to place our Swiss charity within Wikipedia we were absolutely savaged by the editors. They in fact blocked our right of reply, which is documented by themselves.
    Thereafter we even sent our registration documents via email to the then executive director of Wikimedia, the holding organization, to prove that our international group was registered as a Swiss charity. He did nothing at all. A few months later he resigned with another top Wikimedia executive, ‘Jimbo’s second in command. The greatest problem with Wikipedia that we now find is that they are highly selective in who should place information and where therefore they will never really have a web-based encyclopaedia that is unbiased and totally factual. It is ultimately at the whims of the few enlightened ones who control what should be a great reference. Unfortunately we now see that it is not.

    For anyone interested further on how Wikipedia editors work, the full account including all emails will be part of our next web newsletter ‘Scientific Discovery’. It will be on-line by the end of July 2007. Overall, it is time we feel that Wikipedia looked internally at itself and that they concluded that they have major problems with the way they treat new entrants. This analysis should especially be directed towards the attitude of their editors, who remove the right of reply and delete super-quick for reasons not based on evidence but only hearsay. By the way also, the Wikipedian Editor Zoe who first blocked us and the initial instigator of all the basic trouble, fell out with ‘Jimbo’ and where she as well left a few months later. Apparently she had made a vendetta against a certain professor according to ‘Jimbo’s’ opinion. Thereafter she took her bat and ball home and has never been seen since. I believe she also threatened the embattled professor at the time – the web link is

    Dr. David Hill
    Chief Executive
    World Innovation Foundation Charity (reg. no. CH- – 11th July 2005)
    Bern, Switzerland

  6. Hey- I’ve only used Wiki twice seriously.

    Once was a completely factual error about one of our programs at the university (not malicious, but be omitting a certain important detail, they totally changed the nature of the program). Spent a half hour tracking this down on the internet myself- even though I’ve worked there for 30+ years and know I am correct. I still I still checked it out, mainly because I was apprehensive that someone in the university had provided the incorrect information.

    Other time was while quiickly selecting the bios of three people (who are public figures, not “celebrities,” and the tone of the entries was blatantly biased.

    So, should you do an update on your book, let me know.

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